Happiness is Your Choice

Despair
Despair, by Geralt

As a young man, I used to believe that it didn’t really matter if I was happy or not.  The world wouldn’t stop, the economy wouldn’t crash, and the sea wouldn’t swallow the land if I was miserable.  All that mattered was that I did my part – I did my work, I made sure my wife was alright, I paid the rent on time, and the people who relied on me could keep on relying on me.  Happiness was something that came in little doses as you put in your time on earth.  A little sex here, a good book there, an exciting movie, or a fun game… but those would come and go.

I was definitely not unique in that perspective.  I know so many men who are just putting in time, trying to be reliable, hardworking, and really just survive life until you are ready to retire.  It is an undercurrent of Masculinity in the West:  we work hard and bust our asses to make sure our wives are happy, our bosses are happy, and our kids are happy – because that is our job.  But it doesn’t compute to us that we ought to be happy, too, which is bizarre.  After all, if Happiness is important enough that you have to wear yourself out enough to make sure other people have it, then shouldn’t it be something we seek for ourselves?  Or put another way, if Happiness isn’t important, then why do we make ourselves so unhappy trying to give it to others?

This isn’t something that our culture doesn’t want you to think too hard about!  Because if the world wasn’t full of men who take care of everyone’s happiness but their own, we’d be far less wealthy, and productive on a whole.  The man we trick into working himself down to the bone is the man who makes the rest of us rich, safe, and prosperous.

This is why “we” don’t teach philosophy in schools as well.  The last thing “we” want is thousands of young men asking: “What can I do to ensure that I live the best life I can?” or “Is owning a house, car, or having a degree really going to make me happier, or would I be better off focusing on the little things that actually bring me joy?”

And note that I say “we” here.  No one group of people is to blame.  There is no almighty Patriarchy or all-powerful cabal of Illuminati responsible for this basic deception.  This is just the natural attitude we develop by accepting the institutions of our culture without thinking – institutions that grew up to ensure our survival and welfare in harder times and out of necessary choices that we then carried on until we forgot why we were doing it.

But the more you do think, and the more you do explore, the more you realize that your Happiness does matter.

You have a very limited time on this Earth, and you don’t even know how long that time will be.  That makes every second a precious and limited commodity.  You can spend those seconds being afraid, angry, sad, miserable, frustrated, or depressed, or you can spend them calm, joyous, inspired, engaged, excited, or pleased.  In other words, the time you spend on being unhappy is time that you have not got the most out of.  It is wasted time that could have been spent either having a peak experience or doing the hard work it takes to make those peak experiences happen.

And that is your choice to make!  Because Happiness is not a fleeting moment of relief from a sea of boredom like I thought it was as a young man.  Happiness is something you can build through hard work, mental discipline, and good choices.  Our culture has always understood what it takes to be happy: we’ve known it since Aristotle.  We’ve even developed a study of happiness and how to achieve it: positive psychology.  We just don’t teach it except to the people who actually decide to lean it for themselves.

Today I am going to give you the basics from my own study:

Take care of your health and body: This practically doesn’t need to be said, but if you drink enough water, get eight hours of sleep a night, eat well, avoid too much sugar and caffeine, etc., it is much easier to be happy.  When you are sick, weak, or tired, it is hard to make good choices or engage with the world.

Control your information intake:  In the news, if it bleeds, it leads.  In the blogosphere rants and grievances get hits, and publishing houses prefer to put out trash that sells over literature that inspires.  Because of that, if you pay attention to what people have to say, you are going to get a non-stop stream of negativity, violence, anger, and panic.  It paints a picture of the world that is far, far darker than reality, and you can’t help but be affected by it.  So limit your exposure, and try to take in things that inspire you in balance with the “news” and politics.

Here’s a challenge: go for a week without any television.  Cut back on your news intake to only stories relevant to your business.  Play music rather than listen to the radio.  See how you feel at the end of that week.

Still your mind:  When you are thinking, you are not paying attention to what is happening right here and now.  You are either too busy worrying about the future, or too busy analyzing the past to enjoy Here and Now.  When you shut down unnecessary mental noise and just focus on taking in what is around you, you will find that your natural state is to be relaxed, calm, and joyous.  This doesn’t mean you should be dumb or thoughtless, just to be aware that often thinking doesn’t always serve you, especially if you are going in circles.

Learning to still your mind can be tricky.  Ultimately, Yoga and meditation are the best tools for that, but I also find that there is a simple focus trick that can be exceedingly helpful.  When you are on a break from your daily routine, pick an object and study it – try and remember its lines, how the light hits it, it’s textures as if you were going to draw it from memory later.  In fact, you might want to try drawing some of these things from memory later.  That moment of focus can shut unnecessary thoughts down.

Keep growing:  You are a work in progress.  You never stop changing and learning throughout your life.  You can choose whether that change happens by accident or on purpose.  You can keep making yourself a better man by learning new skills, getting better at your job, picking up new exciting hobbies, and reading books that expand your mind.

You can also make sure your growth is positive by running towards challenges.  When you push yourself to do the best job possible, or tackle hard jobs that push the limits of your skills you enter into a mental state called flow.  When you are in flow, you learn faster and feel curiosity and joy.  You always come out of a flow state better at a skill than when you come in.

If you want to see this for yourself, find a good way to measure your work performance, and set out deliberately to improve your score every week for a month.  Try exceeding quotas, writing faster, coming up with better thoughts, reading your team as effectively as you can.  Find a book on one thing you want to improve, read it, and start the exercises in it.  Notice that when you ease back you will still perform better, and you will also like your job more.

Practice gratitude: Being grateful has a cleansing effect on the mind.  It gets rid of negative thoughts and clears stress hormones from your system.  Saying “thank you” when you really mean it feels incredibly good.  I make it a point to think of a few things every day that make me grateful and say “thank you” for them.  I don’t even say it to anyone or anything in particular.

Try it for yourself – write down five good things in your life, think about them for a few minutes then say “thank you” out loud.  It is an instant high.

Spend more time with your loved ones: Whether it is taking your wife out for a date, going on a Saturday afternoon picnic, throwing a dinner party, or having a game night, time spent with your friends and family (assuming you are not in a toxic relationship) is the best use of your time.  It builds stronger connections, builds an atmosphere of care and support, and makes sure you are spending that time doing things that you want to do.

Try scheduling a game night or barbecue with your friends and family.  Get together for the sole purpose of enjoying each other’s company for no special occasion at all and see how that makes you feel.

Live within your means: One of the things that has the greatest impact on keeping you from being happy is lack of resources.  There is a certain point at which stresses over money and debt can overwhelm a person and make them feel unhappy.  Money can’t buy happiness, but lack of it can create a lot of misery.  Developing a good budget that aggressively tackles debt and gets rid of useless expenses can ease your mind, especially if you stick with it.

Have goals: A clear set of well-articulated goals can make life easier.  They give you a guideline for making decisions.  They also give you a sense of direction and way to tell if you are accomplishing something in life.  If you have clear goals, move towards them, and make your decisions around meeting them, you stop wasting huge amounts of energy on doubt, rumination, over-thinking, and worry.

Goals are also only useful if written down.  Things that are “in your head” are rarely clearly articulated, and they take up mental energy that makes concentration harder.  Write every goal down, clearly, along with what success will look like, and what  your next three steps to get there are going to look like.  Keep a journal that helps you track progress towards your goals.  It will make a huge difference.

Focus on what you can control: People get bogged down worrying about things that are beyond their control.  The problem about something beyond your control is no matter how much you think or worry about it, you can’t change it.  So you are burning calories and distracting yourself from the here and now for no good reason.  When a problem comes up, look for what you can do, make a plan, and then execute.  Stop to analyze your results, and repeat until you don’t have anything left that you can do.  Anything else is wasting time and energy.

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Ultimately your Happiness matters and it is a choice. It matters because it is a choice.   It is something you can create, not something that comes in small flashes.  And so you can choose whether to spend your few precious minutes on Earth being happy or being unhappy, and the latter is simply a waste.

Doing what it takes to be happy is work, but it doesn’t take much time.  In fact for most people, it involves spending a lot less time on wasteful things like media, struggling with money, worrying, trying to solve unsolvable problems, and sitting in front of the television.

4 thoughts on “Happiness is Your Choice

  1. ” After all, if Happiness is important enough that you have to wear yourself out enough to make sure other people have it, then shouldn’t it be something we seek for ourselves? ”

    I was brought up to believe that you should do everything to make other people happy, and seeking your own happiness was selfish and greedy. The supposed other side was that OTHER people would be doing everything to make other people happy, including me. And if they weren’t, then you should be patient and be quiet.

    This goes back to the old question: at what point does waiting become being taken for a ride?

    1. That is a common way to raise young men right now. But it is not a way that has been a part of our traditions and history for very long. It is essentially an 18th century idea that came into vogue among Mennonites and Quakers, and spread to the Manchester Assembly, and through them, to labour unions and early Marxists and Socialists. A similar concept arose in Prussia as a part of its 18th century social engineering experiments. I tend to think of it as the most toxic pollutant the Industrial Revolution ever introduced. If you look at the philosophers that founded our society (especially the Classics, Christian Neoplatonists, Stoics, pre-“rule” Utilitarians, and Hedonists) or the pagan cultures that under pin our modern post-Christian one you can see that the idea that other people ought to be responsible for our happiness had no place in Western Culture before the Enlightenment… and that such an idea is firmly rooted in a political agenda.

      The idea that you should not be responsible for your own happiness, and that you have some sort of obligation to put your faith into others to give it to you in exchange for your labour puts you at a terrible life-long disadvantage. You become used to only the amount of “happiness” people ration to you when they are not wrapped up in their own affairs. You become conditioned to put in huge energy and effort into your relationships for very little output. It makes you into the circus animal who will dance and perform for a few peanuts. It is absolutely great for everyone else, but not so great for you.

      Most men who truly accept this meme at the core of their values wind up embittered and frustrated. This is what Dr. Robert Glover calls “Nice Guy Syndrome”… they work hard to follow the rules that they believe everybody knows, understands, and is supposed to follow. They are nice, kind, polite, soft-spoken, and humble; and expect that if they are these things other people ought to pay them back by letting them live a quiet, comfortable life free of conflict, and where other people give back. And when it doesn’t work – when people still bring drama, don;t understand the nice guy’s “rules” and imaginary agreements, the Nice Guy becomes angry, frustrated, or depressed.

  2. Very thorough analysis, as usual. I was prepared to blame the Protestant work ethic and the notions of service that grew up in Victorian Britain – even more complicated than I feared.

    1. I give myself solace by reminding myself if a few people in Manchester and Ingolstadt in the course of a generation can shift the direction of an entire culture, with no greater weapons than the lithograph and printing press, many more wise people with devices like the Internet can likely do so much more if they step up.

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