Almost eight years ago, the director of a group in a company where I worked gave me a book that changed my life. It was called Stumbling on Happiness, and almost eight years ago, I started reading it at my home in New Hampshire. I was terribly unhappy. I had gone through a highly painful and prolonged surgery at the end of the previous school year that, even after being released from the hospital after many weeks, left me with tubes coming out of my abdomen hooked up to a machine that I had to carry around in a black bag. Whomever made those tubes clearly was either just being practical, or had no empathy for a college student that would have to place the machine front and center on a desk in front of 160 other students. I also had experienced heartbreak, unfortunately at the exact same time, and that is on top of the normal introspective questioning about purpose, worth, and interacting with other people that is the albatross to any college-aged human. That was just the end of the school year. I launched right into a full time summer internship, which was physiologically stressful in that I made a 2-3 hour commute (one way) from New Hampshire to Boston each day. In a potpourri of transportation methods, it included driving, bus riding, walking, and sometimes a spurious trip on the T mostly because I like being in tunnels. However, the bus was my favorite because it was quiet and soft. I used to curl my knees up to my chest, plug headphones into the free music outlet, and quietly cry. This act, although embarrassing in most situations, is a well-needed release for emotion when there is no other cabinet to lock it into. Still, I did not show this to anyone, because to be so weak was so shameful. By the end of it all, specifically when it was time to return to school for another round, I went and came back. I had no drive to think hard about seemingly unimportant classwork because nothing was certain. I had always been a machine, and I was defined by strength and being able to survive things that are unexpected. But my foundation of certainty was about as substantial as bonito flakes. It would blow away whenever anyone sneezed.
I was laying on the floor of my room on a purple flowered rug that made me feel itchy, and despite the highly introverted nature of my family leading us to all be in our own sections of the house anyway, I had the door tightly shut. My room in our farm was over the section of the house without heat, away from the core of warmth from our wood stove, so it was always freezing. Since I was in college we had moved away from the house where we lived in high school, and I missed the soft carpet in my old room, and the warmth of the house. I’ve always been a floor worker, and a monkey in chairs, so I was appropriately sprawled out reading a book. In front of me was my Dell, my faithful companion, who currently had the World of Warcraft login screen open, showing my character, Sinotopia, standing at attention with a small movement every now and then to adjust a hand, wiggle a leg, or be convincing that she wasn’t actually a repeating animation sequence.
It was deep in the middle of the night, because I didn’t sleep so much, and I had just finished playing for many hours, and as I always did, I logged out and realized that the momentary distraction, the pixels that try to convince of meaningful interaction and accomplishment, did not serve to fill the emptiness that came to awareness after. It was my strategy to avoid spending quality time with myself, because I tend to think very critically about things, and go through a depth of introspection that is akin to diving shoulder-deep into the impressive pails that are hidden in the waist-high freezers at the ice cream shop where I worked in high school. I think about things a lot because I’m rather stupid. I can only understand things to any degree of satisfaction and reproducibility after tearing them into the tiniest of pieces, and then putting those pieces back together again. While getting the last scoop of ice cream would be desirable, this mental diving effort was something to be avoided. For this reason I had avoided (and still do, to some degree), extensive reading of things, or partaking in anything that wasn’t a straight forward, logical task. Anything other than enjoyable building or production of something, my brain would gobble up, and prompt introspection that was exhausting. It always (and still does) prompt me to write, because I have to put it somewhere to get rid of it. I was, possibly foolishly, reading Stumbling on Happiness.
Yes, it’s no different right now, I went back to revisit that book. At the time I think that I was hoping that it would stumble me in the right direction, which appropriately, it seemed to do.
It is typical for us to perceive experience, and color our experience based on context. The book’s charging message is that human beings are terrible at thinking about the future, specifically, we are hard-wired to be irrationally optimistic and be completely wrong about the things that will make us happy. Most of the book is filled with clever puns and an extensive reporting of every niche psychology study, ones that you could only imagine ways for how they got funding. At the time, I was overwhelmed with the realization that I didn’t know myself at all. I was no longer a competitive runner, something that had defined me for many years, I wasn’t particularly good at anything, and I was one of those unfortunate undergraduates majoring in computer games with a sampling of primarily useless Psychology courses on the side. I didn’t have many deep friendships because getting close to people meant vulnerability and being social was hard, and I was convinced of being the girl that could disappear and no one would (save possibly my parents) really notice. It’s a dangerous mental state, but I would suspect a common one, for the 20 year old with frontal lobes still developing. Although I was soaking in a marinade of computer games and self-loathing, what had always been my core, an embedded sense of logic and proactive decision making, was still with me. If I was unhappy, I just needed to figure out what would make me happy, and then do it. I needed time to think, and I knew that it wouldn’t happen if I felt trapped at a farm. I had always found inspiration from things that are beautiful, from movement, and from music, and so I decided to pursue those things. At approximately 5 in the morning in early September, I packed a small backpack with a cell phone, credit card, a Garmin navigation device, and one change of clothes, and decided to go for a really long run.
My plan was to go generally West, and I would use this time to think. This was the ultimate commitment device, and relief from the situation of being trapped in a farm and the burden on my parents of dealing with my ornery self. I ran and walked for most of the first day, and by the evening I had covered over 40 miles, going from Weare to Keene, NH, and ending up at a hotel in some shopping center. My feet were bleeding. This was not something that I had expected. Matter of fact, I took a picture:
if you can stomach it. It was then time to call my parents. I had decided to create some distance between us, because there was no way they would approve of this journey of mine. They still didn’t, but they have always approached raising my brother and I with an eternal provision of economic and functional support. They drove the distance (much faster than my much slower method) and they brought me my Brother’s old bike. I would bike for the remainder of the trip, with a short joy run in the morning to keep both muscle groups functioning properly.
Stumbling on Happiness changed my life because it prompted a journey from New Hampshire to Ohio, across tiny mountains that I wasn’t even aware of existing, and all the while asking myself a lot of hard questions that truly could only be addressed in the presence of rolling roadways, and the embrace of the wind.
I sometimes slept in actual hotels that surprisingly would offer immensely wonderful free food, cheap rooms, and encouragement, sometimes ad-hoc camp grounds, and one night was even privy to be in the same establishment of cabins as some kind of biker gang that did know how to have fun after the sun went down. The exhausting physical effort in the day, and sheer appreciation for things like warm showers gave me much needed moments of serenity and calm
I always woke up with the dawn, would put on my “other” change of clothes, and get back at it, namely, pedaling and thinking. After just under 1000 miles, going from New Hampshire through the majority of Ohio, I had regained my foundation of decision, meaning a set of proactive steps to take, a strategy, for resolving this current issue. I was resolved that my stubbornness had served me well before, and would do again, because it meant that I would never give up. I realized that It was acceptable to not have the answers, and to be stupid and lost, as long as there was a plan for moving forward. I had to also come to the acceptance that a chain of bad things had happened to me since I left high school, that it was unfortunate, that it had changed me irrevocably, and that I did not want to be defined by it. I also realized that the underlying sadness was prompted by an inability to foster any kind of control over my relationships, my future, or my incentive structure. However, control over those things is also (largely) an unrealistic thing to strive for. Rather, re-establishing happiness would likely involve re-building confidence, and a sense of control in having understanding of the tiny bits of experience that bring joy, and equivalently, stress and sadness. It was really a very selfish way of thinking, but mindless achievement followed by listless floor dwelling was simply not an option. What were those little things, and could I learn to incorporate more of the good bits into my life, and avoid the bad ones? It occurred to me that, while on the surface this goal was very selfish, I would be most useful and positively impact others given that I had a strong sense of self and purpose. I decided that the only way to figure out the things that would give me larger purpose was to dip my toe into many streams, and travel down many new roads.
I needed to try absolutely everything, and this filled me with a new sense of purpose and excitement. My appetite for risk was enhanced, and it retrospectively dawned on me that one of the hardest things in life, change, can sometimes only be spurred by an ability to embrace such risk. Further, uncertainty that may be deemed as risk at one point in life may completely lose the label when one has not much to lose. but much to gain.
As quickly as I had left for the journey, I knew when it was over, and I was ready to go home. I found a local bike shop in a town I was passing through, a kid not much older than myself who put my bike in a box into the mail, and drove me to a tiny airport, asking nothing more than a $10 bill. I returned home just in time for my birthday, and my Dad, who was coming home from a long shift, brought me a blueberry muffin that we appropriately put a candle into.
On my 17th birthday, I was forced to grow up very quickly, and go through mental processes that likely don’t spawn into the end of the third decade of life. Although I was an old soul, my sense of self was not matched to that age. On my 21st birthday, as if both of us had been wandering the landscape for years, we drove up the same intersection, and were reunited.
The Story of Stumbling: Coming Full Circle
It is now almost 8 years later, and while I take precautions to not return to things that bring subtle aches of memory, I realize that I need to come full circle in this Story of Stumbling. Reading some of this book for a second time has led to me thinking about the following points. The funny thing about these introspections is that I have seen many of these themes before, possibly hinting that I am rather slow at coming to resolutions, or limited in my own thinking capacity.
Emotional memory returns when prompted
In reading the pages of Stumbling on Happiness again, I was first overtaken with memory. There are aches of remembrance that I would much prefer to not feel again, and largely, I can control not feeling such aches by avoiding the experiences that cause them.
We vary in the degree to which we think about the future
I was next aware of a very basic assumption that the author was making – that people tend to think (or dream up) little fantasies of the future simply for pure enjoyment. This can be as simple as looking forward to a birthday party, seeing family, or having the weekend off. I know that I used to do that a lot, because I remember planning little parties, looking forward to showing a movie in Spanish class, or coming home for Christmas. I am very sensitive when I have epiphanies of being different, or possibly broken, and this realization made me feel that twinge. I think a lot about the present, most definitely the past to remember things that were enjoyable or funny, and while I cannot answer why I don’t fantasize about the future, I can say that it’s very infrequent. It does well to explain my fairly limited incentive structure to always be wanting to do things in the moment that give momentary fulfillment and purpose, and my traditional answer to “keep doing what I am doing now,” when asked about plans for the future. And so, I have come to realize that like most personality traits, people must differ in the degree to which they think about the future. I don’t have a sense for this distribution of people – it could be the case that chronically depressed dwell in the past (and are not privy to having the common irrational but evolutionarily advantageous optimistic life bias), and overly self-assured and economically gifted individuals live for dreaming up future scenarios to the point they assume themselves already there and have a very low tolerance for hard work or adversity. I just don’t know.
Context drives interpretation
I was next aware of the importance of context to drive interpretation. My first reading resulted in the thought “I have no idea about the experiences (functional, daily things) that give me meaning,” and for this second reading, the thought has changed to “I have no idea about the people (interactions) that give me meaning.” It’s easy to follow scripts based on previous social interactions to know what to do at a dinner outing, or an office meeting, but following such scripts is merely a strategy for being a functioning human, and says nothing about the good-feelingness (or bad-feelingness) that may come from the interaction. Arguably, if we make the assumption that humans are monogomous, long-term relationship desiring beings, we would strive to find relationships with others that maximize some benefit of each person to the other(s) life. It could be functional, emotional, physical, financial, or more realistically, some combination of those things. Eight years ago I was overwhelmed with needing to understand meaning in the context of myself, and now I am wanting to understand my meaning in the context of others.
We need one another
One of the deepest insecurities that can reside in a human soul is the fear of not having anything to add to anyone else’s life. Deep down, we all want to be needed and valued, by someone, for something, and possibly have some mental comfort that the strength of that need is substantial enough so that there is some certainty that it will endure. For even the tiniest thing, like taking head of the ship to bring someone else a coffee, being relied upon by a friend to bring a cherished snack, can well us up with happiness like bloated raisins. In fact, people like one another more when they ask for favors, but this stands in opposition to the common fear of inconveniencing people by asking for things. Asking for raisins, coffee, emotional support, or help is also context dependent. If an individual values another individual, the bond is strengthened. If the value is not yet established, the person is annoying, needy, and leads to the second individual not liking the person. This second situation is terrifying, and means that it is more risk averse to not ask for things. It’s also hard to ask for help because asking for help means being vulnerable. When we see things about ourselves that we do not like so much, given that we don’t like ourselves for having such things, it is only logical that others won’t either. On the other hand, knowing about others’ imperfections (counter-intuitively) makes us feel closer to them. The perception of an “average” or “generally normal” person is just that, a perception. Most people come from interesting life experiences, are survivors, and/or feel insecure about things, and the only true difference is the degree to which that information is revealed. For an individual with perfectionistic tendencies, the state I would call “self-loathing” comes strongly to mind. In absence of external support, that negative state is projected directly inward, and the projection of the underlying belief that led to the loathing onto others further prevents revealing such vulnerabilities to obtain support. This leads to an individual taking on the complete burden of their own insecurities, and what I would call existence at a distance. In this situation it is impossible to establish relationships where a duality of back and forth needing can be fostered, and thus the human desire for need is not fulfilled.
Choice paralyzes, and hinders connecting with others
To connect with others, it is essential to have some sense of self-worth. This is hindered because there is a tendency to immediately compare ourselves to some template or ideal, become aware of the enormous amount of choice that others have when choosing relationships, friendships, and conclude that it is minimally unlikely to be chosen over others. Even if we were to make the top of a list, it’s even more likely that people are terrible at allocating time, or even taking small actions to demonstrate to others that they value one another. To speak from personal experience, over the years I of course have had that insecurity, and while again there is no control over allocating others’ values, I have tried to make an effort to commit to things I know that I can make time for, and show value in the limited number of ways that I know how, which usually means being physically present, or giving presents (on a side note, nothing gives greater joy than presents, although ironically receiving them usually results in feeling badly that some amount of money or energy was spent).
Given that we are paralyzed by making choices, how do people connect with one another? What makes most sense to me is that people will naturally find one another when they like to do the same things (Oh, look, I choose to do X in my daily life, and you do too, we can do activity X together), when they also have affection for one another (Oh, you fell off your bike? I have this deep and confusing desire to take care of you), and when they don’t mind the other’s presence (Oh, it’s 9pm on a Tuesday night, yes I’m OK that you are breathing in the same space as me, and you will be occupying valuable blanket area in the same bed in about 20 minutes). It seems to me (and is unfortunate) that many relationships (whether romantic or friendship), get started based on convenience (or for just romantic, physical infatuation) and then the only logical result is that the individuals get bored of one another. Let’s be honest, even in “good” relationships this is highly likely to happen. It’s a terrible outcome because it really hurts to have this happen, and can negatively impact other wonderful things in daily life for many years. So, maintaining superficial relationships is a much safer strategy. But that means that we would be incapable of connecting with one another. What gives?
Being human probably means that we must try our hardest to connect, to be vulnerable, and know that any any moment it can all come crashing down. Reading some of these passages a second time, I am again thinking about my basic beliefs and the action that results (or doesn’t result) from them. As I get older, it occurs to me that there are times when I don’t want to have to be so strong. There are times when I really just want the biggest of hugs, or another human to have awareness of me needing support, even possibly when I do or cannot express it. On the flip side, an even deeper desire is to be the one that can give the support. What many of us ask, is that beyond friendships of convenience (like single serving airplane friends that will end when the flight is over) could there exist another person (robot?) that we might stumble into, and give insight to answering this question about what components of interaction provide deeper meaning? I suspect the answer to that question will be different for each person. I also suspect that answering it will require more risk taking and sheer luck, and finally having an answer will coincide with growing into a new level of interpersonal maturity.
The best strategy is probably maintaining openness to experience
I don’t know the answer to this question, and I’m not even sure how to figure it out. It’s pretty easy to address when introspection is involved. During my epic bike journey I thought over many experiences, and came to some basic conclusions that I needed to experience more things. In the case of people, other than going to a substantial number of social things, throwing away insecurity about talking to random people encountered in daily life, and in a romantic sense, going on an occasional date, there is no good way to “experience people.” Actually, the more salient factor here is control. With a search for meaning in the self, there is complete control over choosing experiences, deciding if they are liked, and then doing them. With people, even if the perfect other individual could be identified for a friend, housemate, or special life companion, there is no way to ensure that the liking would be mutual. It’s highly likely that it wouldn’t be. Most of the time some external life circumstances force interaction of people with one another, and further chance life circumstances, namely experiencing something that a second person also experiences, establishes special closeness. That makes it an even more impossible problem. Further, the common fear of vulnerability, tendency to not take risks, and easiness to let indecision guide decision (maintaining the status quot) means that answering this question has a large component that is chance. This subtly implies that there is no ideal strategy other than being open to experience, focusing on what gives meaning in the present, and letting probability do its thing. A third complicating factor is having an incentive structure that is not predictably average, and I am thinking of myself in this case. The first round of this “stumbling on happiness” introspection worked so well that I identified the little bits of things that gave me meaning, and now I find it hard to do anything else.
I again have many questions and not a lot of good answers. Ironically, I read about 2/3 of this book, got bored with the endless citations of “surprising” research, and still have not finished it. I suspect I will give it another try in 8 years! The problem is that, if we can break people into two groups: those that consume things, and those that produce them, my capacity for production of things far out-sprints my capacity to consume them. I don’t know how this is distributed in a normal population, but I’d guess given American culture that most are more heavy on the consumer side. In graduate school I have absorbed the belief that to be successful, I must err on the side of consumption with careful, targeted production. Thus, I live in constant angst that I am off balance, and try my every effort to resolve the weakness. But it could be the case that being highly proficient in both (living in autarky) is an inefficient strategy, and that the ideal collaboration would involve specialization, meaning the pairing of a consumer and a producer. The consumer would absorb all of the knowledge and need that is currently represented, and communicate what is missing to the producer, who would then fulfill the need. It’s a lot harder to ask good questions than to generate an algorithm or tool to answer them. I do need to find a good consumer, because I’m sure there are answers out there to some of my questions if internal drive to produce could be slowed down in favor of consumption. Perhaps I can only conclude that reading might be highly dangerous for me, because it results in something longer than the pages themselves.
On a more serious note, looking back on this experience, a proper conclusion to this 8 year introspection must include an evaluation. While sometimes it feels like it would be less of a burden to have the emotional depth of a goldfish, I find value in the possibility of being able to introspect, and instill change. While these early experiences (possibly) eliminated my capacity for deriving enjoyment from thinking about the future, they did alter my focus to direct, immediate actions and feelings, and over time that has instilled in me an almost stupid naivety and ability to derive joy from such trivial things. I plan my future in a way to maximize these momentary pleasures, which means avoiding airports, sitting in traffic, and post-office lines. It’s also lead to a (so far) bottomless well of motivation and drive that lacks any clear explanation for existing at all. When self-doubt and obstacles knock, while there may be a time when the turkeys get me down, a strength comes forth that transforms frustration into empowerment, and I try again.
One thing I am sure of, is that there are only about 3 hours left before I must bike home in the evening, and I really want to do some lovely producing! I don’t know if I’ll stumble into interpersonal meaning, but for now I’m going to stumble back into syntax colored gedit where I like to be :).