The Secret To Happiness

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

-- Rainer Maria Rilke - Letters to a Young Poet

Following up on the previous post on how not to shit your pants, here is how to achieve eternal happiness.

Two caveats:

1. I'm trying to explain something that is my natural mindset, and I'm not quite sure how to do it. It would be like if you had a fetish for testicular trauma. That's not something someone talked you into, that's just how you are. So how would you try and talk someone else into it? Maybe you can't reason someone into this way of thinking. I don't know.

2. There's a chance if you adopt this mindset you'll be seen as some stepford-wife type automaton. A lot of people see happy people as superficial, or one-dimensional, or mindless. If people get the sense that you're happy most of the time, then they'll think you're an idiot or a liar. "Poor guy. He's too dumb to realize he shouldn't be happy. Or he's lying about being happy."

People can’t conceive of a virtue in someone else that they can’t conceive in themselves. Instead of believing you’re stronger, it’s so much easier to imagine you’re weaker. You’re addicted to self-abuse. You’re a liar. People are always ready to believe the opposite of what you tell them.

-- Chuck Palahniuk - Survivor

The good news is, when you know the secret to happiness, you don't really give a shit about what people say anyway. 

And it may be a mistake to call it the secret to happiness. I don't know what will make you happy. If you don't have things in your life that bring you joy, you're screwed. These don't have to be big things, they probably shouldn't be in fact. If your happiness is dependent on a perfect relationship, with a loving family, and a rewarding job; your happiness is very tenuous. That's a lot of shit that's outside of your control. If your spouse cheats on you with your boss, your world crumbles. You need to be able to find your happiness in smaller things -- that is, happiness in: finding new music, excitement for films that are coming out, friends, a really good grilled cheese, sports, sex, nature, meeting new people, a new magic book, pets, skipping work, a back massage, television, doing nice things for others, jokes, this website... these sorts of things.

This is the part of the equation people understand: you need to appreciate the small pleasures. But the corollary to this is even more important: you need to forget the big miseries.

You can't really forget them, of course, but you can recontextualize the things that lead to unhappiness: failure, mistakes, tragedy, disappointment, rejection and loss.

Why is the Basketball Hoop Ten Feet High?

That's not a riddle. I'm genuinely asking. Why is it ten feet high? You've gone out and shot baskets before, right? Wouldn't it be a lot easier if it was five feet high and five feet in diameter? Then you could just walk up to it and drop the ball in without all that hectic jumping and throwing of the ball. 

But no one would ever play that game. Not only is it not the game you would play with someone else, but it's not the game you would play with yourself. Even when no one else is around we still crave challenge and adversity. We're entertained by them. 

The Secret to Happiness: Treat Your Life Like an Auto-Scrolling Video Game

Remember the auto scrolling levels of Mario where the background moved along at a constant pace and you just have to keep going or you get crushed or pushed off a cliff or something?

That is life.

The difficulties in life are like the pits, and the bullet things, and the turtles with wings. Those are the things that make the whole process interesting. A game without them would be dull to the point of unplayable.

The mistake we make is imagining a "perfect" life as a life without difficulties. The perfect life is not a life without these things. The perfect life is one where you skillfully navigate through these things.

When you see life like this, you don't look at loss, pain, failure, mistakes, and tragedy as some kind of karmic abuse meant to punish you. They're just the obstacles that are there to challenge you and make the game rewarding. 

When you play a game and you're struck with some impediment, you're not like, "Oh, why me! What did I do to deserve this?! How will I ever pick myself back up again?" You're just like, "Hmmm... okay... now what's the best way to handle this?" And you actually become better going forward because you're constantly learning from your difficulties, not just bemoaning them. You might think you'd have to be a robot to handle the difficulties in life the same way, but I think once you view life from this perspective it just becomes kind of automatic. 

Let's say your wife got trampled to death during a terrorist attack at Wrestlemania. You might think, "I'd just be a broken man. I'd never be able to move on." Well, what good does that do anyone?  It's not an insult to your former wife's memory to feel the pain and then quickly press on. No amount of suffering is going to bring her back. There's nothing noble about being paralyzed by sorrow. So you look at the situation and say,  "Hmmm... okay... now what's the best way to handle this?" I don't know what the answer to that question would be for you, but there is an answer. 

We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. 

-- Rainer Maria Rilke - Letters to a Young Poet

When I explain this idea to people -- that I don't think of bad things as bad things -- but just the impediments that have randomly been spat out at you that you get to deal with in your life, some people have compared it to the philosophy of Stoicism. 

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” 

-- Marcus Aurelius - Meditations

Of the philosophical writings I've read, I've understood like 40%. Most of it is way over my head. But of that 40%, much of what I've agreed with does come from the Stoics. But my personal philosophy kind of veers off wildly from their's. Stoics believe you shouldn't let negative things affect you. But they also think you shouldn't really let positive things affect you that much either. 

That's not my scene. That feels like playing it safe to me. Worse, it feels like surrender. "Okay, here's the deal, universe. I won't get too high so you can't slap me back down to earth. Okay?" I think it's better to just wring every drop of happiness and get as high as possible on every good thing in your life. And fuck it if things don't work out as you'd hoped at every moment. That's part of the game. 

If you're not sure where to start with this mindset, I suggest trying it with something simple that frustrates you. Maybe traffic or those idiots you work with. Instead of being bothered or angered by every bozo who cuts you off or co-worker who screws up yet another project, just look at them like the Goombas in Mario. The goal of the game is to get through these things, not freak out about them.

(I had to learn this myself when I first came to New York City. It used to bother me to no end the way tourists would move about the streets. Stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Stopping at the end of escalators! THE MOTHERFUCKING END OF ESCALATORS!!!! Ok, so I still have some residual issues to deal with. I would wonder how I could get more upset with someone walking slowly than I was with someone... say, stealing money from me. It was because I recognized the latter as an obstacle and those I was okay with. It was inconveniences that would really get under my skin. I had adopted this mindset on a macro level before I had it on a micro level. But inconveniences were always going to be there, so the game was going to be in how I handled them. After that realization, when someone would do a dead-stop in the middle of a crowded sidewalk so they could get a closer look at a building or a pigeon or some shit, I would no longer ask them if they'd been kicked in the fucking head by a donkey. Instead I'd swiftly swing around them, tapping them on the head gently with my open palm and saying "boop" while I went. That was my way of "killing" them in the game in my mind. And I was a much happier pedestrian.)

The goal of this attitude is happiness, but the side-effect is that you become fearless. Not brave really, because you're not acting in the face of fear. You just genuinely don't have fear of things. If loss, pain, failure, mistakes, and tragedy are just seen as the challenges you get to work around in the game of your life, they become neutral at worst. You sign up for the marathon. You ask the girl out. You quit your job and start your own business. And if these things don't work out, you just continue forward. And soon you realize that most of these mistakes and failures you were concerned about don't even present themselves as obstacles later on. You adopt the mindset that adversity is there for you to maneuver through. Which allows you to feel free to attempt things you might not have for fear of failure. And then you learn that failure didn't even present the adversity you thought it would. 

But Andy, I don't want challenges and obstacles. I don't want to overcome things. I just want an easy life. That's what would make me happy.

Okay, okay, I hear you. Do you want to know the easiest way to go through life? Be fucking braindead! You won't have to pay rent. No one will turn you down for a date. You won't have to put Christmas lights up only to take them down a month later. You can be fed through a tube and shit through a tube. It's your dream life. Go huff copier toner.

[Next Week: I bring even more happiness to your life as this site reverts to The Jerx and we talk magic.]