Happiness and Stuff

I’d like to talk a bit today about happiness. Let me say ahead of time that I’m not trying to change anyone and I’m not trying to call anyone out on the way that he/she lives. I am only talking about some things as I see them.

There seem to be two contrary philosophies in today’s American society. On the one hand, many claim that the purpose of life is to achieve happiness. Many see the means to achieve that happiness in the so-called “American Dream,” the idea that if one works hard enough then he/she can move up the corporate ladder until he/she is in charge of others and extremely rich. I don’t see the two of these going hand-in-hand, and this is a somewhat unpopular opinion in this day and age. Let me again say that I can only give my own feelings and experiences on this matter.

Many philosophers, psychologists, and thinkers have studied the idea of happiness, perhaps most notably Sigmund Freud in his book Civilization and its Discontents. In this book, Freud says:
What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferable sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as an episodic phenomenon. When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged, it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution. (Freud)
The idea here that happiness is necessarily temporary and that what we typically think of as “happiness” is really contentment is one that has spoken to me for years, since I read this work in the first semester of my junior year. Since then, I have thought of contentment (basically, happiness) as the goal of life, what is meant to be achieved. Much to my pleasure, I feel that I’ve accomplished that goal, even though I’m only twenty-three years old. Unfortunately, however, societal pressures based in some ways on the American Dream have made me feel like my achievement of contentment is somehow not enough. Freud says, “An unrestricted satisfaction of every need presents itself as the most enticing method of conducting one's life, but it means putting enjoyment before caution, and soon brings its own punishment... Against the dreaded external world…” There is a pressure to leave behind the contentment that I’ve found in order to move onward and upward in pursuit of things like a “better” job, physical perfection, and commercial success.

I’d like to start with my job. For the last three and a half years, I have worked as a tutor at a university. At the risk of getting in trouble, I’ll not be getting more specific than that. For the entirety of my time at my job, I have loved what I do. Every day, I get to go to a place that has an atmosphere that I enjoy and thrive on, a casual and friendly learning environment. I get to impart my knowledge upon others, bettering them and increasing their understanding of concepts and practices, and bettering myself by learning from each of them. My wife says she loves that I love what I do, and the fact that I’ve never had a bad day at work, the fact that I’ve never said, “I don’t want to go to work tomorrow.”

Let me be clear that this isn’t simply me having an excellent work ethic or being consistently positive; I’ve had previous jobs where every day was a bad day and every night was “I don’t want to go to work tomorrow.” I’ve just found my fit. I’ve found a place where I can be happy with what I do, feel like I make a difference, and be excited to go back to work the next day. However, many people seem to think that’s not enough. Because my job doesn’t pay a lot of money and it’s only part-time, many of the people in my life, even others who I work with, think that it’s time for me to move forward.

Since I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree a year and a half ago, people have been frequently bombarding me with questions about when I’m going to “move on” or get a “real” job. These questions confuse and vex me. Why should I “move on?” Because society dictates that the next step is moving on to a full-time position doing something that I don’t enjoy? How is that better than what I’m doing now? Why is it not enough that I’m content now? I’ve seen many people give up on a job they love in order to move on to something that pays better or has longer hours, for no other reason than it’s the “next step.” Because I’ve heretofore refused to take that “next step,” somehow I’m identified as lazy, complacent, and settling for less. But if achieving contentment is the goal, then I’ve certainly done that at work, so why leave that behind?

I’d like to quickly thank my parents for never being on the side of pressuring me to move on. I think they’ve worked enough jobs, some for money, some for joy, and they’ve been able to tell which way is really better. Thanks for that.

Because of the pressures of succeeding in the established sense, I have applied for several jobs in my time at this job, but because my heart wasn’t really in it, I haven’t gotten any of those jobs. A larger part of me has been happy about that; I didn’t want to leave anyway. I was only really applying for them to go through the motions. So, at that point, I’m wasting time just to have the appearance of progressing

The fact is, I feel like I am progressing. Each day before work, I can spend my time doing whatever I like, a luxury I don’t take for granted. I spend it doing things that either I enjoy, furthering my contentment, or that I both enjoy and that can further me as a person: reading, writing, drawing, Photoshopping, working on my podcast, or editing my YouTube videos. I spend that time developing skills that I enjoy and that may eventually help me if I decide to get a new job down the line. I feel like that’s enough.

The next area where I find this problem of philosophy affecting me is fitness. Many people have achieved contentment through fitness. Across the world, people find that the effort put forth results in progress they can see, and that makes them “happier.” This mindset is almost universal in America; better fitness results in a better life. The problem is that this mindset, for some, can be harmful.

It’s not a mystery that each person enjoys different things. Some, like me, find fulfillment in writing, in earning platinum trophies in video games, or producing a podcast that very few people listen to. Others prefer building homes or, in this case, working out. There is no one-size-fits-all path to happiness, but so many people seem the think that fitness is the one. I am saying nothing against people who strive to be physically fit; it is undoubtedly a great thing to do for oneself if it is making them happy or is contributing to their contentment.

Myself, I’ve always been the chubby guy, since my early teens, and I really have no problem with that. I don’t feel dizzy or short-of-breath at any point during the day, I don’t feel out of shape, and I don’t feel much in the way of phantom pain. I feel good, honestly, despite the fact that I’m a bit heavier than some. However, once again, that apparently isn’t enough for many people. People all seem to think that if I want to be happy, I have to be thin, muscular, and strong. I just don’t think that’s the case. For many people, it is; many find their happiness directly correlates with their appearance and fitness. As I said earlier, this can be harmful for those of us who don’t fit in with the Hollywood ideal of beauty, but don’t necessarily want to.

The idea that muscle mass or lack of flab is directly equated to life satisfaction and happiness makes people who aren’t Adonises feel like they’re lesser. That feeling doesn’t really make people want to jump up from what they’re doing a rush to the gym, particularly if the gym isn’t something they enjoy in the first place.

Again, I can only really speak to my own experience. I have never had any problem with the physical aspect of working out. I enjoy hiking, biking, and, even to some extent, lifting weights. However, I don’t like the gym itself, as a place. The reason for this is that, in my opinion, it is a haven for judgment, both of others and oneself. As hard as it is to go through life and not compare oneself to every beautiful man or woman on screen or on the covers of magazines, it is almost impossible not to compare myself to others at the gym. There’s an air of insecurity that comes standard with the gym if you’re not in great shape and you’re not super familiar with the steps, procedures, and etiquette of the place. That can make it even harder to go and better oneself.

Just this weekend, I went to the gym with a group of friends, somewhat begrudgingly, but I love my friends and I wanted to share in their experiences, despite the fact that the gym is far from my favorite place. While I was there, I told myself not to judge others, but I did it almost automatically. Because I was feeling somewhat insecure about myself, I unconsciously sought out others around me who were bigger, less fit than I was, so that I wasn’t the least fit person there. I don’t want to do that. Really, I don’t. Then, just a short time later, I was doing assisted dips on a machine and a giant, six-and-a-half feet tall, 280-pounds of sheer muscle, laughed at me and said, “Look at him.” Sweet. That’s what I needed.

The problem for me is this: I feel completely happy and proud of my fitness and my body until I’m at the gym or thinking about the gym. You can’t strive to better yourself without first acknowledging that you’re worse now than you could be. That acknowledgement doesn’t make me happy; it makes me feel bad about my physical self. So, I’d rather just not do that. I’d rather just be content with who I am physically and let that be, never comparing myself to others, whether I think I’m better or worse. That in some ways is a difficult option to take, though. Even after making the choice to just be happy with whom I am, I will still feel the pressures to go to the gym or do something to “better” myself. Regardless, I’m going to stand my ground, for now. 

I want to say to my friends if they’re reading this that I’m not upset about being invited to the gym. I know that you all have found it as a way to make you happier and, because we all love each other, you only want me to share in that happiness with you. Sadly, it’s just not by bag, baby. I love you all and I don’t want any of you to change ever.

Lastly, I’d like to speak about writing, something that I deeply enjoy, and have for my entire life. When I successfully write something, anything, I feel glad that I’ve completed the process of moving something from my mind to a page, in words that I feel accurately convey my meaning and sentiment. I majored in creative writing and I had lofty ambitions of being a full-time writer, taking my many ideas for stories and novels and making them reality.

Unfortunately, societal pressure has gotten me down again. I find that I have a harder time writing now than ever before because the looming shadow of commercial success is always over me. The pressure of success has made me feel like nothing I write is good enough, because I am only ever thinking about the eventual end of submitting it, and it likely being rejected (this is of course not because of my writing specifically; the publishing world is simply a difficult one. I can acknowledge this, and really know this, yet it doesn’t really help me when it comes time to get the words going).

This is an area where I still need to work harder. Just as I’ve done with my job, I need to get over how people may perceive my work and just do it because I love it and it furthers my contentment. That’s my biggest challenge right now. It’s just not easy to push through the pressures of so many people, truly an entire civilization and its discontents, to make that happen.

In closing, I just want to say that I truly am content. For any person out there who thinks that I need a new job, that I need to have a six-pack and rippling biceps, that I need to be a prolifically published writer, I just don’t think I do. I am content with who I am and what I’m doing with my life. The only times that I feel discontent is when I open myself up to external pressures. So, I’m going to go on ahead with a poignant phrase of this generation, “You do you.” As much as I may hate how people of my generation talk, I kinda like the sentiment of that one. I’m going to be who I want to be, rather than who others want me to be, and, I think, that will make me happy.

Thanks for reading my thoughts and ramblings.

Until next time,

Work Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents in The Standard Editions of the Complete
         Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXI. Trans. James Strachey. New York:
         Norton, 1961.

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