Thoughts On Happiness

Skagit County Tulip festival, 2017

Everywhere I look today, it seems that someone is talking about how to achieve happiness. Whether it’s on television, on any number of blogs, and especially on websites like Medium, authors are hitting a nerve with audiences who are obsessed with finding happiness but for some reason can’t achieve it in their lives.

Unhappiness is a huge business. One in six Americans is on antidepressants. Therapists are now available via app, just in case you need them at any time. And if the number of self-help books about happiness is any indication of the gravity of the situation, unhappiness appears to be an epidemic health crisis.

Since I have been personally affected by bouts of depression and long periods of unhappiness, mostly due to difficulty in properly coping with a chronic illness, I got to thinking about the idea of happiness and how we approach the achievement of happiness in today society. Of course, happiness means different things to different people, but the general consensus among the happiness “experts” is that happiness is a state of being in which you are satisfied with your life. If for some reason you are not satisfied, something must be wrong and you need to take some action in order to bring about satisfaction.

I’ve read all of the suggestions; Make a list of your thoughts or keep a journal, take anti-depressants until you can be happy on your own, see a therapist regularly, travel the world, follow your passions, volunteer your time, work less, work more, and everything in between. As someone who has tried all of these methods for achieving happiness, I can safely say that none of them work for achieving long term happiness, and none is even a guarantee for temporarily increasing life satisfaction.

I don’t believe there is holy grail for achieving happiness, at least I certainly haven’t found it. If it existed, we would all know about it and the self-help industry would implode. In a way, those who peddle solutions to the problem benefit from our unhappiness. If we were all happy, there would be a lot of unhappy authors. It’s obvious that there are no easy roads to happiness, but there are things we can do to lead us in the right direction.

The first thing to do may seem obvious: ask yourself why you’re unhappy. From my own experience, and I’m sure many will relate, unhappiness comes from wanting. As humans, we have unlimited wants but limited resources. “I want to be a doctor, but I’m not smart enough.” “I want that luxury car but I don’t have enough money.” “I want to be a top pinball player, but I’m not good enough.” We trick ourselves into believing, “if only this happened, I could be happy.” It’s what author Mark Manson calls The Disease of More.

Over time we become so obsessed with the idea of “if only…” that we don’t recognize or appreciate what we already have. The problem is, nothing is ever enough for us. Most of us want to be good or great at something, but most of people will never achieve what society labels as greatness. If we define being great as being in the top 5% in our profession (by whatever standards your profession is judged by — hours billed, points earned, etc.), then by that very definition there must be a bottom 95%. There is limited space at the summit.

When we work to minimize the “if only…” mentality, we bring ourselves closer to happiness. This involves living in the present and lessening our focus on the idea of ourselves at the summit. This doesn’t mean you should give up or surrender all ambition. Instead, you should focus on what you already have and appreciate the journey, rather than thinking primarily about the future and how happy you could be, “if only…” Find happiness in doing, not just in being.

Happiness experts might say “do what you love,” but I would add “love what you do.” If everyone chose a career they knew they would love, there would likely not be any water heater repairers or janitors. A lot goes into career choice — opportunity, skill level, expected salary — so if you can’t do what you love, then love what you do. Find satisfaction that your clients will have hot water, or that you are helping prevent the spread of disease. All work for which you can earn money has a value to society. If you do what you love or love what you do, you’re more likely to be happy. You must love the process — the day to day — not just the end result of all your hard work. This is why you should never do something just “for the money” if you want to be happy. Being in love with the process comes from being true to yourself.

When I was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, I looked for ways to maintain my pre-diagnosis self-esteem and level of happiness. I was a well-established educator and entrepreneur with several successes under my belt. In my desperation to remain relevant, I tried everything from going back to school to running for office. Nothing made me happy, mainly because the process of reaching the summit in those activities — taking classes for three years and convincing voters to vote for me and donate to my campaign, respectively — made me unhappy. I was thinking of the summit, but I hated the process and was miserable, not to mention the unnecessary strain I was putting on my body. I couldn’t love what I was doing because I wasn’t being true to myself. I love people, but most days I’m happier working at home with cats on my lap than working on big projects with lots of different stakeholders. My priority was having an MBA degree or being elected to the legislature, and I ignored the fact that the day-to-day work to achieve those things was incompatible with my personality, interests, and values.

I eventually left school and quit politics and decided to turn to activities in which I could be true to myself. I had always loved technology and helping others, so I founded a software company to help people with Parkinson’s cope with their illness. My apps could succeed financially or they could fail miserably, but I was excited to wake up each morning to hear from customers and write code. Solving glitches, finding bugs, and adding useful features is kinda my jam. This was also around the time I picked up pinball, after a 25-year hiatus. My hope is to become a top-1,000 player, but even if that never happens, I have never had more fun in my life than playing in weekly tournaments with great people.

Since I’m focusing on being happy today and not in the future, I’m more likely to choose activities that will result in a happy present, like taking a walk or going out to dinner with my wife instead of going to class after a long day, or hosting a board game night with friends rather than attending a tense political meeting. I feel that each day is a positive step on my journey because I’m doing things for the right reasons — because they are inherent to who I am and will enrich my present, and not because they score well on some societal benchmark.

Finally, it’s important to illustrate explicitly something which I have only alluded to thus far. Happiness is a choice. You can choose to appreciate the good in your life, or you can focus on and be influenced by the bad. Bad things happen all the time — we get diagnosed with illnesses, we get into car accidents, people annoy us, loved ones pass away — but there is happiness to be had in the process of living.

I don’t have a book to sell you. I’m spending too much time coding, playing pinball, and spending time with my wife and friends, to write yet another self help book. Not to mention, I’m no happiness expert— I only speak from my own experiences. I offer you this article as a starting point for your own journey. The only advice I can offer you is, do what you love, love what you do, be true to yourself, and when given the choice, choose happiness. I’ll try to do the same.