Growing up, no one sat me down and said, “David, this is what I’ve learned about living a happy life.” The closest thing I got was a warning from my father: “If it looks too good to be true, sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true”—a sage tactic for avoiding unhappy situations, but not necessarily a strategy to get into good ones.
Without clear guidance, I tried to figure it out myself. I looked around the house, but like I said they weren’t saying much. Mom was boozing. Dad was an every-other-week presence who dealt with depression much of his life. Grandparents were pretty checked out.
I looked around the neighborhood, but the whole suburban, early-eighties, broken-home, lives of quiet desperation thing was all the rage, so that didn’t help much either.
That just left TV. People on TV had problems like me, but they were, unlike my problems, settled in twenty-two minutes (unless it was one of those annoying “to be continued” episodes). Happiness was the default setting for TV characters. They started the show happy, faced conflict, overcame conflict, returned to a happy state of being. The sitcom happiness arc was punctuated with commercials that brimmed with things to buy that assured happiness.
Out of this alloy of environmental inferences and TV-based philosophy, I had no clue how to live a happy life. I spent my first eighteen years in near continuous depression.
I attended an event the other day by the organization PSFK. The topic was happiness. It was like an overdue version of the talk I never received as a child.
The panelists included my friend Graham, who made his name founding the environmental website Treehugger, discussed how living a pared down life, occupying small spaces for long periods of time, having few possessions, aided, rather than detracted from his personal happiness; his implication necessarily calling into question the validity of the more-is-better way to happiness.
There was a woman named Gretchen Rubin wrote a bestselling book called “The Happiness Project”. In the book she chronicles the year spent personally testing as many methods as she could find from as many different sources—“from Aristotle to Martin Seligman to Thoreau to Oprah,” as she puts it—to find happiness. Her portion of the talk included tips from her experiment.
The last panelist was Steven Dean, who runs something called “Quantified Self,” a group of hackers and geeks who get together and track certain personal development goals like weight loss or a fitness goal through technology, creating data visualizations like graphs, charts, etc. to mark their progress.
Much could be written pro and con about each panelist’s perspective. Graham’s premium on simplicity rings very true to me, but I also see how it can be fetishized, like a latter-day asceticism.
Rubin, who I found very compelling, talked about small, actionable steps to happiness, like taking care of your body, creating outer order and, daringly, finding a spiritual master (I say “daringly” because the “creative professional” crowd was not exactly the typical seeker type). But some of her tactics felt like bandaids on a severed leg; she didn’t (or couldn’t) get into the more systemic problems, like why people don’t sleep enough or why they create disorder.
Forbes was compelling and described what I’ve found to be the upside of sex: that it’s a great release and relaxing; that human touch is therapeutic and that there are many unnecessary hangups about sex. She didn’t talk much about the more dubious aspects of sex—how it can be used in profoundly selfish, compulsive and violent ways.
Dean’s project showed the engineer’s route to self-awareness, if not happiness per se (he admitted as much). The various data visualizations, while interesting, left me wondering if the ends (like weight loss or a fitness goal) justified the means (obsessive data tracking). To be fair, each panelist had less then ten minutes, so the breadth of their views were accordingly clipped.
Regardless, I was pleased that the discussion of happiness is something people are contemplating at all. There seems to be a tacit belief that we should know how to be happy right out the womb. This is obviously not the case. Most of us have little idea what makes us happy.
My own dubious path to happiness would have gone on indefinitely had it not been for a couple critical experiences.
- Doing acid when I was sixteen. I talked about this with a few people after the event. What acid did was reveal that the way I saw things was not the way things were. This is probably the most important insight anyone can have. If we believe our unhappiness is “true,” that it’s who we are, we preclude the possibility of happiness. By seeing that my reality was only a perception—one of many potential perceptions—I became open to change. Acid didn’t make me happy (I did a lot more it and I didn’t get happier), but it did make me question the truth of my unhappiness.
- Meeting a guy named Paul when I was eighteen. I’ve talked about Paul here before, and I mentioned him in a discussion after the panel with Ms. Rubin, who cited Saint Thérèse of Lisieux as her spiritual master. Paul was mine. On the surface, he was a geologist from Calgary I met while riding my bike around New Zealand. In truth, he was the first happy person I had ever gotten to know. He showed me that happiness—not a TV approximation of it—was possible in the human form. This is something I discussed with Rubin as one of the biggest roadblocks to personal happiness: people won’t try for what they don’t think is possible. A spiritual master shows that happiness is possible and perhaps a way to there.
With the belief in the possibility of happiness and living proof of its existence, at eighteen I was able to begin an inquiry into finding the causes and conditions for generating real happiness—happiness that doesn’t depend on external circumstances like a certain amount of money or a miniature train running through your living room like they had on Silver Spoons. To a large extent, I’ve been very successful. I’ve experienced long periods of happiness (no acid required), which I liken to a complete acceptance of reality. In this state, nothing needs fixing, nothing is other than the way it should be.
I also began to tease apart borrowed ideas of what brings happiness with things I personally experienced as bringing happiness.
But this last point brings up an inherent conundrum with any conversation about happiness. In my experience, happiness is the result of subtraction. When we subtract all illusions, lies, misperceptions, opinions, judgments, conjecture, ideas and any other form of ignorance, all we have left is truth. The truth is what is so. And when we see what is so without these filters, there is no judgment, no positive or negative charge, no distortion between the way things are and the way they should be. Nothing needs changing—not your career, your boyfriend, your wife, not even you. In this state, there’s nothing to be unhappy about. No unhappiness = peace = happiness.
But here’s the rub: any conversation or advice about happiness implants ideas that create a rift between what is so (reality) and what should be (the idea). To illustrate, one of the ideas repeated by the panelists was to get proper sleep to be happy. Sounds reasonable. But now we have the idea “I cannot be happy until I have enough sleep.” What if there were nothing wrong with getting little sleep? Historically, I sleep very little when I’m happiest because I don’t need a break from the incessant chatter in my mind. But maybe if I’d stuck to the idea that I needed to sleep x# of hours, it would serve as a prohibition on my happiness.
Whether it’s our own idea or someone else’s, every idea (yes, every one. Sorry TED) necessarily creates a division between what is happening and what should be happening. And that division between reality and idea is the only source of unhappiness. This division can be summed up by the statement, “This is not supposed to be happening.” This statement is what keeps us up at night. It’s what makes us polish off a whole bag of salt and vinegar potato chips. It’s what makes us think we aren’t wealthy enough, pretty enough, bold enough, smart enough. It’s what makes us divorce our spouses. It’s what creates war. Somewhere in every conflict, every anxiety, every fear, every instance of violence, every bit of unhappiness, there is a separation between an idea and reality at the root.
But what would we do without ideas? Where would we go? Who would we be? What would we eat?
Well, we’d be present. We’d be able to see things as they are, not as our ideas dictate they should be. We’d eat kale.
But there’s a catch-22 with the idea I’m presenting: there’s nothing wrong with relying on other people’s ideas either. If that’s where you’re at, be there without judgment. The statement, “I shouldn’t need to rely on other peoples’ ideas to make me happy,” creates a division between what you are and who you think you should be. And all of my highfalutin talk about non-separation from reality came about only because I spent years imitating others as well as fixing and improving shit (years that are far from over). Sometime our symptoms are so severe that we need to treat them before we get down to the underlying malady. Maybe we need some sleep or force a grin like Rubin suggested before we can address the underlying perceptual problems from which all of our unhappiness flows.
So try out ideas. Sleep. Smile. Simplify. Eat. Pray. Love. Fuck. But find things out for yourself. Question your parents advice. Question TV and the internet’s advice for God’s sake. Don’t mistake my truth for the truth. Don’t let me tell you how to be happy. And don’t mistake ideas about happiness for the experience of it.