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Do This Instead

Happiness is an elusive bird.

Moments of sheer joy are followed by days of grey and heaviness and it feels like a constant uphill scramble to keep our faces toward the sunlight.

Especially if you were a hella religious person back in your day, happiness can even seem like a bad thing: shallow, off-limits, worthless. Often-repeated bullshit platitudes like “God doesn’t care about your happiness, He only cares about your holiness” and “something something happiness is worthless but joy is good” leave us thinking that maybe happiness is just a waste of time.

I don’t believe that anymore.

After a few pretty dark years, I’m trying to make my way toward happiness and I’m no longer ashamed to put that at the top of my to-do list. (Understanding, of course, that happiness is more than a momentary good feeling, but rather a combination of joy, meaning, connectedness, resilience, and hope.)

But I’ve noticed that the things I like to do and the things that make me happy are not the same thing. Isn’t that some shit?

It’s true though: happiness tends to be found through the counterintuitive choice to not follow my first impulses. And no, I don’t mean this is some sort of self-martyring “give up everything your heart truly wants” sort of way. I mean that maybe I need to reframe some habits and do different stuff if I want to wind up on top of the hill in the sunlight.


So with that in mind, I’ve started to notice things I like to do that I shouldn’t do because they don’t contribute to happiness, and what I should do instead. Here’s what I’m trying to (re)learn:

When you want to go shopping, go decluttering instead.

This is where I confess that I have within me conflicting, opposed desires: I like living in a clean, simple, minimalistic environment and also I like buying shit. When I feel sad, I go to Target and wander around until I find something I “need” and then I buy it and I feel better about myself. But when I get home, I’m surrounded by all the clutter I bought at Target (and Amazon and Marshalls and American Eagle and Home Depot) on previous mood-lifting shopping trips and now I hate what my house feels like. It’s a vicious cycle.

But I’ve found that I feel just as happy by opening a closet and getting rid of everything I don’t need / want / love. After I’ve relocated it to the garbage / donation bin I feel better about myself, just like after I buy shit at the store — with the added advantage of having more money, less clutter, and decreased contribution to the planet-destroying culture of modern consumerism. This is a hard habit to change; after all, there aren’t advertisements telling us every waking moment that if donate stuff we’ll finally be happy. There should be though. Consider this one of them.

When you want to drink beer, drink water instead.

As I write this, I am literally looking at both of these choices sitting on my desk in front of me. To my left is a gorgeous amber bottle of Bulleit Bourbon, and on my right is a half-full (or is it half-empty?) glass water bottle. I know how the bourbon feels: it will burn my lips and then slowly warm my belly and spread out inside me until I feel soft and light. Water tastes boring and makes me want to pee.

But somewhere in the back of my mind I can feel it when I put water into my body instead of alcohol: “This is making me happy. Not now, but cumulatively.” Ah, and that’s the conundrum. Beer is happiness now; water is happiness cumulatively. This tends to be a split decision for me, but I’m trying to learn to choose more happiness later. (They say this is what it means to be a grown-up, so there’s that.)

When you want to eat garbage, eat green things instead.

I don’t ever crave salads. Or fruit. Or anything that’s not burgers, pizza, nachos, or just straight-up melted cheese poured straight into my mouth-hole. If you ask me “Do you want a salad?” I’ll say “Nah, I’m good.” I never say “Fuck yeah, salad.”

But if you give me a salad, I’ll eat it and say “Holy shit that was good. Why don’t I eat salads more often?” I don’t know. Maybe my under-evolved body is afraid there’s a food shortage coming and so it thinks I need to stock up on fat while I can. Maybe salt gives me a dopamine hit (like shopping and drinking) and I’m a bit addicted. Maybe it’s because no TV shows ever show cool guys eating salads. I don’t know. The point is, I don’t ever want a salad until after I’ve already eaten it. I’m trying to remember that. Because (like water in the previous point), green things tend to aid cumulative happiness. And they don’t make you feel all saggy and lumpy afterward. And they’re ethical too. Fuck yeah, salad.

When you want to stay up late watching TV, go to sleep instead.

Inertia is the worst of all the science things. Inertia means that if you’re sitting on the couch, you’re going to keep sitting on the couch even though you’re tired and should go to bed. My therapist says I should be getting eight hours of sleep every night. My FitBit says I’m getting about six.

In the end, Netflix doesn’t actually makes me happy. Nothing matters, and watching TV shows makes this abundantly clear. Because they need to sustain a perpetual cycle of endless self-contained-but-also-ongoing story, every victory is only temporary and every defeat is just the setup for the next episode. Hence, nothing matters. It’s exhausting. Go to sleep.

But sleep is boring because you’re not doing anything. Your eyes are closed and you’re just flopped there mostly naked under a blanket for six hours. Or eight. Whatever. They say it’s good for my brain and happiness, so I’m trying to get into that more.

When you want to look at social media, read a book instead.

Social media is a butthole. By that I mean it’s a necessary and inescapable part of our every-day lives, but it also tends to be full of shit and if you spend a lot of time staring at it you just feel weird and gross. But for reasons mostly related to human tendencies and nefarious capitalist engineering, its’ hecka easy to get addicted to gazing upon the butthole which is social media. Next thing you know, an hour has gone by and you’ve accomplished nothing but now you know what your acquaintances’ relatives think about making america great again (spoiler alert: they think we need to get rid of the immigrants and homosexuals and healthcare and newspapers and keep the guns and flags).

So instead of that, do this: read a book. A real book, the kind that requires a dead tree. I know this is super vintage and boring, so for a long time I resisted the idea of reading real books on principle. Now, I’m learning to appreciate them again. There’s something calming about words on a page, no sidebar advertisements, and no comments sections. I have no idea if reading books is making me happier, or even smarter. But I’ve noticed that it makes me less anxious and restless and that’s worth something.

When you want to argue with strangers on the internet, create something instead.

I’ll admit, I’m very attracted to arguing with strangers on the internet. The premise is so alluring: I’ll calmly and eloquently explain why their opinion is uniformed, inhumane, and just plain WRONG and they’ll quickly see the light of day and become smart, rational, kind, informed citizens like myself. Of course, it never works that way. Oh sure, I’m eloquent (occasionally) and passionate (usually) but nobody ever changes their mind and I usually wind up becoming an asshole. Even when I’ve scored what feels like a decisive rhetorical victory, nothing changes. After all, what stranger wants to admit that they got defeated in a meaningless argument by an random asshole on Facebook (me)?

These days I’m trying to learn to channel all that pent-up eloquence and passion into creating stuff instead. This requires a bit of effort, because (unlike strangers on the internet) creativity doesn’t sit there wallowing in it’s wrongness begging you to come fight it. Creativity waits quietly in the corner for you to notice it. But in the end, it’s more rewarding to make something than to argue with someone. I have something to show for it: words in a journal, a stack of paintings in my office, food in my freezer. And I don’t feel like an asshole, which is a nice bonus.


So here’s to happiness, wherever it may be found. Especially in a clean house and water and books and green things and creativity.

And here’s to every time we start to do something that doesn’t make us truly happy, and decide to do this instead.



published February 24, 2017

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