The Declaration of Independence states that we all have inalienable rights; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Setting aside of the gap between the ideals and the history of the Declaration I think this phrase hits on a key concept - happiness needs to be pursued.

I think the reason I find my middle age life so satisfying is that I have the things that I need and I am pursuing things that I want. The things that I need are the base layers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

maslow needs3

The things that I need to survive, the bottom three levels of the hierarchy, are as secure as I can make them. If any of those things were in jeopardy then nothing else would matter.

Since I am fortunate enough to have those needs accounted for I have the time, energy and resources to devote to activities that nourish my spirit through the pursuit of happiness.

But what does that pursuit look like? I have no interest in telling people how they should live their life. But I think I have figured out the basic dimensions of what has offered me a fulfilling life in my middle age.

The things that I am doing can be categorized into six major life projects. I'm defining project here as a life long pursuit that consists of multiple goals that change over time. I work on a project for as long as it keeps me motivated and I informally measure the progress that I have made as I work on a particular project. Sometimes a project can fit into two or more categories. That measured improvement and forward momentum offers me tremendous personal satisfaction.

These are not in a rank order, although I think the first one is arguably the most important:

Fitness projects

Heroic high schooler helps exhausted marathon runner cross finish line ...

Being morbidly obese most of my adult life put tremendous strain on me. The health issues of carrying that much weight are obvious but the emotional and psychological strains are less obvious. The kind of treatment I was willing to accept from people is significantly different now that I am at a healthy weight.

I could accept my current body weight and be content but I know that it would be easy for weight to creep back up. By having fitness goals, like completing a marathon, I am able to focus less on the issue of my weight as a driving factor. I am not "working out to continue to lose weight" I am "working on improving my endurance to finish a marathon in under six hours." Pursuing the goal of improving muscular endurance and aerobic capacity lessens the drive of the weight as being a major part of what drives my behavior.

Not having the weight be the main motivator has been incredibly valuable for my psyche.

In the first quarter of 2024 my fitness project has been focused on training for the Asheville marathon. I will continue with the running training after the marathon by training for a half marathon in April and a Spartan race in June. The weight loss and increased endurance improvements are the byproduct of the motivated training. I do not think I would have seen as much improvement if I was just training for the sake of training.

A fitness project does not have to be physical. It can be "learning to make five delicious low carb dishes that will help improve my blood sugar." Ideally the project has some kind of means of measurable improvement and some mechanism for sharing - maybe cooking a great meal for friends. The point is that the active project and the deadline for sharing help drive the desirable behavior.

Intellectual projects

Scientific Explanations for Weird Reading Habits | Reader's Digest

Reading somewhat complicated concepts and writing help me get closer to understanding who I am and what is really important. We all have these messy monkey minds that jump from one thought and feeling to another. The world is so incredibly complicated that we can't really grasp more than a fraction of it with our messy monkey minds.

This kind of reading is different than reading for entertainment. Reading another another book about Space Marines killing Orks and Demons in the 41st millennium is not the same as reading a book about the intersection of our social media habits and evolutionary psychology. I certainly enjoy the equivalent of intellectual junk food but Warhammer 40K doesn't exactly expand my world view or grasp of reality. Your brain will go for the easy pleasure of rewatching the Office or scrolling on social media if you don't set a conscious goal of an intellectual project.

Knowledge compounds exponentially and the value I get out of increasing my collective knowledge of the world pays tremendous dividends but the most important one is the sense of satisfaction I get.

Maybe the goal is to finally watch a set of classic movies. Maybe it is to read a really long book that you have been wanting to read (Curse you Power Broker!). Whatever you choose is fine so long as it requires you to reach just a little bit more than you normally grasp.

Social pursuits

Group Of Friends Having Outdoor Barbeque At Home - Austin Homes for ...

We are tribal and social creatures. It is easy to forget that as the challenges of adulthood and parenthood and the never ending Google calendar get in the way. This has had tremendously negative consequences as we come to grips with the social isolation epidemic that was exacerbated by state enforced lockdowns.

The easiest way to continue to engage socially is to block in specific time to see people. As a parent to young kids that means that my social circle largely consists of parents of my kids friends. I'm lucky that there are lots of kids in our building and that we have a courtyard so that takes care of socializing, at least when the weather is warm.

Social media kind of offered a taste of socializing but there are enough negatives around social media to reduce the appeal of spending much time on it at this point in my life. To some extent I am using my weekly writing as an opportunity to kind of socialize with people. I am sharing my thinking with people I know and value and offering you all an opportunity to engage in a discussion if you feel inclined. It's certainly not perfect but it has offered a chance to connect with people on a deeper level than I have in awhile which I deeply appreciate.

The wonderful thing about social pursuits is that you can combine projects with the help of social pursuits. Having friends and family over for dinner is a great way to set a deadline and share the results of another project. Or you can consider training for an event with a friend. I've enjoyed running with my neighbor but I've also enjoyed just sharing and comparing weekend running times with my college friend who lives far away. Knowing that my buddy is on the road also is motivating.

Collecting pursuits

Darwin's Beetle Box | Museum of Zoology
Part of Darwin's Beetle collection from his undergraduate days - Like me... he rarely attended lectures

Part of what helped Charles Darwin deduce the process of natural selection was his obsessive collecting.

Darwin's love of beetles, worms and barnacles helped him to develop expertise to notice the subtle details that forced him to think about how those variations might be important. I love the fact that he and his cousin, William Darwin Fox, would go out and collect Beetles; Darwin combined his collecting project with a social component and doubled his pleasure!

There is something deeply satisfying about pursuing a collection of a sort. There is beauty in noticing all the little details and potential variation that can exist within a collection. If a collection looks identical to an outsider that is because they haven't learned to appreciate the tiny nuances that the collector appreciates.

This can be expensive and time consuming but I think it is part of a satisfying life for many people. It also offers a social opportunity as people interested in the same collecting pursuit can explore and admire each others collecting journey.

The danger with the collecting project is that it can become obsessive. This is definitely the pursuit that should be the least pursued. But to dismiss collecting misses a true joy.

Creative pursuits

Best art schools in NYC from painting to photography

Art is subjective but the act of bringing forth something into the world that is the product of your inspiration and effort can be both depressing and satisfying. It can be depressing because the ideal of your creative efforts is always miles above what you are capable of creating but the time and act of producing and sharing whatever inspires you is nurturing and fulfilling.

Writing weekly essays have been extremely rewarding and have helped my mind notice things more consciously and consistently than it would have otherwise. Drawing has helped my teaching tremendously; as I get better at seeing objects in front of me I improve my ability to draw them. As I notice more details I can ask more interesting questions, which fuels my curiosity. Creativity is like a game. The reward for playing this game is that you get better at playing the game. You can continue playing the game at higher and higher levels until you are no longer inspired to do so.

Contributing pursuits

What You Need to Know About Year-End Charitable Giving - Success with ...

There's a reason that among the most admired people in the world are people like Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. People who make it this mission to serve other people are worthy of being admired.

There is something so wonderful about the act of giving and helping others. You can do it for accolades but there is no need to reap material rewards because the act offers its own reward for your life.

Whether it is getting involved in a charity run for cancer research, donating to a cause you care about, or serving as a big brother, the opportunities to contribute are nearly limitless.

I don't talk about where I donate money except to invite others to find the causes that matter to them. I enjoyed being the co-president of my kids PTA (nobody called me Mr. President sadly). These small contributions energize me and offer me far more than whatever financial or energy cost they bear.

The interesting thing about the contributing projects is how hard they are at first. I am so much more cautious about where I donate money than I am about how I spend money in other respects. Yes a part of me is on the lookout for scams but I think our generosity muscles need to be exercised in the same way that our bodies need to be exercised. We don't easily give without expectation of reciprocity. But giving helps to relax that sense that you must be compensated for your generosity. But as those muscles get exercised they get stronger and you feel comfortable giving more.

If I had to whittle down this list to the most important I would say that the top three most valuable pursuits are the social, physical and creative pursuits. Entropy deteriorates our body. We can't stop it but we can slow it down through forward momentum. If we aren't moving forward in our life we are moving backwards - entropy and inflation deteriorate the value of our finances and the strength of our bodies. So if I had to choose one project that everyone should have as a life long project it would be related to fitness. Humans need to have some physical agency in the world and it is very hard to be satisfied with a body that is deteriorating. After that physical need humans need to connect with others and share some part of themselves.

Too many of us have replaced the pursuit of happiness with a pursuit of entertainment. Those two things are different - we have far more entertainment available to us in our pocket than all of human civilization ever had access to but I don't think anyone would suggest that western adults are happier than people in the past.

Source: UN World Happiness Report

I'm always on the look out for inspiration so I'd love to hear about what projects you are pursuing and how you've grown in that pursuit. I hope for all of you that you are actively engaged in some level of pursuit. Something that challenges, inspires and fulfills that quintessential part of the human experience