“Count No Man Happy Until He Is Dead”
Happiness sometimes seems to be the most elusive part of our lives. It always seems as though it’s just out of reach and when we do achieve it, it proves to be all too fleeting and short-lived.
We like to think that continual happiness is something we can actually realize; who wouldn’t like to live life in perpetual bliss and joy, wandering around every day with a goofy smile on your face?
But the reality is that happiness is occasional. It’s an accumulation of moments rather than a constant… and that’s part of what makes it so valuable. If it were a persistent state, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate it; we would soon learn to tune it out. It’s part of the human condition – we’re extremely good at acclimating to anything. Once something becomes a part of the background radiation of our lives, we start to not notice it.
And it’s a good thing, too. If we lived in constant joy, we’d never have any motivation to strive or achieve. We’d stagnate and whither away. There’s a reason why the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right.
It’s just a shame that we’re so damn bad at actually finding it.
More often than not, we just don’t know how to be happy. Instead we make ourselves miserable and let happiness occur seemingly at random.
So we have to learn how to be happy.
Step Away From The TV
The first step in being happy is to get away from the things that deliberately make us unhappy.
And that means getting away from our televisions.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to tell you that TV is evil or brag about how I’m so much more enlightened because I barely watch TV; in fact, I think television is reaching a golden age, especially as it starts to embrace long-form narrative as an art rather than a curiosity.
But at the same time, the point of television isn’t the presentation of thought-provoking shows or pleasant entertainment. The point of television is to sell you shit. Everything else, from the quality of the shows you watch to the news you see is calculated to sell, sell, sell.
That show you loved that was cut down so cruelly in it’s prime1 ? It may have been amazing, but it wasn’t bringing in “the eyeballs”. That is: it didn’t capture enough attention that marketers felt would allow them to sell you things.
That cartoon you love isn’t an experiment in crafting art through the medium of animation, it’s to sell you toys. I loved Young Justice2, but the reason it got yanked was because it just didn’t move action figures the way Warner Brothers Animated hoped it would.
What does all of this have to do with happiness? Well, ignoring the fact that bringing back Firefly would make me fucking ecstatic, the point of marketing is to make you desire things you don’t have. Marketers want you to believe that their product will fill a need in your life.
And if you don’t have a need, they’ll quite cheerfully create one. Marketers aren’t just selling you a product, they’re selling you a solution. A lifestyle. They want you to think that you’re missing out and the only way to catch up is to buy their stuff.
Watch any beer, soda or car commercial. There may be the head fake towards the quality of the product, but the images are all about selling the lifestyle. Wouldn’t you love to party like these young pretty people do? Wouldn’t life be great if you were as cool as the guy charming everybody on his way to the bar to get a Heineken? Couldn’t you imagine conquering the back-country in this Ford F-150, living the rugged life of manliness? Too bad you’re not like them…
You’re perpetually bombarded with the message that you’re inadequate. You’re not as good as the pretty people in the ads. There’s a hole in your life that only Gillette razors or Budweiser can fill. The only answer is to spend, spend, spend! Buy more, consume more, only then will you be happy.
Of course, that’s never going to be enough. After all, if you’re satisfied, they can’t sell you more things. So there will always be more. You’re a dog on a treadmill, chasing after a bone it can never reach. You’re running as fast as you can and getting nowhere in the process.
So disconnect. Take a step away from the noise that tells you over and over again that you’re just not up to snuff and tries to sell you literally impossible lifestyles.
Speaking of which…
Stop Comparing Yourself To Other People
Take a look at Thomas Jefferson. He was a classical polymath – a scientist, an archeologist, a philosopher, an engineer, a business man, a farmer. By the age of 33 he had not only helped found a country but drafted the Declaration of Independence and forged treaties with sovereign nations.
So… what have you done with your life? Got a mid-level job? Maybe won the office football pool? Came in third in your fantasy basketball league? Bought a Toyota hatchback? Used?
Trying to start your own business? Tim Ferris beat you there; he figured out how to minimize the amount of work he needed to do per week AND got a series of New York Times bestsellers in the bargain.
Want to be a writer? How’s that screenplay of yours coming along? Got an agent yet? Sold a project? Hey, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won a goddamn Academy Award in their 20s.
Feeling a little inferior now? Kind of hard to measure up to one of the founding fathers, sure, but a couple of yahoos from Boston? Feeling like you’ve wasted your life, like you should’ve done more by now?
That right there? That’s the feeling of you robbing yourself of your own happiness. Comparing your life to someone else’s, using them as a metric for your own level of success is a trap. And it’s going to make you miserable.
To start with: you’re not seeing the whole picture. As I always like to say, you’re comparing your unedited footage to their highlight reel. That guy you see with all the hot women? You don’t know his story. You don’t know that he’s surrounding himself with women in order to make him feel better about himself because deep down inside he feels like that’s the only way to prove he has value.
That guy with the corner office, the expensive luxury car and the six figure paycheck? The one who struts around like he’s King Shit? The one who’s also up to his eyeballs in debt because he’s constantly trying to live an insane lifestyle, who’s alienated his family because he’s worked so goddamn much that he never sees them? That’s the guy you’re comparing yourself to?
Moreover, you’re telling yourself that unless you reach that level of success, that unless you are like that celebrity or that stranger who seems to have it all, that you’re worthless. Denying your own accomplishments because they’re not as rarified as somebody else’s is a great way to be miserable. You’re trying to compare your achievements to things that are actually startlingly rare. You’re picking the best of the best and assuming that this is the standard to which you should be measured.
Herein lies the paradox: if they were commonplace, you wouldn’t give a damn about them. If everyone could win Oscars or be born into insane wealth, it wouldn’t be remarkable at all.
And yet you’re telling yourself that unless you reach that elite level, you’re a failure.
Instead, you need to focus on you’ve done, not on how it matches up to other people.
Appreciate What You Have
That focus on other people blinds you to your own accomplishments in life and how remarkable they are. You may not be keeping up with the Kardashians, but that doesn’t mean that you haven’t done things that are worth celebrating.
You wrote a novel? Congratulations: that’s really goddamn cool. Even if you never sell it, you’ve accomplished something that most people never manage. Got a girlfriend who loves you? That’s awesome. Won the office football pool? Dude, high-five!
Take a look around your life. There’s a lot you should be proud of. Even if it seems silly or minor, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count. Just because you’re not a Fortune 500 executive or an internationally famous celebrity doesn’t mean that you’re not important.
You need to realize that you have things that other people would gladly shank a hobo for. Even when you don’t have a lot, it can be more than it seems. A few years ago, I went on a tour of temples in Ankor Wat and it was an eye-opener. The reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge can seem like ancient history to us, but Cambodia is still healing from the scars. Walking around the marketplaces and neighborhoods of Siem Riap drove home just how deeply the country has been wounded.
One of our first stops on the tour was the infamous torture camp Tol Sleng, where our guide had been incarcerated. Seemingly every third or fourth person missing an eye or a limb from the landmines that still litter the countryside. And I’m walking along in clothes that cost more than they’d make in a lifetime (Gap jeans and a t-shirt in this case), with all of my limbs intact, never having to worry that one day I was going to put a foot wrong and be blown to smithereens by a 50 year old remainder of a conflict that ended before I was even born.
Suddenly things were put very firmly in perspective. I learned to be much more grateful for the opportunities I had… and the problems and frustrations of my daily life weren’t as bad as I’d thought.
Obviously I didn’t suddenly become the Buddha, but understanding that even as frustrating as things may seem, they weren’t that bad helps keep everything in perspective, and I learned to take much more pleasure in what I did have instead of focusing on what I didn’t.
As odd as it sounds, positivity is a habit. So is negativity. If you’re the sort of person who only sees the worst-possible outcomes, who views everything as a precursor to failure and why everything is pointless… well, part of that is the way you’ve worn a groove into your brain. At some point, you’ve gotten into the habit of seeing things in the worst possible light. It may make sense to you because confirmation bias causes you to filter out the positive while leading you to focus on the areas that confirm what you already believe – that life is full of fail and AIDS and we’re all going to die anyway so who the fuck cares?
Much like comparing yourself to others, this is part of how you rob yourself of your own happiness. By constantly looking on the dark side of life3 you’re choosing, however unconsciously to be miserable.
One way to break the habit of being negative is to take on the positivity challenge: be absolutely positive about everything for seven days. It’s very simple: you simply, consciously make the choice to think positively, all day every day, for seven days. If you have a single negative thought, no matter how fleeting, you start over from day 1… even if you were in the last ours of day 7. It’s actually surprisingly difficult; a negative outlook on life is hard to overcome, even when you’re trying to force yourself out of one mind-rut and into another. But then… that’s the whole point. It’s to show you just how much you’re letting your own pre-conceived notions and self-limiting beliefs control every aspect of your life.
Much like luck, a “good” life is in how you look at it. You can get fired from a job and see it as the world ending – “How am I going to pay my bills? Where am I going to find a job in this economy?” – or as the kick in your ass that you’ve been needing; in fact, we often retroactively change how we felt about critical events in our lives. My getting dumped by my supposedly “perfect” girlfriend after being fired from my “perfect” job sucked at the time… but now I actually find myself happy that it all went down the way it did.
You don’t have to be a full-on Pollyanna, but you do have to be willing to assume the best about everyone and everything… including yourself. Even when things go badly – and they will; a positive outlook isn’t a Protection From Bad Shit spell – you have to be willing to think “yes, this sucks, but all will be well in the end”.
Get Lost Inside Your Own Mind
One of the best ways to increase the amount of happiness in your life is to find peace. There are few easier ways of finding that peace than through meditation. Being able to silence the constant stream of noise and insecurity running through your brain and just enjoy ten minutes of quiet and tranquility will do amazing things for your life.
Meditation is one of the most powerful tools for improving your life. Ten minutes of meditation a day dramatically reduces your stress levels, helps control your anxieties, soothes away the tension in your life and even can improve your physical and emotional health.
More often than not, we’re the biggest obstacle to our own happiness; the voice of our jerk-brain loves nothing more than to remind us of all the times we’ve fucked up, tell us over and over again how we’re horrible people, how we’re failures and how nothing we do will ever measure up. That chatter is so constant that often we don’t even notice it any more; like chronic pain, we become so accustomed to it’s presence that the only time we are aware of it is by it’s absence.
Meditation is how we learn how to control our jerkbrain and make it shut up. It gives us control over our own minds, makes us aware of our moods and emotions and the reasons behind them and thus gives us power over them.
Taking ten minutes a day to give us inner peace? A refuge from being our own worst enemy? That’s amazing. And it will make you happier than you realized you could be.
Stop Being A Victim
There’s nothing like believing that you’re powerless to make you miserable. I’ve talked before about Martin Seligman’s experiments in behavioral modification, using electrical shocks to condition them to specific behaviors.
The dogs who were taught that they had no control over their lives – that they couldn’t escape from the pain, no matter what they did – gave in. They sat there in abject misery, bracing themselves for the shock… even when they could escape.
They had become victims. They had been taught that they had no control and thus could only endure the pain.
People fall succumb to this misery as well; they surrender their autonomy under the belief that there’s just nothing they can do.
Except you don’t have to be the victim. Being the victim means you’ve given up your ability change. You’ve ceded your responsibility for your life; nothing is your fault, but instead is done to you. By giving up responsibility you’ve lost your ability to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.
While you can’t control everything that happens to you, you can control how you react to it. You lost your job? You can wallow in your misery or you can ask yourself what you’re going to do about it. You face nothing but rejection from women? You can whine about the unfairness of it all, or you can take control of your life and fix things.
It’s not going to be easy. Some people will have an easier time than others; some people will have a far harder time.That’s life. Life isn’t fair. Life just is. But you have a choice between guaranteed misery and the pursuit of happiness. Happiness isn’t something you’re given, it’s something you earn.
If you want to be happy, you have to be willing to go out and create it.
Shit happens. And when it does, you have a choice. Are you going to cowboy up and fight for a happier life, or are you going to just lay there and bleed?