Despite the title, this post on happiness isn’t meant to be the end-of-days gospel on the matter but rather, a meditative rumination listicle by someone who is wildly unprepared and unqualified to discuss the matter in a meaningful way. And yet the notion of happiness — what is it? who can have it? can I buy it on Amazon with Prime shipping? — has been sitting on my metaphorical shoulder for weeks, now, pecking at my brain meats with an insistent beak.
It’s a very unruly topic, of course. Hard to wrangle. Like trying to wrestle King Kong’s scrotum into a gym bag. “I CAN’T DO IT, MIKE, I’M JUST NOT — I’M NOT MANAGING OVER HERE. THE APE BALLS ARE WINNING, MIKE. REPEAT: THE SCROTUM IS WINNING.”
So, here I am. A clueless, inexpert, inelegant dude. Trying to figure shit out. Like, even now, I don’t know that I agree with half of what I’ve written here. And tomorrow I won’t agree with the other half. But it feels like it’s worth talking about anyway. And so goes the list.
1. Nobody Knows What The Fuck It Is
Everybody will try to tell you how to get happy, how to stay happy, how to entice happiness into your lair where you may mate with it, but the truth is, nobody knows what happiness even is. Sure, there’s a scientific notion. And yeah, there exists a dictionary definition. But like I said above: it’s really very unruly. It’s not a thing with clear margins or a fixed center. Is it the ejaculation of dopamine to the center of the brain? Is it a feeling of warm fuzzy bliss? Is it a long con or a short game? Defining happiness is like trying to grab that little piece of eggshell inside the egg goop — it always seems to escape one’s pinching fingers.
2. Nobody Knows What The Fuck It Does
The purpose of happiness is, honestly, a mystery. Does it make us more efficient? More functional? Better in bed? Longer-lasting erections? Will it make me better at video games? (As I get older, I get worse and worse at video games and it’s starting to bum me out, man. If I get digitally-abused by another racist, homophobic 12-year-old, I’m going to smash my Xbox with a mallet.) Evolutionary science through an orangutan lens suggests happiness helps us live longer and breed more. Whether that applies to us hairless apes known as “humans” depends on how you define — and achieve — happiness. Sidenote: I want an orangutan. For happiness.
3. Happiness Is A Choice
As I grow older it become clearer to me that happiness is a thing you choose — or, rather, you choose to be open to it. In much the same way you choose to be open to meeting new people, having new experiences, buying new breakfast cereals, or attempting new acrobatic sex positions (I’m fond of “The Backwards Charlie,” but found that the “Schenectady Oil Burner” resulted in a short and very unpleasant hospital stay). On the daily we are subject to countless extrasolar objects pelting our mental and emotional exoskeletons and we choose what to let in and what to deflect. Often, though, it seems we let in a lot of bad voodoo while for some strangely self-destructive reason rejecting good mojo. You take a walk and you can either be diminished by the cold wind and shortened days or find enjoyment in how it braces you, in how the sun shines through autumn leaves, in the satisfying crunch of boot heels on acorns (like little mouse skulls I mean what ew I didn’t say that shut up). You have to say: “I’m willing to be happy.”
4. Except When It’s Totally Not A Choice
It’s also very easy to say that, though, isn’t it? Happiness is a choice. When you say that, it suggests that a lack of happiness is the fault of the unhappy. Which can be true, certainly (some folks refuse to pry their boots from the mud of misery), but it’s also important to remind ourselves that happiness is also a privilege. If you’re depressed — not sad, not griefstruck, but honestly and undeniably depressed — then “choosing” happiness is a synonym for courting deeper depression because depression feels like a lightless no-nothing-nowhere pit with smooth walls where your choice to escape feels only more fruitless and frustrating. The sick, the impoverished, the downtrodden, the abused — you can’t cluck your tongue and wag a finger and say, “You should choose to be happy.” The choice of happiness, available to many but not all, is a privilege.
5. Use Your Power For Good Rather Than Evil
Like all privileges, we can use them for good, or we can use them for evil (and by evil, I really mean, abject selfishness). Using your happiness for good means trying to make other people happy. Not by forcing it. Not by assuming they have the privilege, too. But by doing nice things for people. And leaving room for their unhappiness, too. Maybe it really is that simple. Our happiness can sometimes come from making other people happy, too — it’s multiplicative, like gremlins thrown in a hot tub. Charity to others can be charity to ourselves. Someone out there is going to cynically note that this is ultimately selfish, and maybe it is, but so fucking what?
6. Part Of A Balanced Breakfast
If we’re to believe in a nutritional pyramid (mine contains COFFEE in bold jittery letters at the bottom), we should also make time to accept an emotional pyramid, too. Happiness is given an importance and made a priority in a way that suggests that other emotions are somehow inferior, that they are errors that must be fixed. As if sadness is a sickness, as if anger is a broken window. As if other emotions are the zero to happiness’ one. But that’ll fuck you up, I think. Expecting that other emotions don’t belong or aren’t healthy is itself pretty goddamn unhealthy. Happiness is just one color in our rainbow. Other emotions are okay. Hell, more than that, they’re necessary. And we deserve our time with them in order to understand them and negotiate them.
7. Sometimes You’re Wrong About How To Get It
There exists a “chasing the dragon component” to happiness, right? It’s like a hit of heroin or your first taste of great coffee or the first time you orgasm on the back of a raccoon while a burly woodsman — well, I don’t need to finish that sentence, because we’ve all been there. Point is, you get that laser lance of dopamine bliss burning through you and you want that again, so you do all kinds of things to get it. And a lot of what we do is short-term shit. A cupcake. Money. A drink. A video game. A romantic night with a burly woodsman. Fight club. Some of these things give you glimpses of the dragon, but rarely do you manage to grab that sonofabitch by the tail.
8. That Great Don Draper Quote
Don Draper, of Mad Men, says: “Happiness is the moment before you need more happiness.”
9. Happiness Versus Satisfaction
I’ve buried the lede a little, but I think what gets to the heart of the problem is that what we really need is satisfaction, but we seek happiness instead. The two are different, in my mind, with happiness being a short-term fix and satisfaction being a long-term solution. The short game versus the long con. We often ask ourselves or are asked by others if we’re happy. Which, day-to-day, can be a kind of toxic question, right? That’s erosive, corrosive, because if at the moment they ask we don’t feel happy — if we’re whittled away by the day’s many stresses — then we say or think oh, shit, no, I’m not fucking happy at all and then that drop-kicks us into a pit of disappointment. That’s how we invite sadness into our house like a mopey, mumbly vampire.
10. The Better Question
The more important question is, are you satisfied? I might not be happy with a day of writing, but I can be satisfied by the book in total, or by the overall work that I’m doing — but focusing on that microscopic aspect of happiness will send me in a tail-spin. I can have a rough day with the toddler, but if I concentrate on just that — instead of the larger satisfaction with the little wolverine tornado — I end up feeling resentful, or angry, or some other uninvited and presently unnecessary emotion. Crazily focusing on happiness is like constantly checking the temperature of your Thanksgiving turkey: all you’re doing is just letting the heat out of it. Satisfaction, then, seems the smarter measure, doesn’t it? Anything else feels a bit myopic.
11. What The Hell Is Satisfaction, Then?
Satisfaction is a fond feeling over the entire meal, not just a single bite. Satisfaction is a bigger, broader thing — a general sustained sense of okay, yeah, this doesn’t suck that pervades a given portion of your life. You can be unhappy in the moment but satisfied overall. Satisfaction is bound up with comfort and safety and choice; it’s a longer pull of pleasure, stretched out like taffy.
12. The Satisfaction Sacrifice
Sometimes, you sacrifice happiness to satisfaction — or vice versa. Another bowl of ice cream would make you happy; resisting that bowl and hewing to health would earn you satisfaction. It’d make me happy to go play video games, but I got work to do and that work is to write books and blog posts and Sherlock slash-fic — and my work gives me great satisfaction. Happiness and satisfaction do not always shake hands. You have to choose one over the other sometimes, and further, that choice often necessitates balance — satisfaction may seem like the more important one (I’d argue it is), but you still have to find moments of happiness. You still seize moments of wonder and weirdness and dopamine delight. Each played off the other.
13. Follow Your Bliss
That’s a Joseph Campbell thing — “follow your bliss.” He gleaned this mantra from the Upanishads. This notion serves as a combo-pack of that happiness and satisfaction dichotomy (which I’ve discussed as being separate) — suggestion being you gain a kind of rapture from meeting the universe halfway and doing the things you want to do for yourself. You gain happiness by pursuing satisfaction. Or you find satisfaction by pursuing happiness. Or you stumble around in the dark and are eaten by a grue, shit, I dunno, like I said: THIS STUFF IS HARD.
14. Shame Is Half-A-Ladder
Here’s what I do know: becoming happy or satisfied or being a good little blissmonkey is not a function of shame or guilt. You think, oh, I’m going to feel bad for not finishing my work or for eating that candy bar or using the urinal like a sit-down toilet last night when I was all fucking bonkers on Goldschlager and peyote. Shame is a half-a-ladder — it’ll get you part of the way there, and then you’ll still be reaching for the prize like the fox who couldn’t get the grapes. Coming at your goals and trying to find happiness through shame and guilt is a good way to poison what satisfaction you can muster. Success out of shame is like succeeding in spite of yourself. Better instead to do things because of how they make you feel instead of doing things because of how bad failure feels. Let your failures be instructive and illuminating instead of one more reason to feel bad about yourself. Don’t climb that rickety-ass ladder. It’ll break under your feet.
15. Embrace Why You Motherfucking Rule Instead Of Why You Utterly Suck
SCIENCE FACT I JUST MADE UP: everybody is awesome and everybody is shitty all at the same time. Happiness is trying to focus on your qualities above your deficits — and, moreover, trying to turn your deficits into qualities. Look at life like an RPG: you’ve got a series of stats and special abilities and you, as Lord Thromnagon Drumdragon, aren’t going around moping about your “low Charisma score.” You can either embrace your high Strength stats (and thus cleave to your strength of PUNCH MONSTERS UNTIL PUDDING) or choose to focus on increasing your Charisma score so that every shopkeeper and stable boy doesn’t try to poison your feedbag THAT’S RIGHT I SAID FEEDBAG you didn’t know Lord Drumdragon is actually a unicorn well he is shut up.
16. Someone Always Has It Worse
A little perspective goes a long way. Like I said above: other emotions are necessary to possess. Anger can have value. Sadness can be necessary. They don’t always need to be shoved in a bag and set on fire but sometimes the way we feel isn’t helping us. It’s honest! It’s real! But is it valuable? Happiness can at times be a function of just having a little perspective. Being upset because someone got your coffee order wrong or because you missed your train — well, just remember, someone out there has it worse. Probably a whole lot worse. Not to say your happiness should come at the expense of another’s misery, but it’s worth looking at this singular moment and trying to see if your emotional response has teeth or is otherwise fangless and just gumming you into a state of unnecessary joylessness.
17. Comparisons Fail The Other Way
Looking up the chain and saying “someone is happier than me” is true, but who cares? Someone always has something more than you. That’s how life is. We’re not in balance. Looking to other people’s bliss as comparison is just a good way to stomp on your own. Be happy they’re happy, but don’t fall prey to comparison shopping for your own pleasure. Their happiness doesn’t diminish yours. At worst, it has no effect. At best, their happiness is happiness for you, too.
The act of settling is weird, right? Because on the one hand, if you’re just settling into life like dust on a shelf, bleah, yuck, why? We only get one ride on the bull, folks. Hold on as long as you can — until that motherfucker falls down in a froth. And yet, sometimes you gotta know when to cash in your chips and say, “This is me being comfortable with what I have.” Because you can’t control everything. Life gives what life sometimes gives you: sexy eyes, a goiter, an inheritance, an STD, two kids who love you, one who doesn’t, I dunno. Is it about settling for the things you can’t control, and aspiring to change the things you can? Is it about aspiring in spite of comfort? Is happiness diminished if you seek it in greater quantity or with deeper meaning?
19. Hard Cash Money
Money might make you happy, but I don’t know that it gives you satisfaction. If it affords you security and comfort, that might do the trick. Just the same, plenty of people are rich and miserable. “I HATE MY INGROUND POOL AND ALL THIS COCAINE AND MY EXPENSIVE WEIMERDOODLE DESIGNER DOG.” Everybody’s different, I guess? You just gotta find what tickles your monkey. Maybe that’s money. But maybe — hopefully? — it’s something bigger.
20. Lot Of Shitty Ways To Get Happy
You can do a lot of things to be happy, and many of those things are pretty fucking terrible. Again that battle of happy versus satisfied yawns its duplicitous maw — it’s like, you might be happy tearing someone else down, or sticking a needle in your arm, or sleeping around on your spouse. Happiness in the moment — that short, sharp shock of guhhh so good — is cheap and easy. But it doesn’t last. As I’m wont to say: is the juice really worth the squeeze?
21. The Happy Vampire
Some folks are the living embodiment of schadenfreude, which is a German word that I think means, directly translated, “To adore when the Sausage of Agony is shoved in the mouth of your enemy.” Or something. Point is, like I said above, some people are only happy tearing other people down. These people are called “assholes” at best, “vampires” at worst, and you shouldn’t be one or invite them into your life. Because they’ll cling to you like a thirsty tick.
22. Happiness Is Soylent Green
It’s made of people. Relationships. Friendships. Love. You can pass that shit along, too, tethering yourself psychically to other people by asking them how their day was, by offering them a bit of sympathy or congratulations or charity when it’s called for. We all have these invisible tentacles we can use to reach out and — okay, this is starting to sound a little hentai. Point is, we’re all connected, and you can feed into the positive energy of others or you can steal it from them. (And this isn’t just an IRL thing, either. Anybody who tells you our social connections online don’t have the same weight or value are probably friendless robots from a Distant Century here to rob us of our joy. CLANKING CRAPTRONS.)
23. Physical Triggers
You can do physical things to open yourself to happiness, right? Like focusing on your breathing. Or taking a walk and getting the blood flowing. Or getting a little sunshine because our bodies leech happiness from the sun’s rays until one day the sun is just an empty, lifeless calcified dustball in the sky and then everything grows cold and lightless and — *is handed a note* — okay that’s apparently scientifically inaccurate. Whatever. Sunshine is good for you is what I’m saying.
24. It’s Called A Pursuit For A Reason
The pursuit of happiness. That’s the saying, because we’re always pursuing it. It’s a perpetual chase — a dog spinning around and around, a failed ouroboros who will never clamp down on his own tail (and if he did catch it, what the fuck would he do with it?). Does this mean we’ve overstated happiness as a thing that has value? Should we instead accept that all of life is suffering and move on from there? (That Buddhist principle is a cosmic version of the “underpromise, overdeliver” school of thought, I think.) Is the chase the same thing as the journey? The end is the end but it’s how we get there that matters. Is that the deal with happiness? Is our search for happiness more meaningful than the actual happiness itself?
25. Go With Your Gut
Happiness is some cryptic shit. It’s a chimera. A faceshifting freak in a room of mirrors. It’s wonderful and horrible. It helps us and it hurts us. It hamstrings us and elevates us. It’s a pit and it’s a ladder. It — and its many forms, be they satisfaction or pleasure or bliss — is a thing so intensely personal it’s impossible to let anyone else tell us how to get it, keep it, or use it. I think it’s worth asking yourself, how will I be happy? It’s worth trying to find the path to satisfaction. And I don’t think that path is drawn through careful study or through mathematical findings. You don’t get happy through a pro/con list. (Unless you do? See? So personal.) It’s in your gut. It’s a feeling, an instinct, and maybe at the end of the day the shortest path to unhappiness is to ignore yourself and all the inner voices that are screaming for you to go left, go left, for fuck’s sakes go left and all you do is go right. Go with your gut. Follow your bliss. Give to others without taking. Be you. Be the best version of you. And share it with the world.
Then again, what the fuck do I know?