At any given moment, we are evaluating our experience and putting into one of three possible categories: positive/promising, negative/threatening, or neutral/irrelevant. The category we ultimately place a given experience in is determined by the goal that we are pursuing.
For example, when feeling hungry, our goal is to satisfy that hunger. This goal determines how we assign value to the events that occur along our path to satiation.
Those events will either be deemed promising, insofar as they get us closer to a sandwich, threatening, insofar as they get in the way of our sandwich, or irrelevant, insofar as they do not get in the way of or get us closer to a sandwich. As long as satisfying our hunger is priority #1, all external events will be assigned value according to how they relate to that goal.
It is worth noting that all experiences are value-less until we assign value to them. This means that any given event can be interpreted as promising, threatening, or irrelevant, and the category we ultimately place it in is a function of its relationship to the goal we are pursuing. (For example, if my goal is to save a million dollars, then I might view a vacation to Hawaii as threatening. If your goal is to enjoy life as much as possible, you might view a vacation to Hawaii as promising.)
Because our goal determines whether we interpret an experience as positive, negative or neutral, our goal has a lot to say about the quality of our life.
If our over-arching goal is to be happy, then we will evaluate everything that happens to us through the lens of: “does this help me, hinder me, or not matter to me, regarding my pursuit of happiness?”
If our primary goal is to get a job promotion, we will evaluate what happens to us through the lens of: “does this help me, hinder me, or not matter to me, regarding my desire to get a promotion?”
Again, we see the world through the lens of what we are pursuing and then we categorize our experience as positive, negative or neutral.
This brings up a thought-provoking question: if our goal determines the way we view the world and the way we categorize what happens to us (determines the number of “positive”, “negative” and “neutral” events we experience), is there a “proper” goal toward which we should orient ourselves?
I think that there is. Some goals are more likely to cause us to label experiences as “negative”, and other goals are more likely to cause us to label experiences as “positive”. A “proper” goal should deem as many events as possible as either promising or irrelevant (and reduce the number of threatening/bad events), and it should be relevant (employable) in as many circumstances as possible.
Does the goal of “being happy” meet this criteria? It doesn’t. It can be applied in many situations (universal applicability – meaning we can use it as a frame of reference to assign value to most of our experiences), but it would cause us to label many events as threatening (as there is much in the world that threatens our happiness).
And what about the goal of getting a promotion? Again, no. This time, it doesn’t meet criteria #2. It doesn’t have universal applicability (there are plenty of decisions we have to make and events to interpret/assign value to that have nothing to do with our job and where the goal is therefore irrelevant).
As far as I can tell, there is only one goal that meets both criteria: the desire to deepen in one’s understanding of oneself and experience what it is to be human more fully.
There is not an event that exists that one would not be able to interpret as promising if they had the above goal as their primary framework for assigning value.
Anything that happens to us, when seen from this lense, is an opportunity to dive deeper into ourselves. Anything can be used to foster our self-understanding and to more fully grasp the human experience.
The worst that life has to offer, the most painful aspects of life that can be conjured up, are grist for the mill insofar as we use them as a conduit to dive deeper into ourselves. (This isn’t to say that bad things would cease to exist or that we would be equally enthusiastic about all events; I am arguing that immediately bad/undesired things can be, in time, experienced and processed as a step towards our goal of self-understanding.)
The pursuit of self-understanding, if we take it earnestly, is always available to us. If we were to view the world through this lens, any event could be seen as promising because any event would represent an opportunity (painful though it may be) to explore a new part of ourselves and of the human experience.
Even though the goal itself isn’t to have more “positive” experience, we would end up interpreting much of what happens to us as “positive/promising” because all experience has the potential to get us closer to our goal.
That seems to be worth striving for.