A long time ago, probably back in like ’95, performers were people that had mastered a particular craft, and enough people enjoyed watching for them to make a living off it. They were called singers or actors, even magicians and athletes. They were the pinnacle of entertainment and we cherished their abilities and penchant for allowing us to escape the banalities of everyday life. But those days are long gone.
It’s not that those professions no loner exist. Rather, they no longer have an exclusive grip on the term performer. Like it or not, in today’s world we’re all performers. We cross the threshold into performance art the moment we surrender our personal info to Mark Zuckerberg in exchange for the opportunity to broadcast the rosiest parts of our existence to an ever-expanding network of people we sort of know but don’t really care about, and also our grandmothers.
By rosiest parts I mean that the motivation behind most of what we broadcast to the world is convincing it that we are straight up crushing this whole life thing.
Let’s be honest with each other for a second. We want people to think we’re awesome. You do, I do, so let’s not kid each other. Whether it’s a status about your new promotion or that picture you took with Dan Bilzerian where you refer to him as your ‘Boy Danny B’ we showcase life’s high points as a way to validate our inherent confidence and suppress our insecurities. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as we understand the superficial nature of our efforts.
But when we blur the line between innocuous self-aggrandizing and genuine personal fulfillment, we become dependent on the dopamine-fueled highs that accompany the positive affirmations received in response to our performance. And that need for acknowledgement is not a whole lot different than other forms of dangerous addiction. More importantly, it’s an impossible place from which to derive true happiness.
Happiness is a tricky and elusive concept. It’s one of the only things we can unanimously agree we desire, yet we have an entire spectrum for its definition. And while the incessant media blitz of our hyper-connected modern world would lead you to believe it can only be attained through the accumulation of egregious wealth and big ticket items, psychology and basic logic prove that happiness isn’t created by these kinds of external forces. In fact, those achievements may well in fact be antithetical to legitimate fulfillment.
So let’s take a few moments to dispelled a few of the common myths about how we find happiness:
1. It’s always just out of reach.
Most of us have visions of the perfect life. If we could just achieve a particular status or result, then we’ll truly be happy. Well, there’s only about seventy-four thousand self-help experts that have denounced that line of thinking in recent years, so I won’t beat a dead horse (I would never get that close to a horse anyway, they terrify me), but I will touch on why exactly it is that you’ll never find satisfaction in arbitrary places.
Imagine if you woke up every day, looked in the mirror, and saw yourself for the very first time. Knowing how good looking you are you’d likely spend the rest of the day just walking around in a state of controlled ecstasy, catching glimpses of your reflection in storefront windows and stockpiling selfies for the new Instagram account you forgot you started yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that.
The reason that doesn’t happen is because our brains, for all the trouble they get us into, are pretty good at compressing and cataloging data so that we don’t have to reassess every object or scenario we encounter every time we come in contact with it. So no matter what possessions or achievements we swear will bring us happiness, the high we get from their attainment will always be fleeting as we get used to life on the other side.
Happiness is a state of being, not a calculated outcome based on unsubstantiated goals.
2. No matter what anyone tells you, it doesn’t come easy.
Now this is a bit of a complicated remark, and I don’t mean to sound like a downer so let me explain.
At its core, true happiness is derived from the solving of problems. This is because, as I mentioned before, we’re too good at getting used to our current situation, so even the most blissful experiences with become dull in time. To remain truly happy we must always be battling some degree of adversity. The complicated part is deciding which obstacles we’d like to overcome in order to maintain our fulfillment.
You know your friend Stacy, the horrible drama queen? She’s decided, consciously or otherwise, that her route to true happiness is through the creation and eventual resolution of divides that she consistently creates between herself and those closest to her.
An uncountable number of athletes struggle to stay retired as the problem solving that defined their happiness was available to them only through the arena of professional competition.
Even if you had unlimited funds and infinite health, you’d still have to figure out the most fulfilling way to spend your time. That’s why most people, when asked if they would choose to live forever if they were given the option say they would decline. There’s just too much time to kill and eventually you’d run out of problems to solve.
The happiest people on Earth are those that have identified the problems that, when solved, bring them consistent satisfaction and contentment. Whether it’s taking a startup from napkin notes to IPO, or just getting the kids out the door on time for soccer practice, legitimate happiness lies in our ability to identify the problems we’d like to solve and working them out on a consistent basis.
3. It’s all relative.
I once spent $85,000 on a car. I did that because I had dreamed of driving it for so long that I’d built up an entirely false image of what my life would be like if I could just get to a place where I was able to afford it. After about three months I was so burned out all I could think about when I got in to it was what that money would have become if I had invested it instead. I had made the mistake of thinking my life would be an inherently happier one if I was able to define myself by a particular status or possession.
The reason this is such a misguided technique is that studies show that the levels of happiness measured across the globe don’t really vary all that much between cultures, classes, or social standings. And that’s because the problems we choose to solve in our pursuit of happiness are relative to our current standing. This can lead to a lot of disappointment if we choose the wrong problems to solve.
Rather than deciding that I could be happy if I drove a really nice car, because I have a peer group made up of people that also have nice cars, the problem I should have been solving was whichever one made me feel like I was less successful, or less capable of valuable contribution because my current car didn’t cost enough. If I had been able to resolve that issue, not only would I have been happier, I would have been $85,000 closer to retirement.
4. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.
The British Medical Journal reported in 2009 that there was a spike in suicides across North America and Europe as a result of the preceding market crash. A lot of people had lost a lot of money and decided that they’d be better off terminating their lives than resolving the issues and immense stress placed on them by their bleak financial predicaments. To be sure, this is a horribly sad reality and commentary on the values of society at large, but it’s also a valuable lesson in the flawed logic behind the problems many of us choose to solve as a way of seeking fulfillment.
If I define my level of happiness by the amount of money I lose or gain I invite a couple of pretty bad scenarios into my life. Firstly, there’s pretty much always going to be someone that has more than I do, so by relative standards I’ll never have a realistic chance at fulfillment. Secondly, if I face a tremendous setback, like a market crash that wipes out a good portion of my wealth, I will have fallen so far that my motivation to seek the the bliss of abundance again may fall prey to my desire to avoid the pain of having to face a new reality in which I no longer possess my defining status as a wealthy person. That’s the predicament that about 5,000 or so people succumbed to in 2009.
Happiness doesn’t mean having all the money you can spend. It doesn’t even mean having all the things you want or need outside of wealth. It means living a life in which you have defined the obstacles which you are willing to and capable of overcoming and doing so on a consistent basis as to provide yourself with constant joy and satisfaction.
5. It’s not about you.
I saved the most crucial component of true happiness for last. It’s a peculiar piece of the puzzle as it’s so often overlooked in the individual pursuit of happiness but plays such an irreplaceable role. Most people never find true personal fulfillment because they’re focused on the wrong thing – themselves. The truth is it’s nearly impossible to develop an innate sense of contentment without first helping others do the same.
Human beings are socially-driven by nature. Just about everything we do is in some way an attempt to improve our relationship with the world around us, and the people who inhabit it. And, whether we feel it or not, we possess an inherent desire to be valued. The truest way for us to satisfy that need is to actually contribute to the happiness or fulfillment of others.
It feels good to teach someone a new skill or learn that a piece of advice you gave helped them through a tough time. And not in the way that it feels good to have 200 people like a picture of your lunch. Knowing that we have positively affected the lives of others gives us the type of genuine satisfaction that can become the catalyst for a truly happy, and healthy existence. Be it an executive or a modern nomad, those of us that are really happy have found a way to bring authentic value to those around them.
Take a moment to think about what it is you’ve been telling yourself will make you happy. Have you been placing your bets on a higher income or more stuff? Is it some title or specific accomplishment that you desire?
Understand, it’s not wrong to want these things. But to live a life of fulfillment these kinds of adornments are secondary at best. If you want to be truly happy throughout your life there are really only a few simple steps you need to take. Find something you’re passionate about, then use it to bring value to other people.
I know, easier said than done you say. Well, that may be, but like I said, happiness doesn’t come easy. If it did I wouldn’t be writing this, and you wouldn’t be reading it. But since I am and you are, why not give it a shot? If you somehow wind up even less satisfied, you can always go buy a Porshce and see if that helps.