As with many of you, I had the chance to spend some time with relatives over the Thanksgiving holiday. It was average, to be honest. It's always good to see loved ones, but it is a balance between hectic traveling, rushing to see as many people as possible, and if you live any significant distance away as I do, dealing with jet-lag and general travel weariness. But the most interesting and significant event during my mini-vacation had nothing to do with anything typically Thanksgiving related. It was just a simple conversation with my mother.
It went something like this:
Mother: Some random shit about things she was thankful for.
Me: Uh-huh, ditto.
Mother: So are you happy out in California?
Me: I am generally not happy. I'm just not a happy person.
Mother: Shock and horror followed by pity and concern.
Me: Trying to explain.
Mother: Doesn't care, blame turned on self for not adequately raising a happy child.
(In case you were wondering, this has been slightly paraphrased.)
To be fair, my mother, her boyfriend, and if I'm honest, nearly all of my very large extended family are relatively simple people. This is not an insult. They are just the kind of people that are content with the few things they have, and make the best of every moment. My mother finds happiness in her love of family. My mother's boyfriend finds happiness on his 28 foot boat from the 70's that he meticulously cares for and uses for fishing and socializing with other fellow boaters. The rest of my family members all have similar stories.
But this is not me. I am never content. I am highly self-motivated. I prefer to spend my free time thinking about serious things or working on another project that is also work of some kind. This is not a pat on the back or a superiority thing. I am not a special snowflake. I think there are an incredibly large amount of people who are just like me, and likely those who read WSO fit into this category often than most.
But the truth is. I am not happy. I am busy.
I am a trader, a professional poker player, a novelist (I am working with an agent to finalize my first book in preparation for publishing and writing my second), a competitive video gamer, and now a blogging intern for WSO. The way I see it, I am too busy for happiness. I am too concerned with bettering myself in all aspects to be happy. But this isn't a bad thing.
So after the initial surprise that my own mother couldn't understand a life that didn't really include a true sense of happiness, let alone one that actively embraced unhappiness, it got me to thinking. I thought about all the people who were like me, and how many of them struggled with this very concept. It made me remember that it wasn't until my late 20's that I honestly and openly accepted this fact about myself and pursued my current lifestyle. And now I find myself here, having done a good amount of self-reflection, defending unhappiness.
But first, before a bunch of people jump down my throat and tell me how they are also like me but are happy, or that happiness and my lifestyle are not mutually exclusive, let me say that I know this. Everyone is different. If you are a happy person, good for you. Enjoy it. If you are like me and still happy, again, good for you. But this post isn't really for you, is it? Or maybe just read on so you can better understand your friends and family who may not be happy, and realize why their lives don't need an intervention.
Second, I am not promoting depression. I find moments of joy and excitement, I am highly motivated, I love my life. There is a wide gap between happiness and sadness. The world is not binary. Please understand this.
But back to the point:
I am not a content person, nor am I a happy person. And this is great for me.
Most importantly, it allows me to avoid two very common traps that I personally don't want to find myself stuck in.
The first is contentment. Again, for some people this isn't a trap, but rather a blessing. But for me and people who share my mindset, content is one of the worst things I can imagine becoming. The main reason is that I am an uncontrolled improvement freak. I am highly aware that with everything I do there are literally thousands or millions of people who are better than me. Sometimes it is due to their brilliance or talent, and some of that I may never be able to make up for. I don't expect to practice the guitar really hard and become the next Jimi Hendrix. But that doesn't mean I can't be a great guitar player. And this consumes me.
Don't get me wrong. This is a tough mentality that causes me all kinds of pain and frustration. With everything I do I immediately compare myself to the best, and work to the bone physically and mentally to get myself as close to that standard as possible. It is a life where nothing is ever good enough, where being "good" is terrible, being "great" is okay, and being the best ever is good. But I'm cool with that. I love it.
Joy for me comes from the struggle. I thrive on challenge. I feel alive when I make tiny steps at something incredibly hard and see the progress, even if that millisecond of joy is immediately dashed when I then compare myself to the best and see how far away I still am. This is what keeps me up at night, but also what gets me out of bed in the morning. But still, moments of joy do not equate to happiness, and certainly not contentment. For me, if I woke up one day and felt satisfied with my progress, my position in life, my income, my skillset, my accomplishments, or even my general direction, I would have no reason not to go back to sleep. I hope that day never comes. I hope I am struggling away at some new skill (or perfecting an old skill) until the moment I die.
The second trap is perhaps even more frightening for me, and I find far too many people falling into this. That is, chasing happiness. It is common, and in fact normal, to realize you are not happy and think, "What is wrong with me?" To look at your peers who seem to glide through life with a smile and think, "Why can't my life be like that?" I have been there. But that (for me at least) is a very dangerous mentality.
What happens next is inevitably a "search" for happiness. For those hyper-motivated, this can be frustrating and depressing at the least, if not outright dangerous. Many of you will end up with jobs in finance of some sort or another, and will have a comfortable financial life, if not a wealthy one (particularly in comparison to middle America). And one thing I see so very often among people in this field in particular (though it is common across all walks of life) is that search for happiness morphs somewhere along the line into a mad dash for money. Your friend who makes more than you seems happy, someone you know has a nice car and they seem happy, a relative has a prestigious job and they seem happy, a co-worker goes out on the town five nights a week and they seem happy, someone you saw on TV has zero debt and their entire retirement planned out and they seem happy, etc.
The truth is, they are happy on their own (if they are actually happy at all). The things they have has very little impact on their happiness. It has been shown that after a certain[/embed] amount of money people hit a happiness plateau. And yet, despite this, people chase it into the ground. They need more, they need to spend more, they need to save more, they need nicer things, etc. And this isn't only true with money. Thinking that getting better at your favorite hobby will make you happy or excelling at your job will make you happy or being able to run that marathon will make you happy is just as much of a fallacy as chasing money.
Don't misinterpret what I am saying. I strive to make more money, to run that marathon, to improve my guitar skills, to write better books, to write more interesting blog posts, and to win at video games, etc. as much or more than anyone I know. Striving for more is not the issue at hand. The issue at hand is doing so in hopes that it will make you happy. Because thinking that somehow you are "supposed" to be happy is in itself a farce. Just as not everyone is good at every task, or not everyone is tall, not everyone is or will be happy.
So, if you are like me, as I suspect many of you are, my suggestion to you is this: wear your unhappiness as a badge of honor. You derive joy from pain and difficulty. You never stop trying to be the best you are in all fields. You are a fighter. And most likely, it will pay off for you. And maybe someday, when old age hits, happiness will wash over you as you look back over your accomplishments. But if it doesn't, don't fret. Don't fear that you may never be happy. Instead, embrace a life that doesn't need the crutch of happiness.
Revel in the fact that you are perfectly unhappy. It is who you are. It is certainly who I am. And I, for one, will always be proud of it.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Are you always happy and think I'm just a depressed asshole trying to bring down those around me (you probably didn't read my post if you do)? Do you see where I'm coming from but disagree? Or are you like me, curiously unconcerned with being happy or content? You can bet that I will be reading your comments, trying to perfect my understanding of a life that doesn't include happiness.
Until next time,
This is The Uncontortionist.
Mod Note (Andy): Best of 2016, this post ranks #22 for the past year