• Tue, Apr 10 2012

Bullish Life: Does “Happiness” Demand That We All Just Chill? (Hint: No.)

Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice weekly here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.

I have read versions of this story at least five times:

The American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while.”

The American then asked “why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?”

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then?”

The American laughed and said that’s the best part. “When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions… Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

Hahaha. Get it? We materialistic Americans have it all wrong. We also say “amigos” when speaking English, which I’m pretty sure makes you sound like an asshole. And we should all just relax right now! (In some versions of the story, it’s a Greek fisherman who likes to relax, and Alexander the Great who has it all wrong.)

Except that kind of a lot of people who worked for a few decades before hitting the beach did things like CURE POLIO. Or, you know, inspire ten thousand children at Elmwood Elementary School. Or be able to explain to anyone who’s interested that the spiral structure of our galaxy may be caused by supernovae causing shockwaves, which reach clouds of gas and dust and form MORE SUPERNOVAE within a differentially rotating system, thus causing spiral arms!

Beaches are more enjoyable when you have accomplished many things before arriving.

On Recreation

I grew up in Virginia Beach, and loathed the beach. Because it was mostly full of tanned kids who did very little homework. I’m glad they all had a convenient place to lose their collective virginity. Going to the beach is also an extremely time-consuming hobby, and I rightly judged that it would be one of the many things I would simply not think about until I had accomplished my mission of getting into college and out of Virginia. (See Bullish Life: Sometimes It’s Best Just to Not Think About It.)

I now love beaches. I saved them for my thirties. In last week’s Bullish Turns Two! Ballsy Advice on Work, Life, Men, Money, and Unicorns, I commented:

Every once in awhile, some whimsical innocent wanders through the comments, leaving some remark like, “Why are you making such a big deal? Let’s just all relaaaaaax.” (My stock reply: You know the people who said that in high school? Most of them regret that. Your twenties are the high school of your forties.)

Surely, happiness is more than mere recreation or relaxation. (See also: Bullish Life: Achieve Goals and Glory By Recreating Like a Total F*cking Badass.)

On Material Things

Also, some material possessions are awesome, largely because they were designed by other people with good ideas and fresh aesthetic sensibilities. Good ideas and fresh aesthetic sensibilities are a large part of what it means to be human. Sometimes those ideas and sensibilities result in Abbey Road, and sometimes they result in handbags or ergonomic chairs or a gold-plated espresso machine. (Come over to my house and try to find my cat’s litterbox. Good luck! It’s HIDDEN. You will have to feed my cat a meal and then wait and follow her to see where she’s secretly bathrooming. That’s good design!)

People who talk trash about materialism often love design, or the latest technology, or their moisture-wicking extreme sports gear that allows them to ice-climb with less frostbite. That is: their shit is well-curated, and yours is middle-class bourgeois crap. (George Carlin: “Have you noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff?”)

(See Bullish: How to Travel Like a Gentlewoman for more defense of material objects, many of which are important in making our “experiences” physically comfortable, not to mention making it possible for us to participate in public life while menstruating. Also, going to other people’s countries looking like you’re camping is just rude. Have some respect.)

Oh, and see Bullish: Actually, We’re All Kind of the 1% for more on why wealth is not inherently evil, and reflexively hating all rich people is doing yourself a disservice.

On Happiness

I’ve been doing some reading on so-called “happiness science,” self-esteem, and optimism. The Dziura clan is a sarcastic and unceremonious lot, so this is all new to me.

I’m also just a really happy person, circa 2007-present. It’s not some natural hormonal cocktail I lucked out on; I was a miserable child who found childhood pointless and degrading. When I was running my failing company in a dead-end town, I thought I was clinically depressed (see Bullish: When To Make Massive And Ballsy Life Changes For Your Career.)

I mean, I might have been, technically, clinically depressed — I’m sure I could’ve gotten someone to give me antidepressants — but the answer was actually to make dramatic, real changes in my life (not changes in the way I thought about the events of my life, because my life was objectively awful and we are not serfs bound to our land — we can change the actual world outside our heads.)

How did I get so fucking happy? I can barely even say the word happy without “fucking” in front of it, because again, I wasn’t born this way. When I was a kid, no one ever said, “Oh, she’s just such a delight to be around.” (More like, “My, your daughter does have strong opinions!”)

So, consider this column an opener to an ongoing discussion (right here, on the pages of TheGloss!) about happiness and how it may be had.

In short, though:

A day on the beach feels a lot better when you remembered to vote, when you know where your chemotherapy’s coming from in case the Sun gives you cancer, and — ideally, when you’ve built up an empire — that the people you manage, or your proteges, or your children, are furthering your life’s work in your absence while you relax.

Meaning is more important than walking around with a greasy-idiot smile on your face all fucking day.

People who pursue happiness directly probably won’t succeed.

There’s nothing wrong with money, possessions, and desiring the respect of those whom you respect.

And people who care only about their own happiness don’t deserve any.

Send in your questions to bullish@thegloss.com. See a Bullish archive here.

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  • ADHD Unicorn

    Yep, this is my name now, forever.

    I think I started being aware of being *happy* around 18 years old (2008), which I think is when I really settled for myself that it was reasonable for me to put myself and my own needs first, (as my life is the only experience I’ll ever have and I certainly can’t depend on others to always put me first,) but that it’s often not much trouble to put other people in a very close 2nd. I guess I sort of added up that doing things for others makes me feel good, and makes them feel good, and so is generally a good idea, when possible. Also a contributing factor: understanding that every single person I’ll ever see was, at one point, a teeny tiny child, and we all seem to move through life wondering, in a tiny voice in the very bottom of our minds, “is this the right thing to do? Have I made the right choice here? What’s going on?” and decisions and certainty are something we layer on top of that, rather than extinguish that with.

    That said, another theory is that I started feeling happy when I started feeling appealing. Maybe not necessarily attractive, but like someone that people want to spend time with. So maybe when I felt a sense of self-worth.

    Which reminds me! There are two TED talks by the same speaker, one about vulnerability, one about shame. They have some interesting and relevant ideas. I recommend them.

  • Megan

    Just thought about that same fishing story the other day. The methods by which we might arrive at that elusive state of ‘happiness’ while having the critical brain of an ambitious optimizer (which seems to require, or at least go hand in hand with, chronic dissatisfaction) is definitely something I think about a lot, so I’m very much looking forward to reading your thoughts about this.

  • ikea

    I don’t think I agree with your interpretation of the story. It’s more against hollow materialism than not working hard. The point is that the American wasted decades of his life amassing money in a “deferred-life plan” because money is seen as a prerequisite for being able to live happily. The fisherman would not have been happy building a fishing empire. Fishing is not his passion. In this case it sounds like music might be his primary hobby, and he is probably motivated to create new music. I’m sure that astrophysicists and biological scientists do what they do because they enjoy it, not because their plan is to become millionaires and retire.

  • Eli

    I am a big time promoter of happiness and getting people to realize their true potential and self-worth. However, it has always been a struggle to explain to the wealthy people that money is not the do all end all life they need to be living. I explained to them that being happy is a lot more important than driving a nice car, because in the end of the day, mostly all the people that I speak to that are particularly wealthy claim they are not happy.

    There is a lot more to read on this by checking out http://happinessdirect.com/