You’re Doing It Wrong: Happiness
Ah, the pursuit if happiness, an American institution so beloved it’s scribbled on a little piece of our country’s history we call the Declaration of Independence. Surely a man from Philadelphia, the very town in which that historic document was signed, would never dare to criticize such a hallowed phrase!
Of course I would, because this is the Internet and I have the power to force on the public my self-important opinions. I’m going to wield that power like crazy right now, because this one’s a doozy: happiness is a lie, and contentment is overrated.
I mean, there’s more nuance to it than that, but again, this is the Internet so I’d better say something controversial to get you to keep reading. Don’t worry, true to my form there’s actually an optimistic message in the end. But first I must go about shattering a few "truths," starting with this: the pursuit of happiness is a load of crap and it’s not at all what we should be putting our energy into.
Happiness Is a Lie! A Lie, I Tell You!
Look, happiness is a real thing that exists. It’s also a very good thing. There’s no doubt that happiness is important and if you’re regularly struggling to achieve it, it's worth trying to find the root cause of the problem. But many people’s perception of happiness, the Declaration of Independence version of it, is skewed. Happiness isn’t a pursuit, and it never was. It is (as others have pointed out before me) more of a decision than anything else. Setting a goal of someday achieving happiness is a noble pursuit. A noble, pointless, futile, waste of a pursuit. Making a decision to be happy right now with what you have as you journey down the path you're on is a winning attitude. Happiness is kinda like a pleasant side-effect of a good attitude, but it’s not a goal for one critical reason: it’s fickle as f#$%.
Happiness is fleeting and fragile. Suffering and sadness are both inevitable and important. No matter what you do, happiness simply isn’t always going to be there for you. If you’re only tallying your happy moments as successes, you’re writing off huge chunks of your already-too-short life as a loss because you’re not blissfully happy during every waking second. Hell, it would be exhausting to be happy all the time, and everyone would be suspicious of you. I sure would be. I’m suspicious enough of you already.
Being happy is great, but it’s not the end-all objective of life as the founding fathers would have you believe (somewhere a Fox News drone just perked up and imploded). Therefore happiness, as it has been explained to us our whole lives, is a damn lie. Setting it as the destination only diverts your attention and ruins your ability to just be happy right now, which is hard enough as it is because you’re not always gonna be happy “right now”—and quite honestly you shouldn’t be. That’s kind of a key point of life.
Contentment Is Overrated, Man
OK, so scratch happiness off your list of potential long-term life goals. Some people might tell you that contentment is the way to go instead. Maybe you can’t be happy all the time, but you can learn to be content with what you have and where you’re going. Find contentment, and find yourself at peace with the universe.
Hey, contentment is a lovely feeling. It feels like sitting on the beach with a margarita, soaking in the sun. It feels like you just created something amazing. These are both positive things, but there’s a problem: much like happiness, it’s impossible to sustain as change is inevitable. Plus, it rarely ever really happens because once we get to the place we think will bring contentment, we tend to want something more. Most importantly, though: contentment makes us complacent. If we were content all the time, we’d never have the motivation to do anything new, better ourselves, contribute to the world, create something amazing. Contentment, by definition, is a form of resignation, and it’s preferably a temporary resignation. I’m sure there are some people who think that sitting in a hammock on the beach and doing nothing else for the rest of their life is a great idea (Jimmy Buffet, I’m looking in your direction). But for most of us, it’s just not enough. You get bored, the bug bites you and that innate desire to do something resurfaces.
Maybe you want to be content later in life, but to truly be content later (if you even make it that far), you have to do more now. The enemy of your future contentment is present contentment.
So What’s Your Solution, Smart-Ass?
Now that I’ve dismantled all that you hold dear, you’re probably wondering what kind of bullshit I’m going to lay on you as the solution. First let me disappoint you by revealing that it's not a mystical new word I made up like “plexitori." Although you can call it plexitori if you want, since that totally sounds awesome. But it's nothing esoteric, either. The true solution to this gloriously imperfect human condition is a word you’ve heard before. What’s the real winner, you ask? Get to the friggin’ point, you say?
Fulfillment, that’s f#$%ing what.
The reasoning here is simple: fulfillment is the one thing you can sustain pretty much all day, every day. You can be fulfilled nearly 100% of the time if you're trying hard enough. It's not always easy, but it's possible. Practically every waking moment, good or bad, has the potential to be fulfilling in some way. Not always ecstatically happy, but fulfilling. Relentless pursuits, accomplishments, moments of joy, difficult tests of patience, challenging and sad moments, hard work and tough lessons all can be fulfilling in their own way.
Example: let's say you don't like your job. But maybe you're working hard in order to take that next step to a job you enjoy, and that hard work toward a goal fulfills you. Or maybe you can get through a less-than-great workday knowing it allows you to later spend time with your kids or work on a passion project and that fulfills you. Or maybe you really aren't getting anything good out of it, you're not feeling fulfilled at all, and it's time to look for a new job. The point here is that you can actually determine if something is a worthwhile contribution to your life based on your level of fulfillment, not your level of happiness.
Although, fulfillment actually leads to both happiness and contentment in their best and purest forms. And the path to fulfillment is usually elegantly simple even if it's not always easy. Having gratitude, staying positive and optimistic, discovering and doing what you love, being grateful again, giving of yourself, surrendering to whatever you're really feeling in any given moment, being grateful one more time. These are all the ways to sustainable, reliable, life-affirming fulfillment. You can be fulfilled when your heart is broken knowing how much you really cared about something as much as you can be fulfilled by experiencing a beautiful shared moment with a close friend. You can be fulfilled by an amazing meal you created or by putting yourself out there in a social situation and failing miserably. And here’s my favorite part: fulfillment, or plexitori as I’m now officially calling it, is not only an excellent long-term goal, it’s also the path to achieving that goal. It’s the means and the end. The now and the later. It’s even better than eating Now and Laters by a slim margin.
This may seem like it’s been an argument of semantics, and on some level it is. But semantical distinctions aren’t automatically irrelevant. We humans are prone to getting hung up on semantics, and while I’ll be talking in more detail about finding your plexitori in the future, the important thing here is to stop fooling ourselves with the misappropriated semantics of happiness. It's one-dimensional and not nearly as important as we think it is.
Let’s free ourselves from fruitless pursuits and adjust our priorities toward something that will genuinely pay off in the long run. Let’s lead lives of plexitori.