Update and reboot: Some discussion on happiness research

I know I haven’t posted in a while, but I’m going to resist the temptation to update you on all the developments of the last two years. Instead, I’m going to focus on the findings of my research.

As most of you know, my main drive in life is happiness, and I’ve spent the last decade on a quest to discover the keys to a happy life. I started by figuring out what happiness isn’t – and I think most of us who’ve put serious thought into it already know that. Happiness isn’t simply “the American dream” of a great career, material wealth and possessions, and an impressive spouse and family. All of those things are nice, yet we all know plenty of people who’ve checked all those boxes and are still miserable. Hell, people have been writing songs and novels on that very thesis for decades, maybe even centuries. For some reason, all the trappings of conventional success are not a guarantee of happiness. Now to be clear, they aren’t likely to necessarily hurt your chances of being happy; many happy people live very conventional lives with fulfilling careers, significant wealth, and conventionally impressive families. But we all know that won’t make you happy. 

So what does? My serious question for happiness began in earnest at a precise moment, essentially during my winter job during my second year of law school at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. That’s when I realized my attempts to live the life I imagined others wanted me to live were a failure on all fronts; not only wasn’t I achieving it, it was a bad goal in the first place. At that time I came out to my family and my few friends about my mental illness, set boundaries with my family I’d never set before, and adopted a “yes man” mentality with a decision to start affirmatively doing things that I wanted to do and not let anyone tell me what I couldn’t do. And honestly, it worked pretty well for a while. I learned a lot about happiness and I definitely became much happier. But I didn’t get all the way there. I can say now that my decision to prioritize recreation over work in an extreme way was not a winning strategy for happiness. In the end I ended up failing at both; I didn’t become a world-class kayaker or even really a respectable athlete, I didn’t find a way to make a living kayaking or life coaching, and along the way I neglected my career and worsened my long-term financial standing. So my new thing is recognizing that path as a well-intended failure. Happiness, it turns out, is not as simple as just doing what you want to do all the time. So what now? What is the next evolution in my pursuit of happiness?

I’m writing this from my rental car outside my workplace in West Palm Beach, enjoying a nice break from Buffalo’s bleak weather, and engaged in one of the practices I think I have kind of figured out: optimizing my work situations to allow me satisfaction and productivity in my work while simultaneously and consequently creating enjoyable life opportunities. What exactly am I doing right now, and how does it fit in on the path to happiness? Well, for one thing, I’m fulfilling multiple “values” at once. I’m helping people, I’m making money, I’ll be getting some exercise shortly, and I’m having fun. I’m living the dream of doing what I love vocationally and having fun along the way. One happiness theorist I’ve spoken with privately would say I’m creating a mutually beneficial experience to satisfy several of my priorities at once. 

I just read a book called “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-k.” I’ve actually read a lot of self-help books on happiness, including some that weren’t even published that I came across in my research. I’ve found a lot of common themes in them, and let’s distill it a bit. What themes do most “happiness experts” agree on? We could maybe think of these as tried and true rules to happiness, but I hate the idea of setting up rules, so let’s just call them guidelines or principles. 

So the first principle that most happiness experts seem to agree on is intentionality. Regardless of their personal frameworks, happiness experts all agree that a happy life is derived from intentional choices. We could also call this volition. The dictionary calls that just “the faculty or power of using one’s will.” I most concede that there are some, particularly in the religious frameworks, who claim to reject the idea of self-direction and personal choice, but I don’t think they’re even being internally honest with that. 

You have to make a lot of intentional choices to be happy. You have to choose your metrics. You have to choose your priorities. You have to choose what matters and what does not, and who you will try to satisfy and who you will ignore. Some theorists seem to believe that the very act of making a choice is the critical element, but most agree that choices matter because of how happiness is personal. 

And that’s the second principle: happiness is personal. My advice is limited in value because what works for me may not working for you, in several ways. For example, if I told you the key to my happiness was creating a work situation that created recreational opportunities and facilitated travel and hobbies, it would be bad advice in two key ways. First, and most gurus miss this, this particular pathway simply isn’t an option for many people. I’m extremely fortunate, and a common mistake among gurus (lookin at you Tim Ferris) is assuming that everyone has the same resources and opportunities. We don’t. The universe gifted me with a string intellect and a demographic background that allowed me to get a great education, and dumb luck landed me a flexible career. But I could just as easily have been stuck in unskilled work, or even disabled like the people I usually work for. For those people, advice derived from my career would be worthless. No, your path is going to be different from mine in many ways. We have to distill the fundamentals that can be translated, and honestly that’s the hardest part of happiness coaching. I can give you broad principles, as can a lot of authors, but we simply cannot come up with a plan for you. It’s got to be personal. 

What else? The third commonly held principle in happiness research is priorities. You simply have to decide what does and does not matter to you. This is really just a fusion of the first two principles, so maybe I’m wrong to call it a third. The beauty is there are no strict rules, and there’s no authority on this either; I’m merely trying to help you find some principles. 

I’ve got to level with you on my results. As I said, I’ve been working on happiness for a decade, and part of that for me has been managing clinical depression. A big mission for me has been to prove that you can be happy even with mental illness or disability, and yeah, honestly, it’s hard sometimes. So maybe another principle we could add about happiness is that it’s hard. I know that sucks. I know you want an easy way. I can’t offer you one. If it exists, I haven’t found it. Anyone who tries to sell you an easy path to happiness is lying to you, they’re manipulating your desires for personal gain. And I don’t know, maybe they really think it is easy, because it was for them, because they got lucky. I’m probably the least successful person you’ll encounter in the happiness world, and yet here I am, broke and struggling in my businesses, slipping into crippling depression from time to time, and making a literal career of complaining about stuff not working out for people. That’s all true. And yet… I don’t think I’m failing in my quest for happiness.

That’s my final revelation: that it’s a process, not a destination, and yes it’s entirely possible to be happy through suffering and failure. So that’s principle four: it’s a continual process.  It’s not about arriving somewhere.  It’s about how you live day to day.

I’ve written or said quite a bit there so I’m going to cut it off now and call that today’s overview. Tell me in the comments section where you think I should go with the next post. Tell me if there’s a point I should elaborate on, or I guess you could also tell me if you think I’m wasting my time here. The bottom line is that you’re going to have to figure out your own ultimate answers and your own process, but I want to help you however I can.