How To Find Happiness in 2021
It’s not that they don’t work, new year’s resolutions: There’s a long and, frankly, accredited history that highlights the power of writing down your goals as the way to realize them. I’m not here to bag on setting goals. Setting goals is how I started my business. Setting goals is how I became an author.
The problem with setting goals, though, is the assumption that fulfilling them will bring you happiness.
They won’t. And there’s also a long and, frankly, accredited history that demonstrates how reaching a goal is not the same thing as finding happiness.
If it’s happiness you’re after, here’s what you should do.
First, Look Around You
There’s an old Arabic parable called “Acres of Diamonds” about a wealthy Persian farmer named Ali Hafed. He’s visited one day by Buddhist priests. The priests tell Hafed about diamonds and how much they are worth: If Hafed had a single diamond the size of his thumb he could purchase the county in which he lived. If he had a mine of diamonds, the farmer could buy a mighty kingdom for himself and his descendants.
The wealthy farmer Hafed had never heard of these diamonds. “Where do I find them?” he asked.
“If you will find a river that runs through white sands, between high mountains,” one of the priests said, “in those white sands you will always find diamonds.”
Hafed sold his massive property and used the profit to fund his search for diamonds. He looked through his own country but could not find them, so he continued on to what was then Palestine. Still no diamonds. He moved across Europe, digging everywhere, finding nothing, until he reached the shores of Barcelona, in ragged clothes and without money. He had given his property and life to these diamonds, and he had not unearthed a single shiny one.
Despondent, enraged, he stared at the sea and then swam out into the incoming tide. He allowed himself to be pulled under the foamy crests.
Meanwhile, the man who had purchased Hafed’s farm walked his camel one day to a stream on the property, near banks of white sand. When the camel dipped his nose to the water the successor to Hafed noticed a glint along the beach.
The man moved to the glint, dug around it, and pulled out a diamond. He had heard Hafed’s story about them and the new farm owner began to dig elsewhere along these white sands, near this stream, which happened—yes, when he looked in the distance—to be between two mountains.
Diamonds were everywhere.
The point of the parable is about self-reliance and entrepreneurship. If you dig deep within your own dirt you will find the riches to sustain you.
I think there’s a second lesson to the Acres of Diamond story. If you truly look around you, study that which is close at hand, you’ll find in the familiar a richness of experience and measure of happiness that exceeds the promise of new adventures and unexplored terrain.
This is what Thoreau was getting at on Walden Pond—“The question is not what you look at, but what you see”—and it’s also the summarized finding of a 75-year longitudinal study, which tracked a cadre of Harvard men from graduation until death: It is the relationship with yourself, with your surroundings, with your loved ones, that matter. Your career does, too, to a certain extent, and achieving goals within it enriches your sense of self and often your bank account, but conflating achievement with happiness will only make you unhappy.
“Happiness is love. Full stop,” the study’s chief author, George Vaillant, wrote.
And Love is Spelled T-I-M-E
This is tough for me to accept. I like professional success. I like reached goals. I’m the guy who wrote a magazine feature on his honeymoon, who went back to his job a day after his daughter was born. Even as I type this I’ve got a list of tasks that will see me putting in another 12- to 13-hour day.
I’m not complaining. The long hours help to grow my business.
I want to grow it. That’s the thing. I’m not ignoring the truth that happiness is love and deep fulfillment comes from the quotidian upkeep of common relationships. I just like the dopamine hit of success. That probably cuts closest to my base motivations: I’m addicted to achievement.
I’m not alone. Perhaps my favorite essay from this past year was Arthur C. Brooks’, in The Atlantic. Brooks is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and its Business School. (That’s right: Brooks is so good Harvard hired him to do two jobs.) But even those aren’t his only occupations. He’s also a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the host of a podcast. It’s hard to imagine a more driven, successful man.
In the column, Brooks talks about his success.
As I once found myself confessing to a close friend, “I would prefer to be special than happy.” He asked why. “Anyone can do the things it takes to be happy — going on vacation with family, relaxing with friends … but not everyone can accomplish great things.” My friend scoffed at this, but I started asking other people in my circles and found that I wasn’t unusual. Many of them had made the success addict’s choice of specialness over happiness.
Brooks looked beyond his own circle. He found Olympic athletes who, presented with the hypothetical choice, would take a drug that killed them in five years if it meant Olympic gold now. He found scholars who dedicated their working lives to the lives of workaholics. He found in literature, in The Iliad, characters like Achilles, who would rather die in the Trojan War, ensuring a glorious (read: professional) legacy, than live among loved ones and perish in obscurity. “If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy/my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.”
For a long time Brooks thought the point of life was to make sure your name outlasted it. Do the work that survived your death. What was the whole of civilization if not the legacies of those who came before us?
I would put off ordinary delights of relaxation and time with loved ones until after this project, or that promotion, when finally it would be time to rest.
But, of course, that day never seemed to arrive.
There was no rock bottom for Brooks. No a-ha moment. Just a nagging realization that he would never feel successful as long as success was what he chased. The dopamine hit of every completed project, every impressive promotion, only lasted a day or two. After that, the want returned.
His solution was more work, but work with a different focus: How to seek, and then find, and then not lose the grip of, lasting fulfillment. The essay I loved was part of a series Brooks wrote for The Atlantic, all of them about what truly matters in life: “faith, family, and friendship” as Brooks put it in another column. The podcast he hosts is called The Art of Happiness, which goes even deeper into the study of life’s satisfactions. One of his courses at Harvard Business School is about the same thing, in a sense demanding future titans of industry rush home in time for dinner with the kids.
That’s what’s important. “Relationships and love,” he wrote, “should be at the center of our lives.”
It’s taken years but I understand that, too. My kids are eleven and nine now and even as I launch a new life as an entrepreneur I try my best to focus on them. During the pandemic, during the middle of each school day, I’ve stopped working to play with my twin boys. I literally schedule it in my calendar, a tip I learned from reading a biography of Douglas MacArthur, who during World War II not only brought his young son Arthur with him to the command post in Australia but slotted in time each afternoon to take the boy to the zoo, or for a stroll in the park.
“You have to find the moments between the moments,” Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll once said. If Carroll can’t get home for dinner, he asks his wife to join him at the practice facility. He orders in. They talk for hours. Carroll and his wife have been married for over 40 years.
That’s the sort of life I want: to fulfill one’s ambition but be wary of it, to know ambition isn’t the point. Next year, when people everywhere are vaccinated, I plan to research my upcoming book in certain archives and museums of the Deep South. Unlike my last book, I want my wife and three kids to join me on the trips. We’ll eat breakfast and dinner together every day. We’ll go sightseeing over the noon hour. If my 11-year-old is up to it—a girl as infatuated with words and books as I am—she can help me dig through musty old records in the backs of libraries. I would love that.
Or, better yet, I can put down my research for a few hours to swim in the hotel pool with her. Or watch a movie on a theatre’s big screen. She would love that.
That’s the sort of resolution I want to keep next year. I can sum it up as a mantra. It’s one I think about a lot, which the best-selling author Ryan Holiday first heard from a French journalist who came to interview him.
“Love is spelled T-I-M-E.”
Remember that as we close out this year, or any other.
New to my writing? I’m a best-selling author who’s written for The New Yorker, GQ, New York, and ESPN. MY first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I’m now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.