I will never be anywhere near as happy as the dogs I live with.
I live on a 9-acre property with four dogs that chase each other around all day. They roll in the dirt, take frequent naps, eat perfectly prepared organic food and get constant affection from humans who love and adore them.
Our dogs naturally get all the exercise they need, they don’t stress about the future, they don’t sweat the past and they’re never running late.
Compare that to the life of an average human in western society.
Corporations are slowly turning us into consumerist robots. We work too much to buy things that don’t make us happy. Every time we get new technology we end up primarily using it to either kill each other or slowly kill ourselves.
Our mental health is a disaster. We’re happiest when surrounded by a loving community of people who genuinely care about us, yet we spend most of our efforts setting up our life to avoid others and not depend on anyone — then we wonder why we’re lonely and depressed.
Our bodies are constantly breaking down. No matter how much bio hacking we do, every year we get less resilient, more stiff and we heal slower and slower.
All of this is to say one unavoidable truth about human existence.
It’s full of suffering.
If we’re lucky, we experience brief moments of golden retriever-like joy throughout our day, but that’s it. Stress, anxiety, craving, loss, discomfort, pain, dissatisfaction – that’s all part of what we signed up for.
If you don’t think so, that’s only because you forgot how much better your life would be if you were a dog, cat or pretty much any other animal that’s ever existed.
Everyone is Happy in California
I live in California, and for better or for worse, California is slowly taking over the world, due to its unprecedented amount of media influence. In fact, it’s safe to assume that anything happening here will soon be happening in your town, just give it a few years. Sorry in advance.
While there are many wonderful ideas coming out of California, there are also some incredibly destructive ones. Perhaps the most harmful idea that California exports is a denial of the inherent suffering that comes with life as a human.
I’m certainly not the first to suggest that life is full of suffering. Buddhists, Stoics, and countless other philosophies have pointed to this, but I believe many people don’t understand why this realization is so important — especially here.
California is the headquarters of this thing called “positivity culture”. Positivity culture doesn’t mean to do us harm, but too much of it will ruin our mental health. When we deny a fundamental truth about being human, we’re left with unrealistic expectations. We become “solution” addicts. Everything is solvable — just one more workshop, one more coaching session, one more Tony Robbins weekend and all our problems will be gone and vanish forever.
Are there some problems in life that are worth solving? For sure. In fact, there are a lot of folks that don’t change the things they can change, and as a result they need a dose of California sunshine. If that’s you, stop reading this essay — you don’t need it. I’m talking to the people who have gone too far in the other direction.
The problem with thinking everything is solvable, is that many of the issues associated with mental health (depression, anxiety, addiction, stress, etc…) can’t actually be vanquished and our attempts to do so only make the problem worse. Little things like a bad day can spiral into a gigantic process where we end up depressed for weeks, when all that was needed is maybe a half-day of suffering.
We’ve become so obsessed with “fixing” everything that we forgot about the one key ingredient to vibrant mental health.
Bad Days, Bad Weeks and Bad Months
Everyone has bad days, but some people have bad weeks, or bad months, or even in some drastic cases — bad years. Depression and anxiety are negative feedback loops that feed off themselves, and often the only way to let them pass is to not give them any more energy.
Mark Manson explained this concept in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. When our grandparents used to have a bad day, they would just “have a bad day” and shrug it off. Then positivity culture came along and set unreasonably high standards for everyone. Now, if you’re having a bad day, there are 1,354 things you can do about it, which gives you 1,354 ways to feel bad about yourself, beat yourself up, and give yourself a nice side of shame to go along with the bad day.
Now thanks to that shame you might have a bad week, and then because all this is a negative feedback loop, your bad week turns into a bad month… now you’re really depressed because what kind of loser is down for a whole month? And so on. You only had to suffer for a day, but instead you dragged it out for an entire month, thanks to the unrealistic expectation that bad days aren’t just part of the human experience.
But “have a bad day” doesn’t look good written on a mirror, so we don’t want to tell ourselves that, even though it might actually result in us being more connected to reality. Can you imagine replacing all those positive affirmations we so commonly see with ones that actually ground you in reality? How about these.
Life is full of suffering.
Sometimes you’re gonna feel like shit, today might be that day.
Your pain is not as unique or special as you think it is.
I like the last one a lot. I don’t know about you — but when I actually ponder that statement I feel better about myself. What a relief it is to know that if I don’t enthusiastically jump out of bed at the crack of dawn, then have a “miracle morning” followed by a highly optimized and efficient work day — I’m not broken — I’m just like every other human. No one enthusiastically jumps out of bed every morning, it’s a lie people use to sell things.
Every human goes through suffering just like you — even the ones who will never admit it. They have bad days too, they’re just invested in their image of convincing you they’ve transcended all that.
Speaking of people being full of shit, we should talk about one of the reasons it’s become to hard for people to tell the truth about their life.
The Economics of Happiness
There are a lot of people who are literally in the business of being happy, and I don’t envy them one bit.
For example, let’s take a couple who does relationship counseling. On the surface, they’re going to think that the more happiness they project, the more people will want their services. After all, don’t we all want to be in a happy relationship? So they fill their social media with happy kissing pictures, and instead of reporting on the real ups and downs of their relationship, they simply leave out the messy parts and highlight the things that make them look good. They don’t open up to their friends about their problems and whenever they are asked how their relationship is, their knee jerk reaction is always “great!”
What they don’t realize, aside from the fact that most people can see through their bullshit, is the fact that their relationship counseling business is now eroding their mental health. That becomes it’s own downward spiral because the more they suffer, the more there will be a gap between the way they really are, and the way they project themselves. Then they will feel like frauds (because they are), and will have to double-down on their efforts to make everything look good. This will continue until the moment everything implodes, upon which their community will proclaim how surprised they are, and how they never saw it coming.
How To See It Coming
One of the essential lessons I took away from the 10-day Vipassana course is that craving and aversion are different sides of the same coin. In other words, when someone’s life is full of super highs, it will also be full of super lows — neither of which are rooted in a calm, grounded sense of self.
When you look closely at someone who is “super” happy, you can often sense the fear lurking underneath it. There’s a kind of clinging — not wanting to let go of the good feeling — because on some level they know their high will be followed by a period of depression and addiction.
That’s not to say that if you aren’t having super highs and super lows your life won’t be great, but it will be great in a different way. It’s the difference between a sugar high and being satisfied after a quality meal. It’s the difference between temporary validation and a deep knowing that you are enough just the way you are. It’s the difference between feeling good because you’ve been eating right and exercising, and feeling good because you just drank two cups of coffee.
Being well adjusted means riding the waves of life, up and down, without exacerbating them by clinging on to the good times and trying to constantly fix the bad times.
Zen Monasteries and the NY Stock Exchange
One of the conversations at the heart of this essay is the difference between the pursuit of acceptance and the pursuit of growth, because we often talk about them in the same sentence without realizing it.
In the personal growth/self-help world that California has become known for, we’ve fallen in love with growth. Whether it’s growing companies, growing wealth or growing ourselves, we’re all about that growth. But the pursuit of growth and the pursuit of acceptance are fundamentally at odds with each other.
Acceptance loves what is, growth wants to change it.
Acceptance asks “how is this okay?” Growth asks “how can this be better?” Acceptance is being, growth is doing.
It’s why you don’t see any Zen Monasteries listed on the New York Stock Exchange. They aren’t interested in growth.
Now I’m going to say something controversial.
If we are struggling with mental health, then acceptance should be where we put our energy, not growth. Yes, we can do both, but let’s be honest — most of us struggle in one area more than another. I’m talking to you overwhelmed entrepreneur — put down the Tony Robbins!
If you want to grow your business, or build your skills in a specific area, then by all means — do some personal growth. It’s great for that. But are you deeply satisfied with your life? Not on a theoretical level, but on the level of a felt sense of fulfillment. How have you managed your addictions? How easily do you escape into them when triggered? Are you constantly busy and feeling overwhelmed all the time?
There’s nothing wrong with personal growth, but not only will it not make us happy, it often leads us away from happiness, because it focuses our mind on “not enough”.
The reason this gets so confusing and conflated is that you have many industries, coaches and books trying to sell these two things at the same time, and it’s not honest. It’s only possible because we still believe the “it will make you happy” delusion. We think “once I grow my business I’ll be happy”, or “once I learn X, Y, Z I’ll be happy”, but that’s all a bunch of western culture bullshit. That kind of “seeking” energy is moving in the opposite direction of happiness and fulfillment.
Furthermore, I’ve found in my own life that there’s plenty of “growth” in learning to accept myself just the way I am. That’s no easy task, and unlike many of the other ways people pursue growth, the gains I make in that area stick actually improve the quality of my life.
Every time I talk about this topic I can’t help but remember the show “My Super Sweet 16” from MTV. Do you remember it? It featured rich girls on their 16th birthday wrestling with a kind of entitlement that would make royalty in some countries cringe. It was an incredible display of failed parenting, sequin dresses and magnificently extravagant expectations.
The best moments of each episode were always the meltdowns, because inevitably, each girl would throw a huge tantrum when the brand new Range Rover her parents bought wasn’t the right color.
There’s actually a great German word for what it feels like to watch this show — schadenfreude — which means “pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune”.
While I don’t often praise MTV for how their programming educates the public, I do love the lessons behind this show, even if most people were just entertained by it. It showed us that at the end of the day, you could get everything anyone’s ever wanted — but without the ability to accept things the way they are — you’re screwed.
That’s our task — to see life the way it is. Not better, not worse, but exactly the way it is, and work to accept that. For many of us in California it may be lowering expectations, for others it may be raising them.
If the reality is you have bad days sometimes, so be it.
If the reality is you only get a used Mercedes on your 16th birthday, so be it.
Accepting reality is a big task, but if dogs can do it — so can we.