It’s a message embedded deeply in the heart of Western society: “do what makes you happy.”
It’s the subject of Billboard hits. It’s the fuel that drives the self-help industry. Hell, it’s practically written on the Declaration of Independence.
Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard for us to tell what happiness actually is, let alone how we can achieve it.
In light of this ignorance, a lot of us spend our lives following a predetermined check-list. We work hard in school. We get an impressive degree. We land a cushy job and hustle up the corporate ladder. We go on lavish trips. We buy expensive cars, clothes, homes, and cell phones.
Of course, these things aren’t inherently bad. After all, it’s pretty hard to frown on Wave Runner.
The problem is that many of us do them without ever questioning them. Our peers, magazines, movies, and advertisements drill it into our heads that these ends are THE inevitable source of happiness. Yet as we achieve them, a subtle, empty feeling often persists – causing us to look in the mirror of our suburban homes and ask: how am I still miserable?
The rational self-help promoter Mark Manson wisely asserts that we all should stop tying to be happy. In his article, Manson draws a distinction between pleasure and contentment.
In the pursuit of happiness, this difference holds the utmost importance.
The biggest, most fundamental problem in our quest to find happiness is that we often associate the feeling with pleasure. We think that the rush of dopamine that comes from buying expensive things, receiving praise from others, or even something as insidious as drug use is what inevitably makes us happy.
At best, this fallacy can lead to a fragile self-esteem. At worst, it can cause life-ruining problems like gambling or drug addictions.
Instead, as Manson points out, happiness should be measured by contentment. Why contentment, you ask? It’s because the term alludes to a deep satisfaction with yourself. It’s being completely comfortable with your circumstances, your successes, your failures, and your own limitations.
It doesn’t come from the short-term, hedonistic gains that bring us Pleasure. Rather, it comes from the sacrifice of them in pursuit of an identity that is consistent with a higher purpose.
Manson refers to this concept as the Ideal Self. In short, it’s the meaning we derive from existence and the concept that our daily actions should be designed to obtain.
Maybe you’re at this point. You’re rolling in the dough, sleeping with models, and reaching all of your life-long goals. Basically, you’re Drake.
However, many of us have no clue how to become this ideal self or what s/he even looks like. As a result, we spend our days listlessly pursuing some vague, undefined thing, only to reach the finish line and ask: was that it?
Hopefully I haven’t instigated an identity crisis within you yet, but if I have, fear not. I’m about to introduce a very helpful key to finding happiness (i.e., contentment) and an exercise that will allow you to use it.
So, without further ado, here is a real, proven trick to achieving long-term happiness:
Yeah, I know. Probably not as sexy as you were hoping for.
However, to achieve contentment, your day-to-day actions should be in line with a long-term vision you have for your future.
This may sound like an idealistic trope out of an Ayn Rand novel, but the concept is based on decades of psychological research. Namely, it plays on the idea that our thoughts, actions, and emotions are highly interconnected.
Let’s face it; in this topsy-turvey life, you’re going to go through a lot of shit. You’ll suffer break-ups. You’ll lose jobs. Loved ones will die. Good TV shows will have crappy endings.
These events and the emotional tsunamis that come along with them also shape our thoughts and actions. And sometimes, if we leave these feelings unchecked, they’ll cause us to waste our precious moments behaving in ways that are detrimental to our well-being.
The key to weathering these inevitable storms is to focus on the two factors we can control: the things we do and the things we think.
Clearly, changing your thoughts can do a lot of good. Learning to look at the positive side of things and practicing gratitude are very helpful habits. However, positive thinking by itself can only go so far. Besides making a person insufferable, a too rosy-tinted outlook can cause one to deny crucial aspects of reality. After all, negative emotions are unavoidable, and trying to suppress them will lead to more harm than good.
These thoughts need to be accompanied by our tool: purposeful action.
By doing this, you optimize your time and take constant steps toward your Ideal Self.
So, let’s get started! Here’s a little exercise designed to put you on the path towards that mythical beast called happiness:
Step 1.) Make a mental image of the person you would like to be in five years.
How well-off are they financially? What do their relationships look like? Where do they live? What is their career? How is their fitness? Be vivid. Give specific examples. Then, get out a piece of paper and write these thoughts down.
Step 2.) Next, write down the steps someone would realistically need to take to become this person.
Where would this person be in three years? One year? Next month? Next week? Again, the more concrete you are about the details, the better.
Step 3.) Now, look at your own life.
Are you on the path towards becoming this five year person? Because s/he is your Ideal Self. If not, you need to take all of the places you envisioned him or her going in the next week, month, year, etc. and turn them into your own personal goals.
Step 4.) Keep a journal that tracks how well you are doing in pursuit of these goals.
This step is crucial, because the trick to achieving a goal is forming a habit. Keeping a journal allows you to hold yourself accountable through real time and allows you to make sure your actions remain purposeful. Further, this journal will help you identify flaws that are hindering your progress – which is the first step in correcting them.
And, there you have it. Feeling happy, yet?
Now, you’ve had a lot of experience. You may have tried something like this before, or you may be thinking that life’s too short and unpredictable to plan so far ahead in the future. Can’t we just live in the moment, man?
But that’s not the point. Yeah, you’re going to fail a lot. You’re not going to reach many of these goals. And guess what? It ain’t gonna be easy. Acting with purpose doesn’t magically let you skip the hard times, self-doubt, and failure that comes along the way.
What it does is give you the chance to live a life of your choosing. And I can guarantee, trying and failing to live on your own terms is a helluva lot more satisfactory in the long run than a life full of “what ifs.”
By simply doing this exercise and sticking to it, you WILL constantly be getting closer to your Ideal Self. And that’s the beauty of it. Rather than stagnating in a job, town, relationship, or financial situation you hate, you are consistently putting in the work necessary to achieve the outcomes that you desire.
These outcomes are the chief aim of life, and achieving them is a never-ending climb. As much progress as we make, we’ll never be completely satisfied with where we are. We’ll always want something more. The trick is to keep moving towards it.
Because happiness is about becoming content with the process. It’s about trying, failing, meeting your own limitations, and becoming comfortable with the effort you’ve put forth toward learning them and fearlessly engaging in this existence.
So, close the computer for a bit and get out there and put some purpose in your action.
In the words of Shia:
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