By Matthew Wojtechko
You don’t mind if I complain a bit, do you?
There’s a good chance you do, actually. You might tolerate or enjoy my gripes – perhaps I’ll deliver them in a humorous way, perhaps you have a personal investment in my life, or perhaps you’ll commiserate with me.
But otherwise, you’ll probably just get tired-out from my negativity and think I’m being overdramatic.
So why? Why do we complain so much when we don’t seem to enjoy it? Why do we so often gripe about how busy we are, about the amount of sleep we didn’t get, and about other people’s failings? I know commiserating can help us relate with one another, but certainly there are more positive ways of doing that, right?
I think complaining is so universal in our society because so many of us are unhappy, and complaining is a way of justifying or partially relieving that burden. And, while that might be obvious, clearly an alternative isn’t.
Let me try to unravel this mess of misery.
The root of complaining is obviously unhappiness. And the root of unhappiness is an obsession with success, I argue. We’re taught this obsession, in fact! Formally, even. In formal education.
Just about anywhere you look in a school you’ll see rewards for success – the report card, the homework grade, the honor society. I’m not enough of an education expert to say this is the wrong way to go, but I can say that in my experience, students who are conditioned to pursue success somehow along the way miss pursuing what makes them happy.
And this goes not only for school, but work and society at large. We try to reach the top of the hierarchy, but if you’ve seen movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, then you know that’s not where you find happiness. Not total happiness, anyway. A job well done certainly is fulfilling, but it’s not fully fulfilling.
So, how do we be happy? Well, unfortunately, I can’t really speak expertly on a large piece of the happiness puzzle – mental illnesses that impede our contentment – but what I can do is offer the wisdom I’ve happened upon in my life, which I’ve found to be worthwhile.
That’s the main lesson I’ve learned, and you can see how an obsession with success can hinder that. That obsession says: “You won’t be happy until you claim success.” And maybe you will be happy when that happens – but why wait?
You don’t want to wait for success or for anything else to make you happy. During my teenage years (arguably the most tumultuous stage in a human’s development), I faced a world I had largely left unexamined throughout my life. My senior year of high school, in my endless pursuit to understand this world, I realized I had to be content with not understanding. Four years later, I’m still baffled by the world – but nevertheless, I’ve been happier since.
This is all a sort of way of saying “be happy with what you got,” which might seem like a pretty simple wisdom to you. If you like, though, I can offer a more mathematical approach. Your unhappiness is equal to the image you want to achieve, minus what you actually have achieved. In other words, the greater the difference between what you want and what you have, the greater your unhappiness. (This view comes from the individual behind the educational organization PragerU, Dennis Prager. While I can’t say I agree with Prager on everything, I think he was spot on with this.)
To me, then, the best way to stop being unhappy is to adjust our standards. Not necessarily to lower them, but to make them more in line with what actually makes us happy.
From what I can see, there’re basically two categories of what we should focus on to be happy: the little things and the people. You’re surely familiar with the idea of “little things.” Reflecting on all the good things that happened throughout the day, perhaps before you go to bed, is a good way to find them.
Another way is to be more attentive to them during the day. When you eat a meal, do you appreciate the flavors and the nutrition of the food you’re blessed with, or is your attention elsewhere (perhaps a small, rectangular pocket-computer)?
Then there’s the people. John Green, author and one-half of the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel, said that, in his experience, in the end, “What you do isn’t going to be nearly as interesting or important as who you do it with.” (That’s from his 2012 video “What To Do With Your Life,” by the way.) If you make time for the people in your life, I think you’ll be happier. Perhaps you want more friends… but even just one friend is a lot more than no friends, so you should appreciate those around you.
Now, I don’t want to make it seem like this pursuit of happiness is at odds with the pursuit of success – quite the contrary. Let me share some insight from another YouTuber – the world-class professional e-sport player, Adam Lindgren (nicknamed “Armada”). To succeed in Super Smash Bros. Melee, Armada argues, you first need to make sure you’re content on matters outside of the game. “Sometimes, it can be better to play a bit less, and work on yourself as a human being. Make sure that you feel good,” he said. “And then, when you do practice, it’s going to feel so much easier.” He’s talking about succeeding in a video game, but I think this goes for succeeding in anything. (This is from his YouTube video “How to improve in smash without playing.” Yes, the title makes it sound like a scam, but I can assure you the amount of life advice it held was staggering.)
So there we have it. Success sometimes impedes our happiness, but as it turns out, the reverse isn’t true. Happiness almost always improves our success. And when we focus on the things that truly make us happy – and keep an open mind to wisdom from the unlikeliest of places – I think you’ll find that happiness is the greatest personal success you can achieve.