Happiness? What is this elusive feeling we chase like a cat after a laser pointer. We’re nuts about the topic. In a society that has all the material wealth it could possibly need, we come up short. Combine happiness and purpose on the other hand…
We’re bombarded with countless books on the subject. The Dali Lama has seemingly cornered the market. If you haven’t read a book on how to be happier in the last few years, something’s wrong with you…
But please, don’t despair. I’m here to push a theory that might be useful. It’s better (and ultimately healthier) to pursue purpose and struggle instead of happiness. Happiness is a fleeting feeling that comes and goes of its own volition. More poetically than a cat chasing red dots, happiness is the sunny day that emerges from time to time, but isn’t a constant you can count on.
Contentment is perhaps a worthier pursuit than happiness. Less elusive, and longer lasting. If you’re content, you’ve managed to accomplish some things, feel loved, or reached some milestones that have you feeling like you’ve checked all the boxes. But even contentment is fool’s gold. Just when you think you’ve arrived at a “good place”, hedonic adaptation and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs crashes the party.
Happiness and Purpose (and Struggle??)
Early retirement. It’s a given that hanging up the day job way earlier than the norm opens up numerous possibilities. Feeling trapped by the cubicle? I reckon you’ll find some form of activity that keeps you from being stuck in front of a screen. You may choose to be a stay at home parent, or travel extensively to volunteer your talents. The world beyond your backyard is full of needs.
On the other hand, you could easily fall into the trap of pursuing early retirement simply for the sake of escaping a bad situation. But what are you escaping to? One of the cornerstones of this blog’s existence is the exploration of the “what” after early retirement. I’ve written before about avoiding a life of no regrets, and I think that’s my way of building up the confidence and assurance I need, to “hang it up” when the time comes… oh… late next summer?
I’ve seen some evidence emerge from bloggers who’ve managed to quit the daily grind, only to report back that ER ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not everyone is Mr. Money Mustache or Go Curry Cracker I guess. Those two knew exactly what their “D-Day plus one” would be. For the former, it was all about being a stay at home parent while running a few small businesses. For the latter, it was immersion into a new culture overseas and exploring the world.
The article that spawned this post remains permanently bookmarked in my Chrome. I often refer back to it to realign my priorities when I feel like I’m skidding off the tracks. My favorite quote from this article sums up the premise:
“The key to a deeper, healthier life, it seems, isn’t knowing the meaning of life — it’s building meaning into your life.”
Thing is, I’m a seeker. I want to know the meaning of life. Being a planner to the core, and one who’s always envisioning the future, the message in this quote keeps me grounded. And in all honesty, who doesn’t want a deeper, healthier life? Yet our society seems hell-bent on eliminating any semblance of a lifestyle centered on struggle and purpose. Instead, we get 24 hour news, social media trigger happy thumbs, and drone delivery by Amazon. It’s all bullshit.
Finding peace with your day job
It’s an interesting phenomenon. As my tenure grows in my career, I’m finding it easier and easier as time passes to tolerate said bullshit. Out of the gates after college, I didn’t know jack, but I knew I needed a job. Over the course of the next ten to fifteen years I ground myself into a pulp trying to solve the riddles of EQ and self-awareness. And then somehow, some way, the last ten years have led to mastery.
Yes, it’s true. If you stick with something long enough, you tend to figure shit out. Instead of banging your head against the wall in frustration over Dilbert bosses and office politics, you start to learn how to navigate the waters. Stuck on a team with a toxic culture? Get the fuck out of there! Don’t give up the struggle of a day job because you think that toxicity is pervasive.
I’ve come to the point in my career where I can control enough of the variables to make the situation work. It’s honestly borderline tolerable. What’s not to love about having a great boss, good people reporting to you, a strong culture, and a high performing company? Shit. I can even ride my bike to work and shower there with hot water. Compared to life in Yemen, I cannot complain.
Finding peace with your community
It’s still pretty damn surreal, the loss of Anthony Bourdain. Selfishly, I’m torn up about it, and mad that he’s gone. Of course I never met the guy, and it’s not like I had a poster of him on my cube wall. But if there was anyone in the world that I figured had the ultimate job, it was him.
Travel the world. See the world behind the veneer of tourist beaches and all-inclusive (subversive) resorts. Get to know the people and sample their culture. Become aware of the problems inequality and income disparity propagate. All of those warts made easily digestible by the wonderful food and social venues depicted.
Why did he have to go?
I think Bourdain was the ultimate seeker. He was in constant search of his anchor. Retirement? Wouldn’t have it. A restless soul and a tireless worker. Exhaustion, fatigue, a body and mind scarred by past addictions. Depression. Maybe the clues were there all along.
In my quest to figure out what makes people “happy” I’ve come to find the best answer in the Blue Zones studies. Want to know what constitutes a thriving, long-lived and healthy society? I can tell you what they don’t have:
- Social media
- Cable TV and a 24 hour news obsession
- Geographically dispersed extended families
- Cubicle jobs
- Fast food
- Automobile addiction
- Shopping malls
- Travel addiction
Finding your purpose and your struggle in life, I would argue, is an easier search when you eliminate the baloney of those nine things. They are supreme distractions from what really matters. Want to know something about THIS author? He’s still working on 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, and 9. I’ve got a long way to go before I can ascribe to a Blue Zones pattern of living that gives me a fighting chance at thriving.
And to be honest, I’d feel a helluva lot better about this post if I hadn’t included number 8: Travel addiction. I have dreams of getting out and exploring the world. But just like escaping the cubicle is dream that could be misguided, I wonder if travel is simply another form of escape, also misguided.
Some final thoughts on happiness and purpose
I am an optimist. I’ve been depressed, but have never suffered from depression. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have avoided an illness that seems to be ever more present in our lives. Some useful quotes that I will refer to often, as I continue my own personal search, are words that hit the mark quite well from Carol Tavris:
“…As the popularity of television increased in the 1950’s and 60’s, the number of inventors and do-it-yourselfers declined precipitously. This sad phenomenon reflects the paradox of the pursuit of happiness. Given a choice, many people choose narcotic pleasures that dull the mind and quell its restless search for meaning. Yet in so doing, those people give up the very activities that, in their complexity and challenge, offer the promise of real satisfaction.”
“…the way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism but in mindful challenge, not in having unlimited opportunities but in focused possibilities, not in self-absorption but in absorption in the world, not in having it done for you but in doing it yourself. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the unlived life is not worth examining.”
I want to avoid any readers thinking I’m drawing some sort of connection between Anthony Bourdain’s depression and any unintended judgement that he lacked sense of purpose. Oddly, this guy did a TON to build understanding and compassion for under-exposed communities around the world. And he seemingly had fun doing it, despite the incredible exhaustion he experienced to produce “Parts Unknown.” He had a great deal of purpose in his life, and his struggles were mighty. And still, depression knows no bounds.