Why Hope Is Killing Your Chance Of Happiness
The best thing that happened to me when I turned 30 was that I gave up hope.
Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man. — Friedrich Nietzsche
When we’re younger we have all kinds of hopes and dreams for our future ‘grown-up’ lives. There are two ways these can work out — they either happen or they don’t. Even if we manage unlikely goals, such as attaining great wealth or fame doing something we love (socially useful or otherwise), we will always hope for more. More money, more success, more acclaim.
Even fairly humble hopes and dreams can leave us feeling disappointed. Many people have great hope they will one day be married happily ever after. This often means an endless search for Mr or Mrs Perfect, followed by purchase of a house, to be filled with a pet and possibly children.
Yet ‘hoping’ for such things often leads to frustration and anxiety. What happens when Mr or Mrs Perfect turns out to be imperfect, as all humans inevitably are? Do we ditch them and continue on with our search to find The One who fits best into our lives? What if the pet cat becomes ill and dies after a mere six months? What if we meet Mr or Mrs Perfect and have everything in place for Project Perfect Life, only for it to crumble in the face of redundancy, infertility, a debilitating long-term illness? What then? Do we continue chasing our dream of perfection, or face reality with courage and attempt to create something positive from what may look like a dire situation?
Outside of politics, being ‘good at life’ means having the courage to turn away from what society deems best for you. This is not easy. It means ignoring the constant well meaning pressures applied by family and friends and the less well meaning pressure from advertising executives and social norms. It may also involve loneliness and isolation as those around you dismiss the unconventional way you choose to live your life.
The ability to live a simple, humble life without constantly hoping for more is difficult in an age when we’re told we can, nay, should have it all. The fulfilling work, the dream holiday, the beautiful house, the bright kids, the partner who is both a sex god and loves to clean the toilets.
In the face of economic constraints, more and more people are forced to accept the fact they will likely never be able to own a house, have a child or find decent work. Yet the vast bulk of people are yet to psychologically catch up with the changed economic reality. Most people still hope to attain the world at the expense of enjoying what it is they have right now.
The Existential Angst of the Late Twenty-Something
My late twenties were marked by creeping twin existential anxieties in the lead up to my thirtieth birthday.
The first was the slow dawning that my youth was, for all intents and purposes, in the rear-view mirror of life. As I turned to face the oncoming road I could see my own approaching mortality on the horizon. The second was continued confusion regarding what exactly I should be doing with my life. This was exacerbated by being with a partner at the time who was very clear about what she wanted (steady job, marriage, kids).
I realised I was no longer able to calm anxieties about these twin worries by telling myself that, as long as I wasn’t in X situation, or had managed to achieve Y by the time I was thirty, everything would be OK.
Then I woke up thirty, still pretty lost, still pretty scared and not having accomplished certain things I’d hoped to have achieved since leaving university. Yet I was less lost and less scared than before. A I surveyed the lives of some of the people I’d been to school and university with, deemed socially ‘successful’, many of their ‘achievements’ appeared un-enticing.
My path has been constantly changing, which has at times been tiring, but has also afforded me a certain degree of freedom in life. Such freedom has been given up by many people I’ve met, who have one way or another hemmed themselves in by following their hopes and dreams to their natural conclusions.
If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere. — Frank A. Clark
I was lucky that throughout my crisis of confidence I was able draw strength and courage from an inspirational woman — my mother.
My mum is like a boxer who, no matter how many times they take what looks like a knock-out hit, keeps pulling themselves back up from the mat.
My mum has been through more than her fair share of shit in life; dealing with her unpleasant father from a young age. Losing her mum on the birth of her first-born child at the same time her husband was philandering. Doing all sorts of crap jobs, including days spent in a hot tent scraping blood off metal trays in order to to earn enough to feed her kids. Stuck on a boat on the Nile suffering from dysentery, whilst her husband was who knows where, doing who knows what. Being financially shafted during her divorce whilst suffering major depression. Having to deal with difficult, long-term medical issues. Helping deal with an avalanche of shit dumped on her by her eldest son (that’s me, dear reader). Requiring the confidence and tenacity to embark on a new life and career during middle-age.
My mum’s tenacity in the face of all this adversity brings to mind one of my favourite Albert Camus quotes;
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.” — Albert Camus
I believe my mum didn’t always get through difficult times by clinging onto hope of some fantastical, bright future. I believe she fought on because that’s just what she had to do — survive, both for her own sake and that of her children.
I mention my mum’s history because she’s the perfect example of what life isn’t — a unilinear and unidirectional journey toward some place of ‘perfection’ (whether it be 2.4 children, a big house, perfect career and so on). Everything you hope for and in many cases, achieve can be snatched away in an instant — your marriage, your home, your job, your health.
If you hope for a perfect marriage and believe there is such a thing, you’re facing the prospect of emotional destruction if and when your partner fails you, or even just themselves. If you hope for a great career and attain it, you’ll constantly fear losing it. Emotional ruin is a distinct possibility if, on making your career a part of what constitutes you, said job is lost.
The above should not be read as a counsel of despair, proposing the reader take up a nihilistic view of life, quite the contrary. I’ve shared my mum’s negative experiences because she is living proof of how life isn’t a single journey, it’s multiple journeys, with many lay-offs in strange and difficult places along the way. I hinted above that my mum reinvented herself (whilst retaining the self-knowledge and experience she gained throughout her previous ‘lives’) at middle-age. Having taken up Yoga in her thirties, she trained to become a teacher and is now one of the most respected practitioners in her part of the country, enjoying fierce loyalty on the part of her students. Her difficult past continues to effect her emotional life, but she is a living, breathing testament to not giving up, whether or not there is hope for a better future ahead.
I’m not using the phrase ‘not giving up’ in the sterile, ‘Just Do It’, corporate sense — I mean not giving up, even though you are aware of the fact that life is ‘hopeless’ if you expect to somehow reach a place of stable, unending peace and happiness. Even if a single soul enjoyed the good fortune required to attain such a thing, it would be marred by the shadow of ones’ inevitable mortality.
There is no such thing as happily ever after.
I’m also arguing in favour of acceptance in some spheres of life. From my own experience of mental health problems, I experienced a vast improvement when I stopped hoping to be free of anxiety and depression forever and accepted them as being a core part of my being. Instead of feeling ashamed of, or denying myself, I began to actively share my issues and where I could, make light of them. I know this helped lift the weight of my suffering and perhaps in some small way helped those around me who face similar battles. In this case, embracing ‘hopelessness’ meant I could stop struggling against my nature and enjoy what I could of life.
After making it over the ‘hump’ of my thirtieth birthday, I began to accept the reality which dawned upon me —life will go about doing its own thing, no matter what I may be aiming for. The best I can do is to carve out a nice for myself in which I can enjoy the good life brings, best face the inevitable suffering and attempt to preserve a measure of flexibility (both mental and material). Yet I go forth in knowledge that anything I achieve is a built on sand, everything I experience disappears with fading memory, everyone I know and love will one day be nothing more than dust. All I have is this second, let alone this day. This both terrifies and frees me.
Stop hoping and start being.