Somewhere in the south of Thailand last year, I met a 20-year-old Dutch kid on a bus, who described to me enthusiastically about his job as an electrical power line installer. He described to me the joy and gratitude he got from working and building things with his hands, as well as generous pay, all while working with like-minded men. His plan was to eventually get another degree in electrical engineering and make even more money in a field that he has been studying religiously since age fifteen. I couldn’t help but feel envious of his simplistic, beautiful life plan.
When he asked me what my plan was, I told him – with a healthy amount of head tossing and hand gestures — to teach English in one country for six months, then travel to find another place to teach, and maybe work at a hostel, too? He looked at me with amazement; “so free you must feel, man”.
He was indeed jealous of my nomadic, seemingly carefree lifestyle and I was envious of his ability to happily commit to something he found great purpose in – at such a young age, too.
This experience was one example of the innate jealousy we tend to feel towards other people’s success or lifestyle. Sometimes it’s directed at somebody who has the exact opposite life as you, oftentimes we’re comparing to others in our line of work; who seem just a bit happier or are making a bit (or a lot) more money, maybe even with a full set of hair (rude).
We may see these people and think, “I would be so much happier if I just made 20,000 more dollars a year, or I would be way happier if I just had a girlfriend, or if I just could travel more”. These are not bad things to want, but they will not make you happier by themselves.
Which leads me to this…
The biggest lie ever told in the history of mankind is: If I just had _X_, I’d be happy.
Recently, I spent six months in a long distance relationship, whereby the end of it I was telling myself, man, if I could just break up with her, then I would be happy. Eventually, we did break up and although I was thrilled to no longer be playing time-zone text tag, I was also terribly sad and now facing new challenges that emerged from being truly independent. Perhaps most shockingly to me, I still felt lonely despite my assumption that it was her fault for being only accessible through a screen.
Maybe the most common way we hear this storyline is when people claim, “if I just had more money, it would solve all my problems”. If your problem is you don’t have a roof over your head or can’t afford food, then earning an extra $20,000 a year would actually raise your baseline happiness considerably by providing basic living necessities.
But chances are you’re reading this on an iPhone and you have food in sight. So though it may feel like money would solve all your problems, it actually won’t—it will just create new problems – possibly better ones than you face now — but new, substantial stressors will unquestionably arise.
The renowned character, “Disappointment Panda” from the Subtle Art eloquently explains that “Life is essentially an endless series of problems. The solution to one problem is merely the creation of the next one…Don’t hope for a life without problems, there is no such thing. Instead, hope for a life full of good problems”.
Most people accept the notion that material possessions will not bring happiness (pleasure ≠ happiness). Rather, the act of solving (hopefully) good problems will indeed bring us a deeper sense of fulfillment.
The equally fucked cousin of “If I just had X I’d be happy”, is the thought that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. I can fall victim to this thinking quite a lot and it’s not hard to see why. In the era of Instagram, it’s far too easy to admire beautiful places or beautiful bodies and think that life would be far superior if I lived in Melbourne or if I just looked like Niykee Heaton.
To be perfectly clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting a fit body, or to make more money, or to travel the world. One must simply be cognizant that the grass on the other side of the fence has its own shit covered pasture.
We tend to place pretty people and pretty places on a pedestal. We think because something is attractive, it’s qualities must also be good. This bias is called the Halo Effect and it’s the reason that an attractive person is more likely to be hired and or paid more for a job than an equally qualified person who looks like a foot.1
In the world of ever-present butt models and luxury villas in Bali, we see this extravagance and assume because it looks attractive, that its qualities are inherently good. We completely overlook the internal stresses that come with having your worth be incessantly measured by your looks, or the extreme heat, mosquitos, and lack of resources that accompany you moving to a foreign paradise.
Author Robert Fulgham of “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten” makes the point that the grass isn’t greener on the other side. The grass is greener where you water it. Practicing self-love (yes, this is a skill you can practice) and acceptance, focusing on progress and not perfection are ways to water your grass and cultivate more happiness — as well as stop comparing yourself to ideals.
It seems to go against intuition, yet one must accept their body to improve their body. You must accept you’re afraid of commitment in order to improve your relationships. You must first be accepting of the nature of reality so that you can plan and act skillfully rather than reactionary in order to complete your goals.
Someone who is in denial that he already possesses all he needs to be happy may think he can attain it through some possession; be it a six-pack, $50,000 or endless sexcapades. When you think in this mindset, you are thinking in an imaginary world, and your results will follow suit – by staying imaginary.
It is in fact, only after we accept our issues and shortcomings that we can take skillful action to alleviate pain and transform our lives. It is through this lens of acceptance that we can better plan our goals and not get caught up in story-lines where we are victims, doomed to fail.
The most common false narrative is the illusion that, If I just had X I’d be happy”. The more time I spend in meditation, the more I realize I tell myself this story all the time. I’ve spent cumulative days thinking my happiness would come from my ex-girlfriend, from more meaningful work, or from a pay raise.
One way to help combat this belief is to simply notice when we have these thoughts and label them as “craving”. When we do that, we can acknowledge the thought, let it in for tea and then see it on it’s way out. Once the ephemeral nature of thoughts becomes more obvious, they lose their ability to control our every mood, subsequentially we retain our sense of humor.
I encourage everyone to constantly question and examine their thoughts. There is good evidence to believe they are generally fucked. See if this false story-line emerges – chances are it does more than you realize. The biggest lie ever told is a fucking lie. Happiness is not around the corner, waiting for you. It is yours for the taking now. It is dependent on you, the problems you choose to solve, and the person you choose to be.