January 6, 2012

Happiness, Fulfillment, and Meaning

I received an email from a sort-of pen pal a few days ago asking about living one's life and success.

I do not value short-term happiness very much. Happiness is good; but it is like the instantaneous utility function – whatever its magnitude, at every point in time it has only zero measure, and once past, it wouldn't mean anything anymore. What I pursue is fulfillment, or long-term happiness, which is only realized after a long period of fermentations and meditations. I think the process of achieving this fulfillment should feel like the experience Cal Newport describes in his blog post today. I am not implying that short-term happiness does not provide me with utility; it is that I only slightly discount happiness in future periods, that the joy at this moment wouldn't seem as significant as it may.

When I was a kid, I started thinking about the meaning of my own existence. The life time of a human being, a hundred and twenty years at most. There are so many people on this planet, and your own being would not mean much at all. The world is still the same whether you are here or you are not. Once you are gone, you are gone forever; even your descendants probably will not know your name two hundred years from now. Whatever you have accomplished, once you are passed, they wouldn't mean the slightest to you. The utility beyond the capital T is always null. I thought about death at this point, but still there was a little unwillingness, as if I was denying myself of my own conclusion, and trying to spend more time seeking the deeper meaning of life that I hadn't realized. If you will die one day certainly, and everything will be lighter than the clouds once you have passed, why not devote your life to work on something big, something larger than yourself. That was why I once resolved to become a writer. I think writers are a group of most influential people. Even when emperors and kings were forgotten, the names of writers still resound in people's languages. The legacies ancient writers and philosophers left us are still guiding the advancement of modern society. I chose my career in academia also because I wanted to leave something to mankind, and contribute a little bit to the advancement of our understanding of the world and of ourselves, and to leave my trace in my limited life.


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