If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.-Montesquieu
I’ve got happiness on the brain the last few days. Not because I’m particularly happy or particularly not, but because I seem to keep brushing up against it as a topic. And when you start to think about happiness, you really set yourself up for some interesting realizations; which is to say that the things we do that are *supposed* to make us happy often don’t, and the things we often neglect in favor of the things that are *supposed* to make us happy are actually, themselves, the things that make us happy.
So what does it mean to be happy? Do not google this question. The meaning is largely subjective anyway, but you may end up getting advertised to by a bunch of wellness and self-help gurus. “How to find joy in your life” is a common theme. I don’t like that. I’m not talking about those moments of extreme jubilation that come with hearing great news, like that your girlfriend who is way out of your league will in fact marry you even though her prospects are way better, or seeing your child for the first time, or even something more mundane like getting that new job or promotion. These are amazing experiences! But they aren’t sustainable. And you can’t build a life around them.
I like a definition of happiness that’s more like *contentment*, even though to be *content* is its own dirty word (more on that later). And it’s an enviable position, right? Ask most people if they’re “happy”, and there’s a lot of hemming and hawing, and your most likely answer is probably something like an uncertain “I guess?” And that’s how I’d answer the question.
But if you’re not sure you’re happy, then maybe you’re not happy. And if you’re not happy, the question must become: what are you doing about it?
And the world is very happy to offer solutions to that question. Newer, better *stuff* is always top of the list: a bigger house, a nicer car, a bigger television, a better-paying job. “Get these things,” the world seems to say to us, “and you will be happier.”
Thing is, though, that we want those things because they make what we currently have look *less-than* by comparison. My house isn’t the biggest, fanciest one on the block … surely if I had *that* one over there, I’d be better off. My car’s an old clunker… I should really get a new one. We’ve had this old television forever… let’s upgrade. But this is a never-ending cycle. Get the bigger, fancier house, and you’ll start looking in nicer neighborhoods with even nicer houses. Ditch your old car for the new model, and well, it won’t be top of the line for long. Upgrade that old television? Yeah. there’s always a bigger TV.
If you’re always chasing the new, shiny stuff, that’s a journey without an end.
And what about our interactions? We’re all on social media now, which is terrible for our happiness. Because we can’t help but compare ourselves to each other. And in that comparison, we must inevitably look at the people who *really have their lives together* or who enjoy the successful careers we wish we had. Or, worse, we begin to chase validation on social media, which is just stupid. We post pictures for the likes or the retweets or the follows because, somehow, internet popularity has become this source of validation for who we are as people, even though *who we are as people* isn’t necessarily the same as *who we are on the internet*. It’s all performative on some level.
I have a pretty tiny Twitter experience. I’ve had maybe two tweets get more than a handful of interactions outside of a tiny circle of writer-ish people I follow: one about the blizzard that didn’t happen in Atlanta a few years ago and one about Star Wars. I got maybe a hundred likes and a handful of retweets, which was a pretty big deal for me. And that felt good! But then, when things got back to normal, I found myself wondering “well, if I had that much success with those other tweets, surely I can recreate it talking about something else… and if not, maybe I’m doing something wrong.”
Heck, I do the same thing with my blog here. Back in the beginning, I had lots of comments and interactions…. these days, not so much. Did I do something wrong?
MAYBE I DID.
Maybe something in the way I write, or the (in)frequency of my posts turns readers off and they don’t come back like they did when I was younger and full of authorial piss and vinegar.
Or maybe it’s just flukey, and the algorithm has forgotten me like an old Metallica t-shirt at the bottom of the drawer, and that’s that.
Some days I stress about this. Should I change the way I write? Should I tweet more, or act in a certain way?
I *could* do that, but then I think… I started this site as a sort of mental pressure-release valve, a way to write and put things out there, to talk about what’s on my mind and if it resonated with people, great, if not… no harm, no foul; the internet is a big place!
What makes me happy is the act of writing itself, of letting the words fill the page, of finding the right words to express an idea, even if most of the time I come up woefully short of the mark. I started the site because it was *fun*. And if I’m writing, or tweeting, or whatever, to chase re-tweets and likes and comments and whatever, instead of because it’s fun… well, that kind of defeats the entire purpose, doesn’t it?
I’d rather keep writing what’s fun for me to write than try to figure out what people want to see in some random internet blog and cater to that. I’d rather tweet about what I find amusing and interesting and topical than just ask a provocative question to generate a bunch of superficial interactions I don’t care about just to boost my numbers.
I think what brought this whole post on was seeing yet another “where did my followers go” tweet on the old Twitter. (It was, I’m pretty sure, unrelated to one of those periodic purges of bots and trolls, but I guess you can never tell.) People agonize on Twitter all the time about losing followers. “So-and-so followed me and then unfollowed. What’s up?” “People who don’t follow back are the worst.” “Lost thirty followers today. Did this happen to anybody else?” And I’m just like … who is out there watching their follower count closely enough to notice?
And, ok, Twitter is a hellscape, but the same thing happens on all social media. You make a post, you want the interactions. It doesn’t come, you feel bad. But why the Fargo should you feel bad? Nothing changed in your life. If a thousand people “like” something I tweet this afternoon, literally nothing in my life will change. Yet we chase those interactions anyway.
Know what really makes me happy? Going for a run in the quiet of the early morning. Watching favorite movies for the 7th or 8th or 28th time. Wrestling with my kids. Teasing my wife (and trying to find *just that point* where she’s annoyed but not actually *mad* at me). Reading good books. Complaining about bad books. Writing stories of my own. Heck, writing blog posts about happiness that, statistically, maybe 50-100 people in the world will click on and move on from without me ever knowing.
These are not things that increase my station in the world. They don’t generate likes or “engagement”.
But they do put a smile on my face. And they make life a little more worth living. They make me content.
There’s this sort of vilification of the whole idea of contentment today: that somehow to be “content” is to stop growing, stop improving. You have to always be getting better, you can’t stop, can’t rest on your laurels. (See also: Shakespeare wrote thirteen plays during the plague years, or whatever that meme was when COVID started, and all of us writer-types were just gibbering masses of anxiety and stress all the time, but YOU SHOULD BE PRODUCTIVE ANYWAY.) You have to hustle, keep grinding, no matter what.
I agree with that in general, maybe? Like, if you’re not improving, you’re stagnating. I get that.
But that brings with it the other side of the coin. That if you’re not improving, you’re worthless, you’re wasting your time. And that self-talk can put you into a spiral real quick.
We need to stop chasing what’s *out there* at all costs and start appreciating what’s *in here*.
I started off with a philosopher so I guess I’ll end with one:
It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.-Sheryl Crow