To understand a thing, you need to classify it. That sounds pretentious enough, let’s go. There is an obsession over happiness. A craving for it. A desire to make it one’s life purpose, even.
What is happiness? In the culture of consumerism an epicurean lifestyle is the ideal, having things is happiness. In less stuff-oriented cultures or sub-cultures — knowing things, experiencing spiritual things might bring happiness. Happiness can be anything and that is the general problem with it.
I suspect a quick chat about nomenclature is important. I think happiness that people talk about is a myth. It’s akin to true/romantic love, where there is an expectation of that one ideal person in the world who is made specifically for you and you — for them and if only you manage to find them — the relationship will be cloudless, pure and effortless. Not only is this not true, it is also a self-destructive way of looking at things. It is a guarantee to waste away a life looking for The One and not find them. To a lot of people marriage and children are linked to their idea of happiness, and not getting either by the age of X (insert your culturally appropriate upper threshold for getting married or having kids) puts pressure on a person. Happiness itself is deceptive, people strive for it, but presumably very few people are continuously happy. Our suspicion is inevitable at the thought of a permanently happy person — what is wrong with them? Are they delusional? And in that sense, it would appear happiness is not a thing you can achieve once, it’s a thing you need to keep achieving over and over and over and over again, and the cruel aspect of this endless loop is that it’s not a constant; yesterday’s happiness is today’s meh. This happiness, in the sense that “if only I had Y I’d be happy” — is a myth.
So how about I reframe the term. What if happiness is not the thing you get? It seems plausible that happiness is a spectrum. It starts with a lack of suffering — physical, emotional. You might call it contentment, but I suspect additional revisiting of nomenclature might be required. How about instead I try to explain what I mean by “suffering”. It can be physical pain as bad as anything you can imagine — broken limbs, migraines, stab wounds; it can be emotional trauma akin to PTSD or other disorders; and it can be something as minute as negative thoughts — you wake up in the morning and as the hot shower hits your skin you start running the conversation with your boss that you had yesterday through your brain, over and over again, she didn’t give you a raise, but if only you had responded differently to her question… this thinking affects your mood post-shower and you’re grouchy towards your loved ones, explosive, unpleasant. That is also suffering. Imagine an experience of life without that. That is my lack-of-suffering lower threshold for happiness. In itself this happiness is already pretty good, but it can be built upon; experiences through the day can intensify this base happiness, so what are they?
I split this spectrum of happiness into a happiness of being and a happiness of doing.
The happiness of being is all about fostering that sense of being content, of getting rid of negative thinking patterns. It consists of re-thinking your position in life. There is a tendency to measure your happiness in comparison to someone else’s. And that someone else can be an actual other person or yourself in the future. Now, there’s a problem with basing your happiness on someone else — be that your friend who posts awesome trip pictures on your choice of social media or a famous actor. The main problem is so obvious it is almost too embarrassing to mention — it’s that you are not them — your circumstances are different. Your circumstances being different means that they can achieve something you can’t because, say, they had a head start on money, or education, or fame; but also presumably their understanding of happiness is vastly different from yours, you have your own body and your own myriad of life experiences. There is, of course, the other aspect of it — good life sells, or gets hearts, or likes — those moments you see, the moments you crave — are cherry-picked, those smiles are narcissistic or half-genuine at best. And those achievements are ethereal. It’s a trip that we go on, put blood and sweat into, get the result and are left wondering: alright, what’s next? This “happiness” you get is a short-lived one — a minute, an hour, a day, and then it’s back to the grind for the next thing. And furthermore, picturing happiness by comparing yourself to a future self: if only I lose 20 pounds — I’d be happy — is a mistake as well. It’s always a perfect vision of you, the you in the future that loses 20 pounds isn’t really connected to today’s you, he or she is diligent with their workout, never overshoots the set number of calories per day, goes to sleep on time, doesn’t get stuck in YouTube rabbit-holes. The problem with this way of thinking is it’s all or nothing, you set yourself to be happy at that finish line and running half the distance doesn’t feel like it counts. So, when you inevitably act like a human being and mess up your workout schedule — it’s so much more tempting to say: screw it; and drop the whole thing.
So, what can be done? As long as happiness is positioned as the goal, it will not do. It should, it absolutely must be part of the process. Alcoholics who decide to quit drinking rebound more frequently if they decide to quit drinking forever; the ones who take it one day at a time: “I’m not going to drink… today” are more successful at it. Don’t aim to be happy in a year, be happy now. Some of the approaches that help with that are to do with stoic methods. Negative visualization is one: imagining your life if it suddenly turned for the worst — you break a limb, lose a loved one, get fired; it can always get worse and there is a variety of things you can imagine. Imagine them. Think about them for a minute and then get back into your life and appreciate it. Dream life visualization is another, just like there are people whose achievements you aspire to, there are people for whom your life is the dream life, no matter how bad you think it is (if you can read, you’re already better off than 24% of the world); spend a few minutes thinking about these people. It’s both good for training appreciation of your current life and building more compassion towards those, who are less fortunate. The idea is to appreciate the now, not crave yesterday or worry about tomorrow, this specific moment that is happening right… NOW is all that matters.
Then there is the happiness of doing. It’s easy to go into autopilot mode when doing things — be it work, hobbies, or anything else. A consumerist society makes a lot of things available in a ready-made state, there is no need to put skill or effort into them. So, what is missing is an emotional, intimate connection with the things one does. The concept is similar to Pirsig’s idea of Quality from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There is a way to exist and do and never resonate with the things you do. An alternative way to live is through a fostered curiosity that reveals the hierarchy, the underlying structure, the thingness of a thing. You can go to a store and buy a bottle of Budweiser or you can get malt, hops, yeast and brew your own beer, ferment it, understand the reason for a specific taste, the way it is carbonized, appreciate the effort that goes into making a beer. It makes the perception of the world richer and demonstrates the structures that you couldn’t see before. I have heard people say that living in a city makes one forget where the meat they eat comes from, that it’s actually pieces of all these real animals. I think, living in a modern city, it is remarkably easy to forget where anything comes from; as long as you have the money it might as well be magic — you press a button, you get a thing, no connection to it, just mindless consumption.
There is a different way to do. A happier, more mindful way to do. There is your ability to dig a thing, and there’s the thing’s digability. How much you can glimpse the nature of it and what capacity for those glimpses it holds. The first part can depend on a few things, one of them being, say, how familiar you are with the subject matter. Your ability to dig Greek poetry in Greek relies on your knowledge of poetry and your knowledge of Greek; your appreciation for art can rely on your understanding of the context of a particular painting, the context of a specific form of art, perhaps the minutia of its technical aspects — all of the above or any of those things on their own. Things that are potentially digable may not be diggable yet if you don’t have the right background knowledge or experience. Conversely, you might know most of what there is to know about that one thing and then it’s irrelevant how diggable it is if you personally have nothing left to dig about it.
I think we are so distracted by consuming one thing after another that the sheer ability to have something happen while you’re there — counts as perceiving it. If a tree falls in a forest, but you’re standing with your back to it, wearing noise-cancelling headphones — did you witness it fall? Sure, why not. The endless stream of auto playing tv-shows, songs, videos — shifted the definition of perceiving something from living it to having it happen in the periphery. There is no connection to any of those things and in the end you’re left with a vague sense of something lacking. A purpose to this consumption, maybe? A meaning? This will not do.
Insight or mindfulness meditation teaches to be aware of the things we do as we do them. To anchor yourself to the breath and sense the feelings in your body, experience the smells, the tastes in your mouth. Our brains are so great at automating things that the older we get — the less attention we need to put into daily tasks. And it is a feature that needs to be overridden if we want to actually experience the life we are living.
One argument can be — life of digging is expensive. Brewing your own beer, making your own soap, repairing your own bike, or whatever else — costs money. Instead of counting money and making estimates about the reader’s income, let me just admit, yes, some are expensive. However, all of the things we do to be happy are changes in our conscious experience. Let’s take travel. Why do people travel? There is a change in scenery, a sense of disconnecting from the hassle of “ordinary” life, the architecture is great, the people are fascinating. But actually travelling to another country shouldn’t be a huge difference from going outside right now and choosing to see everything with fresh eyes — paying attention to minute details of buildings, colors; dropping expectations towards people in your city and their behavior.
Yes, travel is a simpler reboot of a brain than choosing to perceive your town in a new way — there is a transition period. You spend a tangible amount of time getting there — by car, by bus, by train, by plane — it is an understood intermediate limbo after which, it has been agreed, everything will be new. It’s like the New Year — there is an agreed upon period of time where you’re supposed to perform these agreed upon actions (get together with friends, eat food, watch fireworks) for a few hours and going through this limbo leaves you with a guarantee of a new start — it’s the 1st of January now, everything will be shiny and fresh, time for new starts, new resolutions. But there is no reason why it shouldn’t be possible to deal away with these agreed upon transitional periods and just snap into a new experience. Don’t start a diet next week, start it this second; don’t choose a different country to feel free and give people a chance — start doing it out of your bedroom.
Like I said before, when planning for improvement, plan for a now-improvement. For an improvement that happens one day at a time. Not for a in-six-months improvement; not thinking about yourself now and yourself in six months without any in-between. Losing weight or quitting drinking works best if you take it one day at a time. Decide to not drink today. Then wake up tomorrow and resolve to do the same thing. If you plan long-term — you’ll pit yourself against that perfect version of you.
There are also hobbies like learning to play a musical instrument, no need to travel to an exotic country, but finding a good teacher still costs money, only it doesn’t; in a connected world there is a cornucopia of free resources to teach yourself anything. So, the limiting factor, aside from getting the actual instrument, is not money. One of the actual limitations is time. Time — in the sense of — would it be worth spending it on this drudgery if I can do X instead. And that is a decision everyone needs to make for themselves.
The other limitation is motivation.
It’s hard for me to give any advice on motivation; why you’re not motivated to do one thing but do another is you-specific. Maybe you feel strongly about something else. Or maybe you’re lacking motivation because all options seem equally uninteresting or a hassle; getting stuck in a loop of trying to pick a movie to watch, only to find yourself procrastinating for two hours and then going to sleep. If that’s the case — pick anything, pick any old thing and dig deep into it, and keep doing it for a while until this way of digging things becomes a habit. If in a month or two you realize that it’s not making you giddy — drop it, throw it out — without regret, and try another thing.
It might seem that I’m only talking about the dig in relation to hobbies, but really — it can be a dig of anything. Dig your relationships, understand them; dig the points of agreement with people and then, for good measure, dig the points of disagreement. Dig the feelings you experience and dig the absence of feelings. Dig your work — don’t show up to go through the motions and sign off — you’re there five days a week, might as well put effort into it: dig it, connect with it. You might find passion for it or you might discover that you should’ve left years ago. Be easy on yourself and be curious.
I think the convergence of these two happinesses built on a steady platform of non-suffering is the way towards a better quality of existence. Why not try it? The alternative would be to want that thing you want right now, and when in your life has that ever made you happy?
And yes, I understand, digging everything you do — deeply, is unfeasible, there isn’t enough time in the day, but perhaps it is a perfect excuse to separate what really matters from what is unimportant and throw the latter out, unapologetically.
Things that inspired this way of thinking:
- The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal
- The Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism: Tools for Emotional Resilience & Positivity by Matthew J. Van Natta
- Fully Present by Diana Winston and Susan L. Smalley
- The Little Book of Being by Diana Winston
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
- Making Sense Podcast: Creatures of Habit with James Clear