“Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists. They have much to tell about the weaving and unravelling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies. Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals.” ~ Yuval Harari
I’ve been rereading Harari lately. I’ve also been reading “How Civil Wars Start” and a friend’s excellent novel in beta. Occasionally I work through a chapter of “Start With Why” as part of my business-focus. I never read any one thing exclusively these days for any length of time, no matter how good it is, because of (a) time constraints, (b) frivolity of mood, and (c) lack of disciplined focus.
That last one has plagued me for more than 50 years. Ask my grade school teachers.
But I don’t hate myself for it. I don’t deride my own lack of concentration and personal discipline and I don’t attempt to rein in my frivolities of mood that much. Why? I accept the person that I am, with all my strengths and faults. That’s the key to opening the door to finding happiness.
That sentence initially said “that’s the key to happiness,” but I realized how simplistic that was. You don’t get the key, open the door, and become happy. No, no, there’s a long road beyond the door. But I truly believe that unless you open the door you never start upon that road.
I started upon that road some 20 years ago, when I first invented my (quite simple) Quality of Life spreadsheet. I took the 10 aspects of life that mattered to me most and rated them on a 4-pt scale: lousy, needs improvement, good, or perfect. The spreadsheet totaled up those ten, turned them into a percentile and that told me how miserably happy I was at any given time. I’ve updated the spreadsheet every 3 months for two decades now. I have a snapshot in time of where I stand in my own elation. Any aspect that suffered a 2 or less would get intense focus for a while since that is the aspect of my life that was currently deficient, in my own eyes. I started 47.5% happy in the early 2000s and now I consistently rank 90% or better. Think of that as 9 good days out of every 10. I’m pretty happy.
But it took years to arrive, and a lot of subjective misery, once I found the key. Why?
Well, because happiness is ill-defined. Opening the door, knowing thyself, is only the first step. Both before and after finding what makes us tick, we seek to fill the voids within ourselves with expectations of happiness, whether our own or those ascribed to us by peers and media. Just knowing yourself isn’t enough; you also must learn to know what honestly does and doesn’t matter to you, subjectively.
Let me use myself, and the aspect of “growth,” as an example. I learned early on that I had a much higher than average IQ. I’m a pretty smart guy. The feedback I got after learning that went something like this: “The world should be your oyster. You should fly through school without effort. Gain diplomas. Easily be rich before you’re 40.”
There’s a lot wrong with those expectations, but I bought into them. Even though, subjectively, I didn’t like oysters, didn’t want to go to school, didn’t care about degrees, and never much wanted riches.
What? Who doesn’t want riches?!
That was always the feedback and, because I am a part of an interactive, interdependent society it took a long time to separate the expectations of others from my own expectations. My growth category stayed at a 1 or 2. But, eventually, I did separate my own expectations from the expectations of others and now my growth category scores a 3 or 4 (good or perfect) nearly every time. I am headed in the direction I love most.
Even I veer off course sometimes and find myself completely off my own path. One year ago, today, I ranked my “growth” as lousy (1), though I don’t remember why. Once you know yourself, though, be honest with yourself, every time.
Another important aspect of happiness, perhaps the most important, is to understand the difference between overall happiness and fleeting feelings. A person with a high level of personal happiness can experience great sadness, fear, anger, and jealousy with the same frequency as a person with a low level of personal happiness. Actually, more of it. How? A truly happy person does not avoid their own emotional responses but accepts them. I don’t avoid situations that could make me sad, fearful, angry, or envious, because all of those emotions are just as much a part of me as joy, courage, kindness, and contentment. I am wholly me.
I was a little surprised in rereading Harari – easily my favorite historian and thinker of modern times – that he had an entire chapter of “Sapiens” dedicated to human happiness (#19, towards the end). He reminded me of my own in-depth study of the same all those years ago, when I was seeking the key, opening the door, and starting that long journey. I hardly much think about it anymore, my own personal happiness, which is as good a sign as any that it is something I have already found.
After I started writing this, I looked up the most current World Happiness Report and was surprised to find it was released, for 2022, yesterday. I believe they call that serendipity. As it turns out, there was nothing there I needed for this piece, but at least now I have something else to read.
Like I needed something else to read.
But I will. Or I won’t. I won’t beat myself up for it. I accept my failings the same as my triumphs.
Procrastination, it seems, is also my jam. 😎