The Happiness Trip
I’m Just tripping my way to happiness by acknowledging everything that I already have.
I love my wife. She doesn’t seem to know it yet. I think I need to work on my messaging. But some days, I see her get something that she really wants and somehow, she still finds a reason to be unhappy. Yesterday we took delivery of a big sectional couch and she still managed to find something to be unhappy about. For whatever reason, she could not just take it in and enjoy the couch.
This is why I think that happiness turns on a decision. There is a discrete indivisible unit of energy that is required to be expended to be happy. Happiness requires cognition. Happiness requires a value judgment. To reach a state of happiness, one must make a decision to be happy.
I’ve thought about this over and over again. I’ve watched people get what they want and still make a decision to not be happy. I’ve watched my kids evolve from sad to happy in the span of 15 minutes and when they do that, I know it’s because they made a decision to be happy. Happiness requires setting aside our disappointments long enough to appreciate what we already have. I do this every day, and I don’t let my disappointments get in the way. I can cut a short path to happiness at any time. To me happiness is like tripping a switch.
You know how people can be triggered into feelings like anger, sadness and shame? I used to be like that, and I still have my moments. But I’ve learned how to trigger happiness in myself.
I know what it’s like to be poor. I know what it’s like to count the coins in a jar for the next meal. I know what it’s like to rent rooms, to work for peanuts, to not really have very much. I lived a very minimalist life for a long time. As I look back on that time, and I see that I still managed to find something to be happy about. I can recall making a decision to be happy because being unhappy was making me tired.
Being unhappy means not accepting things as they are now. If I’m still filtering air and water, there is something to be happy about. I keep finding it. Every day I find something to be happy about, even if things are relatively the same. I make those decisions because I already know what it’s like to make a decision to be unhappy about something every day.
When I make those kinds of decisions, to not accept things as they are, to only take notice of that which makes me uncomfortable, disappointed, and less than someone else, I’m making a decision to be unhappy. I know the difference between how I feel when I decide to be unhappy and how I feel when I decide to be happy. There is a word for that. Gratitude.
I could be unhappy that I haven’t made my first million yet, or I could be happy that I have a decent house with a family to live with in it. My wife is from a communist country, so she’s enamored of the idea of filling this house up with stuff, hence the couch. But that is the last big couch we will ever need to buy for another 20 years. Just because I get something doesn’t mean I have to go out and get more. I don’t want to work that hard, I want to have time for my kids. I want to know my kids before they grow up. I want my kids to know that happiness is as simple as taking note of just one thing every day that can be used as a reason to be happy.
I am reminded of the courageous protagonist in those old MGM cartoons, Droopy. Droopy is the slow and steady Canadian Mounty, sheriff, and bounty hunter. He is often depicted as saying, “That makes me mad,” and “That makes me happy,” with deadpan delivery. He depicts his subjective experience as a passive experience. How we feel right now is not a passive experience. We often get to choose how we feel.
So I am careful not to say that something or someone “makes” me happy, sad, or angry, or whatever. Nobody makes me sad. Nobody makes me happy. For one, I wouldn’t want to give anyone that kind of power over me. Second, I wouldn’t want to burden anyone else with that kind of responsibility. Not my wife and certainly not my kids. I will find my own happiness and I will share it with them when I find it. But I will not impose any burden on them to make me happy. Here’s why.
My wife could do everything I ever wanted and I could still make the decision not to be happy. My kids could exceed every expectation that I might have of them and I could still make the decision to be unhappy. I could be like that. I know people like that. You know people like that. There is no pleasing them. I don’t want to be like that.
So I keep my expectations low. Very, very low. I’m agnostic about outcomes. I reserve judgment about everything to the greatest extent possible. I choose to think this way because the other way is very, very tiring. Disappointment is tiring. Rage is tiring. Being angry all the time is tiring. Making a decision to reject reality is tiring. After many years of simmering like that, I just stopped and tried something else. All that anger, rage, and bitterness wasn’t working for me and I know that doesn't make any friends for me, too.
I started small. I had just been fired from a job. I had moved from California, the land of the vain, to Utah, the land of the people who are nice because they want to go to heaven. My wife and I landed in a basement in a house belonging to one of her distant relatives. One night, it was hot even in the basement, and my wife wanted the fan on. I didn’t want it on because the air currents from the fan disturbed the hair on my arms. But I defered to her because she’s my wife. And I’m so angry I can’t sleep.
I want to argue, but I run through all of the possible outcomes where I would win the argument, and conclude that there is no such thing as winning an argument with my wife. If she loses, I lose. My mind races and then slows down to wander. I think about gratitude. I start naming anything and everything that I could be grateful for, quietly, in my mind so that my wife can sleep with her precious fan turned on.
As I’m naming things that I’m grateful for, I could feel the temptation to think about how I could win, and I push those thoughts out. I go back to naming the things that I’m grateful for, like the bed that I was in, the room that I was in, that I was not out on the street, that I had some money to work with, that my wife was with me, that I had water to drink, food to eat and air to breathe…and then I was out like a light.
That was a transformative experience for me. To fall asleep, I literally pushed out of my mind all anger, resentment, disappointment, and other negative thoughts just with gratitude. Even if you’re poor, you can find gratitude. I know this to be true because since then I’ve done this exercise over and over again. I formalize it with a gratitude list that I write every morning. This exercise seems trivial, but I have found that over time, there is a cumulative effect that it had on me, and that effect that led me to contentment.
I don’t just stop at the gratitude list I write every day. I have learned to count on that decision-making power throughout the day. I know that when a day gets difficult, I can always fallback on gratitude. I know that every challenge that confronts me is temporary, and each one is an opportunity to grow. I know that the emotions that I feel in the face of a challenge like a setback or a disappointment are temporary. The brain can make endorphins for a feeling for only so long and then it has to do something else. I know that in times of distress, I can always fallback on gratitude when I’m seeking comfort.
With gratitude I can focus on what I have rather than what I lost. I can use gratitude to focus on everything that is already around me rather than lost opportunities, mistakes and misfortune. If I’m still breathing, I can still find something to be grateful for. I have practiced gratitude so much that it’s an automatic habit. When people, are unhappy around me, I will still find gratitude for myself.
In gratitude, I have no need to control other people, no need to extract some pleasure from other people, no need to seek pleasure as self-medication. In gratitude, people can add to my happiness, but they’re not the sole source of my happiness. Gratitude is true spiritual independence.
When I acknowledge the good in my life, I am triggering or tripping myself into happiness. I don’t count my blessings for that only makes them the lesser. In gratitude, I acknowledge that some or many of my needs have been met. In gratitude I find the resources to help others and to give them comfort. In gratitude, I am and I have enough.