I’m not a happy person. Not naturally, at least.
I’ve suffered from depression for most of my life. I’ve gone to therapy, I’ve had interventions, I’ve had careers and lifestyles crash and burn because my head wasn’t in it. I’ve had a really good life, but believe me when I say that I’ve not always been in a really good place.
I’ve heard from a lot of people that, when you’re depressed, the most important thing you can do is pursue the things that bring you happiness. Feeling good about yourself is an opt-in process, not an opt-out — you need to work in order to make it happen.
To some degree, they’re right. I’m not wired to just feel happy, which means I need to put conscious effort into doing the things that bring me joy. Even when it costs money, making sure you’re happy has value.
And when I really look at it, I feel happy a lot. I’m doing work that I love, alongside a person that I love, and I’m able to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. But when I look at what it is that I do in order to reach this sense of happiness, I see something important:
I don’t pursue happiness. Happiness is only a side-effect.
Happiness is Internal
If you could buy it, you couldn't afford it
No matter what you’re born into, whether you resent it is up to you. I’ve met people who’ve had nothing but their shirt and their smile, and others who had more money than they had needs — and where they were in life didn’t dictate how happy they were.
What’s more, the people I’ve met who were explicitly dedicated to happiness were often less happy than the people working towards security, stability, or some kind of change in the world. Happiness is such an ephemeral thing, that chasing it is often what keeps it from us.
We all know someone who resents their life. Someone who is fundamentally unhappy, who blames every single thing that isn’t within their power to change for why they can’t be happy. AS they see it, It isn’t their fault they’re unhappy — it’s their parent’s, their community’s, their country’s problem. Never mind the fact that they’re so full of anger or sadness or fear that they can’t even enjoy the present moment; to them, everything’s external.
Happiness is internal. Real, lasting happiness doesn’t come from things, it’s a product of what you do and what you value. It requires mindfulness and humility and healthy habits, and the mental clarity to understand the context you live in, and until you pursue those things, it’s as unobtainable as a mars vacation.
In order be in the state of mind where happiness is easily reachable, I pursue satisfaction. I invest myself in my daily practices and my mental health because it makes me feel complete. By living a life built around self-honesty, and allowing myself to experience my emotions without denying them, happiness becomes accessible.
If I only chased happiness, without knowing what it takes to find it, I wouldn’t find it. But by finding satisfaction, happiness is a natural extension.
Improve Every Moment, Not Just Future Ones
No matter where you are, you're there. Make the most of it
If you want to improve your life, you need to improve the life you’re living, not the one you wish you had. Positive daily practices aren’t always fun — they’re not as rewarding as the short-lived happiness that people get from material things — but they’re enriching. They lead to an understanding of what we feel and why we feel it, because they let us strip away the distractions that keep us from perceiving our true emotions.
I want you to try something right now. We get so caught up in the language that surrounds happiness that we don’t really think about what we’re saying. I’ve already told you that I pursue mindfulness and humility and healthy habits in order to feel satisfied, but that language doesn’t encapsulate everything I want to say.
So let’s try this wording instead: Pursue completeness, not happiness.
Do things make you complete? Why would they?
Does money make you complete? Why would it?
Does fame, status, or attention make you complete? How could it?
Could anything external to yourself make you feel more complete than you are right now? Why?
What does make you feel more complete?
Personally, the way I have found to feel more complete is to invest in my daily practice. I’m a creature of habit, with the unfortunate tendency to forget that fact. If I find myself feeling dissatisfied, uncomfortable, or incomplete, the answer typically lies in how I take care of myself every day. It’s not my job, my finances, or my ‘place in the world,’ that causes that sense of incompleteness, it’s my synchronicity (or lack thereof) with my physical and mental needs.
There’s no way to be entirely complete. We’re creatures in motion, not art. But I do find completeness in practicing mindfulness and strength, testing and challenging myself, and waking up every day with a goal in mind and going to bed each night tired and satisfied. It’s a sense of purpose that doesn’t feel imposed, it’s a direction without end-point goals.
It’s stressful and challenging and hard work, and, as a byproduct, it makes me happy.
Ditch The Vacation Mindset
You can't get away from you.
When I was in college, I spent a month overseas at the tail end of my sophomore year. My freshman year hadn’t gone well, and the first half of my sophomore year had been even worse. I didn’t have a handle on my emotions. I was depressed, socially isolated, and questioning my life goals.I hid inside of my work, and after a spring semester with 20 credits and two part-time jobs, I was burnt out. Naturally, I figured that the only way to unwind was to take the time to ‘find myself’ and grow.
So I went to China.
I spent the majority of my time in Beijing, and the last part of the trip in Shanghai. I took classes, learned some Mandarin, visited tons of museums and zoos, but when you get right down to it, I spent the bulk of my time going to clubs and shopping malls.
I lived in a hotel that had been converted into an international dormitory at the Beijing University of Technology. I was surrounded by english-speakers from four continents, and a guy from Wisconsin who really liked soccer. We hosted parties and cookouts, ran wild at night, and met hundreds of people. We even hosted an international drinking game exchange and taught a group of Korean students how to play beer pong.
Something I quickly learned, though, was that it’s hard to make friends when you don’t like yourself. I was the poorest person in the group, and the only one who hadn’t traveled abroad before. I’d had little experience with clubs, drinking, or urban life, and I was in one of the largest cities in the world wondering why I still felt alone. While everyone else was having fun, I was pinching pennies and taking pictures and not making friends.
Despite the fact that I took classes there, it felt like I wasn’t there to do anything; I was just there to listen to lectures and visit museums. Now don’t get me wrong, it was great; I was able to explore, learn about a new culture and myself, and do things I’d never been able to do in little old Sault Ste. Marie. The experience forced me to get out of my shell, but a month in China did little to improve perspective or my mood. I was still lonely, depressed, and stressed out.
I learned a lot, but the trip didn’t make me feel complete. It was a great experience, but I still remember the week I got home, sleeping in an empty room on an old air mattress, trying to stretch the last $500 I had in my bank account while I waited for my job to start, wondering why I didn’t feel any different. I put all of my money into the trip, only to find out that my incompleteness was internal, not external. It wasn’t until I flipped the script and looked at myself, that I started to understand what I wanted out of life.
Life Gets In The Way
I don’t have time for mindfulness — that's why I need it.
There are a lot of things I do every day that don’t make me feel complete. Paying the bills and washing the dishes and being vaguely adult-like aren’t the most stimulating of things. I take on contracts because of the money instead of the cause, and most of my energy goes towards stability instead of enrichment. I’d love to support myself on books and articles and speeches, but right now I can’t.
I’ve written a lot about how important mindfulness is, but, just like everyone else, I can’t always afford to explore.
Life gets in the way. It’s normal. It happens to everyone.
Being able to afford endless trips, amazing houses, or vaguely fresh coffee beans sounds like a great way to enrich your life — on both ends of the spectrum. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to both explore ourselves and apply ourselves if we didn’t have to worry about student loans or shitty jobs?
It doesn’t matter whether or not your life is in the way, completeness is opt-in, not opt-out. I was unhappy in the midst of the biggest trip of my life. I’m happier now in the middle of Wisconsin than I was climbing the Great Wall. I had to make the choice; only then was happiness in reach.
Few people have both the fiscal and the physical freedom to explore themselves without life getting in their way, and the people who are financially able to are only minorly more successful at it than the rest. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The fact that someone else can succeed shouldn’t stop you from trying.
The cynic may still say that happiness is the external result of wealth and opportunity. But that answer isn’t one that motivates. It’s a reluctant concession to statistics that ultimately undercuts one’s ability to change how satisfied or complete they feel through mindfulness and self improvement.
When you get right down to it, life isn’t logical. If it was, it’d be nothing like it is. It takes effort and motivation and discipline that runs smack in the face of logic and probability in order to produce change, both internally and externally. Think back to the questions you answered about completeness. Did any of your answers depend on how much money you had?
So what if it’s more probable for someone wealthier or healthier than you to make a difference — if you let that keep you from pursuing completeness you’re voluntarily stranding yourself on the wrong side of the bell curve without even asking what would make you feel satisfied or complete.
There are limits to the rational mind.
If you’ve never read the book Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz, pick it up some time. It’s a quick read, and in it Schulz takes a fascinating look at how consistently wrong we are about what we perceive and believe. It’s a book that I mention here because understanding the errors we make in our daily lives can offer a deep insight into the idea of living a ‘logical’ life, or one that’s lived in accordance to statistics and trends instead of motivations and values.
It is my personal belief that consciousness arises from the gap between our biological ability to perceive, and our mental ability to interpret. Our behaviors, our quirks, our twitches and habits and unique identifying traits aren’t just the product of diverse biology; they’re also formed by our typically-incorrect interpretations of what’s going on around us. We develop aversions and preferences, opinions and ideas, based as much on error as on fact. Our diversity as a species isn’t just a result of the diversity of our experiences — it’s also a result of us interpreting the same things in so many different ways.
So as I see it, you have two options: you can take the Utilitarian route and pursue happiness in such volume and frequency that you experience only mild discomfort in your life, or you can accept the paradox that exists between wherever you are and wherever you want to be, and try to find completeness through mindfulness and daily practice. You can say that you’re not in a financial position to pursue completeness and set that goal aside, or you can work on it whenever you’re able. It’s up to you.
No one is wholly rational about their life. Life doesn’t have a universal or inherent meaning — it only has the meaning that you create in the course of living it. That meaning might not make sense, that meaning might involve hard work and long hours, but as I’ve said time and time again, life doesn’t have to make sense. As long as it’s satisfying, you’re doing the right thing.
That’s why I say that I don’t pursue happiness. Happiness, the way most people look at it, doesn’t encapsulate the many goals and plans and dreams that I have. Success is great, financial stability is great, but I have my eyes set on something different. I want to do things that connect to how I conceive of my selfhood. I want to do work that stimulates me, that challenges me, that lets me feel like I’m using my talents to the fullest. And I’m willing to sweat in order to make that happen.
As illogical as it may be, I’m looking to do work that completes me. Not because I feel incomplete, but because working and improving myself are two things fundamental to my understanding of who I am. I’m searching for completeness, because my own answers to the questions I asked in this article don’t involve making tons of money.
I’m not looking for The Answer, because there isn’t one. Instead, I’m looking for the answers that apply to a hundred different situations, a hundred different illogical lives. Jana and I are doing our thing, billions of other people are doing theirs, and somewhere in the middle lies a narrative that we can all learn from.
Life rarely makes sense. But why should it?