The Necessity And Beauty Of Challenges

Every animal on the planet is almost constantly subjected to the demand of the environment. For survival, animals need to be active most of their day. Every activity serves one of three purposes: gathering food for energy, producing offspring, and avoiding being killed. This puts tremendous pressure on them and they need to be efficient, healthy and strong, otherwise they do not survive.

Cold-Water Swimming
Cold-Water Swimming: A Way Of Deliberate Challenge


Humans in the western world, on the other hand, have reached a standard of living that is too comfortable. And this is very counter-intuitive, as you may actually have the feeling that your life is hard and you feel your work is too much or too challenging. But here is why that is the case and why it is problematic:



We are happier with easier lives. How could that be bad?

We actually feel less happy. When we do not have to struggle with real meaningful survival-based challenges, we seek for happiness in pleasurable activities. This behavior leads to hedonic behavior and the search for ever-greater stimulation. It is the hedonic treadmill, where we have to engage in ever more pleasurable activities to feel the same amount of satisfaction. At the same time, our capacity to deal with challenges decreases and we become less mentally resilient. 


But I can buy a lot of pleasure and entertainment, that is cool! How could that ever be bad?

Pleasure without effort leads to negative side-effects, like desensitizing us to the effects of dopamine. Only when we have to struggle in order to obtain something pleasurable are we in balance from a neurological point of view. 



But hard work sucks, it feels bad and I am happy to life without it. It is a good thing we have eliminated a lot of had labor. This is certainly a good thing. How could it not be?
In the environment, which we have created for ourselves, the struggle and effort we have to exert is too small for the amount of pleasure we can receive. It is out of balance, and so are our neuro-chemicals. We can easily become addicted to activities that yield high amounts of dopamine release for very little effort, like food, porn, drugs, alcohol, social media and other sedentary entertainment. 


I have worked hard to buy all of this entertainment and I really enjoy playing video games or watching movies, this is great. 
Over time, we will perceive less and less activities to be meaningful and enjoyable, because we become accustomed to high pleasure activities that require low amounts of mental or physical effort.



Our lives are comfortable. We all like it and it's really cool what we can do, this certainly must be good long-term! 
When life gets too comfortable, there is not enough evolutionary pressure. Evolutionary pressure is the beautifully brutal mechanism by which all life forms were shaped into what they are today, including us humans. But without is, also non-optimal DNA can be given to the next generation. Over many generations, this will weaken the gen-pool, illnesses will be more common and we will be less resilient and be even more dependant on our lifestyles. More children will be born with less than optimal health. 


There is no good without the bad, the Yin and Yang. 


As we have created this very comfortable environment, we are now in a situation where we have to actively seek out challenges in order to stay optimally healthy. The benefits of subjecting oneself to self-imposed challenges are:
  • Resensitization to the effect of dopamine
  • Greater pleasure can be derived from just being, without any special stimulation or activity
  • Mindfulness becomes easier, as we are happy in our natural state. 
  • We can overcome challenges more easily because we accustom ourselves to difficult and painful experiences on a regular basis. 
  • Strenuous activities become more meaningful and pleasurable again
  • We feel that we are in balance because our pleasurable experiences don't leave us in a void afterwards, that needs to be filled again with another dopamine hit.
  • Meditation and present awareness become enjoyable.
  • A minimalistic lifestyle becomes natural and the need for material possessions is lower. 
  • Overall greater life enjoyment as we raise our baseline level of happiness over time. 
  • A sense of meaning of our existence can emerge more easily. 


Much of this knowledge is already widely implemented by many intelligent people. They work on themselves, their career, do sport and maintain a healthy diet. But the default mode of our psyche is to revert to complacency and search for the easiest solution. In our evolutionary history this worked well, because we had no really easy way out. But today it can backfire and we have to take challenging ourselves into our own hands and consciously provide it and often take the hardest route because it is still much too easy compared to what our evolutionary ancestors had to deal with and our psyche evolved and thrived in.

What If Money Were No Object

What would you do if money was not an issue?

Alan Watts famously gave an answer to that question in one of his lectures.

We are going to explore how this question is much more profound than you may think.

What would you do if you did not have to work for a living? What would you spend your time doing? And what would be worth pursuing and dedicating your energy to?



 

In a work-centric society, considering such questions is a radical shift in perspective. Right now you may think that the main purpose of your work is to generate income. If you are higher up the income latter you may also have other requirements on top. Like a sense of purpose and some socially meaningful contribution. But does the core purpose not remain the income-generating aspect of work?

 

Asking yourself what you would do if you did not have to work for money is more profound than just having more free time to play with. It is not just the question of what will you fill your time with instead, or how can you spend your time for maximum enjoyment. The desire to be more free is fueled by an underlying desire for personal development and the transcendence of your current state of existence. Over the course of a lifetime, pondering this question is similar to the vision of a higher state of consciousness. Your desire to be free of the need to work comes from your deeper longing for higher consciousness. A longing for a state with more degrees of freedom. As time is one main constraint for all of us, freeing up more time is a major step towards more freedom.

 

Higher states of consciousness are a very similar pursuit. You strive to free yourself from the limitations of your mind. On the spiritual journey, you ultimately give up the perspective of the limited self. Beyond that, you can discover a place of union with all of existence. You merge with god so to speak. This is the highest goal of every genuine spiritual path. And whether you realize it or not, the freedom from income-generating work is one step that can lead you in the same direction.

 

Not having to work essentially opens up the possibility to pursue consciousness work. Through the movement of financial independence, retire early, more people than ever may reach financial freedom early in life. If you reach this you may be someone who goes on to explore alternative ways of living. And maybe it will awaken a natural desire for personal development and consciousness work within you. Or you may first desire to explore many other activities that seem more pleasurable than work.

But I think that it is likely that after many years of exploring your interests, you will start to ask more meaningful questions. Doubt of this new lifestyle will arise and you still feel some uneasiness. All of these activities can only give you satisfaction for so long. And maybe at that point, you go back to work because you think you miss certain aspects of it, like meaning and social connection. Or maybe you start your own business to keep you busy for years to come.

 

Maybe by luck or maybe out of a deeper knowing you look elsewhere. You come in contact with different spiritual teachings. Or your path may start with a sudden event. Maybe an awakening experience induced by psychedelics. Or a personal crisis. Something triggers within you a short glimpse of something very unexpected. Something that ignites your curiosity to know what that glimpse was about. You got a glimpse of a higher state of consciousness and the experience transcended your personal perspective, your personal identity. You will see your whole life recontextualized. Nothing seems as it once was. Suddenly you know that no relative experience will ever give you the same contentment and tranquility as realizing your highest self.

 

This desire to transcend the personal and illusory limitations is the same desire that is at the core of the question, what you would do if money was no issue. You desire to be free of the major limitations imposed on you through your daily work. When you achieve the financial state of not having to work for a living anymore, it can be the ground from which you achieve great personal transformation.

 

The earlier you achieve a state of freedom from work, the better you can channel your energy towards personal development. In previous articles, I have written about how you can achieve this. All of those articles are listed under the label Financial Freedom. 

 

When Alan Watts asked the question, what would you do if money was no object, he meant it in a different way though. He did not think of financial freedom through passive income. He rather asked what would you choose to do with your time regardless of how much you get paid for it. But he assumed that you somehow will earn a living by doing that thing no matter what you choose to do. If you would actually be able to take money fully out of the picture, this would actually be very similar to financial freedom. In reality, very few people actually take that approach or even have the courage to truly consider such possibilities. Compromises have to be made and extra care given to the development of a career that allows for true personal development.

 

In practicality, only with financial freedom will you truly grow to your highest potential. When after a couple of years of working and investing enough income is generated without a need for daily work, you are free to pursue whatever you want. I think that in the future this will become possible for more and more people because in a capitalistic economy people are always striving to improve efficiency in production. Decreasing the necessity for human work input. While society has decided to use those gains in efficiency to develop more complex products, on a personal level you can decide to use it for more freedom by keeping your consumption low.

 

Here I wanted to spark your interest in the relationship between work and money and to consider if maybe personal development is the wiser choice over increased material and experiential consumption. I want to leave you with the suggestion to deeply explore your interests while closely observing what your present experience is like. Whether those activities are called work or hobbies does not matter. Maybe you discover that freedom is always available in the present moment, right here. And that, what you call restrictions and the feeling of not being free, reveals itself to be mere mental constructs. Place your bets on raising your consciousness. Knowing that no relative experiences will ever give you the same level of contentment, happiness and peace as does knowledge of your true self.

 

Not to say that the journey won't be difficult. It might as well be the biggest challenge you will ever take on. But integrating more of your higher self might turn out to be the development beyond the ego. The stage of self-transcendence.


The Relationship Between Effort And Happiness

There are probably as many visions of the perfect life as there are people on this planet. As human beings, we plan our future. With varying degrees of consciousness. Whether we plan consciously or unconsciously, we easily forget one thing. How well are we actually able to predict, what will make us happy in the future. What we think we want now is often completely different from what would actually return to us the best experience long-term. What follows is a clarification of the requirements of our psyche to flourish over a lifetime and a strategy for personal development.  

Coding as a challenge
Your career may lead you to experience flow long-term

Is Happiness The Goal?

When we struggle to find happiness, we rarely ask whether happiness is the right goal. In our search for a future state of inner happiness, we easily forget one fundamental aspect of reality. That it is always now. Why do we hope for a better future, when it is always now? What are the cognitive consequences of this false thinking? Therefore we can only get what we ever wanted now. Therefore the question turns into: what is keeping us from our desired state now. And is that state happiness in the conventional sense? Like a pleasant feeling or a beautiful sight? 

I would argue it is none of these. In order to achieve a state where we feel content with our overall life requires us to construct a path of constant improvement in one way or another. Our psyche is designed to grow and learn. It is not meant to remain static. We need mental resistance as much as our bodies need physical resistance in order to stay healthy and strong. 

Some people do that naturally, but most people don't. It requires effort, just like physical exercise requires effort. Especially if it is consciously designed to yield long term improvements. How do we design a life that covers our need for personal development?

Grow Yourself And Happiness May Follow

What we need is a trajectory to our life that presents us with challenges on a regular basis. A career could be the source of new challenges. Unfortunately, most jobs are not designed to provide new tasks that are more challenging on a regular basis. Tasks become routines and workers get bored but remain in the job because they need the salary. 

It is in our own interest to keep an eye on how challenging our work feels to us. If it becomes too easy, we stagnate and it is a sign that we are ready for the next step. Taking on new tasks that are a little more difficult will allow us to remain in the flow-state more often. Which in itself is a great strategy that produces in us feelings of achievement and happiness. 
Grabbing this concept and turning it into a strategy to design our whole lives trajectory around, will lead to the best long term outcome. 

Change Requires Effort

There are many potential paths available to achieve this goal. Designing a life path that supports personal development is achievable by anyone. But anyone who is serious about it has to expect that it will feel really difficult at times. The feeling of effort is like that physical feeling of heavy resistance training. Only the person who learns to like the feeling of burning muscles while training will realize is full potential and become a great athlete. Only the person who learns to like the feeling of effortful activities will realize his full personal potential. 
If we recognize that we haven't done challenging things in a while, it is a good indicator that we need to stretch ourselves and search for new activities that will enable us to grow. This could be in our jobs or in side-projects, in our family lives, or in the community we live in. Let the preception of effort be one of the guiding factors in major career or life decisions. Effort is the resistance required for personal development.

As we spent most of our time working, the best bet is to focus on that area first and foremost. Searching for new ways to challenge oneself in the working environment ensures that we remain engaged with our work over the years. A really long-term perspective is required here. With some decisions, it will be important to think decades ahead. Will a certain trajectory serve you not only in the immediate future but also in one and ten years down the road?

I hope you gained an understanding of how effort and happiness go hand in hand. Rather than following our intuitive, reflexive behavior to avoid effort, we should seek it out and use it to guide us in our big decisions. 





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