Thursday, June 18, 2009

We Desire a False Salvation

This is an overly scientific, but highly useful post for everyone whether or not you are a nerd. If you are a totally non-nerdy person this post carries a lot of weight. Nerds may know some of this just on instinct, but a lot of nerdy people find this concept hard to understand due to our high emphasis on personal achievements.

Hopefully this makes up for no post on Sunday.

This post is about being happier and worrying less. Most of us want to be happier, and we work towards things that make us happy. The unfortunate and obvious thing I'm going to tell everyone is that most of this effort is wasted because most of the things we want don't make us happy.

Admittedly there are things that do. Most notably, healthy relationships and a better diet help make us happy. When I say better diet I generally mean a high fiber/good quality meals where you still eat a good amount of food. Healthy relationships means good friendships and romantic relationships that are actually beneficial. If you constantly argue with your SO or fight with your friends, those are not healthy relationships. Most friendships are pretty healthy though. People in good romantic relationships pretty much totally get a pass on happiness.

Almost everything else in life doesn't make us happy. When we lust for a better job, more money, better cars or a better house, what we don't realize is that those things don't make us happy. In general, those things tend to make us less happy. The reasoning behind this is that when we want lots of things, not having them tends to make us less satisfied with what we already have. While we may eventually get more money or a shiny car, it doesn't typically satisfy us and we want more. This creates a sort of unhappy downward spiral that is hard to avoid.

The scientific community has made some discoveries in the past. Most notably a dude named Dan Gilbert (I'll link to his book eventually >.<) did some research on people in bad situations and how happy they were. His findings were pretty noteworthy. He found that people in bad situations tended to be about as happy on the average as people in very good situations. Normally finding no correlation is not a big deal, but having no correlation between having fast cars and happiness is a big deal. Finding no correlation between being crippled by a car accident and unhappiness is also a big deal.

There's some other research and it is pretty nerdy stuff about brain activity and things like that, but honestly it's no more 'proof' than the things we can easily observe. Our brains quickly respond to negative situations with chemicals that 'numb the pain' so to speak. This is why when people go through difficult life experiences, they often think that it was for the better.

I'm going to steal more research and mention things like people who 'almost made it big.' There are a number of people who could have become rich - become co-owners in Microsoft, played music for a number of popular bands, or patented the telephone, but didn't. A surprising number of these people (most that I heard) claim that they are more happy now than they would have been had they 'made it big.' While we can probably dispute that they may have enjoyed being successful more than they think, these people don't regret the choices they've made. That's quite surprising, really.

I can go into some personal experience here. The first mention is that I've met a few millionaires in my time. All of the ones I knew personally were unhappy. One wealthy family I know is perpetually unhappy and at odds with their non-rich family members. Every time I see them interacting with others, it's in an angry and condescending way. I knew another millionaire personally, and their story is much too sad to tell.

On the other hand, I know this guy who almost made it big. It's me! I was a pretty wealthy guy at one point in my life, almost pushing a million dollars. I ended up going through a lot of legal trouble due to some poor business decisions and got my money sued out of me. Eventually I settled but I really didn't have much money left to keep going. Still, I'm really happy I went through the experience overall, and I wouldn't change that I did (may have changed a few decisions I made, but oh well).

Elaborating more on that, I'm a pretty happy person - probably way happier than the average person is. I smile all the time. I have a very happy life. I have troubles like anyone else, but in spite of these things, I enjoy my time spent living.

I know other people that are not very well-off. I have a friend who was crippled in a skateboarding accident (paralyzed from waist down). He is an extremely happy guy. I don't feel sorry for him at all because I feel that'd be doing him a disservice. He's not in any sort of misery. I'm happy that he's able to live his life to the fullest.

So the secret is to get in bad life situations to become happy? Nah, not really.

The secret is to not stress over stuff in life. It's that stress that makes us unhappy. The little things in life aren't that big, even if by little I mean missing out on the chance to make billions of dollars. I own a disturbing number of business strategy books, and all the good ones suggest that you can't be successful without balancing your life. You need to invest time with friends, family, and just casual pleasure (like video games!) or you'll burn out.