It’s become increasingly clear that my life is not … okay. I’m not okay. And it’s been a long time since I’ve been okay.
The why is a question I obsess over, analyze, organize, and attempt to resolve. My pursuit of financial freedom, my education, and much more are all aimed – to one degree or another – at making things better. But do they? Simply put, they don’t. These minor course corrections don’t and haven’t helped except in minor ways.
But there have been times in my life when I’ve been very happy. In fact, right at the core, I’m an amazingly happy, generous, creative, caring person. Something interferes with that. Life breaks me.
The times in my life when I’ve been very happy have been the times in my life when I’ve suffered real tragedy. The immense pain of having something I care about deeply being lost to me has been sufficient to break down my assumptions, my behaviors, my beliefs, and even my concerns. The process of rebuilding – making radical shifts in my life – has made me feel more healthy and whole. I’ve described myself as an orchid; I thrive in the rain.
Perhaps my anachronistic soul was simply not meant for a life in the modern world. Certainly, each radical shift has decayed in the face of “grown-up worries,” and my reversion to more status quo resolutions results in the status quo effect for my life.
That status quo is comprised of a lot of things that sound melodramatic on paper. Pain, misery, self-loathing, lethargy, anxiety, deep depression – these are the things we put in bad poetry and rough drafts, not in confessions and self-summaries. But there it is, and I don’t know what to do about it.
It’s clear that I need a radical shift in my life. Looking at my self-destructive behavior, I wonder if that’s what it’s all aimed at: breaking my life enough that I’m forced to make fundamental shifts and re-evaluations. Well, I think I may be there now. I hurt, deeply, and it’s killing my career, my personal relationships, and any chance at happiness. So it’s time for a change.
I choose a radical shift. I choose impossible things that will be unsustainable. I choose a temporary vision of myself as someone worthwhile. I’ll figure out balance later – but this sort of emotional, lifestyle moderation just isn’t in my skillset. I’m good at abstaining or binging, but I seem to fail at anything between. And if that’s the case, I might as well go to the extreme that makes me happiest.
I wanted to take a moment to discuss anxiety and some of my recent thoughts on the topic.
The Components of Anxiety
The first component of anxiety from a survivalist point of view is the ability to foresee potential consequences of action, inaction, and our more general circumstances. This, in fact, is the key reason our human intelligence works to our benefit. We can see patterns, predict changes, and foresee – and thus prepare for – danger. A person who has an above average intelligence and imagination will be able to generate, inside their minds, a series of possibilities (however unlikely) that are logically sound.
Doing the wrong thing tonight could lead, in an extreme case, to imminent death. Far more likely, however, in the mind of a person with anxiety, is the idea of loss. Not working on homework right now could mean failing out of college, never getting the right career, never finding the right spouse, being seen as a failure by friends and loved ones, having no financial resources to handle basic life issues, and not being able to pursue and accomplish personal dreams. That’s a lot of weight for a single school assignment.
But that in and of itself is not enough to cause a real issue. In fact, the ability to predict this as a potential danger serves to our benefit. We have an incentive to behave in safe, rational ways. The problem is a second survivalist trait.
“Fight, flee, or freeze.” Those are our options when we’re faced with danger, and when “danger” was tigers and opposing tribespeople and so on, these made sense. In a modern, industrialized world, however, these instincts are often ineffective. Even in cases where our system tells us to “fight” – giving us the adrenal kick to push through a project despite difficulties – we are prevented from working optimally and with a clear head.
For those who have anxiety, though, the instinct is not “fight.” It is either to flee or to freeze. When the cause of anxiety is a task to be done, however, these responses make the original problem worse – and continue a cycle of anxiety.
The Industrialized Era
In the “civilized” world of industrialization, we no longer work in conjunction with organic units; we are not farmers, hunters, or anything else our intuition is most suited for. We are told instead to repeat the same tasks over and over again, even when they exhaust minute sub-sections of our abilities quickly, deprive us of a sense of balance, and isolate us from the rest of the world.
These repetitive and inorganic acts generally lack that initial sense of challenge that we drives us as people. Moreover, when no longer facing a new problem, our minds are free to wander off to potential distant consequences. Those who have the imagination to foresee the worst possible chain of events may trigger fear largely because of this open mental space.
Is is possible to live an organic existence in an industrialized world? If so, the path to doing so isn’t clear. And sadly, the modern solutions we’re presented with when we have anxiety follow the industrial mode of thinking: Approach the person by assuming the problem is theirs, and give them a “quick fix” that will normalize them to the system. Medications are the popular way to do so today.
The Unhelpful Solutions
Whenever I bring up my difficulties with buckling down on a project, at least one of the people giving input will repeat this phrase: Just do it!
Every time I hear that phrase, I want to murder kittens. And I normally love kittens. The problem with that idea, the “just will through it” concept, is that it assumes we all have infinite willpower which we can use via our conscious minds. Lovely in concept, the idea of infinite willpower ends up being counterproductive in the real world; we gain an additional source of anxiety as we try to solve the problem of why our willpower isn’t effective in the way others tell us it should be. In the end, all “Just do it” really means is that the person giving us advice doesn’t understand the fears and responses that we struggle with.
Another response I get, often from my loving mother, is the prompt to “take a break,” “recharge,” and “sharpen the saw.” If I were actually able to relax, I would be glad to do so. Perhaps the freed up mental and emotional resources would allow me to overcome the initial anxiety barrier. However, any time I feel I “should” be working but I am not is time where I’m becoming more stressed, not less. “Fleeing” creates an even greater anxiety barrier rather than helping to reduce it.
This same problem takes place for many self-imposed solutions: Superficially, we may watch TV, read a book, go for a walk, play a game, or visit Facebook 18 times, but we’re actually working. Our faculties are focused on the problem, and potential problems, presented by the work we’re not doing – and thus that are looming closer with each passing moment.
Differentiating Between Procrastination and Anxiety
Much of what I’m discussing here is a description of procrastination, which is the behavior my anxiety most frequently manifests through. To be clear, they are certainly not the same thing. Anxiety as a broad response simply describes the fear we feel due to future events, while an anxiety disorder is the name given to anxiety – and any accompanying behaviors – that interfere with healthy functioning in today’s world.
So procrastination, yes, is a product of anxiety. Other behaviors are certainly present for me, including intense nervousness about big decisions, deep fears of my body falling apart or my mind deteriorating, and even panic episodes. Anxiety can, as the key emotion, encompass all these behaviors. But anxiety is not the “cause.” It is the response. Our current situation, past experience, and genetics are the “cause.”
Breaking the Anxiety Cycle
When I’m on top of everything in my life, I don’t feel anxious. The freedom from the perpetual adrenal pushes that tell me to run or stand rigid actually make my non-anxious life seem very boring. There are, as studies have found out, addictive properties to the adrenaline we get from anxious behaviors. And when I’m on top of everything, it’s much easier to stay on top of everything.
As with Jenga, however, a single block being pulled out of place can easily topple the entire thing. One item going wrong can lead to an anxious state that causes a great many additional problems. The cycle continues until I either get on top of things or something falls away – the test is done, the client fires me (it’ll happen eventually!), or I (with immense apologies) return work that I simply can’t do any more.
Getting on top of things is not easy, however, since the very need to do so means that those of us with anxiety have greatly diminished resources. We’re not just working on the problem of 4 hours of work or a big paper or painting the garage. We’re working on the 4,000 possible outcomes in the future which we feel we must prepare for – and which are deeply threatening to our life, sense of identity, or dreams.
So how do we actually get on top of things? Well, while I don’t pretend to be especially good at any of this, I have learned a lot. Here are some suggestions:
- Complete the smallest possible particle. Look at the task and evaluate where your anxiety barrier starts. Ask yourself, “Can I write this 5 page paper?” No, you probably can’t. “Can I write the first page?” Maybe not. What about the first paragraph? The title? Can you read a research source? Can you do a Google search to find an additional source? Can you decide what phrase you would type into Google to find that additional resource?
Find the first thing, no matter how minuscule, you can do. By the time you’re done, you may be surprised by how many ideas you have for the upcoming steps.
- Commit to play. Niel Fiore, in his books The Now Habit and The Now Habit for Work, spends a lot of time talking about “guilt-free play” or “guilt-free leisure.” The idea is that we must stop our brains from continuing to try to work if we are going to relax.
When it comes to anxiety, working is a great solution. If you can’t work, however, you should play. And you should commit to doing so. Say, “I am playing for the next hour,” or “I am watching this TV show,” and integrate this decision as part of generating resources that allow you to complete your project. You wouldn’t be able to build a house without materials, and the same goes for mental construction projects.
- Set time limits. Related to the two solutions above, I strongly suggest setting specific times for your work. My initial time freelancing created an all-permeating anxiety that made my life a living hell. By segregating a specific “work time” and “non-work time,” I was able to focus more completely on both.
On a smaller level, it’s also beneficial to set a 10, 15, 20, or 30 minute timer and “see what work you can get done.” This makes your job, rather than being to solve all the potential problems of a task, doing whatever feels possible in that time window.
- Finish the fears. You may fear what not accomplishing a project would do. Rather than leaving those fears unaddressed, try acknowledging them and coming up with basic solutions. Walk down the entire chain of effects. “What if I don’t do this?” “I could lose my job.” “What would I do if I lost my job?” “I would try to find another.” “What if I couldn’t find another?” “I would keep looking and live with relatives.”
The further you follow the chain of thinking, the more you’ll realize that you are a capable, intelligent person who will be able to take life’s problems so long as they’re in the present tense. That’s the big thing about anxiety, though. We have these strong fears, but – no matter how smart or creative we are (and we are, because we came up with the fears) – we can’t access solutions because all of our resources exist in this same inaccessible future.
- Tell those impacted about your anxiety. I have been very lucky to have highly empathetic professors, clients, employers, and friends. I try to make it my job, when I am in a situation where my anxiety is causing problems, to explain to those who are affected exactly what my anxiety means. You may be surprised how much support you get just by being honest.
- Take a swim / cold shower. This one’s physiological. Our bodies respond to certain environmental factors, including cold water, by releasing brain chemicals that keep us calm and focused. Again, it’s a survival instinct. Assuming your anxiety is manageable enough that you can get yourself to the pool or shower, this solution can really help overcoming those initial barriers.
And one last solution, one I’m still working on: a complete change in our perception of future problems. I don’t know if this is even possible, but it’s certainly worth exploring.
Leaving the Future Be
“Some of your hurts you have cured,
And the sharpest you still have survived,
But what torments of grief you endured
from the evil which never arrived.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Great thinkers throughout history have addressed this strange dilemma of human worry (which, in its extreme form, is anxiety). Buddhism’s mindful awareness discusses the topic at length, and even Christ had a few words (my favorite in the Bible) to say about it: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
The end point here is that the majority of what you’re suffering for in anxiety is a potential future that hasn’t arrived and that you’ll still be able to respond to if it ever does. Rather than taking on the weight of every potential negative future, of your complete identity, with any project that’s tied to things you care about, you can – hypothetically – just worry about the problems presented by the project in front of you.
Life happens in the medium of moments, not of a giant glob of time. Each moment allows us to solve individual problems unique to that moment. So, when faced with a challenge that we can’t address in the actual now, we can follow along with Ted’s eloquent phrasing from the show How I Met Your Mother: “This sounds like a problem for future Ted.” We really can leave the problems of the future to the version of ourself that will actually be there. For one, that version of ourself is the only one that will actually have access to the concrete problem and its potential solutions. Take time to plan and create general guidelines, but realize that everything’s likely to change anyway. You’ll roll with the punches as they come, but they’re not here yet.
It’s not as easy as saying “I’m re-wired now and will only work on the problems of the moment.” But, as I said previously, there are three real things that can accurately be seen as sources of our anxiety: our circumstances, our genetic heritage, and our past experiences. Our circumstances can only be changed so much in the modern world, and for many with real anxiety problems, a revolutionary change of circumstances just isn’t viable. Our genetics are even more locked in.
What we can change is our experiences today, and thus the “past experiences” of tomorrow. It’s not easy. It’s a lot like working out, in fact; it can be exhausting, it can take forever to make progress, and it’s easy to lose motivation and focus. But by continually re-processing the idea of “future concerns belonging to the future,” we can develop stronger anxiety-coping muscles.
My first strong memories of anxiety come from 7th grade. My first experience with anxiety truly damaging my life was in high school. Since then, anxiety has hurt my personal and professional life in many ways. I’ve tried medications, and nothing has worked. I’ve considered every sort of extreme solution, but not one is sustainable and effective.
But what I can say at this point, despite being so far from perfect, is that progress is possible. In fact, it’s nearly inevitable. As we continue to work on specific problems, we get better. That too is human nature. Additionally, this modern age, despite all it does to break us, also gives us many resources. Information from the world of the web, modern science, psychology, and philosophy all speak to this issue.
On that note, I’d love to open the floor to anyone who’s had issues with anxiety and get your input on what’s helped you in the past.
This year has been intensely productive. What it has not been, however, is happy. I’ve been miserable – almost insurmountably so – at least since January. Days and moments of happiness have most certainly been present, and I’ve felt a sense of satisfaction with my accomplishments, but no, I haven’t been happy.
Coming to terms with that simple reality is difficult for me for two reasons. First, acknowledging that I am deeply depressed brings to mind all the struggle I’ve had with depression, and the general sense of helplessness I feel there. Second, complaining about my own happiness seems superficial to me. It feel as though my pursuits are aimed at meaning – acquiring resources that will allow me to help others – and that “meaning” is really what I should be aimed for.
Happiness vs Meaning
That’s the question, at the end of the day: Meaning or happiness? The two, so often interwoven, do serve different ends, take different paths, and result in a different priority set – and thus lifestyle. My training in life has split my motives. I have been told that I am not good enough as a person; this means I must prove, through meaning, that my life has a purpose. I have been told that joy is the meaning of life; this means that happiness is really what I should be pursuing. I have been told countless things, all contradictory.
In the end, it comes back to me. What do I want? And is what I want healthy? If I want a life of meaning that requires me to sacrifice my own happiness, is my motive self-destruction – or just a freedom from overwhelming guilt and pain brought in by other sources? Have I given up on happiness as an end to itself because I see it, so often, as unobtainable?
But I have been happy before. Beyond “small bursts” of happiness in my life, I have had long stretches where I felt – for the most part – free from depression. I know it’s possible. But is it my top priority? This first entry of mine is an attempt to convince myself that happiness is worthwhile.
Happiness as a Worthy Aim
I will define happiness here in the simplest possible terms: A state of being that creates emotional, psychological, and physical sensations that we as humans recognize to be “positive” – with positive being a highly personal term.
Happiness is not limited to the physical state of happiness. A bliss-causing pill that debilitated me would cause great unhappiness. Even if I was experiencing the chemical sensations of happiness, there would be a psychological and emotional sense of something lacking. So we are talking about a broader sense of fulfillment, with all its ties to – and at times necessary sacrifices of – happiness.
It is easy for me to say that I don’t deserve happiness (and, on my darker days, even feel that I deserve unhappiness). The reality of humankind is that we don’t deserve much of anything. If we are the products of a deity, we certainly don’t deserve happiness. If we are the products of chance, life is still not our fault. We are effects, not causes – at least to start. It seems that we are born in debt.
Religions have said that debt is owed to a creator being, but for the life of me I can’t figure out which deity that should be. Shiva or Rama or Thor or Zeus or God? Buddha or nature? Myriad Gods or just one? And the concept of being in debt varies from faith to faith has well.
I’m getting side-tracked. The point is, no one deserves to be happy in this really pragmatic, cause-and-effect sort of way. Yet the most common aim for humankind is, indeed, to be happy. I’m not going to worry about causes and conditions here. We just want to be happy, at least for the most part. But does that happiness interfere with something more?
Yet how can there be something more if what we want, as a collective, is happiness? What would “more” be oriented toward? If there was a choice to be made that made everyone unhappy, but for some greater “purpose,” what could that purpose possibly be? It seems that the only circumstances in which happiness can and should be traded is when a greater happiness – such as happiness or continued life for more people – is on the line.
To this end, with happiness as the universal value (with acknowledged exceptions and, most certainly, varied definitions of happiness), there are several potent arguments to make on behalf of pursuing ones own happiness as the ideal.
6 Arguments for Happiness
1) Happiness is its own value.
If we assume that happiness is the ideal state for humankind, then pursuing one’s own happiness is good simply because it increases the overall happiness present in the world.
2) Providing an example of happiness as a core value.
Many in today’s world make themselves miserable on behalf of some other aim (profits, worthiness, etc.). However, these attempts are often misguided pursuits of happiness itself. By prioritizing happiness as its own aim, you create an example of that priority structure for those you care about – and most notably you create habits that will be an example for your children.
3) Happy people make others more happy.
If you are more happy, you’re naturally more resilient and able to help others through issues, distract them in a positive yet fulfilling way, and otherwise assist in their happiness.
4) Happy people, statistically, produce more.
While it’s important to see happiness as its own pursuit, those concerned with productivity and meaningful work should be assured that those who are happy statistically produce more; they are capable of maintaining focus, energy, and vision for longer, and resisting a sense of being overwhelmed or helpless, in ways that the unhappy can’t.
5) Happiness allows for greater clarity.
There’s a great body of research, not to mention an impressive array of philosophy, that agrees that humans are wired to pursue happiness. Many of our great problems are maladaptive attempts to find happiness – or resolve blocks to it. By seeking happiness, we can overcome these maladaptive traits, poor habits, and pathologies that would otherwise fog our vision.
6) Happiness extends lifespan.
Presuming that life is power, and that the ability to change this world effectively ends at death, than continued impact is diminished by unhappiness. Happiness typically leads to better fitness, lower rates of heart attack, fewer self-destructive habits, etc. Again, the math simply makes happiness a more pragmatic choice.
My Happiness Journal
In my personal pursuit of happiness, I’ve made many discoveries and had plenty of setbacks. I still don’t know how to juggle them all. As I start to make concrete efforts in my life to improve my personal happiness, I will keep a journal. Any tips, suggestions, or thoughts are welcome.
When we began modeling our universe, we first assumed that our lonely planet was at the center of it all. This approach fell prey to one of the most popular and seemingly rational fallacies; it’s easy to forget our own bias. But the view of the universe where mere perspective justifies being center is now outdated. We’ve moved forward. But to what?
On a regular basis, we as humans place something at the center of our universe, and we try to live our lives accordingly. Appropriate placement is so important to us that we’ve lost friends over it. We’ve created countries. We’ve fought wars.
To some, God is the rightful center of the universe, and all else is subservient to Him (or Her). To others, it’s nature, happiness, integrity, productivity, kindness, creation, truth, progress, or any number of other very lovely and smoke-wisp concepts. The issue really comes in defining how that center is reached.
If the purpose of life is to seek meaning, then what is meaning? Is meaning perhaps fulfilling a destiny? Then what is destiny, if not our purpose? Have we routed back to the beginning? Or could our meaning be contributing in a positive way to society? If so, then how do we define “positive”? Is it in a rational, economic way? If so, then what are those economic resources for? Or is “positive” the merely subjective “happiness”? If so, then how do we resolve happiness that comes at the expense of others? Or do we try to make a utilitarian model wherein the most happiness for the most people is the ideal? Or do we just route the concept of “positive,” or of “meaning,” or even of “happiness” to an entirely different location?
In almost all models of purpose in the universe, we see a self-defining term. If the purpose of life is to serve God, we are still permitted to ask why. However, the answer to that question is, “Because God says so.” God is then the self-defining truth. If the purpose of life is to seek beauty, then we can ask why, and learn that beauty is good because it’s beauty. Like God, it is defined as valuable because it is itself, and nothing else is required – if you accept this model of the universe. We can go through the same exercise with “truth” or “justice” or “beauty,” each bringing forward impenetrable questions and finding center only in self-definition. But could self-definition be the very source of centrality?
I have gone through several variations of where I can find purpose in the universe. It began with God, who tasted bad on my tongue, and who I started rejecting when I was 11 years old. I tried to find purpose in happiness, but happiness was tone-deaf. I tried to find purpose in peace, but peace fractured and fell hollow. I tried to find purpose in other people, but others betrayed me and used me. I tried to find purpose in love, but love failed. And what was left?
Everything in our struggles comes to the question of “What is all this for?” And this question is, in almost every way, the hardest and most crucial question of the human experience. It is not that there is a single overriding purpose to which we must all adhere, at the behest of God and with the alternative of hellfire. It’s that a life without purpose, without direction, without center, lacks gravity. We wander through limbo inside our own minds and (dare I say it?) souls, feeling decay at our fingertips. Without that reference point, without that defined marker of importance (be it God, virtue, happiness, glory, truth, or anything else), all other variables remain lost in the equation.
The reference point is important, perhaps even vital. I would argue that more scientists are atheists, not because they have a more rational position to disbelieve God, but the exploration of the universe and its functions provides an alternative center. But is seeking purpose an act of exploration and discovery? Is it an act of testing? Or is it merely an act of creation and determination?
My rational mind and its calculations have led me to a conclusion: A gambit is worthwhile. Rather than trying to discover a self-defining purpose (for which no other tests or proof, by definition, can exist), I should select one. But it becomes very sticky at this point, because even rationality, without gravity to bind it to something, loses all its gunpowder. There’s no way to reason which center is best, what purpose should be selected, because “best” itself is a concept that only appears when the center has been defined.
So I’m choosing happiness. It was a common theme of my childhood, of my first religion, of the philosophical studies I have pursued, and it works as a justification for most of my passions. I can center activism around happiness, calling out that it is all happiness that we must defend, and that our framework should be designed to maximize these opportunities. I can align my fitness, education, profession, adventurism, and even romance around this. Most importantly, for a man who struggles with depression almost every day, it’s one of the most functional centers.
Finding the center is about defining a hierarchy, but it’s all fluid. We make one decision, and let everything else fall into place, examining the consequences and revising as needed – but even here, in the context of our already defined meaning.
When we began modeling our universe, we first assumed that our lonely planet was at the center of it all. Ironically, this is true by technicality. Start at any point in the universe and draw a line out in every direction. Science tells us that the universe is infinite, so each line will be infinite, and, by the nature of infinity, will each be equally infinite.
The plurality of centers provides an especially boggling reality when you see how different the consequences of each will be, and when the subjective bias – that fallacy to which we all so easily fall prey – tells us to judge other possibilities by the one we have selected. “Superior” itself is defined on a level of pre-definition, preventing us from finding an objective superiority or inferiority in our belief or in any others. We all have different values, some very discordant; who’s to say those attacking the World Trade Center were wrong, and we were right?
You can see that this sort of pluralism has a false implication that the fluidity of value discredits all judgment. Consequences are real – but without objective value, how can we condemn them? Can values, if so subjective, be worth fighting for? We judge through our own lens, and we’re willing to call others “evil” because they defy out values. But is a tiger evil, for following its nature and adhering to its environment? Can human self-awareness and rationality really break this border, when objective values are so phantasmic? How can things objectively matter, when the source of that matter is so immaterial?
These are difficult questions, and I don’t pretend to know the answers. Anyone who believes in a solitary, objective universe of truth does so because they assume a truth that precedes perspective. But if I select happiness as my value, happiness for myself and happiness for those around me, then I am satisfied with the consequences of that choice. I am satisfied with the opportunity to love and care and hurt that it brings. I am relieved because the mere decision has the power to lift me out of purgatory and make it so my eyes absorb light and see the deep saturation of color. I am willing to fight for these values. They are worth fighting for, subjective or not.
Is happiness the center of everything, the meaning, the self-creating deity? Perhaps nothing is. But happiness is sufficient. For me, for this life, for what I want, it’s good enough. And I’m okay with that. If only this once, for this stretch of days or weeks or years, I’m okay with embracing happiness as the bright spot at the core of my infinity.