Americans are not happy people. This is not a political statement (although it certainly could be, especially with the news that’s been coming out about the president over the past week, or month, or quarter). It’s really more about how we as people find ways to stay unhappy about everything in our lives.
It’s worse for nerds — and intelligent people in general. We’re often introverted, socially anxious, and isolated. You’ll see how some of those affect us in a little while. And I’m not immune to this either. Trust me. So maybe by shining some light on six of the best ways to stay unhappy I can help myself — and you — move past this.
6. L’esprit de L’escalier. — A French phrase that literally translates to “the spirit of the staircase”, it’s generally taken to mean “when you think of the perfect reply/riposte but it’s too late”. Why did I put this first? Because we dwell on the ways we could have done things better, instead of looking forward. We replay conversations, parties, and other activities in our heads, nit-picking everything that was said or done, trying to find our mistakes — even when we may have been as perfect as we could have been under the circumstances. It’s like a morbidity and mortality conference that we attend every time we have a minute to think.
Also, maybe stop doing this: Several years ago, when I brought up l’esprit de l’escalier to my therapist, I also portmanteau’d the term “staircasing”. It’s a specific argumentative technique in which, after the argument is over, one person (usually the one who started it) reopens the discourse by bringing up something that was thought of during the previous argument and saying it, specifically knowing that it will lead to another argument.
5. Dwell on things. — L’esprit de l’escalier isn’t the only way we look back on things. Even when there’s no reason to, we tend to dwell on past choices. It doesn’t matter what they are; we go back and replay our own lives, changing one thing here and there like an alternate historian and trying to figure out how our lives would be different now. I did this in college after my high school girlfriend dumped me via answering machine*; I wrote a story that made use of the Trousers of Time — half of it was if she had stayed, and the other half was if she came back into my life a few years later. I never finished it, because I managed to move on, but even now I wonder what I might have done differently in college if she hadn’t left me, and how my life might be different now as a result. Don’t do this; as Captain Picard said after he nearly destroyed the Enterprise as a result of his memories being manipulated: “let the dead rest, and the past remain the past.”
Also, maybe stop doing this: We have several big decisions over the course of our lives, and when we dwell too much on one of them (especially right after we make it), we have a tendency to forget things we need to accomplish to support that big decision. For example, if you decide to take a new job, you have a lot of things you have to do. Technology is helping us with this (I saw a really awesome demo of a ServiceNow product that allows you to manage onboarding entirely via mobile device), but there are still things we need to do. If you take the job, stop dwelling on what might have happened if you hadn’t; keep moving forward so you don’t forget what you have to do.
4. Those who can’t do, teach. — I am super-duper guilty of this, and I have been all my life. I’m in a position of… not really authority per se but there are a few things my friends come to me for when they need information or advice. I like my friends, and am only too happy to help. But if it’s on something that’s bothering me, or something that I need to change as well, I can’t make use of my own recommendations. For example: I have a friend who wants to exercise for 30 minutes a day three times a week. She asked me how she could help herself meet this goal. I gave her some ideas… which I promptly didn’t use myself, even though I too should be exercising for 30 minutes a day three times a week. If you give advice, you should be able to take the same advice from yourself.
Also, maybe stop doing this: When a friend comes to you with a problem, it might not be because the person is seeking advice or solutions. It might just be that your friend is doing some spleen-venting — which I’m sure all my readers have done on many an occasion. It’s really hard not to offer advice when you think you have the right answer, but wait to be asked.
3. Let it fester. — I know it sounds like I’m about to talk about dwelling again, but this is more about the physical than anything else. Unhappy people look for ways to stay unhappy — hence why I’m writing this column — and one easy way is to be sick (or in pain). For example, I have a partly-torn meniscus in my left knee. It’s not bad enough that I need surgery, but not okay enough that it doesn’t hurt when I walk too much**. The orthopedist tried cortisone shots, which didn’t have much effect (and actually made it worse for a couple of weeks before it got back to normal), and recommended physical therapy, but you can guess what I did. (If you guessed “didn’t do the PT”, then you’re right.) For years now I’ve let my knee problem fester, not getting worse or better but still affecting my life in numerous negative ways.
Also, maybe stop doing this: In Jaws, Hooper and Quint have a moment where they compare scars. Mel Gibson and Rene Russo do the same in Lethal Weapon 3. It’s just a game of one-upsmanship, and when it comes to your health, why would you do such a thing? Why would you make yourself unhappy by revisiting all of your injuries in an attempt to “win” the “who’s got it worse” competition? Everyone’s health problems are valid; there’s no need to try and say yours are worse — or, worse, to embellish your relatively-minor maladies to try and win the game. Just don’t.
2. Don’t ask for help. — I’m a huge believer in the power of counseling. I think that, if I’d had this realization when I was in college, I might have gone down that track instead of going into journalism***. I’ve had three different therapists in my life, and I think they’ve all been valuable to me in different ways. But a lot of people refuse to take that step. They see the signs of depression, anxiety, or other possible mental illnesses, and they transform them into vague Facebook posts, Tumblr reblogs, and “I’m fine, really” with their friends. I know that asking for this kind of help is hard, especially since there’s unfortunately still a stigma against it, particularly among men. But you have to. These folks are professionals, and they can help, even if all they do is listen to you get to the right answers yourself.
Also, maybe stop doing this: Speaking of getting help, don’t surround yourself with people who are just going to reinforce your unhappiness. Don’t ask for help from these people. They’re just like you; they’re trying to wallow in their own unhappiness. When you need help, find a way to talk to a professional. Friends are great, but they’re not always the best when it comes to giving advice. And I include myself on both sides of that equation.
1. Complain. — What’s the number-one thing people do in conversations with their friends, co-workers, or acquaintances? They complain. They find the bad in life — the things that make them unhappy — and they use it as fodder for discussion. They tell their friends about problems in their relationships; they tell their co-workers how annoying their required tasks are; they discuss the unhappy things in their lives as they chat up new people. And, to an extent, I get it; we don’t want to seem like we’re doing better than other people, because it might make them feel bad. Well, if your friends get mad at you because you have good things going on in your life, that’s their problem, not yours. Your friends should be happy for you. I have one friend who is generally considered a negative person, but whenever I share good news, he’s always positive and I know he means it. I also complain to him, but nobody is perfect.
Also, maybe stop doing this: While most of your friends probably aren’t therapists, they’re your friends because you have something in common. When you ask them for advice, consider actually taking it. Don’t just put it on the shelf in the back of your brain because it might make you happy if their recommendation is a good one. Complaining can be a force for good if you use the discussions created as a result of the complaints to change the things that are making you complain in the first place. But as I said before, if you just surround yourself with people who will reinforce your unhappiness, you’re just sabotaging yourself.
Great. I’ve pointed out all of these things, and as I did I thought about how each of them applied ot me, and now I’m unhappy too.
Which reminds me to tell you this: I don’t have all the answers. No one does. If someone says “I have all the answers,” you should be gone before the sentence is fully out. Unhappiness is a part of life, and it’s something we all have to deal with. But we don’t have to reinforce it; remember, the US Constitution guarantees “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — and that’s what happiness is: something you have to pursue. Unhappiness happens when you don’t pursue happiness.
So go forth and pursue.
Got an idea for a future “Six of the Best” column? Tweet it to me @listener42.
Josh’s latest book, Memories of My Father, is the story of a girl trying to figure out why her dad’s losing his memory — but the horrible secret causing it leaves her only one way to save him: to forget everything she knows. Sabrina Peña Young, author of Libertaria: Genesis, says: “Like the best science fiction, the emphasis is less on the technology that makes time travel possible and more on the believably complex and heart-wrenching situations that make the human experience so uniquely tragic.” And if that doesn’t make you want to read it, then what more can I tell you? Get your copy today!
* Like voicemail, except it was recorded on a tape (kids, ask your parents) and you had to play it back when you got home or try to get it to play back over the phone by keying in a security code at exactly the right time.
** I was in Austin, TX, recently, and there was a restaurant one mile from my hotel that I wanted to try. I hadn’t rented a car, since the hotel was across from the office where I was spending my days, so I decided I would walk. It’s just a mile; most people can do that in less than 30 minutes. But as I walked, my knee started to protest, until every step was agony. It was so bad that I bought a bus pass to get back to the hotel — and had to walk a quarter-mile anyway because that’s where the nearest bus stop was. I hate that I can’t walk a mile without dealing with a day or two of painful aftereffects, but I also am not doing anything about it.
*** I also thought about being a civil engineer, but I can’t even add up Yahtzee scores correctly; I probably shouldn’t be designing highways. Even though I love thinking about how I would do it better.