Do You Want a Happy Life or a Memorable Life?
The Mindfulness Happiness Conflict
Hey friends, today’s essay is on what I see as a fundamental conflict between our desire to be happy and our desire to create a life full of rich memories. If you’re new here, please be sure to subscribe so you get my next piece in your inbox, and check out some of my most popular essays in the meantime!
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I’m struggling with a conflict over the broad goal of “being happy.”
If we’re honest with ourselves, I believe that most goals reduce to some form of “being happy.” We want X amount of money because we think we’ll be happier if we have it. We want to achieve X because then we’ll be happier. We want to quit X bad habit because our days will be happier. We want to live longer, but only on the condition that it’s a happy life.
So everyone is struggling to one degree or another to “be happier,” and while we haven’t completely figured it out, we’ve gotten quite close to some general answers.
We know, for example, that things like cars and houses tend to temporarily increase our happiness, but then we revert to a baseline. Lottery winners don’t end up much happier than paralyzed accident victims.
And we also know certain chronic stressors lower happiness below a certain baseline. That’s why happiness increases with salary up to a point, and then the effects start diminishing. More money does make you happier, but the effect of going from $25k to $50k a year is much greater than going from $500k to $525k.
I think our best evidence suggests that happiness is a sort of default state that we’re in when our needs are being met and we aren’t worried for our survival. Happiness is the baseline, and our brain conjures up unhappiness to solve issues related to our current or future thriving.
If you can sit and enjoy the breeze on your face or a book or a meal and not be distracted by the past or future, you will be quite happy. But we’re not good at those things, which is why we use screens, alcohol, shopping, games, and other tools to hijack our brains into present state focus or “mindfulness.” Though, of course, we can train ourselves to succeed without those tools through meditation and other practices.
Anyway, let’s say I’m right that having a happy day, or a happy life, to some extent reduces to “enjoying every moment in itself, not being worried about the future, and not regretting the past.” The more of your day you spend in the present moment, the better your day will be.
I’m having a harder time finding a better way to roughly define how to live a happy life. Being fully immersed in the present moment feels like the only end in itself. All other ways we might attack defining happiness seem to reduce to this. If you said that a happy day is one where you “made something,” well, then I would argue that “making something” is just how you hack your brain into being in the present moment. It’s certainly how I do it.
But here’s the potential problem. If we accept that present state immersion, mindfulness, flow, whatever you want to call it is our best way to achieve happiness, then the happiest life might not be a particularly memorable one.
My repeatable, happy day is some combination of leisurely meals with my family and friends, a few hours of writing, a couple hours of reading, something physical, and maybe an hour of goofing off with video games or something. I could do a version of that every day, and I don’t think I’d ever get tired of it.
But if I did that for a whole year, I wouldn’t remember much from the year. Every day would blend together. They would be happy days, and it would be a happy year, but it wouldn’t be memorable. And even though I know it was happy, there’s still something sad to that. It feels like life should have some big memorable events that I can anchor the year to.
Trips are an easy one. But if I’m being honest, most of the time I spend related to traveling is less “happy” than my ideal day. The peaks are higher, sure. But dealing with airports, worse food, being out of my routine, etc. etc. often make the baseline lower. And while I often look forward to trips as they approach, I find myself looking forward to being home even more as they end. Trips can also be as much of an attempt to escape as alcohol and television.
“If a man does not first unburden his soul of the load that weighs upon it, movement will cause it to be crushed still more, as in a ship the cargo is less cumbersome when it is settled.” - Montaigne
One solution is to say that if you are truly living a happy life, one that is maximizing present state immersion, then its being unmemorable doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t be thinking about the past anyway. You should be enjoying the moment you’re in. I’ve heard at least one person argue you shouldn’t take pictures for this reason.
But that, too, feels dumb. I love looking back at photos from past experiences. Even just silly photos of my kids.
I think a better answer is that these peak experiences are short-term losses in happiness, but you get long-term happiness dividends from them in the memories they create. And when you think of them like that, you realize that you probably don’t need to travel very far to create some great routine-breaking memories that pay long-term happiness dividends. You can do that in your own backyard.
Maybe this gives us a rough formula for a way to resolve this conflict:
Find a routine you could do every day that immerses you in the present and gets you into flow, using the minimum amount of pharmaceutical, technological, or other tools as possible.
Then, occasionally break that routine to create peak moments that can pay you happiness dividends for the rest of your life.
I like that solution. It’s one I think I could live according to for a very long time.
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