The Blog

How to Stop Pretending You Know What Makes You Happy

I think in our culture, events tend to seem separate from other events in our lives. The only similarity is that they are connected through the person experiencing them. We place a great emphasis on what we do, not what happens to us. Things have to happen the right way and because of our own doing.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

So there's a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years.

One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe," the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "Maybe," said the farmer.

I think in our culture, events tend to seem separate from other events in our lives. The only similarity is that they are connected through the person experiencing them. We place a great emphasis on what we do, not what happens to us. Things have to happen the right way and because of our own doing. (Except for a certain category of things like love, where they are supposed to happen without any effort or planning involved at all).

And I think it's because of this concept of "actively designing your life," or "commanding your own future," that makes us, in some way or another, see our lives as a sculpture we're slowly chiseling out of stone.

I mean, why would you sit around and wait for life to hand you a job at McDonalds?

You need to decide what you want to do, in every facet of your life, and do it. If you work hard you can achieve those goals.

But there are two problems with this logic...

#1 You don't actually know what you want.

(At least not nearly as well as you think you do.) This is kind of a disheartening concept at first. It makes sense if the mailman doesn't know what you truly want. It even makes sense if your family or friends don't know what you truly want.

But how could you, the person who is you, not know what you want?

It's because the future isn't real. The future doesn't actually exist. The future is an abstract interpretation of the what the present will be like...later. That's not just semantics. Your brain is essentially simulating the future. And it doesn't always get everything right.

Here's an example from Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness:

Close your eyes and imagine a plate of spaghetti. What was on it? Warm creamy butter? Shredded Parmesan? Fresh tomato sauce? If you pictured anything other than plain cooked noodles on a plate you just proved the point:

Your brain fabricates details to things all the time.

That's why when you see your friends Instagram picture of her standing on top of some beautiful mountain peak you wish you could have gone on that adventure. Your brain created that cool mountain breeze, the amazing fresh air, and the breathtaking panoramic view. But it left out the blistered feet, the tired legs, the long hike back down that's yet to come, and the drive home after.

Your brain does the same thing when it's imaging your dream job, your dream vacation, and everything else you think you want. It starts with the the glamorous details: high pay, great benefits, ability to travel and then fills in the gaps. But it's easy to forget the long hours, bad co-workers, and lonely weekends in hotel rooms.

The truth is that there is good in everything. There's also bad in everything. The value of the experience is the difference between them.

So to accurately know if you should be jealous of that hiking picture, you have to know how much you mind long, hard hikes, and also how much you enjoy being outside and amazing views.

But the truth is that even if you know those details, there's still a lot more to it.

#2 There are infinite unknown variables to every situation (good or bad)

So let's say you have your desires locked down and translated numerically (like no one ever.) There are still so many circumstances wildly beyond your control.

Your enjoyment of that hike still depends on a lot. It might depend on the weather. It might depend on if you went out the night before. It might depend on how much work you have to do later in the day.

Maybe you'll meet your wife on the trail. Maybe you'll get eaten by a cougar. Maybe you'll find a plant that only grows on the west slope of that mountain peak that can cure cancer. Maybe you'll trip and fall and get paralyzed.

You can't control the entire world.

Some people absolutely cannot stand this notion. They'll try to eliminate a lot of the bad variables by planning. That's sort of good. But there is such thing as over planning. You don't want to suffocate yourself. Sometimes the surprises are the best part (good or bad).

So what can you do?

There are two ways to view all of this information. You can mope around aimlessly and not try anything because you are not confident in knowing if you'll actually like it or not. Or you can sit back, relax, and just try stuff.

Personally I think it's kind of liberating. There are a bunch of secret things that you'd never guess you'd like until you try them. And you don't have to be dead set on your goals all of the time because you might not even like the results.

You can look at it as everything you thought was good is now tainted with bad parts. But you can also think of it as every experience having some positive element to it.

Personally I'm a pretty bad planner in personal life sometimes. And I kind of like it.

My friend came into town a few weeks ago, and I wanted to show him a good time. We went to some hip Denver bars, we skied Loveland Pass, we saw a free concert in Vail. And we also ran out of gas.... in the dark, and in the cold, and on the shoulder of the highway in the mountains.

We had passed a gas station less than a minute before. But I thought we could make it another 10 minutes. We couldn't...

So we walked along the shoulder of the highway back to the gas station. It was closed. We had to dig through the garbage to find some empty water bottles to fill up. The nozzle on the gas pump was too wide to fit inside the neck of the bottles, so when I started filling them up the gas sprayed everywhere, including my eyes.

So there we were, standing in the freezing cold with stinging eyes holding a Perrier sparkling water bottle and a Gatorade bottle that are both full of gas. We put them inside Slurpee cups to hold them because the outsides of the bottles were also drenched in gas.

It was both miserable and also absolutely hilarious. It's a moment I'll remember more than any other from the trip. It brought us together, gave some excitement, and made our beds feel 10 times warmer when we got back that night.

Strangely enough, it's those kind of moments that seem like they would make me start planning better. For the important stuff, I definitely have. But there's still a weird pleasure in intentional poor planning and the situations that come from it.

I'm not telling you to be like me, and I'm definitely not saying that thorough planning is bad. But the truth is that you don't know what experiences an event will bring. There's good in the bad, there's bad in the good, and you never know what's coming next.

There's a great last line in the movie Dan in Real Life. He's just has his life turned upside down when he falls in love with his brother's girlfriend and ruins the family reunion. He's reflecting and says: So instead of asking our young people, "What are your plans? What do you plan to do with your life?" Maybe we should tell them this: "plan to be surprised."

It's both brilliant advice and almost impossible to know how to follow. I think at the end of the day, all you can do is try something new, loosen up your plans, if even just a bit, and realize that every seemingly separate event is connected to all of the others.

Who knows what the next one will lead to.

Popular in the Community