Thoreau nailed my greatest anxiety when he wrote:
[One spends] the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.
As I write, I’m on the road through the US (and briefly Canada!) living a vagabonder’s dream. You see, after graduating from college, I joined the intern armies of two music non-profits (one classical and one everything else) and worked in the resurgent business of LP vinyl pressing for a wild company. But after almost two years of work, I realized I had sidelined my creative outlets. The choice was simple: continue in this respectably successful path ad infinitum or induce coronaries throughout my family and design a lifestyle all my own. You can can guess which way the cookie crumbled.
Life is brief and we all crave happiness and fulfillment in our vocations; it’s through these forces we uncover life’s profound joys and struggles. In this post I’ll try to collate maxims for a happy life which I’ve collected during my own short life—and this even shorter trip. (A special note to my two faithful readers: you’ll notice that this neglected site has evolved beyond an arts blog as my own interests have broadened. Come along for the ride if you dare!
Time is undeniably our most valuable resource. And, for all intents and purposes, we are born equal in its eye. The most insidious influence working against our capacity for creativity, productivity and happiness, is our willingness to give our time out absentmindedly. The choice between numbered lists and continual news refreshes is relentless. I believe the only way out of this cycle is through intentionality. Cultivate mindfulness about the sites you visit and the shows and films you consume. Notice how the letter “f” appears in the top search bar almost preternaturally.
One corrosive side effect of this brave new intangible world is how hard it is to recognize accomplishment. This disconnect is surely linked to problems with attention and multitasking, but my issue goes deeper. Have you reflected on a day of “work” skeptical of what you did? Yes, a few emails were sent and some calls were made, but does this sufficiently fulfill you for the world of tomorrow? For another ten years of this? I don’t fancy myself a luddite; technology is inherently neither good nor bad, just powerful. But I believe as humans we need physical realizations of our work for a myriad of health reasons. Try to break from this paradigm by concocting a delicious salad, a quick sketch, or melody on your ukelele. Then go share it with someone.
I’m not the first—and I won’t be the last—to point out that news, especially the local variety, is psychotic. While civic awareness is crucial for an informed public, television (and some print) news warps our world view to such a degree you will only turn it off a more despondent, rage-filled person. And isn’t that the opposite of the informed citizen’s goal?! Why then do we come slinking back to the couch night after night? A love of gossip? Some sadistic fascination with death and destruction? Unfortunately, research shows that anger-inducing headlines and hooks receive more clicks than their plangent equivalents. One way out is again through active, intentional consumption. Watch the news for passive digestion; read a quality paper or listen to quality radio if you prefer active engagement. With this method you’re free to peruse at reasonable and you can skip the fluff designed to hook you.
Emerson: “In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.” Call it karma or goodwill but the idea is the same—maybe not completely analogous, but you get the gist! Think of your path to today and the scores of teachers, friends and family who have lead, shaped and inspired you. Lewis Hyde’s life-changing book The Gift shows how a gift that loses motion ceases to be a gift and morphs into a commodity. This broad can be employed in every aspect of life from investiments to relationships. The key: Give expecting nothing in return. Spontaneously buy someone coffee or offer your talents to learn a new skill.
Don’t confuse these two aspects of life and you’ll be well on your way to happiness. The more the modern worker is expected to be available, the more the confusion of responsibility grows. Some companies are even beginning to unplug their workers to mitigate the resulting burnout. Simply put, do the work first so you can enjoy the play. And when you play, really play!
We seek to control everything including our weight, grades and relationships. However, I’ve found the more I let go, the more control and direction I gain. Power struggles breed anxiety and shift life out of balance. Scenario: When ten events transpire during a day—five good, four neutral and one bad—what do we remember as we fall asleep? Our aptness to remember the bad and gloss over the good, while a life-saving function of evolution, is deadly to health in the modern world. Luckily the Middle Way of Buddhism can help. In the words of Moby: “Do a little more of what works and a little less of what doesn’t.”
7) Laugh at every opportunity (especially the weird ones)
I imagine two logical reactions to dissatisfaction. One person internalizes their anger in order to keep up appearances until the inevitable explosion, while the second lets out a hearty laugh. Which do you think is the healthier response? I love this personal mantra from Anna Quindlen: “I show up; I listen; I try to laugh.” This is how I’ve lived my life thus far after plenty of ups and downs. But we’re all different, so let me know what’s worked for you in the comments. If you can rediscover happiness, the rest will flow.