Stop the self-inflicted misery!

two people lying side by side looking into each other's eyes

Our culture is obsessed with success, and while we’re at it, it must come quick. The sooner we get richer than anyone imagined we would ever get, the more capable we are in their eyes. Though our imagination of ourselves becoming a multi-millionaire is probably less of a imagery than an actual desire that we lust for every other day. When will I get rich?

I definitely still think like that at times, and I’m not proud of it. As much as I remind myself of how little I need to actually be happy, I occasionally have these ridiculous daydreams about becoming wealthy beyond imagination. Taking a step back, I’d probably attribute it to some parts of my upbringing… but that’s for another day. Point is, I can be happy right now—with all that I have, which is a lot by many standards—if I choose to be. No need to have excess cash in the bank that I probably won’t know how to spend wisely. Just me, my wife and our toy poodle Brownie.

We can all be happy right now if we choose to be. Think about that for a second, and if you disagree, I don’t know – maybe take up meditation. It’s the only antidote I know to the kind of self-inflicted misery we experience every day. A lot of our daily suffering, be it being hurt by what someone said about us or getting worked up by someone’s bad behaviour, are self-inflicted. If we just got out of the room to take a deep, deliberate breath, relieving our subconscious mind of duty for just a moment and retaking control of our life, we’d be happier instantly. That shit doesn’t need worrying. It’s going to be fine. And if it doesn’t? Well, then I’ll get to see for myself whether the condition I so feared to be in is really that scary. We’ll take things from there.

Someone—I think it was Naval Ravikant—in an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast said something along the lines of, “if a person can sit by him or herself in a room for 15 minutes and be happy, that person is successful.” I wholeheartedly believe in that… perhaps because I can’t yet be happy for 15 straight minutes being in a room by myself?

I can see how being able to do that would make me much more resilient to anything that happens to me, though. It would mean being able to be happy regardless of circumstances as long as it is not too meagre. How often am I living on a dollar a day, or without shelter or food, or without family or a friend or two by my side? Never. Never before, and likely never ever. That means eternal happiness (till I die) is technically achievable for me (and most likely you, too).

milk spilled on tray while pouring over coffee cubes
Oh no, the perfect picture of this hipster cold brew is ruined!!

I know I sound like a woo-woo new age hippie who just discovered eastern philosophy, but I genuinely believe in everything I’ve just said. I’ve been happier on many occasions when I flipped the switch on the self-inflicting misery machine that is my subconscious human mind. That biological relic is poorly suited for the information overloaded twenty-first century where 5 minutes cannot pass without us checking our smartphones and seeing something, good or bad, happening somewhere in the world which we compare our own life with with a deadpan face devoid of humour. We forget that the switch is always there by the wall.

Didn’t give the kick-ass presentation you expected to give? Don’t start wishing you did better and regret that you didn’t say what you were prepared to say. Go to the switch and flip it. Be happy knowing that you are still you, intact and without so much as a scratch physically and even mentally, if you choose. It’s likely that nobody but you are bashing yourself.

Can’t seem to code as well as the others in your programming bootcamp? Instead of being dismayed, take things at your own pace. You’re not at the end of your life yet, you still have time. Flip the switch and be happy that you have the opportunity to own a laptop and learn and use a programming language without literally having to starve.

Haven’t attained the status you had always dreamt of attaining by the time you were this old? Take a step back, lean into the switch and flip it with a smile. Recognise that the status you’ve set for yourself is arbitrary and doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that you’ve given an honest effort and will continue to do so. Accept where you’re at in life and keep working hard and smart, and while you’re at it, try to be happy and have a some fun.

Why should fun be something to strive for? I don’t know what it is about having fun that makes it work this way, but whenever I see that someone is having fun, I immediately like their work better. That bodes well for the person having fun. It could be her ticket to giving an amazing presentation, coding well, and even to attaining the status she spent the last 10 years reaching for.

But what’s perhaps more important is a related observation: fun times are more easily remembered, and memories are what we most often use to feel alive and happy.

You see, I’m beginning to see a pattern in successful people. After finally achieving some success, however (arbitrarily) they defined it to be, they invariably become enlightened about the importance of family and how nothing matters more than being with them. Nothing—not many digits in the bank, not fame, not even a tremendous legacy—makes them happier than just being themselves in the company of their family. Happiness is about being happy, not owning or having achieved things. The only thing we can take with us as we dedicate ourselves to work and try to become “successful” is our memory of the process. And memories bring the most happiness when shared with people we care about sharing with.

In this way, being happy and keeping memories are the two mutually-reinforcing things that we should really focus on achieving, if anything at all.

I consider Casey Neistat the filmmaker/YouTuber to be massively successful. Try and count how many times his vlogs after his first few viral videos (which made him successful) has him proclaiming his love for his wife, son and daughter. Hear how often Derek Sivers, who founded and sold CDBaby in the early internet years for good money, declares his love for his kid and how much meaning and happiness that has brought for him recently. Listen to master learner, chess prodigy, and Taiji push hands world champion say more or less the same thing about his son.

We see what we want to see, it seems. The evidence is there for us to pick up and run with, but how many of us do that when we recognise a pattern? Too few. I practically never do it either. That’s just horrible and silly. Here we are, busy pandering advice on to one another and over there people who have reached the level of success we only dream about is telling us to look the other way. Now that I’m taking a step back to look at it with eyes wide open, I think what I typically do is just sort of nod and understand intellectually what they’re saying and, on the very next day, go back to living the way I did before hearing them. The pipe is not leaky, it’s completely broken!

They say that recognising a problem is the first step to solving it…

(image 1: Toa Heftiba)