The Modern Survival Guide #55
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I like to think I’m a happy person. But the truth of the matter is that I’m not happy all the time — and I really don’t think I should be.
This flies right in the face of a lot of self-help advice, particularly what we get from media sources and so many books on the “joyful life” and similar concepts. Much of this literature focuses on achieving happiness as a more or less permanent state, which sets up an interesting mental construct. If happiness is something you achieve… are you failing if you aren’t happy? Should you be unhappy that you’re not happy? And is your happiness tied to your achievements?
I don’t think so. I think that’s simply society falling for another self-improvement fad. Given the prevalence of “happiness is most important!”-style media, I would even be tempted to call this type of thinking “emotional propaganda.” It’s certainly good for selling books (inventing a problem and then offering a solution is a time-honored business strategy), but I don’t think it actually works in the real world, and I don’t think it’s good for our survival in the modern world.
The Reality of Happiness
Put simply, I don’t think we should be happy all the time.
I don’t think happiness is the ground state for human emotion, and I don’t think that trying to make it the ground state is a particularly desirable goal. In my anecdotal experience, the emotional feeling of happiness is a transitory phenomenon — it’s a bit like the sun on a cold day: it comes out and warms you, it is sometimes eclipsed by clouds, and it may not shine at the same level of brightness year-round. It’s a nice feeling, but it is a feeling, and the point of feelings is that they change with circumstances. We don’t advise people to orgasm all the time, or continuously eat so that we’re never hungry; why do we treat happiness differently?
I think the answer is simply that, as with other desirable sensations, it’s tempting to want to be happy all the time. Not rational, but tempting. If you phrase the question as “Would you rather be happy or sad?” a lot of us would probably pick “happy.” But would you really rather be happy or sad at your mother’s funeral? I mean, for some people the answer is going to be “happy,” but for most of us… no. No, we wouldn’t want to be happy at that time; it’s simply not a happy occasion. It’s a loss — a permanent loss — and happiness isn’t a sensible emotion to express that loss.¹
That’s an extreme example, but we can and should extend the logic to the rest of our lives. Is it normal to be happy while waiting in line at the DMV, or getting a colonoscopy, or microwaving leftovers? In other words, should we be happy while performing all the little duties that make up daily life? I don’t think it’s a requirement. I think if you are made happy by these little things, more power to you, but I don’t think it ought to be considered mandatory.
And it’s incredibly freeing to hold that opinion. I’m not letting myself down if I’m having a bad day. I’m not failing if I’m sad. I’m not upset with myself if stuff pisses me off. I treat those things as simply the effects of events in my day, and respond to them accordingly.
Honestly, I think this is a useful worldview, especially for a “survival” themed guide. I’m not happy about things that shouldn’t make me happy, and that means I’m probably more likely to respond rationally to the world. I fundamentally disagree with that old saw about “be happy with what you have,” for example. No, thanks. I think I’ll set a standard and try to improve what I have up to that standard. It’s worth noting that contentment and stagnation are close companions.
But is There a Better Way?
Look, it’s still important to look for happiness in the world. Life would suck if we never had a moment of happiness! But at the same time, we have to accept that happiness isn’t just one thing, that different things that inspire happiness are sometimes mutually exclusive (or even contradictory), and that we aren’t going to be happy all the time. It’s important to accept that happiness is a sensation, not a life choice.
A better path (and a real life choice), in my opinion, is to figure out the things in our lives that we want to work, and to figure out the things we want to achieve. And then figure out how to make the things work that we want to work, and how to achieve the things we want to achieve. If we strive in those directions, somewhere along the line we’ll find times of happiness.
But at the same time, it’s good to note that making things work and achieving goals are not in and of themselves sufficient for happiness. Once things are working properly, we have a tendency to become complacent; and once we achieve our goals, there’s usually a new set of goals over the horizon. And once we achieve those goals, it’s on to the next set, and so on and so forth.
Basing happiness strictly on goals is a fool’s journey. Instead, happiness is usually a side effect of parts of the journey toward goals. It’s not the end result; it arises spontaneously and dissipates just as quickly. But if we keep going down positive paths in our lives, we’ll see more happiness, and with any luck it won’t fade away so quickly (since we’ll have fewer things to be unhappy about).
And of course, it’s worth remembering that it’s very likely to be the little pleasant moments in life that contribute more to your happiness than any long-term goal journey. I can recall perfect happy moments when the sun hit me just right on a cool day, or when I had an excellent cup of coffee, or when someone said just the right words to make me feel good. Never, ever discount the value of stopping to smell the roses.
It’s OK to be Fine
To sum up let me just say, look, I’ve had a lot of days in my life, and on most of them I’ve spent most of the time “fine.” Not sad. Not happy. Not jumping for joy. Not pummeled by depression. Nor yet beset by any other big emotion. Just… fine. Doing my job, eating food, folding laundry, going through the steps that we all take to get from one end of the day to the next. That’s not to say I was an emotionless blob; I just wasn’t manic. I was fine.
It’s OK to be fine! It gives happiness some spice and sizzle. It makes it meaningful when you have a burst of joy that brightens your day. That’s what joy and happiness are for! To give you a sudden kick, to reinforce that something has gone great, to reward you for a job well done, or emphasize a wonderful surprise, or highlight a lover’s kiss. We have to have a ground state of “fine” or something like it in order for happiness (or any big emotion, really) to be meaningful as a state of being in the first place.
The propaganda of happiness would have you believe that “fine” is a place to move away from, towards some permanently happy state. I disagree. “Fine” is where we start, if we’re lucky, and it’s where we return when the burst of happiness ends, if we’re lucky. If we’re fortunate enough to start our days as “fine,” we’re probably most of the way towards experiencing a good bit of happiness as the day goes on.
Shoot for “fine” as the ground state, and let happiness come when it will. For that matter let joy, sorrow, anger, fear, etc., have their day. Life isn’t about being happy all the time. It’s about experiencing the range of human feeling, controlling what we must, and enjoying what we can of our emotional experience. Happiness is wonderful, but don’t let pursuit of it distract from all the other parts of being alive.
¹People go to a lot of trouble at funerals to say things like “they’re in a better place,” or “we should celebrate their life, not mourn their death,” and that’s because they know and we all know that it’s a sad time. Wallowing in sadness isn’t a goal either, but pretending to be happy is a totally separate thing.