I was about 45 years old when I realized that I was not Happy with my life. What’s more, I had never been Happy and it was highly unlikely that would achieve that state before I died.
I was about 50 years old when I became OK with that.
“Capital H” Happiness – as in “my life is as perfect as a movie” – is an overrated concept and not a worthwhile goal for anyone. It can happen, of course, with luck and timing, but not usually because we are striving to make it happen.
“Small h” happiness, on the other hand… now that’s something that anyone can experience. What’s more, it’s the small bits of happiness that lead to the state that everyone actually wants: Satisfaction (with a capital “S”).
What is Satisfaction? It’s that confident feeling that things are OK, maybe even better than OK, in the big picture, no matter what ups and downs we suffer from day to day.
And no luck or special circumstances are necessary for you to achieve that.
The pursuit of Happiness
In America, we are under a somewhat urgent Declaration that our lives should involve the “pursuit of happiness.” I pursuited Happiness diligently – even aggressively – from childhood onward. But I became dismayed at how elusive it was as I grew older and more experienced with life.
You see, I wanted what I thought was every citizen’s due: Life Happiness. Not even the Hollywood version, just the daily, “my life is a little bit awesome, especially compared to everyone else” version. Was that so much to ask?
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Things that I thought would make me Happy didn’t when I achieved them. Things that made me Happy for a while lost their impact. And there was the constant, gnawing need to keep pushing harder, to keep wanting more because the real “Big H” Happiness must be just around the corner.
After several decades (I’m a terribly slow learner in many subjects) I began to suspect that Happiness was not something that I would ever attain. More distressing, I became convinced that the pursuit of Happiness actually caused unhappiness.
How do we get ourselves into this situation? This pursuing-but-never-finding? It’s like an airplane pilot in a dive, straining to “pull up, pull up!” and the controls won’t respond and the ground keeps getting closer.
And how do we find this Satisfaction thing? Let’s think our way through the whole mess.
The lie of the perfect life
Every day we tell a small lie over and over again, perhaps to the point where we begin to believe it. Here’s the setup for the lie:
“How are you doing?”
Asked by every store clerk, coworker and casual acquaintance we meet. Here’s the lie:
Said in a perky voice. Then we set up the other person to lie:
”How are you?”
I’m not a total idiot (in spite of what commenters on the Internet say). I understand that these are just words that are substituting for “hello.” And I’ve (mostly) given up complaining about this exchange to my wife when I hear it. But I do find it quite interesting that in U.S. society, we have chosen this exchange as our default way of greeting each other.
Person A: Asks a question about a personal, significant subject that they don’t really want to know the answer to, i.e. the mental state of Person B.
Person B: Knowing that Person A doesn’t care, lies to keep up appearances, to avoid sounding like a whiner, and because the real answer would take too long to explain.
It’s not enough to just say “hi” and “hi.” We have to fake concern for the other person, who has to fake their status in return. 3
A harmless thing. Maybe. But it’s a perfect illustration of how we cover up the reality of our lives and put up a façade that everything is going just fine. That we are, indeed, Happy.
I mean, when I say “fine!” to a store clerk, I’m certainly not talking about my joy at buying some bananas and a bottle of Tums. I must be talking about the big picture, my life, or at least how my awesome day (going grocery shopping) is shaping up.
The thing is, this small lie that we repeat a few times a day is just a part of the big lie that we tell ourselves and others: We are doing great, we are Happy, and everything is going our way.
And it’s not, is it?'How are you? Fine. How are you? Fine.' The big lie of the standard greeting, repeated daily. Click To Tweet
Everyone is dealing with something
Think of the most attractive person you know, the one you don’t even want to stand by because you’ll suffer by comparison. 4 The person who seems so put together, whose life must be perfect because it looks perfect on the outside. Problems?
Think of the smartest person you know. Always something witty to share, sees the truth of an issue before anyone else in the room. Or maybe is quiet-smart, doing their thing in the background until BAM they produce the entire solution when everyone is still getting their heads around the question. Problems?
Now think of every problem you are struggling with right now, from the most minor, don’t-mind-telling-someone triviality to the die-before-revealing, mortifying, embarrassing secret. Go ahead, catalog them in your mind:
Do I need to go on?
Now picture yourself all put together. Cleaned up, done up, dressed up, looking your best for work or going out or a big event, showing off whatever status you have in your group or profession. How many people do you think have looked at you, no matter how down on yourself you are, who have thought:
“Look at them. So much better off than me in some way.”
Even beautiful people and smart people have looked at you, or someone just like you, and thought that. Because even beautiful and smart people have deep, dark, painful secrets that are torturing them and there you are, smiling and faking it and looking like you don’t have a care in the world.
And even if you are suffering from visually obvious problems, someone else…
- in a wheelchair
- with a skin condition
- with cancer
… has looked at you and envied how well you are handling it, how you have so much (fake) confidence, laughing in the face of adversity.
When you are actually dying and crying inside.
There it is again, even when it’s unspoken:
“How are you doing?”
“Fine! How are you?”
Except now it’s not a little, just-like-saying-hello lie. It’s a big, my-life-is-perfect lie. And everyone is living it.
Happiness is a mirage
So things aren’t all going your way. In fact, there are some pretty awful things going on in your life. First, of all, welcome to the club, the club that includes everyone who has ever lived.
Second, I think you can see now why Big H Happiness (life-is-pretty-darn-great-all-the-time Happiness) does not actually exist on earth and never has.
Big H Happiness is a mirage, never attainable, forever receding in front of you. This is the thing that it took me over forty years to figure out, and fifty years to be OK with.
Because what I finally realized is that if you tear your eyes away from the mirage, you notice all kinds of good little things happening every single day. And if you string together enough “small h” happy things and stop trying to grab the brass ring 5 you begin to realize that things aren’t so bad. Actually, they are kind of good. Or good enough, considering some of the stuff you’re dealing with.
This satisfaction state of mind is entirely possible for you, too. More on that in a bit.
Because, if we are going for satisfaction in life, first we need to work on the negative side of the scale. If we don’t, the small happies don’t stand a chance.
The scale of satisfaction
Let’s get right to the illustration:
1. There is no way that you can get rid of ALL the negatives in your life. There are far too many and they keep cropping up every single day. Because that’s life.
2. The positives (small happies) – of which there are potentially tons – can easily offset the small unhappies…
3. … but they don’t stand a chance again the giant, lead-filled, negative “Big U” Unhappy of comparison.
Comparing yourself to other people is a happiness poison pill
For eons, humans didn’t have mirrors. It’s hard to judge yourself when you can’t even see yourself except in puddles. For those same eons, people lived in small groups, so they only had to compare themselves to a small handful of others.
But: They still judged. They still compared. That’s how small tribes get along, by always comparing to be sure no one is sticking out too far, disrupting the tribal vibe. 7 “Conform to the norm” is the unspoken motto and unwritten law of every successful tribe.
That’s why comparison is so deeply ingrained in our DNA. And it worked out fine, for most people, as long as the comparison groups were fairly small.
It doesn’t work out well when the comparison group is the entire population of the world.
Look, there is no escaping our need to compare. It’s too embedded in our psyches. I compare myself all the time to other people, even when I’m profoundly aware of how dangerous it is.
Comparison in moderation. That’s the key. To moderate, you have to remove egregious sources of comparison.When we compare ourselves to others, we always end up worse off... even if we feel superior. Click To Tweet
How to stop swallowing happiness poison
I have never, in my entire life, had visible abs. I have always, for my entire life, wanted them. I have wanted visible abs in spite of mountains of evidence that they are not in my genetic code. For example, here is a picture of me after returning from Army Ranger School, where I was systematically starved into losing tons of weight:
Age 21, at the peak of my youthful hormones, at the end of a 2 month starvation diet. No abs. And yet, the dream persisted.
“That guy has abs. I’m a guy. So it must be possible.”
Reason? Comparison. Source? Men’s magazines. Solution? Unsubscribe.
Desire? Still (unreasonably) there, but fading over time because I’m not constantly reminded of it.
Aggressively limit your sources of comparison. You have to for your mental and emotional health. Don’t watch, read or listen to stuff that causes painful comparison.
Unfollow people, accounts, profiles, boards or other sources that make you feel inadequate, who fill your head with thoughts of “I suck compared to them.” If you think you can’t do without a source of information, just do without it for a week and then judge. You will often discover that the world didn’t end and you didn’t miss out on anything at all, except negative emotions.
This includes people close to you. You are under no obligation whatsoever to follow the social media postings of poisonous people just because they are related to your life in some way. If they need to get hold of you, they can call or text, rather than expecting that you are following their every move like a paparazzi.
After this pruning, you’ll be left mainly with advertisements, which we all know (don’t we?) are PhotoShopped, airbrushed, perfectly lighted ACTORS on a fake set. (Actors with their own issues. See above.) Fast forward, shake your head, roll your eyes and move on.
Comparison will never end. You’ll still compare yourself to members of your local “tribe” who seem to be more perfect than you, but at least they aren’t cardboard cutouts created by advertising agencies. They are humans who you can get to know before deciding if they are healthy companions on your journey through life, or not.
Comparison can be minimized to the point where it won’t stand in the way of satisfaction.
Pruning unhappiness from your life
That’s a load of unhappies that can be managed. I’ve never seen any evidence that the unhappies will ever diminish from this level. There’s always something coming up, right? Which means constant pruning, just like a fruit tree. 8
The good news about small unhappies is that they are easy to prune with a little effort. Here are some that I’ve whacked off recently. Yes, they are trivial, but that’s the point: removing small irritations that weigh down the scale.
Being somewhat OCD, packing for travel is a significant event for me. Lists, layouts days in advance, etc. It drove me crazy that I had to drag items from all over the house to the suitcase location, especially items that I needed to use up until the morning I left, such as my electric razor. 9 Over time, I acquired duplicates of most items to avoid this runaround both before and after traveling. Whew!
I did my own car maintenance for years and years to save money. I hated it. Darn things are always wearing out and breaking and getting more complicated! A few years ago I finally decided to do what the vast majority of Americans do and let my local mechanic take this off my plate.
I could go on, but you get the picture. I’m not solving world hunger, just fixing small stuff that aggravates me and makes me unhappy. The item can be as small as avoiding that left turn in traffic that you hate making every morning. Just clear them out so the small happies have a chance.
Note: I never started the social media thing, so I’ve never had to deal with unfollowing, etc.
So how do we build up those small happies to tip the scale even further toward positive? As they say: “Very carefully.”
What makes for a good happy?
This is very hard to answer for you, but here are some small happies in my life. You’ll note that I live a pretty low-key life. Introverted, actually. That’s by design.
Hanging out with my wife, Betsy, doing our routine. Such as catching up on the news on our tablets together every morning.
Taking trips with Betsy. Not “travel.” Not big stuff (although that’s fun). Just going anywhere, even to the grocery store.
Visiting our two grown sons in Seattle and having great conversations about an enormous variety of topics. Combines perfectly with “taking trips.”
Calling my Mom and Dad and catching up, in our low-key, non-drama, Weigle way.
Eating something healthy instead of something that I know is awful, then feeling full rather than disgusted.
Doing my exercises one more day instead of skipping them. And taking walks, during which I talk out loud to myself. Quietly. Sort of.
Reading current events and commentary on current events. (I
spend waste lots of time on this.)
Reading science fiction.
Writing and illustrating. Good thing, since I have this website.
And it makes me happy when the cat pays attention to me instead of snubbing me.
What ties all of these things together? They are simple, everyday stuff that is not hard to pull off. 10
Notice what is not on the list: Abusing drugs, including alcohol. Overconsumption of food. Let’s talk about that next, because you may not be able to control all the unhappy things in your life, but you can certainly control the happy ones. And some of them don’t add up to satisfaction.
Making (un)happy choices
“Do things that give me small happies? Awesome! Anything goes if it makes me feel good for a bit. Right?”
Uh, no. Let’s imagine someone whose happy list includes the following:
- Two glasses of wine every night
- All-you-can- eat buffet on Friday nights
- Arguing with strangers on the Internet
Each of these activities brings this person happiness, satisfies a need, fills a hole. But in the larger scheme of things, this person is not happy at all about:
- Inability to sleep without two glasses of wine a night
- Clothes that no longer fit
- The twitch he gets every time he goes online
Things that are being categorized as happy for their short-term impact are actually unhappies. They are masking pain that is not being dealt with, causing overall un-satisfaction with life.
I know this is true. You know this is true. I’m not saying that any of the activities listed above (or a whole host of other things you might be indulging in) are easy to quit or change. But I am saying that you shouldn’t mislabel them and fool yourself, then wonder why all this happy stuff you’re doing isn’t adding up to Satisfaction with life.
Satisfaction is a never-filled bucket
What does a bucket o’ satisfaction look like?
You can’t just top it off with a bunch of small happies and be done with it. Just like you can’t tell your spouse you love him or her on your wedding day and then never mention it again. Life drains our souls and they need regular refilling.
It’s natural to be a generally satisfied, but still somewhat unsatisfied person. That’s how I describe myself. I’ve accomplished many things in my life (working together with my wife on many of them) that I can be proud of:
- Served in the military
- Raised two kids who are doing great on their own
- Remodeled our house inside and out
- Built an online business
And yet…my satisfaction bucket is not full. And that is what keeps me striving, pushing myself, expecting more of myself. I’m restless, and that in a way is what makes me satisfied, too.
Video: Creative people and satisfaction
Time 2:32 | subtitles available
Actually, I am fine
I don’t miss “Capital H” Happy. It’s stressful to pursue and crushing to fall constantly short of achieving it. But I’m happy (with a small “h”) now almost every day. And while my satisfaction always could go higher, I’m quite all right with my life.
When we stop chasing the impossible, we often find the possible and the desirable are within our reach with only a little daily stretching.
And if you are in the right frame of mind, I’ll even grant that you can exchange “I’m fines” with strangers like you mean it.
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Here’s a link to an article where I discuss accepting your own appearance without (much) judgment. I think you’ll find it interesting:
Until next time… remember: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.