How to find happiness (everything I know so far)

Originally published in The Startup.

Someone asked me this in a recent email:

What is your purpose, why are you living, for what purpose are you doing everything that you do? Do you feel you have structure or feel like you just happen to exist and you try to make the most out of it? Do you have a grand objective in life from a macro point of view?

1)I am very lucky that people I don’t know take the time out of their day to email me thought-provoking questions and 2) this post in an answer of sorts, stitched together from yet more notes I’ve written myself lately.

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Whenever someone asks me about my goals in life (which seems to be a fashionable question), I’m almost embarrassed to say the truth.

Sometimes I try to make some grand statement of intent. Sometimes I flippantly say I want to fuck off up a mountain and live on a goat farm.

The truth sounds wishy-washy, childish, redolent of that fabricated John Lennon quote: my goal is happiness.

That’s my grand objective. That’s the metric I use to calibrate decisions. That’s the pursuit that motivates me.

When we talk about goals, we so often talk about achievements and milestones: making more money, buying a house or car, being in a relationship, having kids and pets, winning awards and other career milestones, running a marathon, publishing a book, whatever.

But if we try to dig deep into why we want those things, the inevitable answer is that we expect them to make us happy. Except, we all to often pursue them as an end in themselves and miss the point.

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It sounds selfish, childish, even delusional to say that happiness is your goal in life. Or to use it as justification for your decisions.

The phrase ‘I hope you’re happy’ is more often sarcastic than sincere, used to rub someone’s nose in something we feel they don’t deserve, to express contempt for their emotions.

The assumption is that if we all pursued happiness all the time, we’d end up unhealthy, deeply in-debt, alienated from everyone, unemployed and unemployable, perpetual adolescents caught on a treadmill of partying, drinking and indulgence. As if committing to happiness, right now, would mean quitting your job, draining your bank account, eschewing your responsibilities, and lapsing into uncontrolled hedonism.

But this is such a backwards view, conflating happiness with pleasure, contentment with excess, joy with change, self-love with immaturity. Pursuing happiness is not:

  • Selfish: being happy makes the people around you happier, and making the people around you happy also makes you happier.

  • Unhealthy: not looking after your health doesn’t make anyone happy. Being healthy makes you happier and being happy makes you healthier.

  • Lazy: doing nothing productive is, again, fine some of the time. But doing things that you consider productive makes you happier, and being happy makes you more productive.

  • Complicated or expensive: it’s not the big grand gestures that make us happy. In fact, simplicity and keeping our standards low is a solid route to happiness.

  • Childish: taking control of your emotions and learning to recognise and manage them is an act of maturity. It helps us become adults, and becoming adults helps us achieve it.

To quote Paul Dolan in Happiness By Design:

'…those who experience better emotions live longer, are in better health, recover from viruses more quickly, take less time off work, are more successful in their careers, are generally more productive, and have happier marriages

…Good emotions also foster original thinking and improve our ability to resolve conflicts…those of us who are seen to be in a better mood are thought of as more attractive, which means getting better grades at school and more money at work.

…Engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities promotes better health, social integration, and daily functioning…Happiness really does matter, however you look at it.

…happiness causes a range of other good outcomes and that it’s also contagious. The pursuit of happiness is therefore a noble and very serious objective for us all.'

***

Recently, someone asked me what I enjoyed about a shared experience and how I felt about it, and I responded: ‘It made me happy.’ They said that wasn’t very specific or a meaningful assessment.

As soon as I said it, I felt mildly guilty because that phrase implied my happiness in that situation was the most important thing, disregarding their experience. And sure, I could have unpicked the various reasons why it made me happy. I could have said I hoped they were happy too. Yet I didn’t, because that seemed the only answer to the question.

Here’s the thing: you are allowed to prioritise happiness.

You are allowed to make happiness your main goal in life. You are allowed to put your own happiness first and to let that inform your decisions. You are allowed to make every effort to avoid things that make you unhappy or just neutral. You are allowed to pursue happiness like a dog pursues a rabbit: crazed, focused, intent.

From Happiness By Design:

‘Everything except happiness requires some justification or other; it is just obvious that happiness matters.’

You know this. I know this. I’m not saying this from some false point of authority, as if I’m some philosophical genius who has the right to tell other people what to do or to give them permission for anything.

You don’t need permission: not from random people on the internet, not from your family, friends, partners, employers, whoever. You only need permission from yourself and you have the power to give yourself that permission anytime.

There’s a line in a really old Bright Eyes song: ‘you will be happy the minute you try / but you don’t try, no you don’t try.’ It’s not that simple, but it’s also a truer statement than I think many of us would like to believe. To be happy, we do need to be willing to try. Paul Dolan:

'The production process for happiness is therefore how you allocate your attention. The inputs into your happiness are the plethora of stimuli vying for your attention. These are converted to happiness by the attention you pay to them.'

***

When I was depressed, I saw happiness as a nebulous goal. I figured once I Got To Happy, everything else would fall into place. It’s easy for happy people to socialise, to date, to do fun things, to work, to take care of themselves, right?

Eventually, by some combination of lucky circumstances, I fell into a place in my life where I was truly happy. But then it all crumbled. I made a series of life choices that, while valid individually, added up to a situation where it was essentially impossible for me to be anything other than miserable.

I backtracked because I hadn’t really learned anything in the first place or developed any semblance of emotional intelligence.

People told me that one day I would magically wake up and Be Happy. They didn’t mention that I’d need to claw my way there first.

Of course, that’s a totally backwards view. Ironically, most of the things I assumed would happen once I was happy, are in fact preconditions for being happy in the first place. Or at the very least, they play a substantial role in it. This circular logic is both reassuring and infuriating.

I hate writing about this stuff, in a way. It’s tedious and professionally problematic but I do it because these days I take responsibility for it, choose my own labels, and accept the baggage of admission. It is what it is, and for the most part, I’ve found solutions for 95% of it.

Writing about it lets me reclaim the narrative and try to reshape the identity I lost during that time. From an entirely selfish standpoint, I write about it so often because writing is a means of self-reflection, which makes it easier to understand the whys and whats and hows.

The other mistake I made was believing that it’s possible to just be a Happy Person. While some people, by virtue of genetics and upbringing and luck and environment and a million other factors beyond their conscious control, find it easier to be happy and recover faster from setbacks, no one can just BE a happy person. Our moods fluctuate. All the time.

Let’s face it: if you could take a pill that would ensure you were always blissfully happy 24 hours a day for the rest of your life, would you? Most of us probably wouldn’t, just like we wouldn’t plug ourselves into the experience machine.

We need a balance of emotionsNegative emotions are what motivate us to take action and ironically, what ends up making us happier. So any time I wasn’t happy, I saw it as a failure of sorts, a diversion from my path of Getting To Happy — rather than simply another part of that process.

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With all that said, if I try to break it down, I can subdivide my personal idea of happiness into four parts: acceptance, openness, growth, connection.

Acceptance:

of yourself, of your flaws, of the things that will fade, of your fears and desires, of the things that scare you about yourself, of human nature, of the fundamental nature of the world, of the good and the bad, of the way things work and not how we’d like them to work, of your limitations, of realism, of reality, of death, of confusion.

The more I learn about life, the more I discover that many things come down to acceptance. We simply can’t be happy if we can’t accept ourselves, or other people, or the way things work. There are things in all of our lives, in our pasts and our present and perhaps our future, that make it very difficult to be happy. There are things that we wish we didn’t have to live through or wish we hadn’t had to live through.

To quote yet another Conor Oberst song (yes, I know): ‘most anything can be forgiven / with what is left we have to live.’ We have to live with these things, whatever they are. We can fight against that but it doesn’t really matter because only by accepting the bad and the good can we ever feel truly content.

(Paul Dolan again: ‘Effective behavior change can only really come about after you accept what you already do.’)

Openness:

to new experiences, to changing your mind, to letting people in, to choosing a different path, to exploring new options, to the unexpected, to randomness and serendipity, to being in the moment, to killing your darlings, to appreciating everything, to enjoying what you enjoy.

I define openness in part as the willingness to be wrong. To be surprised. To have our worldview shaken up by other people.

We need this. If we’re not open, we can’t progress beyond whatever tiny square we’re in right now, at this moment. Openness lets us discover. It lets us follow our curiosity. It lets us experiment and trial and test things out.

Growth:

aiming to never stop changing, keeping on learning, to keep changing your mind, to motion and movement, to maturing and growing up, to accept ageing as a process not a crime or a death sentence, to letting relationships change, to moving as the world does, constantly seeking mastery of a craft, believing in the process, starting again when it’s time.

As a small child, I remember asking my wonderful and endlessly patient grandfather why people had to be born as babies: why couldn’t they just come out as fully formed adults?

Instead of rolling his eyes and pointing out the biological impossibility of that, he told me that we grow so we can adapt to our surroundings. Like a tree grows so it reaches towards the light, so it grows around the trees nearby, so it fits into its environment.

And that’s what growth is: the process of fitting into whatever is new and changed around us. We need to grow and keep changing and finding new goals to pursue and discovering that we’re wrong.

Connection:

to yourself, to your body, to your emotions, to your gut feelings and intuition, to other people and their emotions and words, to your surroundings, to art (books, music, films, visual arts etc), to history and geography, to your past and future, to the present moment, to your personal idea of spirituality, to your dreams, to the universe in general.

When we are disconnected, we’re not really part of the world. We’re alienated from ourselves. Listening to your gut feeling and intuition for example, is something many of us either never learn how to do or are forced to forget.

We spend our lives forcing ourselves into boxes that don’t fit us, brute forcing our way through emotions, trying to find a place in the world by separating ourselves from our true nature.

To a degree, we need to do that. But we also need to feel like we belong. Like we know what we’re feeling and we can act accordingly.

When I wrote this post about procrastination, I didn’t expect it to resonate with so many people. But as I’ve read the emails and responses and messages that followed, I’ve realised it’s not about procrastination: it’s about connection. In that post, I urged people to recognise procrastination as a sign of a misalignment between what they’re doing and what they really want and need. A sign of disconnection.

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Of course, this isn’t really a ‘how to’ at all. It’s a reflection on everything I know about happiness so far, and some of the concepts that helped me get to where I am now: a better place than before. Enough of the time.