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The Pursuit of True Long-Term Happiness July 22, 2023

Over the past few months I've had some personal experiences that prompted me to face uncomfortable but important questions. Namely: "Is my current life the one I want to live?" And, "Who do I want to be?"

I don't have concrete answers, but the continuous pursuit of them is the important part. I've been doing a lot of reading and reflecting on psychology, relationships, careers and finances. This post is a mishmash of the concepts I've landed on as most helpful for leading a happy life.

What is "self-care?"

"Self-care" became a popular buzzword during the pandemic. In theory, self-care is supposed to mean, "You should be allowed to prioritize your own needs without guilt." In theory, that's a good thing.

In application, particularly for the purposes of selling luxury beauty products and building social media brands, self-care has come to mean, "You should indulge in whatever feels good in the moment, regardless of whether it will make you happy or miserable in the long run."

Spending thousands of dollars on cosmetic procedures is "self-care," even if it means burying your future self under a mountain of 25% APR credit card debt.

Binging TV shows for days and refusing to eat proper meals, go outside, exercise, or do anything else that feels hard is "self-care," even if wallowing will make your mood worse, not better.

In short, the term self-care has become an excuse for self-sabotage.

True self-care means applying remedies, not pain-killers.

Occasional indulgences are necessary for mental health. There's nothing wrong with turning down party invitations when you need some alone time with HBO Max, or with enjoying that doughnut you've been looking forward to all morning. And beating yourself up for failing to be perfectly wise all the time is another form of self-sabotage.

However, indulgences are not true self-care. A doughnut will lift your spirits for about five minutes. It won't make you happy five years from now.

No unhappy person on Earth is dissatisfied with their life because they haven't eaten enough doughnuts. Or because they need a more exciting haircut, they haven't finished all eight seasons of Game of Thrones, or they just haven't hidden under the blankets long enough for their problems to disappear. These are temporary distractions, not solutions.

Pursuing happiness requires doing unhappy things.

Paradoxically, truly taking care of yourself usually requires doing difficult things that can feel very bad in the moment.

On the physical side, our bodies are designed to avoid pain and pursue pleasure in the moment, every moment. Our muscles will rebel against the idea of leaving the warm squishy couch to get sweaty at the gym. Our eyes will cling desperately to the thrilling sight of beautiful people plotting to murder each other on TV, instead of staring at icky credit card statements and bank account balances. Being in poor physical and financial health will make us miserable, but our dopamine receptors don't care. They want a $50 Doordash delivery of triple bacon cheeseburgers with milkshakes and fries, and they want it now!

On the psychological side, considering significant changes to your life feels destabilizing and disloyal to the other people in it. Facing the habits and thought patterns that might be holding you back from making them is extremely uncomfortable. A natural instinct is to reject the suggestion you could have such flaws or the power to address them. "I am who I am," you'll bristle. "I should be allowed to be myself and be happy."

Two inescapable truths:

  1. The only person in this world you can control is yourself. You can try to influence other people and your surroundings, but you have complete power only over your own choices.
  2. The only person in this world who can control your thoughts is you. The telepathic characters in Marvel movies aren't real. Nobody has the superpower to enter your head and change the way you think.

So if you're unhappy, it's up to you to identify and address the causes. While you should never change yourself to please anybody else, sometimes it's necessary to change your thoughts and behavior for the sake of your own health and happiness.

While painting the kitchen cabinets, I listened to an amusing book by a divorce lawyer titled, If You're In My Office, It's Already Too Late. I most enjoyed the anecdotes of outrageous courtroom antics, but the substance of the book is the patterns the lawyer has observed while helping to dissolve hundreds of marriages.

The key takeaway is in the title: if a couple has reached the point of dissolution, the best time to address their problems passed long ago. Happy couples need to have hard conversations to remain happy, and tackle problems as soon as they arise, before resentments build up and they stop communicating, trusting, and respecting each other.

I think the same is true of any relationship, including the one you have with your unconscious self. You sometimes have to sit yourself down and say, "I know initiating conflict is terrifying because you think we'll be hated and lose everything, but if we keep swallowing our words and pretending to be okay, we will never actually be okay." Or, "Your anger at hurtful things people said in the past is justified, and I'm not diminishing your feelings, but stewing and fantasizing about petty revenge is just punishing us, not them. It's time to let it go."

Question your dreams.

Countless books and movies for general audiences feature scrappy underdogs overcoming all odds to realize their dreams. They win the championship soccer game, singing contest, or whatever to uproarious applause and universal praise, put the sulky bullies in their places, get a kiss from a cute love interest, and live happily ever after.

In reality, landing one dramatic penalty kick will not fix your whole life. This is called the arrival fallacy: "the illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness." (Source: "You accomplished something great. So now what?")

If you ask people about their wildest dreams, you'll get some common answers. To retire early and travel the world. To turn a side hustle making cutting boards into a multi-million-dollar business. To be president of the United States. To land a publishing contract, big-city art show, or starring role on Broadway and finally quit their day job to do what they love.

Dreams like these are only partially about doing something, and mostly about being something. Someone in complete control of their life. Someone everyone loves and respects. Someone with no worries and unlimited power.

But the truth is, no amount of money, fame, or political influence will protect anyone from feeling bad ever again. In fact, the celebrities who have all of those things seem like the most miserable, insecure, petty and unstable people on the planet. I've never once read a Tweet from a billionaire and thought, "Wow, they seem super easy-going, and so full of gratitude for their many advantages and love for their fellow man."

Lasting happiness comes from within.

Sometimes you do need to change your external circumstances to improve your quality of life. However, if your basic needs are met—you're healthy and safe, you have stable non-toxic relationships, you spend most of your time on fulfilling activities—but you're still not content, there are no other shake-ups that will ever make you happy.

Every career will have mundane duties you won't enjoy. Every partner will have traits that annoy you. Every locale will have some people and weather patterns you won't like. We probably all know at least one person who seems to think that maybe if they just quit their job and try something radically different, maybe if they just dump their boring partner and date someone cooler, maybe if they just pack up and move to that other place with greener grass, they will finally be happy. But it never works, because the true cause of their dissatisfaction is their own thoughts.

I've had chronic depression since I was a teenager. I know how annoying it is when people who haven't experienced a mood disorder say things like, "You just need to change your attitude!" or "You just need to get out more!" or anything else that starts with, "You just..."

So when I say the root of a person's unhappiness is in their thought patterns, I'm not diminishing the seriousness of mental illness, traumatic experiences, or other factors that shape an unhappy brain. It's a pure statement of fact.

I have inherently weak arm muscles. Until recently, I couldn't do a push up or pull up. But my arms were never going to get stronger just hanging off my shoulders, unused. I had to make a habit of exercising them, even though it seems like I have to struggle twice as hard as "normal" people with functional biceps.

Similarly, I have an inherently depressive brain. Until a few years ago, it had to work a lot harder than "normal" brains to convince my body to get up, get dressed, smile and be social, stop thinking "I can't" or "There's no point" or "Nothing will change anyway." Focus on the good in other people instead of the bad, the reasons you have to be thankful instead of self-pitying, all the things in your life that give you joy instead of the things that try to steal it.

Eventually, rejecting negative thoughts for more positive ones became a habit, and my joy-affirming "brain muscles" built up strength. Now I can quickly swat away destructive thoughts, and it's no longer difficult to get up and go out. But I still have to choose to maintain my mental health, just like I have to choose to put on my workout clothes to maintain my physical health.

You can train your brain over time.

The brain is a very complex organ, and some parts of it undermine the hard work of the other parts. The unconscious parts are incorrigible and refuse to listen to those high-handed analytical parts. You can't "think" your way out of unhappiness. But you can, with diligent practice, shape the mold the unconscious parts tend to fall into.

Ever since tenth grade English, I've disliked the Alanis Morissette song "Ironic." No, not because the situations described in the song are just coincidences and misfortunes, rather than examples of Socratic, dramatic, or situational irony. Many words have valid colloquial meanings that are "incorrect" according to tenth grade English teachers.

The reason I have a negative reaction to hearing this song is because the worldview it expresses is, "Woe is me." The song's bitter narrator would be much happier if they looked for the silver lining around each of the minor disappointments they think are major tragedies.

  • "A traffic jam when you're already late" --> "Well, this is a good time to plan out that project I've been avoiding thinking about."
  • "A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break" --> "Maybe I'll finally be able to quit now that I can't be tempted during the workday."
  • "It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife" --> "Holy cow, ten thousand spoons? This is going on Instagram."
  • "It's meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful wife." --> "It's so great to know that kind men like him are out there. If the world could produce that guy, there must be many more like him!"

In The Happiness Advantage, psychologist Shawn Achor calls the ingrained patterns your mind unconsciously follows the "Tetris Effect." If you play Tetris for many hours a day, you tend to start seeing polygons and the gaps they could slot into everywhere. In your dreams, in brick walls, in city skylines. The visions are compulsive and uncontrollable. Unless, of course, you stop playing Tetris so much.

We see what our brains have been trained to expect to see. If it expects a world made up of falling polygons, it will impose that illogical vision over reality. If it expects a world made up of flaws, threats, and grave misfortunes, that's what you'll see everywhere, every day. Of course it's important to recognize flaws and threats, but an unhappy brain will attach outsized significance to them, like a Tetris-addled brain getting distracted by the silhouette of a skyscraper and ignoring the pretty sunset behind it.

People tend to say, "Reality check!" to mean a sobering reminder for people who are being too idealistic. But reality checks are equally needed for people who are being too pessimistic.

  • Is it really true that you do everything at the office, and your colleagues don't do anything to contribute? Or do they usually do their own jobs just fine, and you're upset about your lack of public recognition for a specific project?
  • Is it really true that the person you married has no good qualities? Or are you conveniently forgetting their romantic gestures and generous sacrifices to justify your anger over a particular issue?
  • Is it really true there's no way to find happiness where you live right now? Or are there opportunities for fun that you've been ignoring and recreational activities you've been too afraid to try?

It's not easy to stop playing Tetris, metaphorically speaking. But if you sternly tell your brain "no" every time it starts brooding or catastrophizing, it will eventually do that less and less, and start to automatically look for the bright side.


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