How to be Happy
The Short Version
Over the course of the last few years I’ve made some interesting discoveries about life. Essentially what it comes down to, is the importance of having faith; in believing that things will be good. The future is impossible to predict. There are simply too many factors converging, causing unpredictable outcomes. I don’t ‘know’ if it’ll all be good, but I know that when I feel good everything is easier, and if you ever observe a happy person and an unhappy person you will quickly notice that A more good things happen to the happy person and B that happy people will generally be happy independently of their circumstances, while unhappy people will always find something to complain about.
Everything I know about the world is determined by what I’ve experienced, how I have learned to perceive things and what things I perceive as a result. All the thoughts that I have are there because my brain is reorganizing its perceptions — or rather its interpretations of those perceptions — and drawing conclusions based on patterns that it has learned. My perception is very selective, my interpretations are entirely subjective, and when I remember things I only remember parts of what I interpreted. This means that the level of abstraction and distortion between what actually happens in the world and what I end up learning is so high, that I cannot simply trust my brain.
Language is a great example. I knew a couple that would constantly fight and make up. Almost every time the problem was misunderstanding and miscommunication. One person has learned to use words one way, but the other person has learned to understand words in a slightly different way. This is an unavoidable challenge in our complex world. The big problem is when people interpret something incorrectly and forget that they could easily be wrong because they’re unaware of some critical details. We cannot perceive everything that has brought about a situation. When we begin blindly trusting our interpretations of the world and reacting to them things get very difficult very fast.
When we interact with one another honesty is very important. But what I think is even more important is clarity. I can be as honest as I like, but what good is it if the person misunderstands what I’m saying? If I’ve made sure I know what I want to say, then I also want the other to know what it is I want to say. If I’m just thinking out loud, then I want to make sure the other person knows I’m not claiming to know. Reversely, when someone else says something I don’t like, I ask whether I understood them correctly and try to find out why they said it before I let it upset me.
I cannot simply trust my brain.
If I cannot trust my brain then I can chose to believe what makes sense to my brain, or not. If what makes sense to my brain is that bad things, which I cannot control will happen, it will make me unhappy. I just remind myself that I don’t have all the facts and go ahead and believe whatever makes me happy. There is no sense in worrying about anything. You simply do what you can. Of course this doesn’t mean you can be stupid, but if you know you can’t do anything then worrying will do nothing but drain you of the energy you need to do what you CAN do.
The Long Version
The following is some rambling about some of the things that I’ve experienced that led me to these insights. It is not edited or structured. I just wrote what came.
Have a little faith
Pull yourself together boy, it’s really not that hard to feel alright.
I wrote that line for a song a little over half a year ago when I was still in Austria. I’d like to expand on that a little. Unfortunately I never wrote my thoughts on this down last summer when I was thinking about all of this a lot.
It began gradually around the summer of 2009 when I spent a week with some friends in a VW camper van in Italy simply going where we felt, relying only on our intuition.
That coming fall I needed to do an internship for school, and while most of my classmates had begun sending out applications half a year earlier and taken several months to find something, I hadn’t even begun to look, let alone apply anywhere.
A good friend of mine was renting a cabin on an Austrian mountain for four weeks that summer and he invited a number of his friends to come up for as long as they liked. I’d finally begun sending out applications as fall was approaching quickly, so when I went up I only planned on staying for a weekend.
I came back down off the mountain on Monday to find I’d been accepted at a fancy recording studio on the San Francisco peninsula, about an hour outside of the city. On Wednesday I went back up the mountain for the remaining two weeks.
I’d often heard people speak about the importance of faith. If you trust that good things will happen, then good things will happen. Don’t worry! I was beginning to realize first hand that this phenomenon was true.
Soon fall rolled around and I flew back to the place I’d known as a child and young adolescent, but had left ten years before, when I was 15. Since then I’d gone back to visit three times for a total of less than two months. Now I was going to be there for four months straight; enough time to rediscover my home and establish a life there.
The recording studio I interned in was fairly small. The woman who ran it, specialized in very high end acoustic recording. Up until the final stage of mastering her entire studio ran analog without any computers. After having been accustomed to graphic displays and numeric values up until then, this was very foreign to me. Having no visual display as a reference point meant you were forced to learn to trust your ears. This valuable lesson parallels learning to trust your gut.
See something real
During my internship I felt I needed to see more of California than the small suburb where the studio was located. During the past decade I had experienced very little of the place I once called home. I took a week off to hitchhike down the coast to Los Angeles to see my aunt. I was able to borrow a tent, sleeping bag and pad from my uncle in San Francisco, and got a ride from a friend who lives in Santa Cruz for the first part of the way. Fortune smiled on me from the beginning, in spite of the fact that it rained, and my shoes had holes in them. I was invited to hang out until the skies cleared, and I was given a pair of brand new DC skate shoes in my favorite color, that were too small for my friend’s roommate.
My adventure began when my friend who came camping with me for a night in Big Sur, returned to San Francisco: I needed a place to pitch my tent, and I found a wonderful place up a ridge between some trees, where my bright orange tent would not be visible to the rangers. I got up at sunrise, climbed down the mountain and stood in the turnout of Jade Cove to hitch a ride. When the sun got strong, I decided not to wait any longer, put on my huge backpack to which I had strapped my sign saying SOUTH, hopped on my skateboard and started cruising down Highway One toward a shady grove further down the road. I hadn’t been riding for more than ten minutes when a car pulled over. It was a friendly, blond 23 year old dude with dreads named Randy. He told me about some of his own traveling experiences in 30 countries, and how important your attitude is when you are hitchhiking. People are more likely to stop, he said, if you smile as if you just can’t wait to brighten someone’s day. Randy brought me as far as the small town of Cambria and set me off at the last traffic light of the village. I figured it was a good spot to wait since people were forced to stop, and it was pretty obvious that everyone who passed was going a reasonable distance from here. I set my pack down in the shade and stood there for about an hour and a half, at which point I felt I’d done enough smiling. Again I put on my backpack and jumped on my skateboard. And again, before I’d ridden for ten minutes, a car stopped, and it became very clear to me, that it simply won’t do to just wait around for a free ride: If you want to go somewhere, you need to start walking (or skating, if you are that cool :D ) The world needs to see that you are making an effort. If you can’t walk, hold your bag. Show that you are ready to go!
All throughout my little adventure people went out of their way to help me out. It was amazing! Interestingly enough, the only person I met on this trip that might have seemed dangerous was the guy I sat next to on the Greyhound bus on the last stretch to L.A. He was on his way home from the prison he’d just been released from after having served several years for attempted murder.
I did manage to get hurt on my trip. I had been hanging out at a bar waiting for my bus back to San Francisco. I needed to get back to work and didn’t have time to hitchhike back. I’d overlooked the time and as I rushed to catch my bus I fell head first off my skateboard with my heavy backpack on. I got to the bus stop just in time, but covered in blood. :D
Life is short
A few weeks later it was Halloween in San Francisco and I’d been invited to a party. I took the CalTrain from my little suburb to the city where I would stay in my aunt’s guest room on the weekends.
The Sunset neighborhood where my aunt lived and the Mission district where the party was are separated by one of San Francisco’s trade mark hills. I can clearly remember riding up Clayton and being surprised to see Ashbury intersecting it. The next thing I know, it’s five AM and I’m in the emergency room. Apparently I’d ridden to the top of the hill and then shot down 17th street. At the bottom of the hill I must have overlooked the little cement blocks that are meant to guide the traffic off to the right. According to the report I’d struck them and flown 30 feet, about 10 meters, through the air and judging by my face, landed on it … without a helmet on. Miraculously the only real injury I suffered was a broken thumb.
I realized that I could have easily died, or worse, been paralyzed or suffered some other permanent damage. But while most people’s reaction to this realization would probably be to go out and buy a helmet or something lame like that, my conclusion was very much the opposite. I realized how lucky I am to have this healthy human body. (Helmets may be lame, but a cracked skull because you thought you were too cool to wear one is too. Weigh your options carefully, children!)
As a human being I have the opportunity to experience the world immeasurably more intensely than any other life form I know of. We humans are capable of suffering tremendously, and consequently, experiencing just as much joy. With our ability to remember pain comes our ability to appreciate. If you can, take a deep breath of air. Remember what it’s like to be sick? I doubt any animal can fully appreciate that as much as I can.
Furthermore, I am a young human in good health. Now, even if I remain healthy, eventually I will grow old and die. That will greatly impair my ability to have an adrenaline rush as I snowboard down a mountain, or fall into trance dancing for hours, or feel the rush of hormones when I’m with a girl. You can get high and watch TV when you’re old and sick.
The only thing that everyone in the world will eventually run out of is time. Time is the most precious thing we have, and so much of it is wasted. Recently after I’d been playing on the street all night someone stole my jar with what was probably $150 to $200. I was not upset. “It’s just money, I can always make more.” It’s not like I wasted time doing something I hate.
After my bike accident I laid in bed for a week recovering from my head trauma and then returned to work. Several weeks later met a girl and we enjoyed each other’s company for the last few weekends before I returned to Austria.
During this time I made a profound realization: “I’m cool.” To be more specific and objective, “I’m cool by my standards.” If you don’t like the word cool you can say, “My thoughts and actions make sense … to me!” This of course applies to everyone, you in particular.
I have wasted a lot of time in my life trying to act in a way I thought others wanted me to act. This, however, is completely impossible. Aside from the fact that you cannot possibly know how others really want you to act, not everyone wants the same thing from you. You’ll never make everyone happy. Furthermore, if you change your behavior so someone likes you and it actually works, then that person doesn’t actually like you at all, they like the role that you’re playing. In most cases however, people will perceive your insincerity and dislike you anyway.
When I realized that I make sense to myself, that I’m cool by my own standards I found myself in the luxurious position in which I could approach the world with a new attitude. What up until then had been “I will show you that I’m cool” became, “I know I’m cool, now you show me that you are!” As you can imagine that changed everything.
You’re Probably Wrong
So you can’t know what others want, everyone wants something else and anyway, the only thing that you can do sincerely is what makes sense to you. But most importantly there is a good reason why you think the way you think, feel the way you feel and act the way you act. It is the way that you specifically have learned to think, feel and act within society, and it’s the only way you know.
Unfortunately chances are you’ve got it all wrong. Judging by the extreme differences between the people of this world the probability is very high, that everything we perceive is grotesquely distorted, everything we think is extremely limited and one sided and everything we feel is just plain crazy.
But that is all fine. If someone comes along and tells us we’re wrong we can think about it. If there indeed are things we had previously overlooked we can make revisions to our world view. Or maybe the other person has overlooked something. We are humans, capable of reasoning. Isn’t that AWESOME?!
My secret to happiness? Don’t take yourself seriously. Remember that you are human. You’re probably wrong. Accept it. Embrace it!
Sometimes I need to remind myself as well. If you want to say something, say it! There’s a reason you wanted to say it. If you offend someone because you didn’t think it through properly first, apologize! Explain! Almost all human conflict arises out of misunderstanding. Whatever you say, be prepared to take it back. That’ll give you the freedom to say anything!
Don’t allow room for people to misinterpret your words and actions. And if you don’t understand someone else’s words or actions, ask! Don’t waste time trying to guess what other people are thinking!
DO NOT WASTE TIME TRYING TO GUESS WHAT OTHER PEOPLE ARE THINKING!
Everybody is crazy. Everybody is stupid. Everybody suffers. Everybody deserves to be loved.
What Makes You Happy?
If you want to do something, why don’t you do it?! Maybe there’s a life after death, maybe not. We can’t possibly know and so it does not matter. What we do know is that we are here now on this earth. Right now. Today. And you have the potential to take full advantage of that. You have the potential to be very happy. But you don’t know if you’ll be here tomorrow.
So what makes you happy?
I know a number of people who always put everyone else first. I know that making others happy is the greatest thing there is. In fact it is all I want to do with my life. But tell me this: When was the last time an unhappy person made you happy? It is not possible to make anyone else happy unless you are happy first. I think it might be necessary for doing any sort of good in the world. So if you put someone else’s happiness before your own everyone ends up suffering.
Parents, even rich parents (or especially rich parents) often work so much they have no time or energy left for their children. They say they want to provide them with what they deserve. That seems deeply offensive to me when I consider how worthless money is compared to time. Does the world need more spoiled young adults with fancy business degrees who never learned to love their family? Who never learned to be affectionate? Who were raised by the television to think they need to look like Barbie and Ken and have Things in order to be happy?
Okay, maybe that is what the world needs. What do I know? I’m just a musician from Austria where we get paid to go to university if our parents aren’t rich. What do I know about hard work and supporting a family? But answer me this: ARE YOU HAPPY? Does it make your heart sing to see a flush bank statement? How does that compare to the sight of your son catching his first ball or you daughter doing whatever girly things little girls do with their parents?
Does what you do make you happy?
Young people! Do you know what you want from life? Are you going to make babies before you find that out? Are you gonna have children before you realize that what makes you happy doesn’t leave enough time for raising them? Do you think having children will make everything okay? Are you gonna bring children into this world and burden them with expectations before they’re even born?
I wrote these thoughts down several nights ago while laying in bed in Rio de Janeiro unable to sleep due to heat. Towards the end, what had started as such a positive thing became a bit aggressive and I apologize. Sometimes however it is necessary to vent and what better place to do that then on the internet where it will be available for all eternity? :D
Look, I know many of you are in situations where you simply have responsibilities. That is just the way it is and running away is not an option. As important as it is to recognize the things that you can change and take the appropriate action, you also need to recognize things you cannot change and accept them; embrace them. You cannot change the weather, but you can always just go dancing in the rain.
Nothing is ever going to make you happy unless you learn to be happy. That means enjoying the little things in life. Fresh air, a comfortable chair, warm water, its all right there! Hey that rhymed! :D The more you focus on the nice things the more nice things will come into your life.
If your life is a race, people will try to beat you. What would they do if your life were a dance? ;)