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Happiness is Not a Choice

Published or Updated On: 
March 24, 2024

Life seemed to hit a valley recently. I stopped sleeping well. Felt more stressed. More impulsive. Days seemed to blur together. Just generally not great. I figured out the cause:

  1. Work became dopamine fun.
  2. I became “mentally lazy”.
  3. I stopped mentally exercising.

Around 6 months ago, my primary motivator for work became “because it’s fun”. And I mean like theme park, “jump for joy” fun, “holy shit it’s a party” fun. We’ve been crushing it, so it’s been a blast. No discipline was required. Lower brainstem Jeff spent more time driving. 

Then I started adapting to the fun. You can’t stay on cloud 9 forever. Our success just became the new normal. Lower brainstem Jeff stayed in the driver’s seat: searching for more dopamine, magnifying problems, and generally being an ape. 🦍 I became less appreciative, and more adapted to the good things in my life. Enter the valley.

You’ve probably heard that happiness is a choice. I think this is a well-meaning phrase with bad packaging. If you dig no further, you’ll probably take away that you can simply choose to be happy each day. “I feel bad — no matter, I’ll just choose to be happy now!” Ta-da! 🎉 But if you’ve tried this, you know it doesn’t work. Here’s what I’ve found instead:

➡️ Happiness is not a choice.

➡️ Happiness comes from exercises in perspective.

Mental exercises. Just as important as physical exercises. Here’s some examples:

  • Consider the counterfactual 
    • Think about something important that’s going well. Imagine how much worse life might be if that wasn’t going well. In your mind, put yourself in that world. What’s it like there? How do you feel? How would it affect your day to day life?
    • Example: my wife is pregnant in her third trimester. She got pregnant easily and both her & our baby have been healthy. This isn’t the case for many people. There are so many ways this huge milestone could have gone bad. And that would probably be consuming our lives.  My successes in business would seem hollow. The money we’re putting towards a house would be going towards trying IVF or hospital bills. We both really want to be parents. If I got to the end of my life and had never succeeded in business or writing, I would be disappointed but OK. If I got to the end of my life and I had never been a parent, I would be devastated. And it’s looking like that won’t be how things play out. And damn, is that good. But because we adapt and make anything good “the new normal”, it’s easy to take it for granted.
    • By considering what life would be like in a world where this hadn’t gone to plan, I can extract so much goodness from our current situation. This can be applied to many other parts of life. Relationships, career, your pets, a hobby, or other circumstances of life.
    • I get the best results when I share this train of thought with someone, usually my wife. It gives her a bump up too.
  • Try to see your adversities as opportunities, or even blessings
    • You are absolute, positively, 100% guaranteed to experience adversity in life. There is no way around it. You cannot avoid it. What you can do is try to view adversity in a way that serves you.
    • Example: In early January, I hit a lifetime bench press PR, a goal I’d been working towards for 3+ years. 2 weeks later, I injured my rotator cuff and became unable to bench press at all. It felt like getting to the top of Everest, then before I could look around & soak it in, I tripped and found myself at basecamp. I’ve been in PT for a couple months now. It sucks.
    • With this exercise, I can try to view this setback in a more helpful light: 1. Injuries are part of the game with hard training for 10+ years. This is a chance to endure, adapt and come back stronger. If the journey wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be satisfying. 2. I’ve never had a significant RC injury and this is a new chance for me to learn better joint maintenance and avoid future, more serious injuries that I may have been on a collision course with.
    • Here’s a thought experiment - would you even want a life with no problems? Without problems, adversities, setbacks and challenges, we have no stimulus for growth. No opportunity to develop, gain skills, self-confidence and reach our potential. Everything would be easy. If you destroy a 6 year old in a round of pickup basketball, are you thrilled with your incredible achievement?
    • One of my favorite quotes from Seneca: ““I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
  • Do hard things to become harder
    • A spin on the above that resonates with me — remember that the human mind is antifragile with the right perspectives. Stressors can build resilience, capability. You can use the presence of discomfort to remind yourself that you don’t need a soft life, that you’re not a slave to your body.
    • When you feel discomfort, especially physical, this can flip a switch that changes how you view that discomfort. Being occasionally cold, hungry, sleep deprived, or in pain is inevitable throughout life. All of these take on a new light when viewed as “toughness training”, a game where you get stronger from enduring.
  • Take the view from above
    • Here a recording I made a few years ago that takes you through the exercise.
    • This can help zap the feeling that you’re the center of the universe - nice, expansive perspective
  • Remember the most important ingredient to a happy life
    • Whenever I reflect on this, it gives me a good pulse of new appreciation for my people.

I’m a weightlifter so I like weightlifting analogies. If these exercises are the compound lifts in my mental workout, then meditating and re-reading my favorite books on Stoicism are great accessory lifts. Meditating helps me break impulsivity cycles (watch it arise, keep watching it, it fades away) and generally grounds me. Re-reading Stoic texts is like having my favorite meals prepared by different world class chefs. They each have their own flavor that helps me appreciate the ideas in a new light.

Stay out of the valleys my friends.

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