How to be happy – Stop waiting for happiness
Can we live with only good vibes? How do I make myself happy? If you’re anything like me, this a question that you’ve probably asked yourself at one point or another. Possibly after waking up in a daze of self-pity caused by drinking too much the night before. Or realizing that you’ve spent the last two hours aimlessly doomscrolling through Instagram for the 5th time today. In response, we wonder if there’s some magic formula, secret or lifehack that will make us happy. Maybe a Buzzfeed article that gives “5 secrets to becoming happier” or “1 easy trick to change your life (Therapists hate him!)”. But while we’re busy searching for that secret-sauce ingredient, we end up putting off actual happiness. The truth is that there are no shortcuts and this isn’t going be a quick fix life hack. But it’s not all bad news! (This is an article about being happy after all…) Happiness is a lot closer than you might think.
The first trap that we fall into is thinking that happiness and pleasure are the same thing. Food, sex, alcohol, holidays or extreme sports are all pleasurable (especially if you combine them) but the joy that they bring doesn’t last long. We like to tell ourselves that pleasure and happiness are the same thing because we’re very good at getting pleasure. This is especially true in the 21st century when we have alcohol that tastes like sweets, next day delivery on everything from cheap clothes to ketamine; and free, instant access to a terrifying array of hardcore porn (No kink-shaming here, you do you honey.) Our entire lives are filled with the instant satisfaction of sugar, Instagram likes and Netflix binges. Back in the day people had to buy their porn from a shop, choose from 4 channels of TV and speak to each other through screenless phones plugged into the wall. Pleasure seeking has never been easier.
But even after discovering that happiness and pleasure are separate, we still get caught up in the trap that we can get happiness from some external source. You can quit your sugar, porn and social media addictions, and I’m sure you’ll feel a whole lot better, but you might find that there’s still something missing. The void left by the lack of easy pleasure hits will be filled by the chasing of success, partners and an elusive life-purpose. Sure, it’s a step up from instant satisfaction but it turns out that these things aren’t as reliable as they seem.
The stationary pursuit of happiness
Say, for example, that you work really hard to get a promotion. You want it more than anything so you start to put off everything else in your life. You don’t have time to speak to friends or to exercise because you’re working 12 hours a day. But you tell yourself that it’s fine because this is only temporary. As soon as you get this promotion, you’ll be happy and you can catch up on everything that was pushed aside. No biggie.
But there are two problems here:
- What if that promotion never arrives? Maybe you lose your job or just decide that you don’t like it anymore (perhaps because you burnt out from working so hard?). These might seem unlikely but, as 2020 has shown, the world can change very quickly and relying on external events means rolling the dice of life.
- Maybe you do get the promotion. It comes with a tasty pay rise that will finance your all-inclusive holiday to Greece. You get more responsibility, more holidays, more power. You feel like a fucking boss. But then 6 months later, you don’t seem to have any extra money. The pay rise went into a nice car, more TV subscriptions and bottles of Cîroc for you and the gang on a Saturday night 🤙. That added responsibility has resulted in more stress. The extra days off are non-existent because you end up working them anyway. For a while, you felt great. But it didn’t last long so you start to wonder how you can get that feeling back. You remember how great that promotion felt last time so maybe another one is the answer. Not only will you get that amazing feeling back but you’ll have enough money for a bigger house with a better home office and a shorter commute. You might finally be able to work a little less, you just need to work harder in the short term. Put all of your focus into that next promotion. Then you’ll be happy…
Are you starting to see a pattern here? This, my friends, is the pursuit of happiness. Like a poker player holding out for the perfect hand or an addict needing one more hit before quitting, happiness is always just over the horizon. Think of it as running on a treadmill. It feels like you’re making progress and, in terms of fitness, you are. But you’re not actually moving forwards. At this point, some people get off the treadmill and run in the opposite direction which, in the promotion example, could mean quitting the job and going to travel the world or building orphanages in Africa. And if you get the urge to do such a thing then my advice is to go for it. It might open your mind or make you a better person. But, to continue the analogy, this is like getting off one treadmill and jumping straight on to another that’s facing the other way. You’ve changed direction but, in reality, you’re still not going anywhere.
Whether it’s the pleasure of sex and booze or the wholesome-appearing lure of success, relationships and a life purpose; we’re always chasing something external to make us happy. Now before you chalk me down as a bore; I’m not saying you should become a monk, abandon external pleasures and give up on other people. I love a night out as much as the next person and I’m not about to stop talking to my friends; we are only human after all. All I’m saying is, don’t rely on these external things to make you happy.
OK, wise guy. Enough about what happiness isn’t, tell me what the fuck it is so I can do something about it. Well, to massively oversimplify, I like to sum up happiness as acceptance. Acceptance of all the difficult and uncomfortable things that none of us like to accept. Things such as:
- Accepting that nothing external is going to make you happy. There is nothing missing that you need to acquire.
- Accepting that you’re not the best footballer in the world and probably never will be.
- Accepting that you don’t have a singing voice so amazing that it gives orgasms to everyone that hears it.
- Accepting that you’re going to fail, A LOT.
- Accepting that life is your responsibility and you have a choice in how you react to events.
- Accepting unhappiness.
Wait, did I just say that the secret to happiness is accepting unhappiness? How’s that for a big bowl of headfuck?
You see, life is tough. As much as everyone likes to pretend that they’ve got their shit together, no one really knows what they’re doing and we’re all just floating through space on a spherical rock. We run around dodging sadness and taping over the cracks in our negativity barriers. But eventually, we run out of tape, the cracks rip open and we’re hit with a tsunami of sadness strong enough to put Mike Tyson on his back. Instead, if we accept that life is going to suck sometimes, we get through the sucky moments and once they’re gone, we feel a sense of relief and maybe even accomplishment. Constantly running from problems is exhausting and they have a habit of catching up with us anyway.
Now to be clear, I’m not saying that you should just accept everything. I’m not saying Acceptance = Happiness therefore accepting racism will make me happy. No, that would just make you a dick and anyone with a working moral compass should soon find their conscience eating away at that happiness. This isn’t maths and there’s no equation that spells it out. In fact, like pretty much everything in life, it still requires common sense. To sum up, you’ve got to give a fuck about something. Just stop giving a fuck about everything so you can find the things worth giving a fuck about. Capeesh?
How about some examples to make this acceptance thing clearer?
Example 1: Accepting failure
Imagine your friend, let’s call him John, is the clumsiest person in the world and every day he does a thousand stupid things. On a particular day, you watch him pour salt in his coffee instead of sugar. You’ll probably both laugh at the mistake and joke about how it’s a “classic John” thing to do. It might even brighten your day. Now, imagine that you’ve spent 10 years evading any kind of fuckup. You’ve stayed away from anything difficult, avoided danger wherever possible and lived a life of utter perfection. But then one day, you make the same salty mistake as John. After 10 years of perfection, that tiny little fuckup is going to feel like falling flat on your face just before the finish line of the 100m Olympic final. How could you have been so stupid!? Not to mention the fact that 10 years of perfection was probably really, really boring.
The point of this example is that; in the unpredictable world that we live in, you’re going to get things wrong. The more that you can come to terms with that and accept it, the happier you’re going to be. We’re naturally afraid of failure because it feels shit but it’s only by making mistakes that we can learn. You can read every book and watch every Youtube video about riding a bike. But you still need to get on one, wobble around and probably fall off a couple of times before you can say that you’ve learnt to ride. If people didn’t make mistakes, then we would all be born as genius babies that know exactly what to do at every single moment. I don’t know about you but that sounds like a real-life horror movie and I think I’ll take the fuckups, thanks.
Example 2: Accepting shit sandwiches
If you lost your leg in an accident, your first thought would probably be something along the lines of “Wow, thanks life. This is a real shit sandwich with an extra helping of shit.” I think we can all agree that this would suck. But in this— and every other—situation you have a choice. You can spend the rest of your life complaining about how your shit sandwich is sloppier and shittier than everyone else’s. Or you can say thank you, that shit sandwich sucked balls but it’s going to make my next sandwich taste like a pizza topped with pure dopamine.
At some point in life, we all have to eat shit sandwiches. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a neatly curled out turd enrobed in a freshly baked baguette or explosive diarrhoea mopped up with stale pieces of pre-sliced Hovis. It’s the way that you deal with the poo-covered bread that makes all the difference. A good example of this is how many happy people you can find in poverty-stricken 3rd world countries. I’m not talking about the smiley vendors that are trying to sell you something, I mean the genuinely happy faces of people who objectively have very little in comparison to the average UK citizen. It should go without saying that this is absolutely not a promotion for ignoring or excusing poverty. The point is that people can be happy despite having very little and poverty/inequality are still problems that we should aim to remove.
Examples 3 & 4: Accepting Responsibility
If someone steals your lunch you can choose to:
- Calmly discuss it with them
- Bottle it up and pretend it didn’t happen
- Straight up punch them in the face.
If a tree falls on your car and wipes it out you can:
- Call your insurance to get it sorted
- Sit next to it and cry for 6 hours
- Start burning the nearest forest in revenge against all trees.
You’ve accepted that shit sandwiches are outside of your control and there’s no point worrying about them (Example 2 above). Now you can start taking responsibility for the things that are in your control; mainly the way in which you respond to uncontrollable events. It’s not fair that your dickhead colleague stole your lunch. It’s not your fault that a nearby tree, which the council said they would trim months ago, has now decided to aggressively lie down on your car roof. But life isn’t fair and it doesn’t usually care what is or isn’t your fault. Sulking or lashing out doesn’t usually help a situation and, in many cases, can make it a whole lot shittier. It’s not easy to react in a responsible way and there will always be times when our emotions get the better of us. But with practice, we can reduce how often it happens and take responsibility for our actions or inaction. Because whatever happens to you, you always have a choice in how you respond. As a side note, if your choice of action for both examples was C, you should probably seek some professional help…
There are a few obvious questions that come up with this theory of happiness. First of all, isn’t accepting life as a big pile of shit a recipe for becoming cynical? It’s important to realise that I’m not calling life a big pile of shit. As far as I’m concerned, life has no inherent meaning and is neither good nor bad. It’s a blank slate and you can give it whatever meaning you want. So, it’s completely up to you whether you’re cynical or optimistic about it (Another example of taking responsibility). It’s guaranteed that there will be good times, bad times, ups and downs so the only thing you can do is accept the lows and enjoy the highs. In the words of Ronan Keating, “Life is a rollercoaster, [you’ve] just got to ride it”.
The second question is about success and motivation. If I accept that nothing is missing and that I don’t need to chase external sources of happiness, how will I ever be motivated to do anything? To some extent, there is a trade-off here. If you decide that being happy is your biggest desire then working 15 hours a day and sleeping in your office probably isn’t going to help. But just like the trade-off between being more productive and getting a healthy amount of sleep, it’s all about finding a balance. You can be both happy and successful, the hard part is not getting caught up on one and letting the other go to shit. Accept that success will not make you happy. Then if you still want both, work towards success as a bonus, not the magic bullet that will give you a happy life.
Of course, there are many people who value success more than happiness and choose to give up on happiness to be successful. That’s totally fine. The wonderful thing about life is that you get to choose what you want from it. Just make sure that you know which you’re choosing and why. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what you value and it’s worth figuring that out first. Who knows, maybe you’ll decide that you don’t care about happiness after all. Either way, check out my range of happiness related clothes. They might even make you happy 😉