Our fundamental need is to survive.  This requires only water, food, and shelter.  Given these, as individuals we do not 'need' ever more material possessions, ‘wealth’, jobs etc, and as societies we do not 'need' ever more energy, economic 'growth' (whatever that means), government.  Everything we want other than water, food and shelter is just that - want - desire. 

But what is the fundamental object of the many desires that we undoubtedly have?  I find I have to agree with the Dalai Llama - it is to be happy.  We must each define happiness for ourselves, of course but, personally, I do not differentiate between the words 'happiness' and 'contentment' and define both as 'not wanting to be somewhere else'.  It has a slightly negative feel to it, but I suspect you will be hard pressed to find a better.  I certainly do not confuse happiness with temporary elation or excitement, however much fun they may be.

What then is the obstacle to happiness?  It is distress - be it physical, mental, or emotional. 

Personal distress just has to be faced and dealt with and, to this end, it is useful to differentiate very clearly between what we can change and what we cannot and to set a true value on those things in our lives that make us not 'want to be somewhere else'. 

Distress in others however, unavoidably forms part of our own distress.  One cannot be completely happy while others are not.  Living in communities so considerably improves our chances of continued access to water, food, and shelter, not to mention providing some protection against the vagaries of life – illness, natural disasters, other people, and pure bad luck etc - that it has become a need in itself and we have evolved accordingly.  We are both unique individuals and empathic, co-operating creatures – pack animals.  It is in our deepest nature to be part of a group.  Helping others is thus essential for our own happiness.  Even if we wilfully drive their distress from our thoughts - as we frequently have to, given the modern media’s pathological desire to bring us ill news - it remains in our unconscious minds, a troubling presence, a vague unease that no amount of wealth, material possessions, or ‘excitement and elation’ can assuage. 

The majority of people in this country are massively advantaged.  The availability of water, food, and shelter is taken for granted, and even our more reasonable desires such as, freedom from disease, freedom from State or personal violence, a generally ordered and civilized society, are fulfilled to quite a reasonable degree.  By contrast many millions worldwide have no such luxuries, and many in fact suffer appallingly.  The problem then is that the distress of millions mars our own aspirations towards happiness whether we want it to or not.

Yet as individuals we can only do so much for them.  Put at its crudest, if you give all your wealth to others, then even if you are a multi-millionaire, you will have a negligible effect, and you yourself will have become a beggar and be dependent on others.

The solution – as for many things - lies in balance.  Selfishness and altruism are inextricably linked.  Working for our own happiness necessarily includes concerning ourselves about and helping others.  The balance lies in ensuring that the help should not go beyond the point where it impairs our own ability to function largely unaided.  Exactly what that constitutes is highly personal, ranging from holding the door open for someone or helping the old lady next door with her bins, to living and working amongst poverty-stricken tribes overseas, but if you are uneasy in your present life, looking to help others will almost certainly be the best thing you can do.

Some associated, if random thoughts:
  • To help others, you must value them.  To value them, you must value yourself.  Look after yourself – exercise mentally and physically – use it or lose it - this is very important.
  • We get good at what we do.  This has a ‘dark’ side – if you’re doing negative things - moaning, giving up, doing nothing etc – you get good at it - very good at it.
  • Never underestimate the effects of a small action.  Small is not to be confused with trivial - both the Devil and God are in the details.
  • Learn to value the moment you are in.
  • Remember that in our highly complex society we are always massively dependent on thousands of complete strangers