One of my all-time favorite things to do, especially when I am travelling or somewhere new, is to look around at people. I look around at people and think “wow, isn’t it awesome that all of these people are doing the best they can do on the journey we call life….isn’t it awesome that these people have made the conscious choices that they have made in order to have the best life possible.” The guy in Namibia selling painted chestnuts for 30 cents a pop by the side of the road. The middle aged salary man in Tokyo riding the same crowded train home that he has been riding for the last 20 years. The clown at the circus juggling six bowling pins in the air while balancing on stilts. The stressed out lawyer still at her office in London three hours after everyone else has gone home. The Nepalese monk meditating on the side of a mountain. Everywhere we look, people making choices to maximize their own happiness.
It’s the economic theory of capitalism functioning on an individual level. But instead of it just being true for capitalist societies, it is true for everyone…everywhere. All people just trying to get the best metaphorical deal for themselves. Pretty awesome.
It may sound a bit cold to love the idea that everyone is trying to maximize their own happiness all the time, but this doesn’t mean that we are all a bunch of selfish individuals. Maximizing your own happiness is done differently by different people. And the “good” people feel happy and fulfilled when contributing to others, and as a result, do more good things for others than not-so-good people. I’ll save the discussion of “is there such a thing as an unselfish good deed” for another post, but suffice it to say that I don’t believe there is one, and that I believe this is fantastic news because it turns out that most people are smart enough to realize that contributing to others is one of the most enduring and potent ways to live a happy life.
But going back to my fascination and appreciation for everyone making choices to have the best life possible, how much choice do we really have in making the decisions we make? Or maybe more appropriately asked, how much of our decisions is a product of circumstance vs. free will? Is the guy in Namibia selling chestnuts on the side of the road and the salary man in Tokyo riding the same train home doing what they are doing by choice?
The funny thing about choice is that there is always a gray area. And clearly we are all a product of circumstance. We only have free will on a spectrum. We never have absolute free will. We were born to certain parents in a certain country during a certain period in history. We had a certain education. We have certain socio economic circumstances. We have had certain life experiences. We have been loved. Let down. Inspired. Castigated. We have been empowered. Denied. Respected. Cheated. Our hearts have melted, and our hearts have been broken. In different ways and to different degrees. And through the lenses of our natural tendencies and our life experiences, through both nature and nurture, we make choices. So to my earlier statement, I will make an addendum: Everyone is trying to maximize their own happiness within the constraints of their reality.
And admittedly, the constraints of reality can be brutal. Heart wrenchingly brutal. So choices, even though they are choices, don’t always feel like choices. If given the choice, I suspect that a lot of people would prefer to make different choices than the ones they get to make. If you ask a guy if he wants vanilla or chocolate, he gets to make a choice. But maybe he prefers the vanilla-chocolate swirl. Or maybe he would have wanted rocky road or maybe the fruit cocktail.
But even though life can be painful and even though choices don’t always feel like choices, from a bird’s eye, the wonder and amazement that I feel when watching people in action, when watching “life living life” doing the best they can out there in the world is what makes the whole experience of living so worthwhile to me. My circumstances might be totally different than the Namibian chestnut salesman, but I feel a oneness and a connection to him because just like him, I too am trying to do my best within the constraints of my reality. At the very moment that I see him, he may not be feeling those same feelings toward me, but deep down, I know they are in there somewhere. He is my brother in this gigantic family we call humanity. And how cool is that.