Or maybe happiness or should I say fulfilment or contentment?
But actually, progress.

 . . . and one more thing – Since Jan 2024 I have started putting my essays on Substack and with audio too! Please follow me there and give it likes and shares. Pretty please all that good stuff.


About half a dozen years ago, when I was about to make a Christmas wish for my family, (that’s a lovely Polish tradition) I realised that the only things anyone needs are health and happiness, and so that’s been my standard wish to everyone ever since. I guess I could even have pruned it back just to happiness. I wouldn’t deny that health is a great foundation, but strangely though, even good health isn’t necessary for happiness and nor does it ensure it. My focus here though, is on the happiness part.

So why do we want all that other stuff that we yearn for? The success and the fame and the nice house, the achievement and the money and the friends and the food and the music and the love and the job and the toys and sex and all? Why not just cut to the chase and inject dopamine serotonin oxytocin and a few endorphins? Or we could follow the path carved by Olds and Milner in the 1950’s in their famous experiments. Those were the ones when they gave rats a choice between food, or a lever that provided an electrical stimulus to the rat’s pleasure centre – that’s in its brain, silly!

Unfortunately, experiences with chemical or electrical stimulation never seem to end well. Olds and Milner’s rats died of starvation didn’t they? And we all know that hangovers and addictions are the payoff from chemical shortcuts. So we could get all moral and karma-ish about this but really – what’s it all about? What actually gives us real joy?

So why is it that we have all those different ways of getting happy? The ones I listed above, and why don’t they all work so well either? I mean it’s obvious that if you have a spectrum from pleasure to pain, then evolution would obviously want us to avoid threats to our reproductive fitness and make us desire the things that enable us to reproduce. Food and sex are the obvious positives, and injury or social/sexual rejection would be the most obvious negatives. But again neither of those positives give any kind of a hit that lasts even 24 hours. The negatives ones do though, but that was more what I discussed last week so I won’t dwell on that again here.

So what actually makes us happy in some way that isn’t just momentary hedonism? A couple of years back I wrote this, ‘happiness embodies both the joy of the moment and a longer term self-esteem born from delivering whatever contribution we want to make . . . Contentment lives in the things we do, not the things we have. 

Well, yeah there is all that . . . But I think I was trying a bit too hard to bend what I felt a bit towards what I felt I ought to think. All that delivery and contribution stuff sounds a bit worthy in retrospect. I think I was also making an artificial separation between short-term pleasure and longer term wellbeing. Sure. They are different, but functionally I think, rather than symptomatically. 

So I’m due for a reevaluation of what I believe about how all this stuff works and why it matters to us. Here goes, then.

I was surprised to learn along with my kids during some physics experiments last year that we aren’t sensitive to the temperature of whatever is that we are touching. Apparently what we feel as warm or cold is heat energy flowing in or out through our skin. The experimental task was to get a piece of metal and a piece of wood which were at the same cool temperature because they had both spent the night outside. The metal feels colder to the touch because it is better at conducting the heat away and making the energy flow out of my hand faster. I have tried to check this energy flow thesis and I can’t find much to support it online, but it made me think about how we perceive the world. I like the idea of looking at perception as dynamic awareness, rather than simply measuring stuff on static scales. Same goes for our mental reactions too.

We love to eat. Now evolution wants us to be well enough fed to survive a generation, and wanting to eat is the way evolution gets us to do that. Despite what you might read from time to time in stories of hardship and hunger, having a full belly is not a great source of comfort. However, eating food can be a real joy. Bill Clinton allegedly said about the food at Bukhara restaurant in Delhi that it was so good he wished he had two stomachs. The implication being that it’s the act of eating that he enjoyed, much more intensely than the calorific benefit that the food gave him. Even the most powerful man in the world was hostage to the sensual desires that evolution blessed him with. But yes we are talking about Bill Clinton here, so I guess that follows.

And so I wonder whether what gives us immediate pleasure is not achievement or satisfaction but progress. The food passing through our mouth is more pleasurable than having a tight belt afterwards. We have just returned home to Poland from our summer in France and I love it that our car has a cruise control. If I drive with the pedal, I find it quite difficult on the highway to prevent the speed creeping up. Whatever speed I was going at for the last five minutes seems very dull now. Maybe I’m wired not only to want to make progress towards my destination, but to make progress in the rate of change of my progress.  As Newton told us, force makes for acceleration, not speed. If my deep desire is for progress then my immediate dopamine hit will come from an increase in my present speed, not the joy I am getting from the fact that I am already moving faster than anyone on the planet could dream of moving less than two hundred years back. That is such old news, it’s not going to give me any thrill at all. 

I also know and truly believe that a few km an hour won’t make a jot of difference to my arrival time, so it’s a relief to let the cruise control deal with the frustrations of travel and allow me to enjoy a different kind of progress as I play ‘I spy’ with my family.

So I ask myself ‘What else do I enjoy?’ OK, my current weakness is a particular game on my phone. It takes about three minutes of my full concentration and the moment I succeed, it links me immediately into the next level which is about the same difficulty. After a few rounds of that (OK – I’ll admit that ‘a few’ three minuteses means I have typically wasted over half an hour) I find the best way to stop is to break off in the middle of a game. It’s almost impossible to stop between one and the next. This is the second game I have found to be so addictive since the new year. I deleted the first one. Then I reinstalled it. Then I deleted it again and gave myself a lifetime ban. I guess I’ll do the same with this new one in a week or so. 

So reflecting on that, it’s easy to say that the game is simply exploiting my dopamine system, while in the medium term I am frustrated by the waste of time. Why? Well that’s because the game, or rather my weakness for it, has reduced my progress toward some bigger goal.

It would be easy to say that the immediate pleasure is in competition against the medium term fulfilment, but I’m beginning to think that both of these versions of happiness are driven by exactly the same desire. The desire for progress. The hedonistic addictive one is fuelled by immediate progress towards a target set by the game. My rate of achievement through the game starts slow as I analyse the initial setup, and then when the board is almost complete my excitement increases as I fill those last few places, (both of these two games are a little bit like Sudoku only different) so I’m getting my maximum emotional progress reward at the same moment as I get the additional satisfaction bonus for success. No wonder I can’t stop between games. 

I think it’s quite likely that this intense small-scale fine-grained happiness may follow exactly the same procedure as long term fulfilment. Sure, they compete for my time and my self esteem, but it doesn’t mean they are fundamentally different. In fact it rather suggests that they are similar, like two kinds of food. If evolution has gone to all the trouble of inventing a system that works, why not roll it out? Maybe the neurotransmitters are specialised between long term and short term, but the overall structure of the psychological mechanism can be the same. Why not?

So evolution gives me a desire for positive progress because it wants me to succeed (actually evolution no longer gives a bugger about me since I have done all the reproducing I’m ever going to do already, but I still have a leftover of desires, right?) Anyway evolution wants me to succeed, but there is no string it can pull for success, so it encourages me instead to make progress. Long term, short term, whatever. Obviously short term is easier for evolution to reward animal me for, but I have time awareness and so intellectual me (yes there is such a thing!) finds reward in longer term progress too. I might say a deeper reward. That’s what I would call fulfilment. And it is pretty deep, since evolution has a twenty or twenty five year goal for regenerating my species. 

Same thing – just two parallel versions, short term progress measured in minutes, long term progress measured in a few years. If we can get those two sussed we are on the right road by aligning our wellbeing with that magical Darwinian thing that is bigger than all of us.

The easiest progress for us poor insecure humans to make is towards a target that someone else has set. We can recognise incremental achievements there, as we aim for the validation of external approval whether in the form of a personal thank you, a pay cheque, or a word of congratulations with a shower of digital confetti from that wretched game. I believe this is why we all yearn for a guru or a mentor.

But I’m here to look for contentment and fulfilment and deep joy. Not hedonism or addiction, not even for a job. Unfortunately I have no possibility of getting what I seek from any kind of theistic religion, so I have to make my own roadmap. And as I don’t have a guru to steer my wagon, my direction must align with my own deepest values otherwise I will never stick to the road when the going gets awkward.  

If my theory of progress is right, then paradoxically perhaps, what I don’t want is some big achievable goal. If I set one and achieved that, I’d want the next one and just like that, I’d be on the treadmill. Even worse, if I didn’t achieve it then I’d have put myself on the path to being bitter, frustrated and depressed. Yes, maybe I’m exaggerating there, but this chimes nicely with my observation that rich people don’t generally seem any happier or more miserable than poor people. I’d rather have the minor frustrations of my phone games than the major hassles that come to the Musks, Bezos and Zuckerbergs of the world along with the games they play. And even less than that, do I want the misery of being a wannabe.

So I’m arguing myself into a long tunnel here. I’m looking for a nice long, in fact endless, path that offers opportunity for continuous progress, medium sized milestones at comfortable intervals – and I’ll throw in that I want the joy of sharing all that with the people I love. I haven’t linked that last one to the James theory of Progress yet, but give me time on that.

I have observed that the older I get the more creative. I know that isn’t common, I just accept it as my personal peculiarity. So my ruminations may actually be more relevant to all you youngsters out there than to my fellow oldies. Anyway for what it’s worth, my future will be in creative endeavour. These essays have been an interesting exercise in that way. Still are. It’s remarkable for example that I’m now more than a quarter of the way through the year and finding no shortage of subjects to write about.

But these essays don’t have a direction, so there is no sense of progress from one to the next. I need something with a profile to follow over time if progress is to be my metagoal, and I feel that it’s no coincidence that this reflects the projects that are already closest to my heart – namely music (infinite scope for improvement there!) my current/next illustrated book, and fixing up our ancient properties in Poland and the UK. Not necessarily in that order.

I think John Cleese’s observations on creativity are right on the mark, and mesh nicely with my thoughts here. In about minute 20 of the YouTube video where he is giving a lecture about creativity in management he records that ‘ . . .most creative professionals always played with the problem for much longer before they tried to resolve it because they were prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort and anxiety . . . ‘

Yes, that’s it. Creativity for our personal satisfaction works a little bit differently from the validation we get by working for a goal set by someone else. In our personal creative endeavours, we give away the immediate little hit from making immediate progress, in exchange for a greater sense of progress, at the cost of deferring immediate gratification in the pursuit of a better result. 

It’s an investment with uncertain return. It’s still progress driven and progress-rewarded though. This tallies exactly with my own experience of any creative activity. Discomfort followed by pride. Always during any creative exercise, I think at some stage ‘I hate doing this! Why am I doing it?’ followed hours or a couple of days later with ‘I really enjoyed doing that.’ 

I am lucky that I don’t need much validation of my work from others, many creatives become very bitter if they let public opinion determine their personal contentment. Incidentally  –  don’t let that stop you, I love appreciation but happily, I’m not addicted to it. Also I can report that satisfaction from achievement is nice but short-lived. So a longer path with many milestones is the ideal.

So in a word, I am replacing my thoughts that self esteem comes from delivering a contribution, to the idea that fulfilment comes from making progress towards medium-term, medium-sized goals. Thank you, Musks of the world for your big goals and big ideas. You make the world progress. I’ll be quite happy to occupy myself with my one-man version of that game – making me progress.

Nick James      Posted in:



April 2024, Czernichów Poland

Header Image:

A Cruise Control Light