Wanna know something that makes me happy? Cocaine. Used to do loads of it in college. It makes you feel invincible, insanely confident, extroverted to the max and turns you into the life of the party. Especially if you took a few shots beforehand.
Also, weed. It’s pretty hard to feel down on yourself when you’re high as hell watching Superbad eating a bag of flaming hot Cheetos. Did I mention booze already? There was a point in my life where I drank seven days a week. And, let me tell you, it was quite fun. You get to hang out and let loose with your friends. If you’re looking you get to meet an extra special friend if you know what I mean. Loads of casual sex? Great fun.
But then there were the days of withdrawal, the hangovers, the wasted days, the pregnancy scares and STDs, and the sense that my life was spinning out of control. So, I decided to give up some of those vices and work on myself. I cleaned up, starting reading books, started learning more, and started a hobby that would change my life and become the career that I do right now.
Some of the things I had to do to make my dreams become a reality didn’t make me happy in the moment — working on the tedious tasks I didn’t want to do, getting my work rejected, and dealing with all the obstacles and setbacks that came my way. But they gave me happiness in a different and more long-lasting form.
Happiness is a nebulous word. And the phrase “do what makes you happy” can be taken in many different ways. I’m not here to tell you what to do. My job as a writer is simple. I present you with observations and let you decide what to do next. So let’s take a look.
“Now she wants a photo, you already know though. You only live once that’s the motto n***** Y.O.L.O.” – Drake
“You only live once” is the motto for many people these days, especially my fellow Millenials and those in Gen Z. The phrase ‘do what makes you happy’ can be interpreted as do anything that provides pleasure. Some people take it as do whatever makes you feel good right now regardless of the consequences it creates in the future.
There’s nothing wrong with having fun. A life without any vices is a boring one. Even Seneca extolled the virtues of occasionally getting wasted:
“Occasionally we should come to the point of intoxication..for it does wash away cares, stirs the mind to its depths, and heals sorrows…” Seneca
There’s a time and place for everything. If you spend your entire life being overly serious and overly focused on your goals, you’ll never have any time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. I spent a good portion doing nothing more than working for half a decade. And I realized that I could’ve enjoyed myself a bit more and pumped the breaks on my dreams a little bit.
These days, since I found a way to buy back my freedom, I do take more time to stop and smell the roses and take a few too many shots of tequila, but I’ve learned how to manage it a bit better than I did when I was 22.
The real lesson behind YOLO: It is important to make time in your life to do things you enjoy. A certain amount of pleasure is important. But it’s also important to avoid overdoing it. I fear that we now have generations of people who are only focused on what makes them feel good in the present moment. Riding on the hedonic treadmill with no end in sight, getting maximum pleasure but little to no meaning, along with a bunch of unintended consequences.
Some of the happiest moments in my life came from the satisfaction of a job well done. Not only that, but the satisfaction of a job well done on something that really mattered to me, that aligned with who I truly was at my core, that gave me that sense of meaning that eluded me for most of my life.
I felt it when I held the proof copy of each one of my books in my hand. I felt it when I got off stage after giving a talk in front of thousands of people and signed autographs. Every once in a while, I feel it when I sit back and think of just how much work I put in to be able to make it to the point I’m at now. There are few feelings better than saying you’re going to do something important and then actually doing it. We all have that picture in our minds of who we could become, and there are few better feelings than becoming that person.
Life isn’t all about accomplishments, but there’s a spiritual component of achieving the heights of whatever it is you aim for. It doesn’t matter what you aim for, but meeting a certain level of excellence you know you’re capable of reaching provides a sense of happiness that can’t be found elsewhere.
It’s the component of ‘do what makes you happy’ that many people are missing. People love to play the ‘I’m content’ game. Instead of admitting and honoring what they really want, they pretend like they don’t want it because they don’t think they can get it. Do what makes you happy in the moment yes, but also achieve the things that are going to make you happy when you look back on them.
How are you supposed to know what to pursue? How do you know what will make you happy in the future? How do you ever really know what you want? Can you ever really know?
Dan Gilbert had this to say about making plans that make your future self happy:
“We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy… But our temporal progeny are often thankless.
I’ll be honest. The euphoria wears off pretty quickly. One year I made more money than I did in my entire life before that. Millions of people read my work every year. I’ve crossed off many, most, of my major goals. I’m used to it. So what do I do know? I focus on other missions, continue to level up, and spend my time making educated guesses about what will make me happy in the future. Guesses that will probably end up not entirely coming true.
Why? Because that’s the game. You aim for something you think you want. It feels good for a bit but doesn’t create eternal lasting happiness, and then you grow along the way. You do come to realize the corny cliche that the journey itself is the point, but you can never learn that lesson until you go through it yourself.
You’re never going to be in this eternal state of happiness and bliss, but you don’t need to be to live a good life. Also, while achievement and the fruits that come with it don’t fill the void, their absence can cause misery. Money doesn’t make you happy, but being broke sucks. Achieving your goals doesn’t make you whole, but always wondering what could’ve been can drive you crazy. Once you escape the rat race, you’re not free of problems, but you’re also no longer a rat.
Cross off the checklist and see for yourself.
More plot twists. Your life isn’t just about you. What if doing what makes you happy means that other people have to suffer in the process? What if there’s a calling bigger than what you want for yourself?
Should you stick it out for the sake of your kids or cut bait so you can be happy in your relationship? Speaking of kids, should you momentarily spend less time with them to build a career that makes you happier and provides more for them down the road? Will they be happier overall because of your decisions?
Should you choose the career that makes you a lot of money or the one that pays less but helps people in need? Which one will provide more happiness and meaning for you (altruism is still self-interest) What if doing what makes you happy in the moment keeps you from becoming someone other people might need in the future?
To what degree should you be selfish? Sometimes giving to others is important and it makes you feel good, too, but you can also give too much of yourself and wear yourself thin in the process because you don’t first take care of yourself.
There’s no good answer for this because I don’t know you. Inevitably, you’re going to break eggs in the process. You might break other people in the process, too. So the point isn’t to tell you what to do, but the point is to be cognizant of all of this and try your best. When was the last time you really tried to take everything into account when it comes to your life, your happiness, and the happiness of those around you? When was the last time you took a real birds-eye view of everything? That’s all I’m asking you to do.
Speaking of other people, some of the happiest moments in your life will come from the random moments you spent with them that have nothing to do with how much you’ve achieved. A lot of happy moments in your life will be like that — random, mundane, simple. Reading a good book, going for a walk, playing with your kid, talking to your best friend on the front porch until five in the morning.
I don’t know how much these moments matter, but I do know that you’ll get more of them when you’re being present. I encourage people to do what they can to get off the hamster wheel because it robs them of presence. It robs you of time to have more of those moments. Think the parent that isn’t really present with their kid because they’re stressed out from work and worried about the bills. Think the person who’s not really enjoying the T.V. they’re watching, or the drinks they’re having but instead using them to cope.
It’s important to figure out a way to unlock even more of those little moments that make life great. The answer is different for everyone. For some, it means building a business that buys freedom. For others that means living off little to no money in a studio apartment on the beach where they can surf and hang out with their friends. Could mean getting a job that doesn’t make you miserable, saving some change, and investing it so you’re comfortable. And some people just need to take over the damn world.
For all of us, it definitely means taking more time to enjoy whatever it is that’s right in front of us, right now. You don’t need to do anything to gain presence other than to be present. So yes, take care of your circumstances in a way that fosters it, but work on fostering it yourself, too.
So, there’s your answer — do what makes you happy. Like any piece of advice, you can take it in a ton of different ways. I won’t tell you exactly which way to take it, but I will tell you that it’s important to work on your own happiness.
Happiness is something you have to play an active role in if you want it. Even something as simple as being content requires the work of forming a philosophy that makes you happy with what you have.
Never aim for perfect. But course-correct often. If you spend more time truly thinking about what will make you happier and attempt to do it instead of just thinking about it, you’ll be happier. Trust me.