Happiness Is a Trap

angle-down

Let me start with a confession: I am a collector.

My history of hoarding include CDs, comics, board games, books of all sorts, DVD box sets, blu-rays, vinyl records… the list goes on.

You have to understand…

When you grow up blue-collar poor… And you’re told money doesn’t grow on trees… and you’re told “no” to everything you wanted as a kid… you make up for it, hard… starting with your first paycheck.

At one point, I worked at a McDonald’s that was across the street from an A&B Sound — a Canadian music shop that no longer exists. Every payday, I’d jaywalk across Hastings and buy CDs. It got to the point where I had at least 10 CDs in shrinkwrap at any given time.

Now, thankfully, I’ve gotten better … for the most part. I’ve sold and/or gotten rid of most of those collections. (Except for books. I still have too many books with too few shelves)…

But ultimately — I recognize my default programming has and always will be…

Research. Make lists. Hunt them down. Collect.1

Hi. My name is Tony. I am a hoarder.

And let me tell you… It’s a relentless, never satisfying, interminable HUNGER

As a collector, you’re so hyper-focused on the research (there’s always more to know), the list-building (there’s always more to add) and the hunt (there’s always more places to shop at)…

That once you finally get your hands on any one of the said items on your list…

You have no time to enjoy said item… because you’re on the hunt for the next item already… to “complete the collection” (whatever that means).

My most grievous crime of this nature is with the Criterion Collection.

I have an unhealthy affair with this company.

For almost four decades now, they have taken classic and foreign films — films that may have or could’ve easily fallen out of favor — and gave them the full spa treatment: restoration, remastering, commentaries… the works.

They were the first to include “DVD extras” before everyone else copied them.

Without this stalwart of film history, our memory of Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini and many, many more… might just be a little dimmer.

And these sorts of companies are exactly what calls to my collector’s mindset.

They curate beautiful things for you, print a limited run… and number them.

I just checked. I have 63 of these blu-rays on my shelf. 38 of them are still in shrink wrap.

It’s an addiction… which, fortunately, I’ve stopped chasing. I’m standing my ground and waiting for their version of Netflix (Filmstruck), to come up to Canada.2

ANYWAY —

All this is to say, the collector’s mindset is deeply ingrained in who I am.

Personally, I think it’s a side effect of being passionate and obsessive as well. This can serve you (as I mentioned in my footnote on analog social networks)… but it has downsides too.

Now — I’d like to think I’ve somewhat evolved the past few years.

Instead of acting like a completionist… and checking things off a list…I’d like to believe that I take the time to enjoy what I’ve purchased these days. (I’m even tracking my “purchase-to-consume” ratio for books now. I’m at 27% for physical books and 45% for kindle.)

OK, I know. That’s a long, weird sideways tangent for a post about how “happiness is a trap”. I got it. I’m getting there. Trust me. Because this “collector mindset” ties into happiness, how we see it, how we try to get it, and how we can fail at it.

Today, we’re going to talk about a bunch of “deep stuff”. Not just happiness. But identity. Money. And Princeton’s study on the two types of happiness… and why we keep choosing the wrong kind.

Let’s go down the rabbit hole.

Am I A Hoarder? Is That Who I Am?

The other day, I was browsing through my library of books. A slim volume Joshua recommended years ago called out to me: Anthony De Mello’s “The Way to Love”.

Here’s the USP3 for this guy: He’s a Jesuit priest, but writes like a Buddhist.

I opened up his book to the first page, and the very first words were…

“Recall the kind of feeling you have when someone praises you, when you are approved, accepted, applauded.

And contrast that with the kind of feeling that arises within you when you look at the sunset or the sunrise or Nature in general, or when you read a book or watch a movie that you thoroughly enjoy.

Get the taste of this feeling and contrast it with the first, namely, the one that was generated within you when you were praised.

Understand that the first type of feeling comes from self-glorification, self-promotion. It is a worldly feeling.

The second comes from self-fulfillment, a soul feeling.”

It struck me that my addiction to collect, to forage, to curate…

It may not seem like seeking praise… or approval, acceptance or applause from anyone in particular… But in a roundabout way, it was.

Collectors are inherently defined by their collections. What they collect. What they choose.

It becomes their identity.

I’ve defined my life by my collections. My taste. My opinion. My wide breadth in obscure and diverse knowledge.

I don’t get approval, acceptance or applause for this… (I’ve been an outsider-slash-nerd long enough to develop a shell to not need this). But instead… I get recognition for who I am.

I’m that guy who’s well-read and knowledgeable.

I’m that guy who’s a go-to expert for books to read. (Or whatever for recommendations).

I’m that guy who can pick-up-on and drop pop cultural references as if Joss Whedon wrote the words coming out of my mouth in real time.

I think most people grow out of these things. (Or maybe not, maybe you’re here in the Cave reading this because you’re like me.)

Maybe you have a high facility for laser-focusing on a specialized niche of knowledge. Maybe you’re as obsessive as me.

Or maybe… on a wider scale, you recognize that you’ve bought a lot of stuff yourself simply to reinforce your identity. Maybe it was to win approval, acceptance or applause from someone in your life. Perhaps your circle of friends. People at work. A passing crush or the boyfriend-du-jour.

I mean, if you think about it, that old adage of “go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids”… That’s also a “checklist” of things a good number of us go about “collecting”, isn’t it?

The real question is… Did you check those things off because you had to “check them off”? Or are you actually taking the time to enjoy what you’ve accomplished or accumulated?

And the bigger question… How much is enough? When is your house big enough? When is your car good enough? By what metrics do you grade your lifestyle as the most Instagrammable and “perfect” and “living your dream”?

In the end, what will it cost you? What are you willing to do to fund this dream collection of yours? How will you finance your identity… to collect things, relationships, experiences?

Because that’s ultimately what “lifestyle” requires right? You’re financing your identity. Let me take a detour to talk about that.

Does Money Make You Happy?

Years ago, Princeton University did a study4 on whether income affected happiness.

I mean, it sounds like a stupid study. Of course money affects how happy you are.

If you don’t have money, you’re going to be miserable because you can’t pay rent or buy groceries. You’ll have no emotional stability because you’re constantly desperate and living hand-to-mouth.

But let’s say you have a “base level” income. You’ve got discretionary cash and the free time to use it. Having more money lets you “finance your identity”. You can put it toward whatever it is you’re collecting… or supplies to craft or make art… or tickets and trip expenses.

But are you doing it? Furthermore and more importantly… Are you enjoying that chosen identity of yours? The hobby, craft or lifestyle you’ve chosen?

Because in the pursuit of making money to fund those dreams… some people put it off in a weird sadomasochistic way.

Some people fall in love with the chase — they start chasing a higher income to fund their dreams, but then don’t execute on them. Or they have this fear that if they get “lazy” about making money… they’ll go poor again, so they deny themselves of any fun. Or they’re stashing away their money into investments and refuse to relax until they hit a magic number. Or they feel guilty for taking time off to pursue their passion. They feel like they owe it to their family to make more money5.

I’ve been through all those different states in the last decade when I grew my freelance business from nothing to what it is now. There were a lot of “fun things” I wanted to do but I denied myself… or I felt guilty about taking time out of “making money”… or whatever.

Money can mess with your head and your sense of happiness, well-being and satisfaction.

So back to the Princeton Study. It tried to answer an interesting question: At what point does making “more money” stop giving you more happiness?

The answer? About $75,000.

Now, you might have heard this number mentioned before. This Princeton study went viral years ago. But here’s the thing… Hardly anyone went beyond just reading the $75,000 number. And as a result, they completely missed the deeper point of the study…

To understand that, we have to look at how they sliced the data. We have to see what their definition of “happiness” actually is. In the study, they recognized that there are two kinds of happiness:

  1. How we see our life as a whole when we’re reflecting on it… which they called “life satisfaction.” and…
  2. The actual emotional ups-and-downs of everyday life… which the study called “emotional well-being”

And what Kahneman and Deaton quickly realized was that most of the surveys before them only focused on the first question: life satisfaction.

This is problematic.

I think when most people “reflect” on their life, what they go to right away are the accomplishments, the achievements, the accumulations, the “winning”. It’s the checklist I talked about earlier. It’s the collection of life experiences. It’s the stuff we bought, the times we won, the life goals we’ve placed on our mantle.

“Life satisfaction” ultimately becomes a game of comparison.

If you make more money than the next guy, from a high level, you could say that you “feel better about your life” in general. Or you can look at your high school friends from decades ago and (not gloating) say you did better than them. You married better. Your house is bigger. Your job is cooler. Your vacations are more exotic. Your kids are smarter. You have more money in your bank account. Whatever your metric for “success” or the American Dream is.

It’s about looking good to others.

And what the Princeton study found was… if you make more money, yes, your “life satisfaction” increases.

But… is that actual happiness?

I mean, you could arguably say… “I’m doing well” but underlying that is the footnote of “compared to others”. This is basically the Anthony De Mello quote from earlier:

Understand that the first type of feeling comes from self-glorification, self-promotion. It is a worldly feeling.

And here’s the important thing about the $75,000 number they reported. The $75,000 had nothing to do with “life satisfaction” (the first kind of happiness in the study). The mythical $75,000 was related to the second type of happiness: the “emotional well-being” of a person.

So while “life satisfaction” kept going up as you made more money (that is, people “felt better” about themselves upon reflection of their life as a whole)… this did not account for whether they actually felt better on a day-to-day basis (that’s the “emotional well-being” bit).

Or put another way…

One type of happiness was when you “looked back” at your life… and the other type was when you “looked at the now”. The first kind requires you to stop running, stop hunting and chasing… and STOP, and reflect. The second kind is just a baseline emotion.

And guess what? For “emotional well-being” at the $75,000 annual income level… it stops rising. It flattens out. You simply can’t be “more satisfied or content” than you already are on a day-to-day or moment-to-moment basis.

And if you’re struggling or anxious or stressing out over money at the $75,000 level… there’s a good chance it’s because you’re chasing the first kind of happiness. The “life satisfaction” one where you’re making more, doing more, being more. Nothing wrong with that. But what I’m telling you, backed by Princeton’s study, is: You’re choosing to do this. Nobody’s forcing you.

Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in “financing our identity”… that we forget, we chose this lifestyle. One of the co-founders of Reddit recently wrote about “hustle porn”. That’s the Silicon entrepreneurial attitude of “always be hustling” that has permeated a lot of our self-help culture. The fact that you need to work 16 hour days. You need to sacrifice everything. You need to work, work, work to be successful.

It’s dangerous. As Alex Ohanian proclaimed: “This idea that unless you are suffering, grinding working every hour of every day, you’re not working hard enough.”

Work is as seductive a drug as crack, sex, alcohol or gambling. The pursuit of more. Breaking six-figures. Creating the killer app. Taking a billion dollar company public.

I broke six figures in my first calendar year as a freelance copywriter ten years ago. And ever since then, I’ve been trying to make more and more… and more. I’ve made more, I’ve plateaued, I’ve made more again.

But was I genuinely happy in the sense of “emotional well-being”? (The second type of happiness?)

I’d be willing to be open, honest and objective about this and say… No, I probably wasn’t. In fact, I’ve been downright miserable at times. Between the years of 2013 to 2017, I wasn’t a pleasant person to be around.

Did I have a sense of “life satisfaction”? Sure. It felt good to know I made good money. But was I genuinely content and enjoying what I had? No.

I think these distinctions are really important to make. Because collecting – be it money, goals, books, Criterion blu-rays or whatever – is ultimately only one part of happiness. It’s only about “life satisfaction”…

Where you’re looking back at your accomplishments… And basking in the approval, accolades and acceptance you’ve received… And going down your bucket list of things you’ve done…

That kind of happiness is hollow. By itself – that check list is a trap.

Now, nobody’s stopping you from chasing a higher income or a billion dollar buyout. But if you’re going to do that, be sure of your “big why” as Simon Sinek would say. What are you chasing for?

Because if you don’t get the “emotional well-being” piece nailed down, no amount of chasing will fully satisfy you.

Thankfully, “emotional well-being” doesn’t take a six-figure income. It doesn’t require you to be a millionaire. So you can get there much faster than you think… starting right now.

Maybe this sounds dead obvious…

But what fuels and drives “emotional well-being” is more about WHO you spend time with, HOW you spend that time… and the MOMENTS you create together.

In short – friends, family, loved ones – other people.

Hell Isn’t Other People

Jean-Paul Sartre might be rolling in his grave, but I don’t care.

Hell is other people when you choose the wrong people to hang out with, and/or you don’t have good boundaries (and/or you’re trapped in a room with them and there’s No Exit)6.

Point is —

Make Your Collections About “Emotional Well-Being”

That’s the evolution I’ve been on over the past few years with my own collections. And what it takes is shifting from…

  1. Collecting for the sake of collecting, to…
  2. Consciously choosing what I think I would get the most enjoyment out of, to…
  3. Adding the element of how I can get an actual experience from it, to…
  4. Asking myself if this will help create an experience I can share with others

We’ve talked about the mindless animal mentality of the first stage: You’re hunting down a list of items for no reason but to feed an unfillable hunger. There’s no actual enjoyment from the collected items aside from the fact that you have gathered them to one place in your possession.

The second stage is applying a level of curation to it. Realizing you’re buying stuff that you’ll never actually read or watch, which leads to…

The third stage of actually taking the time to consume what you’ve collected. Reading the book. Watching the blu-ray. Playing the game. Admiring the art. Listening to the music soley and without the distractions of multi-tasking.

That’s the experience.

But the last one is the most important. How can you share this experience with others?

A few years ago, at a holistic health conference, one of the free books in my schwag bag was Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton.

It’s about how best to spend money for increasing happiness in your life. The list itself is simple, but the lessons and wisdom in it has tremendous ramifications. I’ll rattle them off quickly here:

  1. Buy Experiences
  2. Make it a Treat
  3. Buy Time
  4. Pay Now, Consume Later
  5. Invest in Others

Now I could go on forever about each of them.7 But for now, I want to focus on that first one: buy experiences.

Life is short. What we will value at the end of our lives are the moments… the ones we shared with people we love. It could be our family… our friends… our business partners we built a business with… the colleagues we worked with on projects with crazy hours… the teachers and mentors who took us under their wing…

It will always come down to “others”. And spending money to create or make way for these experiences to happen… that’s invaluable. It could be something as simple as a meal… or a trip together… a game, a walk, or just a dumb, spontaneous activity together on a Friday night.

Creating that “space”… framing an event… making it possible for MOMENTS to happen… I think that’s worth spending money on. Asking yourself… Will this thing bring me closer to, connect me more with and create memorable experiences with people I like?

Now, there’s nothing wrong with buying a video game or book and enjoying it all by your lonesome. Those are great experiences too. But the past few months, I’ve started playing video games with my kids… and I really only have one metric:

Is it 4-player multiplayer local co-op?

For the non-video-gamers, that means can the four of us (my 3 kids and I) sit down and play the game together at the same time? Nobody likes sitting around waiting to play.

But even more important is the “co-op” part. Can we play together as a team on the same side? Sure, it’s fun to beat each other up in a first-person shooter or whatever… but I want games where we’re forced to work together.

And thankfully, there’s a lot of fun “couch co-op” games out on the Nintendo Switch right now. We have Overcooked8, Lovers in Dangerous Spacetime, Moon Hunters and Diablo.

I’m not here to shill games. I’m just suggesting that you put meaningful metrics or criteria on how you shape your experiences. I think a lot of times, we get lazy about gatherings. We simply hang out. Or have a meal together. Or drink at some bar. You can do better. A book I’m currently reading, “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker talks about this. How can you shape your experiences so they have maximum meaning and engagement for everyone involved?

Yes, You Can Buy Happiness

So we’ve covered a lot of ground here. I’m sure if we dug more, we can get more “kinds” of happiness. But for our purposes, the two kinds presented by Princeton and De Mello is functional. One is “Life Satisfaction”. The checklist. Our accomplishments, achievements, approvals and the like. It’s nice to look back at our greatest victories and bask in them. If you’re over the age of thirty, you probably have several challenges you overcame which you’re proud of. Maybe you’re proud of your marriage, or your kids, or the house you bought. Awards and accolades even. That’s awesome.

But are you collecting experiences and abstract ideals just for the sake of doing it or some biological imperative? That’s the tough question you need to be asking yourself. Are you “trapped” by this type of happiness?

The other kind of happiness is “emotional well-being”. Are you actually content and satisfied with your life on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis? That is, you’ve done well enough to be in a “good place”. You’re not freaked out about daily expenses. You have a pursuit — a hobby, a craft, or a passion. You have a good group of people around you… and most importantly, you create meaningful moments with them. Memorable ones you can look back on and cherish.

And you can do this with an annual income much less than $75,000 according to Princeton.

I’ll end with another De Mello quote from the book “The Way to Love”…

Because left to its own devices life would never produce love, it would only lead you to attraction, from attraction to pleasure, then to attachment, to satisfaction, which finally leads to wearisomeness and boredom. Then comes a plateau. Then once again the weary cycle: attraction, pleasure, attachment, fulfillment, satisfaction, boredom.

All of this mixed with the anxieties, the jealousies, the possessiveness, the sorrow, the pain, that make the cycle a roller coaster. When you have gone repeatedly around and around the cycle, a time finally comes when you have had enough and want to call a halt to the whole process. And if you are lucky enough not to run into something or someone else that catches your eye, you will have at least attained a fragile peace. That is the most that life can give you; and you can mistakenly equate this state with freedom and you die without ever having known what it means to be really free and to love.

It’s December as I type these last few words here, which means we’re about to hit the holiday chaos. Now, I’m not going to get all cheesy on you and remind you to count your blessings and remember all the things you should be grateful for. This isn’t a Hallmark card. This is The Cave. I’m going to ask you to do the opposite this year. Don’t count. Don’t list. Instead, just enjoy those few magical moments inside the chaos. Recognize them when they show up… and slow down to really appreciate them and let it linger.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

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