The other day, while strolling through Missoula, MT, I came across this quote, which has been attributed to my favorite Western philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804):
“Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.”
Apparently, the quote is not found in any known work of Kant. It has been found, however, in a book by President Joe Biden. There it is attributed to Immanuel Kant. But it has also been attributed it to the essayist Joseph Addison (who died five years before Kant was born) and the American Clergyman George Washington Burnap (1802 – 1859). So perhaps it was a sort of folk wisdom or common saying of the time.
My own philosophy professor at the University of Montana in Missoula, Albert Borgmann (b. 1937) offered similar advice to his students as well. Primarily a student of Martin Heidegger, Borgmann was also a keen philosopher of Kant and the quest for a life well-lived. Borgmann’s advice, as I remember it was to seek out three things: 1) a place you love, 2) work that fulfills you, and 3) people who love and support you.
The advice has stayed with me over the 20 years since I studied with Professor Borgmann. I even told it to my older sister around 15 years ago, when she was chasing her work-dream in Los Angeles, but finding herself in a place that depleted her and surrounded by people who did not support her. I remember her repeating the three rules back to me as she talked of her plans to leave Los Angeles to pursue similar work in Denver, knowing that the seasons and mountains would nourish her and the more laid-back mentality of the people would match better with her life.
Life out of Balance
No matter where we are in life, it can be beneficial to contemplate these three factors. It’s okay if one is out of balance sometimes too. My sister, for instance, later moved to Phoenix with her job. It took some time, but she eventually fell in love with the seasons there (hiking from November to early March is gorgeous) and developed a great group of friends.
But if we are feeling down and can’t figure out why, sometimes we’ll find that two or even three of these factors are out of balance for us. And then we can start thinking about fixes. Many of these fixes don’t include major changes, like moving to a new city. They can be much smaller things.
A Place you Love
Living in a place that we love is not always easy. In our teens and twenties, we hopefully develop some hobbies: perhaps hiking and skiing, perhaps theatre and live music. These hobbies will go a long way to shaping what kinds of places we love.
We can look at the pace of life in different places. New York City is the “city that never sleeps” while thousands of smaller towns around the country seem to be asleep around 80% of the time.
In my visits to New York City, I’ve been overwhelmed by the immensity of it all: the giant buildings, the history, the art, the food, the people everywhere. For me, it’s a great place to visit but never to live.
When I took a job in Hong Kong, I was so lucky to hear about a small, car-free island next to Hong Kong Island where I could live. I was introduced to a landlord and quickly agreed to give it a try. As someone raised in Montana’s slow-pace atmosphere, the idea of being in the heart of a giant city didn’t sit well with me. In fact, I lived in London for 6 months when I started my PhD and had a very hard time. The people were great and I was doing what I loved, but constant city noise, occasional violence and/or drunken angry sounding people around me made it a difficult place to live.
It has taken time and the great fortune of living in many different places, but I am honing my sense of what is necessary to really love where I live. Missoula is certainly one such place, with many slow-paced areas (I just have to avoid certain areas of town and even try to stay out of traffic at certain times of day) and gorgeous mountains and hills in all directions to explore.
Work that is Fulfilling
It’s hopefully common knowledge that no job will be perfect. When I aspired to be a university professor, I was warned that some of that work would include serving on committees, filling out administrative paperwork, and other things that had little to do with my area of academic expertise. And over the years, I had to do much of that and more, learning 3 or perhaps 4 different online platforms for teaching.
But the main part of my work, exploring philosophy and religion with bright young minds, was always deeply fulfilling. As a side-project, I always maintained a blog to voice thoughts and promote discussion. Slowly but surely, job offers started coming in for me to be paid to write rather than to teach. And today I work full time as a writer and editor. Still, I get to explore philosophy and religion. Just in a different context.
For some people, the work that fulfills them isn’t their main job. Their job, however, allows them to commit time to volunteering or to a hobby that fulfills them. Importantly, their job doesn’t deplete them or leave them feeling too exhausted to do those fulfilling activities.
People who Love and Support You
This can be the easiest aspect of happiness to find for some and the hardest for others. I have definitely gone through periods of great loneliness and isolation in my many moves around the world. But each time I have managed to find some great kindred spirits who eventually became great friends.
One of the best ways to meet new friends for me has been following my hobbies and exploring. Several people have become friends through mutual interests in philosophy and religion. Others are fellow amateur photographers. Many others just found themselves alone in a distant city like me and we got to chatting.
And when I had the opportunity to return to Montana, home of many of my favorite people, I knew it would be a good move.
None of these things make life easy. Work can still be hard and many friends too far away. But they provide excellent points of contemplation as we wonder how to make improvements along our journey.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.