“Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Most of us are always on the lookout for a big breakthrough—a point in our life where the beam balance tips to maximal happiness so we can enjoy everlasting bliss. What can we do to get there?
Our pursuit of happiness is like a coyote chasing a roadrunner. But what happens? Just like the roadrunner, happiness slips out of our hands every single time. This leads us to a few questions…
What if the pursuit of happiness is never-ending? Have we ever considered the caveats of chasing happiness? To save you from months of misery, I’ll share a little of my life experience. From being a typical college kid to suffering from depression, it was my pursuit of happiness that brought me down.
The Obsession Phase
It was 2018. I was obsessed with smartphones, and my average screen time per day was ten hours. Getting stuck in a vicious cycle of Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube for hours left me miserable and sluggish. In a vain attempt to gain my life back, I deleted all social media accounts. Every social media app went right out the window.
Fast-forward fifteen days later, my daily screen time still averaged around eight to ten hours. I was the most hard-core addict you could ever find. It wasn’t a good sign, and I desperately wanted to relieve myself from the clutches of my smartphone. So this time I did something different: I sold my smartphone and got myself a shabby Nokia 3310.
It was a “life-altering experience.” It filled me with eternal joy right away, and… okay, I’m gonna stop lying. I just wanted to pretend to be an Instagram influencer who ditches their phones for thirty days and claims the experience to be life-changing! As if it could be that easy.
The truth is, quitting my smartphone sucked. Over seven hours of free time with nothing to do. I felt like my head was gonna shatter into a million pieces. I was bored to tears during the first few days, and I spent much of my time staring at my friends with their shiny little companions. Days rolled by…
One fine day an idea for a short story popped in my mind. It was about a young girl who lost her boxer dad in a fight and lives in poverty with her mother. She’s guided by a guy at school, and they develop a sort of “brother from another mother” relationship. He lifts her up, and she does the same when he falls back.
With nothing much to do, and with zero expectations, I started writing.
Every evening after college, I raced to the library to write my story. Weeks passed and I finished my first draft. Guess what? I published it too… packed with tons of typos and errors, but still, I did it!
Luckily, my compassionate friends overlooked my errors and still read the entire thing. And they (kind of) liked it. Not that I was some writing prodigy or whatever, but it wasn’t bad for a first timer. This kindled writing dreams in me… and things started going downhill from here.
I was disillusioned that success and fame would make me happy. With this false belief, writing became my new drug of choice. Fast forward a few months, I would wake up as early as 4:30 in the morning and then would work till midnight.
It wasn’t that I’d write all the time; I’d spend most of my mornings procrastinating, sitting before my desk or banging my head on it for ideas. I fixated on the idea that more work = better chances of success = better chances of becoming happy. The lack of sleep, bit by bit, was taking a toll on my body, and I was turning into an impulsive, depressed, insomniac zombie.
Though I sat before my laptop for almost one-third of the day, I could have achieved the same amount of work in a single hour. I got carried away with my false definition of success, and this distanced me from my friends, which I’m not proud to admit.
But a book intervened and saved me from becoming a zombie who feasts on his roommate’s brain for breakfast. The chapter on the importance of sleep made me realize how dumb I’d been. I finally understood the workaholic madness I was under.
The Recovery Phase
I started sleeping seven to eight hours per night, despite my fear of becoming less productive. I wrote for enjoyment, started hanging around with friends, went to movies, and took a few short trips as well. But none of this was possible in my workaholic days. It was all work-work-work.
A week later, I realized I got more quality work done in one to two hours than I was able to achieve in eight, when I was getting poor quality sleep. And with each passing month, things got better and better. This got me thinking…
“Why am I so happy even though I’m working less? Why am I happy even though I’m not trying to be happy?”
That’s when I stumbled upon this idea.
How Happiness Works
Psst… I am gonna tell you how happiness works. (Cue drumroll) Happiness is an effect, not a cause nor a destination. Let me explain…
If you’re trying to be happy, you think of it as a destination—somewhere to get to in the future after you do all the right things. Now think of all the moments you were happy: When you passed an exam after multiple attempts, hung out with your friends, celebrated your birthday, danced at a party, played a sport, went on vacations. All these things have two things in common.
The activities themselves generate happiness.
You don’t set out to achieve happiness. Instead, you enjoy the activity.
I hung around my friends and went to movies because I love doing this stuff. This generates happiness. I never intended to become happy by watching a flick, I just wanted to enjoy a movie, and I felt happy as a result.
Chasing happiness is counterintuitive.
Think back to your childhood days. Did you ever sit by yourself debating what makes you happy? If you’d find happiness by playing cricket or LEGO blocks? You did things if you liked them, not because you intellectually decided they were the key to happiness.
Even if you successfully find happiness after a long chase, I bet it won’t last long—I didn’t say this, science does—thanks to hedonic adaptation, the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.
So instead of asking what makes you happy, ask what do you enjoy doing?
I enjoy the following things. Maybe something here could work for you.
How Can You Enjoy Life More?
Cultivate a love for something. Research shows having a passion increases our eudaimonic well-being. Art, music, writing, gardening, cooking, programming, dance, designing are a few examples out of a million. If you are trying to find your passion, there are a couple things you need to know,
-Passion never turns up at your doorstep. You have to create it. This means that you keep working on random things that in turn produce your love for an activity, not the other way around. Only after writing three short stories and fifteen sh*tty blog posts did I discover my passion for writing.
-The only reason to be passionate about something is because you love the activity in itself, not because you can make money out of it. And it’s totally cool if you don’t make money out of your passion—when you follow your passion it doesn’t feel like work, right? I still love writing and hope to hold on to it forever. It’s not my love for writing that ruined me. The desire to be famous and chasing happiness did that.
Strive for Work/Life Balance
Whether you’re eighteen or eighty, you won’t be happy if you overwork yourself, nor if you spend all your time binge-watching TV shows. Always try to have a balance so you have time to get things done, time to enjoy things you love, and time to simply be.
Channel Your Stress Well
It’s easier to binge Netflix after a tiring day at work. But how about working out, taking your dog for a walk, watering your plants, or taking your kids to an ice cream parlor? Find things that you enjoy and channel your stress that way instead of mindlessly scrolling social media.
Human beings are social creatures, so let’s act like it. Go on a family trip, plan a game night with friends (virtual or in person), or simply have dinner with your family together. Odds are, when you’re laughing with people you love you’ll be so present in the moment you won’t think about anything, let alone finding happiness.
Take care of the body you live in
Good rest powers you up for a great day, whereas sleep deprivation destroys your mood and your health. So sleep well, and workout at least three times a week to get your blood and endorphins flowing. You needn’t bench 300 pounds. A fifteen-minute jog would do the job.
So to summarize: Stop chasing happiness, it makes your life worse. Engage yourself in activities that you enjoy in a variety of fields, e.g.: socializing, passion, hobbies. Sleep well and stay human. Zombies have a terrible reputation on our planet, so don’t become one.
Sivashanmugam is the founder of sapienthoughts.com, a community built for exchanging inspiring ideas, thought-provoking perspectives, and poop jokes. He’s featured in popular publications and blogs like Startup and Becoming minimalist. He helps you explore your mind and helps you create a better life through his writing. You can get his free eBook here: 10 Signs You’re Wasting Your Life and How to Overcome them.
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