call me ishmael: a lesson on happiness

one day someone’s going to write an AP style guide on how to be happy. until then:


(image courtesy of boohooboo)

Take a moment now to reflect on how happy you are. Without trying to be too presumptuous, I’m going to take a shot in the dark and assume that you’re probably not as happy as you would like to be. If I’m wrong, go ahead and stop reading this and do something happy with your life. For the rest of you, I’d like you to participate in a completely scientific experiment that I have made up just now.

For this experiment, we are going to have to acquire some supplies, namely a calendar for the year ahead of the one now and a writing implement of some sort, preferably a permanent marker. Now, pick up the calendar, and flip through it randomly, picking an arbitrary month. Done? Now you’re going to want to take your marker, and, with your eyes closed, mark a day on that month. Open your eyes. There is a small chance you may have missed a day completely, and if that is the case, just close your eyes and try again. Got it? Now commit that date to memory (which shouldn’t be too hard since you have a calendar).

That is the day you are going to die.

Of what, you’re not entirely sure. Perhaps you have been diagnosed with a fatal disease, or are awaiting execution for a crime you didn’t commit. Perhaps that is the day ancient prophets predicted the world would come to an end. Either way, you now hold in your hand a precise date for the thing that so many of us dread: the end of our lives. You are now, like it or not, a dead man (or woman) walking.

But don’t fret! After all, barring some unfortunate accident between now and the time of your scheduled demise, you are now keenly aware of the exact amount of time you need to set your affairs in order. Perhaps you can work up the courage to tell that special someone how you really feel, or perhaps show your appreciation to those whose lives have made yours what it is today. Take up a new hobby, quit your old job and find a career that you actually like, visit a location you’ve never had the chance to but have always dreamed of, write a book, make a movie, hug a child, donate to charity, drive over the speed limit down a deserted southwest highway, go skydiving, or deep-sea diving, run for office, join the army, get a pet, climb a mountain, act in a play, write a gratuitous and impossible will, go on a spirit journey, run a marathon, get a degree, or a second, or a third. The possibilities are almost literally endless, but it’s entirely up to you. Because remember, your time on this sphere is now limited, so you’re going to have to make it count. We only die once!

And as the fateful day draws nearer, what will you think then? Will you go to your grave satisfied, or longing for more? What will all the people around you think once you’re gone? Did you love them enough? Appreciate them enough? Will you miss them? It’s a truly harrowing thing, isn’t it, to die knowing you can do nothing to prevent it? But you should know, now, more than ever, is the time to live. To truly live, to experience life beyond merely existing in the here and now and forevermore. It’s a humbling thing, to understand the temporal limitations of life itself, to count the days, hours, and minutes you spend on the mortal coil. Treasure every minute, love every hour, and embrace every day you have left until the end, because these moments, despite the inevitable ticking of the clock, are forever a part of you, existing in the space between your mind and your soul.

These moments are forever.

But sadly, you are not! At last, the terminus has come, and you’re out of days on the calendar. Now is the time to steel yourself for the journey ahead. Now is the time to bid a fond farewell to everyone around you, to say goodbye to the people you love and maybe even the people you don’t. Now is the time to venture outside into the sun or rain or snow, to taste the lingering air and feel the planet move about you. Now is the time to finally understand the connections between yourself and the universe, to understand that no matter how cosmically insignificant you may seem or feel, that it is impossible to completely distance yourself from anything else, and to understand exactly just how beautiful that is. And now is the time to die.

Your last meal awaits! Will you enjoy it alone, or in the company of friends? Will you prepare a lavish feast for yourself, knowing that tomorrow will never come, or something simpler? History won’t judge, so make it count for yourself. Watch a movie, say a prayer, read a book. Watch the sunset for the last time, or watch the slowly ticking hands of a clock with a new sense of appreciation for the moments between seconds. Appreciate the world’s beauty for one last, momentous time. Lie back in your bed, close your eyes, and relax, knowing you will never open them again.

This moment is forever.

Unless of course, you wake up in the morning the next day, miraculously not dead! The diagnosis was wrong! The Judge and Jury were wrong! The ancient prophets were wrong! That idiotic novelist was wrong! Call your friends and family and loved ones, tell them that you’re still alive, and celebrate just how incredible it is to cheat the cold hands of death. You’re alive!

For now, anyway!

After all, you of course know that eventually the reaper will catch up, if not today, then some undisclosed time in the future. Only the lucky ones are given a timetable, everyone else is resigned to guessing. But that’s not so bad, is it? Of course not, you still walk the Earth, and that’s the only thing that matters. You’re alive! And it is such a wonderful thing to be alive.

“Whatever, man,” you might say out loud. This was just some lame thought experiment that teaches us how to “appreciate” “life,” like that “Tom Hanks” “film.” Well, two things: one, stop doing that quote thing, and two, if you’ve figured that much out already, then what’s stopping you from doing it anyway? Human beings have a remarkable capacity for self-deception, and more often than not, it is abused in such a way that allows us to convince ourselves that it can’t possibly get any better than this. I’m no stranger to it: for a long, difficult stretch of time, I required pharmaceutical assistance because my brain was actually chemically wired to convince itself that the future would always be bleak. It is difficult to be happy because your brain makes it difficult for itself to be happy.

And there’s no cure, barring some far-off genetic miracle treatment. Folks are just wired that way. But stay with me a moment here; try to think back to all the one-off times you were happy. Not ecstatic or rapturous, just… content. I’m sure you can, even the truly miserable can probably recall a point in their lives where they weren’t. The first time you had ice cream, the time you saw a movie you really liked, the time you got to kiss someone you fancied, all those little separate moments that stand apart from the dreariness of day-to-day living. So, if we as humans are capable of experiencing happiness in short bursts, what’s preventing us from doing so in the long term?

That’s an honest question, because I really don’t know the answer. But I’m pretty damn sure it’s possible. Because those little moments of happiness I mentioned earlier?

Those moments are forever.

I’m almost certain we can get past our genetic predilection toward misery. And if it takes some silly thought game to make progress in that direction, why the hell not?

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