Wisdom from an unlikely source.
Aside from the hell of overthinking and the dark art of questioning everything, being, or at least feeling, “enlightened” — and we define that term by basically being smart enough to know that things like faith and love are just internal chemical reactions seasoned with a bit of random chaotic luck, and that much of life is just math and science, and that its the arts and humanities’ imperfections that make them perfect — is a sinkhole of melancholia. You’re bound to eventually come to the conclusions that your life is an endless parade of suffering, and that the one who yells the loudest still loses their voice, and the one who dies with the most friends still dies. And you start to curse your own intellect and weigh the pros and cons of an eternity spent having never fully existed in human form at all.
Life is a shockwave of emotion, a tide of adversity. It’ll blow you to pieces while you analyze events and inexplicable insecurities that cause you to overthink and underact. You’ll find yourself sitting there, deciding discretely if this love is the one that should last, or if this job is the right job for you, or you want to stay, or move, or circumvent planet Earth altogether.
There are those who meander through their lives the way bees or sharks or bears do, or at least the way these creatures would, if they were savvy enough to operate Instagram — raising families, accumulating experiences, contributing to a community’s greater good with little fuss. It’s truly a blissful thing: to be cognizant of only the moment, to not question one’s purpose, to take your surroundings and seamlessly integrate them into your own survival. I’ve often envied these people. I don’t think I am alone in that. Perhaps you’ve felt it, too? The inevitable sting of feeling as though happiness lies on the other side of a brick wall and life’s purpose ebbs and flows arbitrarily through rough waters?
I’ve often tried to split the difference between how to frame happiness as a choice — a precondition rather than a result — while still remaining just doggedly determined and hungry enough to work toward a brighter future. Over the past ten years, I’ve governed my life using six words that — on my best days — have kept my mind optimistic and content, my heart both full and full of longing, and my soul on fire for the next challenge and chapter. Here they are:
“Always be happy. Never be satisfied.”
Six words. One big idea.
It’s been my AOL Instant Messenger away message, my Facebook status, my Twitter bio. It’s been written on my whiteboard, stuck to my desk on a Post-It, and scribbled on napkins for friends I’d met for coffee. It’s been my mantra since I first heard a variant of it late in 2007, and that source material was … rather unlikely. It was tucked away in very last sentence of a long-forgotten (by everyone except me, apparently) ESPN the Magazine column about Willie Parker, a briefly excellent Pittsburgh Steelers running back. I read it. I morphed it. I weaponized it. It’s a succinctly perfect way to approach life.
Atfirst, dissatisfaction sounds like a fairly discomforting default operating mode. It requires an acute low-grade degree of anger. And yet, this is preferable to satisfaction — a precursor to complacency and the gateway to inertia. Framed through that lens, satisfaction, indeed, is infinitely more frightening.
And yet it’s far less frightening than the thought of unhappiness, which feels approximately like a perpetual state of watching life race ahead of you while staring blankly, trying to think about what collared shirt to wear that morning, prepping for an invigorating 11 hours of PowerPoint parsing. Unhappiness is ruminating on going to the gym while it’s not quite 40 degrees outside, and bed is comfy and everyone else who’s there will stare at you blankly as you muscle 10 pounds of free weight over your shoulder because you have to start somewhere. Unhappiness is a brutal state, one of self-violence and self-immolation: the thousands deaths before your expiry.
Happiness is surprisingly simple, in theory. It’s to believe wholeheartedly in the beauty of effort, process and pursuit. It’s an innate ability to accept and appreciate the incredible and unfathomable at face value, and to trust and assume the purest in others until you find out you cannot.
Happiness is accepting that guilty pleasures are only guilty because someone else has told you so, and that by letting others impart their guilt machine upon you, you’ve begun to internalize the insecurities of others as your own. The cognitive dissonance distilled from racking your brain over whether or not you should blast Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in 2017 (hypothetically, of course) with the car windows down will cause you more guilt and pain and lost hours and years than if you just Nike’d the fuck up, looked in the mirror, affirmed “Today, I’m A Good Girl Gone Bad” and gotten after it.
Happy people are falling in love, marrying up, birthing beautiful baby-spawn, getting promoted two levels above you, sailing the Adriatic, moving to Singapore, buying a house in Westlake and building a spaceship to escape our doomed planet once the Deep State creates hologram Mongols with a mission to melt ice caps for fun.
Unhappiness is often caused by overthinking —think of the saddest people you know, they’re routinely these tortured minds without an off-switch, right? — a sort of analysis paralysis. Satisfaction often results in easing up on the gas pedal, a laurel patch on which to rest, fat and drunk off their own success. It’s a sort of catatonia caused by contentment. In this sense, happiness doesn’t think. Happiness merely is. Dissatisfaction doesn’t think, either. It merely acts.
So how to guard against overthought and under-action? Be thankful for where you’ve been, okay with where you are and excited about where you’re headed. Marathon runners don’t pay attention to the 26.2 miles. They pay attention to their breath. Their steps. The warmth of the sun. The roar of the crowd. The whoosh of the tailwind. Don’t listen to people who tell you you can’t — least of all yourself. I know you don’t listen to yourself when you say that you “should,” why change the rules and listen when you tell yourself you “should not?” Don’t push away your dreams because you’ve “thought better of it.” Don’t parse through an endless array of worst case scenarios four or five moves ahead. Much of what we worry about never happens — what usually happens often does.
Right your wrongs. Face your fears. Walk through open doors. You may not be satisfied with where you are at — but you’ll be happy. You’ll have discovered the secret to success in life without thinking too hard about it.
Enlightenment isn’t an over-abundance of thought. It’s an optimal state of wisdom. It’s the perfect amount of thought that leads to love, acceptance, empathy, hope and art. It’s the kind of wisdom that doesn’t stop to think, only to create, to experience and to share. It merely seeks its own level then strives to raise everything around it.
“Always be happy. Never be satisfied.”
Works for me. I’m not going to try and think too hard about it.