Hello, readers. You’ll have to forgive me for my recent disappearance from the blogosphere. Life in SoCal has been pretty amazing for me, and a side effect of that is I’ve been much too busy with it to spend my free time in front of a computer. It’s a rather curious thing, that sometimes the more interesting my life gets the less I feel like writing about it.
So as I’ve been living my life in high color, I’ve also been taking in a lot of what’s going on around me. Like most people who like to write, I am a constant observer of people, things and ideas. Sometimes it’s an amazing ocean view, sometimes it’s 50 miles of mountains and valleys viewed from a windy summit, and sometimes it’s the thoughts and behaviors of people around me. All of which I find equally interesting.
I’ve been reading and hearing a slew of thoughts from people, specifically on two somewhat related topics. The first one being happiness. Just what is happiness and how do we know it? Some talk about happiness as a feeling of freedom – freedom from society’s pressures to “have it all”, i.e. the American Dream. Money, more money, things and more things. Expensive vacations to exotic places for seven days, and then back to the grind of making more money so you can get more things.
Other ways that people define happiness is in accomplishing all your life’s goals, marrying the perfect partner, finding God, moving to a better part of the world or filling your home with lots of family, friends and children.
Well, I’m here to say that happiness is none of those things. Happiness is only about your own made-up ceiling of contentment. And I say ceiling because it’s up to you to decide how high it is, and how much you need to fill it. Set the ceiling too high, and you’ll never be content with what you’ve got and miss out on too much while you’re trying to fill that cavernous hole. Set it too low and you’re settling; chances are you’ll live an exceptionally boring life with no adventure and have too many regrets later on. You’ve got to know where the happy medium is. And how?
The answer is suffering. Without suffering, you can’t fully know happiness. Hear me out on this. Without bad, it’s impossible to separate great from ordinary. It’s why we’ve created Hell – it’s there to heighten the allure of Heaven. Good and evil are opposites, and the ability to compare them is crucial for their own existence.
A long time ago I decided that those who have had the most suffering in life are capable of the most happiness. I say capable, because it’s only possible if one recognizes their ability to become happy and actually does the work of getting there. And you’ll have to work much harder to find happiness if you’ve been given some non-distinct version of mediocre happiness all your life.
Some would define all of America that way. But I digress.
Happiness, by my definition, is choosing your own contentment, and deciding it’s enough. In fact, I would argue that contentment is even more important than happiness, as happiness is only one ingredient in the unique recipe of your life’s contentment. And how will you ever know if the contentment you’ve got is enough, if you don’t know what it’s like not to have it?
Here’s a good analogy. I lived in New England my whole life. Since as early as I can remember, I hated every single cold winter day. I watched others enjoy skiing and snowfall, while I suffered through 150 days per year of clouds and precipitation, lack of vitamin D and summer humidity that made the world feel like a bowl of tomato soup. When I moved out to Southern California, everything that I hated about the climate was gone. It’s sunny almost every day, winter doesn’t exist and neither does humidity. I can go to the beach more often and soak up the sunshine with a tank top on all year round.
I feel absolute happiness here in San Diego, probably even more than most native San Diegans. Why? Well, because of my suffering. Native San Diegans are happy here, for sure. They recognize in a superficial sort of way that they are lucky they get to live in a nice climate with little related suffering. But without the actual experience of shoveling snow out of their driveway every other day for seven months, spending thousands a year to heat their small home and only seeing the sunshine a couple times a week all year round, they have no idea how happy they really are. But I do. I am two times as lucky, and two times as happy to live in San Diego, because of my suffering.
Same goes with my adulthood. Today I enjoy the freedom from my bad parents and disappointing family members. I appreciate the joy of making my own life, my way, all by myself, because of the suffering I endured as a child. Being deserted by my mother, having to raise my little brother when I was only three years his elder, being left alone in a house for weekends and neglected emotionally by my father are all things that sucked in my early life. So as an adult I revel in the contentment I’ve created, knowing that I don’t have any dependents to raise, the freedom to do as I wish without needing to care what others think of me, and the relief of no longer having to keep anyone around who treats me like shit.
Which brings me to my second, almost related topic: the way you treat others.
Being that I am a very outgoing and social person, I’ve made a lot of acquaintances and friends in my journey through life. I fancy myself as relatable to many different types of personalities, because of my open-minded, non-judgmental and curious nature. People usually like me. I can often respond just as well to the warm, kind-hearted people as well as the sarcastic, ball-busting ones. Every once in awhile I come across someone who is tough to get along with, no matter how I treat them. When this happens I often go through a period of insecurity, and it can sometimes even affect the way I view myself. Am I intolerable? Annoying? Am I a weakling, just primed for the picking? I might question my place within a section of my friend circle, and at times I’ll even go back to my elementary school fat-kid days, and start to wonder whether my physical appearance has anything to do with it.
Recently I’ve heard out some opinions on this subject. One opinion in particular that stuck was that people are not made of nice, so deal with it. Everyone possesses within them a generous side that likes to make people happy, and a selfish side that likes to make people hurt. At first I was ruffled by this, and then I realized how flawed it was.
Of course everyone has the ability to be mean, to hurt others. Natural selection has more or less favored the ruthless. In my life I have wanted to hurt people, and I have succeeded. But as I’ve looked into the reasons why I hurt them, I realized it wasn’t because I was feeling normal things that are just part of life. It was because I was indulging in a huge personality flaw of my own. Jealousy. Selfishness. Superficiality. Just because I’ve been built with the ability to feel these things, doesn’t mean that indulging in them is going to be good for me. Remember, natural selection also favors those who can cooperate with others.
That aside, good and bad traits have to exist in everyone, they have to fight each other. If you go back to my first point, you need negativity around in order to recognize positivity, even in yourself. But in my experience, if I am treating someone else like shit, the problem isn’t their personality or their wimpishness, the problem is mine. I’m jealous of something about their life. I’m angry that they’re prettier, richer, smarter than me. I’m trying to hurt them, because I’m not happy about something in my own life. I’m trying to fill my canyon of happiness with the suffering of others. And I don’t care how you cut it, that’s just not the right way to be. Rather, it’s an invitation to be a little more insightful about myself and start looking for happiness in another way.
And that’s where I get the idea of nice vs. kind. Normally, I am an extremely independent person who is flexible, forgiving and easy-going. I also have a cynical streak a mile wide, and I can be quite opinionated and big-mouthed. I like to participate in sarcastic banter with friends, and I love to tell others how wrong they are in their political opinions (just ask my friend Angela). In life I generally know what I like, am mostly happy with myself, and if you don’t like me you can go fuck yourself. I don’t make any effort to be around people who don’t interest me, and I have dumped friends who aren’t benefitting my contentment. No, I’m not always nice. In fact, sometimes I can be really very bitchy.
But nice is different from kind. Nice is a superficial notion – you can’t possibly always be nice and still have any depth, self-insight or true emotion. I know a few people who are only nice – and they are caverns of dispassionate vapidity.
But kindness is something else entirely. It is selflessness. Acceptance, tolerance and respect. I spend a lot of thought and caring on people who matter to me. I am warm, open and vulnerable toward them. I accept and forgive. I am kind to those whom I choose to love. I’m not always nice, and I’ve certainly made mistakes and doled out my share of misery on others, but I still consistently strive to be kind.
I believe that’s some of how you make your own happiness. It’s how you form deep and strong emotional ties to certain friends and family with whom you choose. Kindness, and thus vulnerability, is key, as strength is shown so well by the presence of that vulnerability (which is the same as happiness shown by the presence of suffering). If you can’t be kind and vulnerable to those who care about you, then you’ll spend your whole life alone, even if surrounded by hundreds of people.
These last several weeks have been a learning experience for me in many ways. Through the observation of others I have learned some things about myself as a friend, and I’ve learned a lot more about what I need to be content.
And since I can’t think of a great closing sentence for this rambling post, I’ll just congratulate you if you’ve managed to get to the bottom of it, and also encourage you to offer your own thoughts on this topic in the comments section. Thanks for reading!