Most of the time I feel fairly happy. The happiness I refer to is that feeling of self-awareness mixed with abundant amounts of energy to do, experiment, engage. Best of all, I find the state simple to attain.
I achieve happiness via the mere systematic elimination of sources of unhappiness. Trial and error has repeatedly reaffirmed the heuristic. I need not intently seek happiness. I simply don’t do that which causes harm. I avoid it with prejudice. That’s the entire formula.
Note, I do not allude to risk aversion, especially of the low risk, potentially high-reward actions. I do not suggest the reduction of occasional stressors that actually stimulate long-term growth. Rather, I refer to those actions and behaviors continuously present in our lives that cause notable displeasure and lead to unhappiness.
Much of the negative factors concerns the superfluous. Having too much that doesn’t render authentic benefit tends to create an awful bit of mess. This can lead to anxiety and, consequently, unhappiness.
The virtue behind eliminating the superfluous have permeated over millennia by way of the Stoics. Minimalism respects the same principle. Among the more recent philosophers, Schopenhauer argued for avoiding sources of unhappiness as the only hope to reach a kind of a balance. (He held actual happiness as unattainable, something I clearly don’t align with, barring my definition.) Approaching the present, Nassim Nicholas Taleb presents (with analytical prowess) a similar perspective in the maxim of Via negativa, demonstrating the recurring prevalence of elimination over addition; emphasize not doing that which causes harm over seeking what might help at risk of misunderstood complex interactions.
What I define as happiness: avoidance of unhappiness; avoidance of actions that cause harm.
Sources of unhappiness repeat themselves in vengeful cycles. If ever I felt unhappy, depressed, or modestly frustrated, the causes generally attributed to a subset of the following:
- Neglect of physical health
- Not being the authentic self
- Continuously doing the unwanted
- Severe exhaustion
- Draining relations
I’ll address each category in turn.
Neglect of physical health
It is tempting to frame this entirely in terms of elimination. And I argue that most of it is.
Avoid being sedentary for long periods. Just don’t do it. Stick to that anti-Nike slogan like glue with respect to immobility. You will naturally establish your preferred ways of movement without intricate planning.
Observe the greater power of elimination over the prescription: move X minutes per day; perform such and such ceremony Y times per week. The latter still enables you to overwhelm the remainder of your day with sedentary habits.
Avoid compromising foods: highly glycemic carbohydrates, sugars, processed, artificial, fried, packaged. You will consequently fill your needed calories with beneficial or at least non-harmful ingredients. While not entirely sufficient (you need particular elements in your nutrition), you will already address a huge range of health issues.
Again, notice the power of elimination over the affirmative: ‘eat such and such items’ (and yet fill the rest of your belly with debauchery). It is too easy to abuse. It appals me what I observe on plates in buffets of incredible variety of products: a few pieces of bland vegetables (as if marking a bullet point), and the remainder … you can imagine.
Don’t smoke. Avoid excessive (or better yet any) alcohol. Avoid excessive caffeine (beyond the certain extent that is said to render benefits).
Everyone requires certain positive stimuli in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, the extent of which varies across individuals. For some, the mere frequent movement suffices, which wonderfully aligns with the elimination strategy above.
Others, like myself, require more particular habits to avoid corporal breakdowns. And even so, I’ve structured it into something that demands but an average of 30 minutes per day (beyond the all-around movement).
Some survive on shakes and supplements, although this hasn’t been my inclination. You ultimately require specific vitamins and minerals. A lot of it resorts to rich vegetables - dark-green, or otherwise dark-coloured. Much involves legumes, fish, seeds and some fruit. I’m no specialist, but with a bit of self-education and intuition you can address most demands.
The correlation of health habits with happiness is not a strict physical law. Sources of unhappiness can comprise one of the other categories I present further below. Yet interestingly, I don’t recall having ever met an unhappy or depressed individual who didn’t exercise behaviors harmful to physical health, and usually among multiple of these categories.
On the other hand, among the happy and energizing individuals I encounter - the successful, independent, mindful, minimalist, Zen, Eco-friendly, etc, I tend to observe reoccurring qualities: sparse alcohol, vegan/vegetarian, physically active, Yoga, meditation, dance, inclination towards natural therapies, and anything that speaks health.
Granted, I’ve also known the heavy alcohol-consuming, overweight, physically inactive who looked and claimed to be happy. Yet the extent of that happiness aside, don’t confuse the causality relationship I propose here. I argue that if unhappy, then likely due to the presence of harmful behaviors, not the other way around. Sounds obvious. Yet I see laziness and destructive behavior constantly prevail.
Not being the authentic self
This might involve serious compromise to inner principles. You can reference mine here. Many represent philosophical or aesthetic preferences whose relevance to authenticity you might question. However, certain principles so inherently define me, that if continuously and severely neglected, the resulting impact, although very subtle to detect, can spawn a gradual chain reaction towards unhappiness.
Some of my core elements of character concern simplicity, mindfulness, and attunement to the surrounding physical environment. A circumstance that severely challenges these principles (over an extended period, not briefly or intermittently) will gradually cause anxiety, which, if not asserted and preempted, can easily lead to plain unhappiness, and plenty has in the past.
The inauthenticity can also proceed attempts to appease some agenda in a social setting. Or be led into an awful rhythm that not only feels unnatural, but causes disregard to basic physical health. Or the pursuit of some project/mission that violates the notion of who I am.
Continuously doing the unwanted
Notice the distinction between the stated and not doing what I would like. While I’ve plenty regretted some of the latter (in consequence of laziness or risk-aversion), such lack of initiative has only caused relatively short-term frustration.
Any of my prolonged unhappiness usually resulted from harmful actions or behaviors, not lack of innovation. Yes, I frown upon cowardice, including my own, but recognize it as human and not strictly irrational. However, consciously causing self-harm (for some misconstrued purpose), be it immediate or secondary, lacks rationale and leads to unhappiness, not to mention the insult to my intelligence.
Examples of recurring stressors:
- Draining environments
- Particular work (perhaps performed in a considerably unsatisfying way)
- Stress-inducing mechanics. Personal examples involve cars and driving. (If I ever, in a way an emotionally impulsive person might argue, hated doing anything I recall, it was urban driving and automobile maintenance. Long ago, it represented a severe recurring stressor and cause for unhappiness.)
Mediocrity rewards mediocrity and justifies unhappiness as necessary to meet daily demands; the demands of our own doing and needs of our own creation. It’s okay to do what we don’t like. To complain. To be rushed. To feel a constant state of exhaustion. To severely compromise. To feel unhappiness. To pass hours on the sofa over reality programming and fear-spreading ‘news’. Anything to avoid time of solitude and meditation, in company of just our thoughts. “It’s normal life”, one insists.
This relates closely to physical health. Lack of proper rest as well as constant fatigue cloud our judgement, impair cognitive function, and lead to overall unhappiness if unresolved. So many combat this ineffective state by way of excessive caffeine and stimulants, rather than restructure or simplify the schedule to enable proper rest; as if it was an admirable trait to showcase as a testament to our productivity and busyness.
I’ve plenty been around individuals that gradually drained my energy and for sustained periods. It has involved friends, relationships, colleagues, and roommates. Sometimes a person unconsciously exhibits draining behavior in presence of other negative factors. Sometimes that’s just the person’s nature. Consequences typically ranged from annoyance, to frustration, to unhappiness.
The people we constantly engage can severely impact our well-being. The common wisdom in surrounding yourself with the best people you can holds much merit. But more powerfully, eliminate/distance the negative relations first. Another common wisdom indicates that the impact of one negative relation far outweighs the benefit of one positive.
Personally, and maybe I’m in a privileged position (time will tell), but I enjoy long periods of solitude. They do not cause me unhappiness, respecting all other factors so far covered. On the other hand, cases of sustained negative relations had been known to undeniably impart their negativity.
Tendency for more
There’s a common tendency among family, colleagues and the social circle: to assess your well-being by means of what you have, not what you don’t have; by what you do, not what you don’t do; by the actions you take, not the actions you avoid; how you make money, not how you don’t squander it; by your possessions, not your debt (or lack thereof); whether you are in a relationship, not whether it’s a draining one; whether you socialize, not the nature of those interactions; whether things are ‘happening’ in your life, not whether you’re happy. For as long as your life proceeds according to the mediocre plan, your well-being and happiness are of secondary nature. We’re all in the same boat after all, follows the insinuation.
There’s enormous emphasis placed on acquisition, not on elimination. The momentum favors your social and economic activity, not your well-being.
It astonishes me how the elimination of the most trivial of nuisances can make a substantial difference (or change everything). Imagine it like the removal of that endlessly nagging stain on the floor of an otherwise clean room.
I used to have a head of curly hair that I found just unbearable to deal with. Not an exaggeration. I often spent up to 30 minutes in front of the mirror in awful, vain attempts to tidy it into something presentable. This lasted until the age of 24, when I began shaving the head. Suddenly I became a new, more confident, substantially happier person, who never ever again need deal with that infernal daily maintenance.
Granted, some aspects of ourselves we cannot as easily divorce from. But when such an opportunity exists, the simple elegance is mighty practical over the alternative complex (and often expensive) solutions.
It has all been about elimination: debt, home ownership, broadcast and social-network noise, car, ancient paperwork, file cabinets, corporate employment, superfluous online accounts, applications, desktop icons, toolbars.
I’ve been practicing public speaking a lot over the last year or two. Even this domain has mostly involved elimination: avoid excessive gestures, excessive body language, excessive filler sounds; don’t over-rehearse or memorize sections of speech verbatim; don’t create elaborate outlines. For my modest pretensions, very little innovation does it require beyond solid body posture, solid eye contact, controlled vocal modulation, and just natural communication.
To sum it up
Sources of unhappiness addressed, and provided certain basic necessities - ability to walk and go on hikes, consistent exercise, healthy meals, good literature, and means to write, I’m one happy son of a bitch. The rest is a bonus. Ultimately, we face the question, am I true to myself? Have I been? Ask yourself, what do you require?
I sometimes genuinely wonder. Who is the happier and who is the more successful, by own definition: a hypothetical seven-figure financial analyst, or a fruit-stand owner at the favela around the corner? Which exercises greater control over own life?
Questions, comments? Connect.