Happiness is like money, it's a means to an end and is not an end in itself. And like money, if your ultimate goal is to acquire it you'll probably become a terrible person, treading on everything around you to get it. Likewise, if you sacrifice your happiness for the sake of others, they may end up walking all over you. Balance is key.
So if happiness isn't the ultimate goal then what is? My subjective answer is "perception"; the accumulation of knowledge, experience and progress. A desire to understand ourselves and our universe. Happiness is the currency with which conciousness is bought. Contrary to new age beliefs, conciousness is not magick, it's simply empathetic awareness that has the concept of the self at it's core.
Spheres of conciousness
1. SelfThe most important entity with which to consciously empathise is the self. I am referring here to the subconscious biological vehicle that you use to interact with what we call reality. Know what it means to be physically and mentally healthy. Know what it means to have self respect and self assurance. Know how to read your cravings and control your biological urges. Know that your actions affect your self not only in the short term but also in the long term.
The more stress one has, the more difficult it is for them to be aware and concious of long term repercussions. Immediate feedback is easier to identify than more subtle long term feedback and because of that people tend to fall into what i call the yolo trap (you only live once). Shot term decisions like eating unhealthy foods, buying on credit and making rash decisions in general become commonplace and the very foundation of "conciousness" suffers because of it.
2. Immediate friends and familyThe second sphere that few have too much trouble empathising with is one's immediate family or the people you live with. It's relatively easy to empathise with people who's lives you experience on a regular basis. It's often even easier than empathising with one's self, similar to how people tend to have trouble remembering their own phone numbers since they never need to call their own phone.
We tend to get fairly immediate and direct feedback from those around us and therefore most people tend to have a good understanding of the repercussions of their descisions on their immediate family. However if the first sphere of conciousness is being neglected any empathy and respect we have for our family is in vain.
3. Extended friends and familyAt this level people tend to have a slightly more formal attitude and often respectfulness takes precedence over honesty. Without a well developed sense of self respect it can be very difficult for people to be constructively honest without emotions making them come across as offensive.
For that reason the feedback loop can be a little more viscous and the rate of understanding external perceptions at this level starts dropping off despite the fact that we are only at the third sphere of conciousness.
4. CommunityCulture is the inadvertent tool we used to bind us together on a level greater than just those we are acquainted with. As a social species we have an inherent desire for unity and because of that we know that shared attitudes and beliefs strengthen our unity. The problem is that we tend disregard the fact that the culture itself is not what's valuable but rather the fact that we share the culture.
People hold on to irrational attitudes and beliefs in the face of cognitive dissonance because of fear of losing one's place in their community. It is for this reason that i feel that those who find the strength to overcome the communal pressure of cultural adherence should build and promote a constructive and rational culture, even if it means potentially being rejected by their community.
In other words, it's good that we share a culture but we need to share a culture based on reason and logic rather than myths and legends. Those myths and legends were good when we didn't have the structures to instil a basic level of education. A culture of myths and legends is better than no culture at all but now that we are in the information age we have no excuse not to upgrade our cultures.
5. NationWith religion as a cultural foundation the concept of "good and evil" or "us and them" creates a situation where empathy with those who share one's culture is easier to achieve when you detach empathy from those who don't. In other words, thanks to religion it's easier to build unity when you can identify a common enemy.
This is of course a cop out; patriotism is the result of increasing the size of a community (the fourth sphere of empathy) at the cost of reducing the probability of that community progressing to larger spheres of empathy. In order to build a true sense of national empathy we need to get education up to a level where people understand how wide reaching their decisions are.
For example; choosing unhealthy fast foods makes it more difficult for healthy food outlets to exist. Buying electronics that have a low quality to expense ratio but are well marketed makes it easier for other companies to justify that approach as well. Opting for closed and expensive systems and technologies because they are more immediately convenient makes it more difficult for open inexpensive systems to get to a higher level of convenience. Etcetera.
6. Human beingsIt's easy to understand that any species needs certain environmental conditions to survive and thrive. While humans are highly adaptive creatures we still depend on a balanced ecosystem that falls within a certain range of conditions. If one or two major players in that ecosystem shut down it could take the entire system down with it.
It is our responsibility first and foremost to be concious of our role in the ecosystem. Secondly we need to maintain a give-and-take balance, failing which, we need to take steps to restore that balance. Since our numbers are now upwards of 7 billion we need to realise that we simply cannot continue to consume at the rate we used to.
7. AnimalsEmpathy towards our fellow inhabitants of Earth is a tough nut to crack considering that we have a culture of ownership and constant consumption of animals. These animals are of course part of our ecosystem and turning them into products and removing them from a natural environment is causing dire consequences for our environment.
I am not advocating veganism here, i am simply advocating a more reasonable consumption pattern. Aside from the environmental and ethical benefits of cutting down meat consumption, there are of course health and appreciation benefits too. The less meat we eat, the more balanced our diet is, the more we enjoy the meat when we eat it.
8. LifeEmpathising with all life on Earth is not something that comes easily to anyone. How a squid perceives the world is infinitely different to how we would see it but in the grand scheme it's still relatable. At the very least we should be concious of the need to survive and procreate and respect those shared aspirations.
9. GaiaThe Earth is itself an organism and we are the birth of it's nervous system. All spheres of consciousness are ultimately increasing spheres of the self.
10. ExistenceThe number of spheres of conciousness are limitless and the number of spheres between those defined above are infinite too. We grow as beings by increasing our sense of universal connectedness. The four physical dimensions are the current plateaux of our conciousness but new summits await us beyond the singularity.
Final thoughtsThe greater our empathetic awareness or "conciousness" is the healthier and happier our environment becomes. That in turn improves conciousness further, a chicken and egg situation arises. For humans to pull themselves out of the dark ages they need to be more concious, in order to be more concious they need to be happier and healthier as a society.
The catalyst is information. Both access to information and the democratic participation in the proliferation of information (free speech). The more we understand ourselves, each other and our environment the greater our capacity to empathise becomes.
We are not simply individuals fighting to survive. We are members of a massive ecosystem and our actions have ripple effects that come back to us in ways that we cannot immediately perceive. But we can and do collect the data and the ecosystem is clearly reacting to us.