By Tanner Campbell
As I sit to write this it occurs to me how much I’ve evolved, philosophically and as a person, since I wrote “Happiness Through Fiction” a mere five months ago (a piece I still consider to be true but now view as impractical for use). Tonight someone in my life asked me a question that I was altogether unprepared to be asked, mostly because the assumption made in the question was both incredibly flattering and – to me – extremely far from reality. What follows won’t be a treatise on happiness, I’m in no position at this point in my development to write such a thing, instead it will be an explanation of how I find happiness… and how I don’t.
You seem to be a fairly level-headed and happy guy, [in spite of certain negatives in your life]. How do you pull that off?
The person who asked this question was really the perfect person to do so. I know this person well enough to feel moved by the fact that they would ask me for personal guidance on their own happiness, but we’re unfamiliar enough for me – at the same time – to be completely shocked that they would ask me something this important and be genuinely interested in my response.
Happiness vs. Contentment
First, my friend’s question is about contentment, not happiness. Happiness is temporary, happiness is always fleeting, happiness comes in fits and spurts, in singular moments. We’re happy when we buy something we’ve been saving for a long time to get, or when we get a gift or a surprise birthday party. We’re happy when we’re asked whether or not we’re happy, but only if we’re asked at the right moment. We’re happy during points of great ecstasy such as sexual climax, drunken bliss, or drug-induced euphoria. We’re happy when we’re recognized for our accomplishments and sometimes we’re even happy during moments of silent self-reflection, like watching the sun set, but no one is happy all the time.
The question “how are you such a happy person?” is malformed, it can’t possibly elicit a useful or truthful answer. When someone asks this question (at least in the sense of how it was asked to me) what they’re really doing is comparing their internal struggle to find contentment to your external appearance of happiness and then making the assumption that you’ve got contentment they haven’t got. For practical purposes contentment and happiness are used interchangeably (frequently) in the English lexicon but, in order to answer the question posed to me tonight, I feel it’s necessary to point out that happiness is a temporary emotion and isn’t what the questions “how are you such a happy person” or “are you a happy person” aim to learn more about. The question being asked of me is actually, “how do you find contentment within an imperfect life?”
How am I so content?
The truth is that I am not. I’m a long way from content and the frequency with which I experience happy moments is currently quite infrequent. That said, I experience unbroken streaks of contentment much more frequently than I did before I started the Epictetus is my Therapist project and – so long as we’re using the terms interchangeably and disarming language of its specificity – I’m a much happier person now as well. Stoicism has a great deal to do with that, but let me say more:
Needs and Wants
I believe contentment starts in understanding the difference between what you need and what you want. A person who wants a lot will find more frequent occasion to be dissatisfied with what they currently have as what they currently have is a reminder of what they do not yet possess. This isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t want things or that you should be content in living in a cardboard box and eating out of dumpsters in an alley behind an old Italian restaurant (though contentment can certainly be found there as well). This is to suggest that contentment can be created fastest and most strongly when you strike a realistic balance between needs and wants which works for you. I’m relatively decent at this, it has come with a lifetime of practice, but I still sometimes find dissatisfaction with what I have because I want something more. When that happens I have to assess “the more” and figure out whether or not going after it will upset the balance I’ve created. If it will, I remind myself of the differences between need and want and move on… well-balanced. Full disclosure: sometimes I screw this up.
Emotional Reaction to Circumstance
Our reactions to the things that happen to us can have the strongest impact on our contentment. We lose a job, someone says something mean to us, a big truck cuts us off in traffic, we get a flat tire on the way to work, our significant other breaks up with us, our laptop crashes and we lose all our family photos… any of these things have the potential to easily disrupt our contentment. I’m occasionally guilty in this department as well.
Recently an employer called me incompetent and he said it loud enough for the whole office to hear. I was mad enough to toss him out a window and I stayed mad for about an hour. For the entire hour I was incredibly dissatisfied with my life. I hated my job, I hated my boss, I hated myself – I was miserable. I was the most unhappy guy you could ever meet during those sixty minutes. You know how I got out of it? How I regained my balance? I assessed the criticism. I assessed the criticism and found it to be accurate; I was indeed incompetent at the position I had at that time. Then I asked myself why the criticism upset me so badly if it was accurate and of course the answer was because I didn’t want to be incompetent at my job – and there I was at the crossroads of needs and wants. What would I need to do to get what I wanted? To not be incompetent at this position. Was it possible? Was it worth it? Was it something I wanted to put myself through for the sake of pride? No, it wasn’t. I stepped down from that position and into a position I currently enjoy much more and am really good at; balance regained.
That story was a really specific example but you can apply it to anything. X happens and you’re in control of how you react to it and what you do in response. Stoicism has helped me to train my mind to have less severe and less prolonged reactions to adverse (and even positive) events in my life.
Eudaimonia, human flourishing through virtue
I’ll permit Sharon Lebell to take this one, from her translation of Epictetus’s “The Art of Living”:
The flourishing life is not achieved by techniques. You can’t trick yourself into a life well-lived. Neither is it achieved by following five easy steps or some charismatic figure’s dogma. A flourishing life depends on our responding, as best we can, to those things uniquely incumbent upon us.
To live an extraordinary life means we must elevate our moral stature by culturing our character. The untrained brood about the constituent elements of their lives. They waste precious time in regret or wishing their particulars were different (“If only I lived in a better house or town, had a different spouse, a more glamorous job, more time to myself…”). The morally trained, rather than resenting or dodging their current life situations and duties, give thanks for them and fully immerse themselves in their duties to their family, friends, neighbors, and job. When we succumb to whining, we diminish our possibilities.
The overvaluation of money, status, and competition poisons our personal relations. The flourishing life cannot be achieved until we moderate our desires and see how superficial and fleeting they are.
Virtue, that is to say a life lived in accordance with a high moral standard (and constantly using philosophy to determine what that standard ought to be), is at the very heart of a contented and happy life.
So to answer the question
Life is constantly disruptive, happiness is temporary, and maintaining prolonged contentment is only possible by disciplining your mind to constantly (and realistically) assess needs vs. wants, control its response to the aforementioned disruptions of life, and reason itself towards the most virtuous living possible. I’m a “happy” person because I’m constantly practicing this discipline.
Friends: It’s never to late to start.
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature. – Marcus Aurelius.
Tanner Campbell is an author, podcaster, small-business owner, and Stoic. He was host of the Epictetus is my Therapist podcast from 2014 to 2015 and now writes stoically-informed prose and poetry on his personal blog, “Write Mind”, located at TannerCampbell.net. Tanner is 32-years-old and lives in Boynton Beach, Florida with his dog Jupiter and his girlfriend Brittany.