If I ask you why you’re unhappy, you might say: “I hate school. My girlfriend cheated on me. I lost my job. I have cancer. I’m depressed because nothing is going my way.” Understandable. These are all difficult obstacles. We’re conditioned to feel upset. It’s a signal that we aren’t getting what we want.
But what do you want? According to your answer, you want to enjoy school, you want a loyal girlfriend, you want a steady job and you want to be healthy. But why? So you can be happy!
Don’t you see what’s happening here? You’ve created conditions for your happiness, conditions that are out of your control. We can make efforts to maintain relationships, keep jobs and stay healthy, but it’s never a guarantee, in fact, you will inevitably get sick.
There are only two things you can control: your expectations and your attitude.
Let’s start with expectations.
I just got back from eating breakfast at a local restaurant. I’ve become friends with an older woman who works there. It wasn’t busy so I got to talk with her over my meal. She told me about her son who is the twelfth person diagnosed with an incredibly rare and untreatable disease called “double cortex syndrome.” He’s twelve years old, and at it’s worse he might have a dozen seizures in a day. The seizures have caused brain damage. He’s not expected to make it through his teenage years and he knows this.
But she says he’s generally an incredibly happy person. We didn’t get into why. I already knew. This boy’s conditions for happiness aren’t founded on success or girlfriends or health. He doesn’t expect any of it. All he requires for happiness is life. The miracle of being alive is enough for him.
We’ll come back to this. Let’s talk about attitude.
Two guys are learning how to ride motorcycles. Let’s call them Stefan and Stephen. Stefan and Stephen are riding together and turn a sharp corner, but their lack of experience causes them to crash into each other. Stefan falls on the pavement and along with a scraped arm he gets his leg caught under the bike and the engine burns his shin. Stephen keeps his balance but is redirected off the side of the road, hits a really fancy mailbox, and then crashes into the back of a Porsche. Stephen’s ankle gets broken along with some minor cuts and bruises. His motorcycle gets totaled. The mailbox and sports car have nothing to do with this at all.
Stefan drives Stephen to the hospital in his car, and after the doctor puts Stephen in a magical healing box that not only instantly heals his foot but also makes his hair extra luscious, the two of them step outside. Stefan tells Stephen that the accident was a sign and that he’s decided to sell his bike and stick to cars. Stephen says that cars aren’t that sticky. More importantly, he said that the accident is just part of the learning experience, and decides to buy Stefan’s bike from him and keep riding.
Stefan’s attitude is that adversity should be avoided and taken as a sign that he’s doing something wrong. Stephen sees the same adversity as a right of passage, as a necessary obstacle to becoming great.
Stephen’s hair was also already extra luscious to begin with and the magical box was actually just a really cute nurse kissing his broken ankle. I’m also clearly an egomaniac who loves my own name and will use every opportunity to ravage its common mispronunciation.
Silliness aside, here’s my point.
If you expect too much, your happiness will be chaotic and fleeting, dependent on circumstances out of your control. But there is a happiness that is indestructible, and it exists within all of us. We can feel this happiness when we manage our expectations. The ultimate goal is that our only requirement for fulfillment is the pure magic of being alive.
This is difficult. Buddhism calls this Nirvana, the highest degree of enlightenment. So for us plebs who might not be seeking the abandonment of all desire and complete detachment from ourselves, let’s use this wisdom as a way of checking in. We don’t have to abandon our desires and ourselves to be happy. If you want to be successful, fucking go for it. If you want life to be more adventurous, I dare you to move towards it. But just remember that your happiness will not always be a constant, and when you’re depressed, it’s not because you’re doing anything wrong, it’s because you’re pushing yourself to be better.
—Aug 23, 2016