On Being “Happy”

When I was a kid, I remember telling me mom that all I cared about in life was being happy. She responded that there was more to life than being happy and I thought she was insane. Back then, it seemed like my mom and I disagreed on 95% of life so, I figured that she just didn’t understand the purpose of living as well as I did. I was 15.

At 34, I still think she’s a bit nutty at times, but I do agree that there’s more to life than being happy. It’s one thing to consider, but not the thing.

Let me define happy/happiness in this context so no one loses it when I say happiness is not the most helpful thing to chase.

Happy means feeling or showing pleasure or contentment. And happiness is the quality or state of being happy.

I don’t use happiness as a filter for making important decisions anymore b/c I’ve found it to be unreliable. Happy is a feeling and happiness is a state, which can come and go, moment to moment, situation to situation. And that’s just not solid enough to base important decisions on.

What made me happy yesterday may not make me happy today, or in a month, or in a year. I’m affected by the weather, by people around me, by culture, by where I live, by my baggage, by my/others’ expectations and whether I’m happy just scratches the surface of all my shit buried underneath.

In the first 10+ years following that convo with my mom, I stayed the course and asked “Am I happy?” or “What makes me happy?” to sort my life. From tiny choices… should I go out tonight even if I have to be at work at 8am?… to massive ones… should I end this relationship even though he’s such a good person and checks so many boxes?

But once I got to my mid twenties and really started thinking about what I wanted in life, being happy wasn’t as helpful of a guide as it used to be. I made changes and adjusted course based on my level of happiness, but it didn’t always get me to a better place in the long run.

When I left what once was my dream job at the NBA, I had been unhappy for months. I hated going to work every morning and didn’t find value in what I was doing anymore. But I also didn’t know what else I wanted to do so, I didn’t try interviewing for other jobs. I probably indulged the unhappy place when I shouldn’t have, but it reached a level I couldn’t stand anymore so, I quit (without a plan).

I ended up bartending then drove around the country for two months, the latter of which was one of the best things I’ve done in my entire life. But when I got back home, I still had no idea what I wanted to do. Within a few weeks, I was back to the same rut and feeling like the gif at the top.

I realized I hadn’t dug into the problem deep enough to know what I needed to solve for and the “Am I happy?” filter was an easy way out of a situation I didn’t like. The road trip was an amazing break and I 100% did not regret going, but it only delayed solving the I’m-not-happy problem.

It took me another two months before I got my shit together. But eventually, I sorted that I wanted to…

  • Stay in NYC
  • Work for someone I looked up to and could learn from
  • Grow my skills in brand marketing
  • Stay in sports, but be closer to the sport itself and not just selling the sport
  • Earn more money
  • Have better work/life balance

If I got that, it’d probably make me happy, but more importantly I’d be solid. I’d feel good about the direction I was moving in life. After two months of evaluating what I wanted, I found a few more useful goals to chase other than happiness; useful b/c they were actually tangible. Happiness is subjective and even if I got all those things I’d still have unhappy days. But whether your life good is something you can evaluate in more black and white terms based on how you’ve defined it. You just gotta define it.

From then on I started to consider my choices more and more through the lens of good instead of happy. On those inevitably shitty days where I was in a crappy place for whatever reason, I’d try to switch gears and think about “Am I good with my overall situation right now?” and “Do I have/Am I doing the things that make me feel solid?” instead.

I wasn’t always successful b/c the happy trap is strong, but when I did, I was able to answer those questions far more objectively, and often with a simple yes or no. If it was a yes, then I knew I was actually fine and just running higher on the emotions that day. If it was a no, then I needed to consider why I wasn’t in a good place and if my goals were still valid.

I’ve had to repeat the process of defining “good” a bunch more times since b/c I’ve changed a lot since 24 and what I wanted/what made me feel solid changed with that. It usually sucked b/c I often had to do it after a period of feeling stuck, overwhelmed, sad, angry, broken… and yes, unhappy. But doing so was the only way I knew to get out of that shitty place.

“Am I happy?” definitely still has a place in the life toolbox. I use it as a temp check to see how I’m feeling on the regular so I know how my emotional meter is trending over time. If I’m consistently trending downwards, then that’s another way I know I need to reevaluate what’s happening in my world and if I’m good or not.

Yes, this is partly an exercise in semantics and if it works for you to use the word happy to define how solid you feel in the world, then by all means. But the distinction between “happy” and “good” has helped me better understand what’s actually going on in my head and make better decisions.

Happy is an emotion and our emotions are not based on reason so, breaking out the parts that I can evaluate rationally from the ones that I can’t give me a higher percentage shot at making the best decision b/c it’s not just based on a temporary feeling. It’s based on the specific things I’ve identified as being good for my life.

Being happy can be elusive b/c it’s amorphous. But being good with where you are/what you’re doing with your life right now… That’s 100% definable.

Much Love,