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. It’s high time we pursue purpose and struggle.
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.
Pursue 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 bullsh*t.
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 bullsh*t. 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 sh*t 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 f**k 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? sh*t. 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 dang 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.
Our National Despair
An article that caught my attention this past week, amidst all of the focus on healthcare in D.C., was about the “Deaths of Despair” among middle-aged white Americans. I have some questions and thoughts about how the Deaths of Despair phenomenon relates to early retirement and the frugal-stoic lifestyle many of us bloggers preach.
Can a life focused on purpose and struggle be the tonic we need?
The startling finding from the study reveals that life expectancy has unexpectedly decreased for white middle-aged Americans, while European whites have experienced increased life expectancy during the same 15 year period studied.
What’s striking is that for the decades since World War II ended, life expectancy increased year after year, and now, we’re seeing a relatively sudden reversal. The cause? The study’s authors, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, are honing in on the lack of steady, well-paying jobs. Many of these jobs, when they existed, were skilled factory or coal-mining jobs supported by unions.
Benefits including healthcare and pensions were typical. The hourly pay rates were relatively high.
These working class families could afford decent homes, cars, and all the trappings of what we might consider “middle class.” This was actually the environment I grew up in, in rust-belt Michigan.
Nowadays, good-paying union work is far less prevalent. Since the early 80s, manufacturers have continued to move production outside of the United States, in order to lower costs and increase profits.
It could be that the strategy to win the Cold War was to outspend our Soviet adversaries on high tech armaments, while maintaining a robust domestic economy. Whatever the strategy or intent, we find ourselves in a situation where the jobs of the past just aren’t there anymore. It’s been almost 75 years since the end of World War II.
Do we still feel owed the spoils of winning that war, or, do we continue to challenge ourselves to compete in new and more complex arenas of the global economy? And can we still do that while not allowing extreme disparities to persist between haves and haves-not?
A Solution from Overseas?
An opposite study of sorts reveals some tantalizing answers. The 2017 study of the “World’s Happiest Countries” puts Norway and Denmark in first and second place, respectively.
The U.S., perhaps feeling the impact of the very real “Despair” phenomenon, comes in at 14. What is so unique about the Scandinavian nations, as compared to the U.S.?
Having visited Norway, I can report that it is a very beautiful country, filled with active and fit people. I reckon if we had pristine surroundings in our backyard, fitness would come easier.
Interestingly, Norway is a very wealthy nation (thanks mainly to its offshore oil production), but you wouldn’t conclude that on the surface, if your yardstick were the presence of gaudy homes and shopping malls.
Norwegians, like the Danes, have established highly egalitarian societies that shun overt displays of wealth. Some go to “university” to learn a high-skilled professional trade.
Others go to “college” to learn a highly useful and equally well-paid trade. It may not be too far of a reach to think that the American white working-class of the 60s and 70s compare closely to modern well-off (and happy) working-class Scandinavians.
The Simple Path to Happiness
The answer might be obvious, even if the solution is far from obvious. Meaningful work that is stable, pays middle-class wages and provides necessary benefits is perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle. Without meaningful and well-paying work, social fabrics and supports can start to come undone. This is the “struggle” part of the equation.
In the U.S., we’re prone to ever increasing disparities in wealth. Social constructs are under assault with drugs, alcoholism, and yes, I’ll say it, an overdose of screen-time on devices taking us further away from developing real, community-level support.
Building on this, once you’ve figured out how to provide meaningful work, benefits, and social supports (e.g., health care, education, police, fire, etc.), what can the individual do to find his or her path towards contentment? Stick with the Danes, and their concept of Hygge…
The early retirement crowd must have a Danish component to its DNA. Hygge (pronounced, “hoo-guh”) is how the Danish describe their contentment in the simple pleasures of life.
An argument is that the Danes have so few worries, with stable jobs, over a month of paid vacation, a year of paid maternity leave, universal healthcare, etc., that it’s easy to live the “simple life” without so many “clouds of worry” hanging over your head.
There’s an affinity there, I think, with the early retirement crowd. We find our contentment in meeting basic needs and nurturing relationships, rather than fulfilling a quixotic quest to amass a large fortune in nonsense (McMansions, jet skis, private school degrees, and BMWs.)
Us early retirement types put a full court press into building safety margins with our investments. We focus our “worries” on helping our kids with their homework and keeping rabbits out of our victory gardens.
Can Big Government and Personal Accountability Coexist?
That all sounds good, right? If only we could copy what the Danes do, we’d be just fine. The problem is, we’re not Denmark. We’re our own amazing, albeit far from perfect nation.
The early retirement crowd might appear to have their sh*t figured out, but they’re (with certainly some exceptions) a very small subset of predominantly college-educated whites. There is real and awful pain going on in too many American communities, White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian alike.
Is the solution to the problem of our despair to institute some new policies? Perhaps, but only if we can agree that good policy is an essential component to solving problems.
There’s a strong bias by some, including those who stand to benefit from programs, against anything considered Big Government. Yet we expect our leaders to provide for us AND solve our problems for us.
Is the right combination a blend of smart policy that doesn’t coddle us, but gets us off our feet and then empowers us to improve? I’d love to get your thoughts on that question. It’s probably a question worth its own blog post, but for someone else to tackle!
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.