Fun Is Easy, Happiness Is Hard

10443158_788833557827333_4179652623399338578_oExercise is hard. My primary form of exercise – running – is particularly unfathomable to many. Yet when it comes to running long distances, I’m one of those annoying people who “get it”.

You know what I also get? Eating doughnuts. Who doesn’t love doughnuts? Fried dough, delectable vanilla icing, rainbow sprinkles. What’s more, eating doughnuts is a lot more fun than running. No matter how much I engage in both activities, eating doughnuts never fails to out-fun running. But here’s the thing: I eat doughnuts only rarely but I run 30 to 50 miles six or seven days a week. So what gives? Am I preternaturally disciplined? Obsessed with being skinny? Is someone always chasing me?

The answer is that I’m acutely self-aware of what makes me happy as opposed to what merely makes me feel good. Orgasms feel good yet I’ll wager that if I spent my life pursuing them I’d be a less happy person. If engaged in for a prolong period of time, fun things tend to make me miserable. Difficult things, conversely tend to make me happy.

Confusion about the difference between fun and happiness has caused no shortage of pain in people’s lives. A good question to ask yourself before engaging in any activity, from flossing your teeth to going to attending religious services, has been suggested by author Dennis Prager. The question is “How will I feel once I’m done?” Happiness-inducing activities tend to provide good feelings long after the activity has ceased. Merely fun things, however, tend to stop providing pleasure the moment one desists in the activity.

This phenomenon is easy to observe in children. Calling my children inside for dinner, they remain flushed with the joy of having played outside. They exhibit the “glow” I feel after a good run. But if I must inform them that it’s time to stop playing video games or watching Netflix, well, the words “profoundly irritated” best describe them.

We all know that passive entertainment diverts us for a time but leaves us less happy and more irritable. Yet we continue to eat junk food, play video games and watch too much tv instead of doing the hard work of exercising, reaching out to others and creating.

If you want to spend your life having fun then by all means, fill it with fun things. But if you want to spend your life being happy, pursue things that make you happy.

But most importantly, constantly remind yourself of the difference.

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The Futility of Envy

green eye textLast night I lay in bed with the mellow satisfaction one enjoys at the end of a particularly good day. Then, shortly before calling it a night, I checked-in on Instagram and suddenly found myself feeling jealous toward of a couple of my colleagues.

Instantly my mood had changed from mellow satisfaction to painful dissatisfaction. It was then that I reminded myself of words I had read many years ago by George Will and which have stayed with me ever since: Envy is only one of the seven deadly sins which does not provide the sinner even temporary pleasure.

In the annals of products promising quick relief, few will serve you better than these words have for me over the years. Implicit in shame is the possibility of a new beginning through forgiveness and making amends. Lust has its tantalizing appeal and righteous anger can be exhilarating. Envy, on the other hand, is the emotional equivalent to drinking Drain-O: nothing good comes from it.

When feeling envy, I remind myself of George Will’s words and then of how life is like a movie: it is comprised of countless “frames”: in one frame we’re winning the lottery; in another we’re stubbing our toe. And while it’s tempting to compare our own movie to someone else’s, it’s absolute folly to compare an individual frame to someone else’s, particularly if that frame is an outlier.

Besides, everyone’s “movie” eventually comes to an end. And like movies, the wise admire those lives which tell the best story while fools admire the biggest box-office hits.

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It’s Never Too Late To Learn

Face-Palm - Even kids get it.

Face-Palm – Even kids get it.

Have you ever looked at a photo of yourself from as little as five years ago and become amazed and more than a little depressed because of how much younger you looked? Similarly, five years from now you’ll look at a photo of yourself taken this afternoon and think “Man, I looked great!”

If, God willing, I live to be 80 years old, I’ll at photos of myself thirty years from now and think “What I would give the energy and youth of the man in that picture.”

What the point? One is to not be too harsh on yourself. “Slow learner” is not the same as “bad person”. Hold yourself accountable for your actions, by all means, but be humble knowing that better people than you have failed similarly. You are not alone.

But the more important lesson is that act of searching for happiness tends to foster and even induce happiness. This is why the U.S. Constitution says “the pursuit of Happiness” instead of “happiness” – they are two sides of the same coin.

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Happiness Is Hard

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In my home there lives a baby who loves taking a bath but who often must be dragged kicking and screaming to take one. There’s also a boy who eagerly anticipates his reward for completing his homework yet must be goaded into actually doing it. There’s a woman whose mood is boosted by exercise yet sometimes goes days without it. Finally, there’s a man who finds sharing ideas with others enormously gratifying yet often lacks the wherewithal to do just that.

What’s wrong with us?

Our problem  – most people’s problem – is that we think in terms of ease and comfort rather than happiness. Happiness takes an energized body and an engaged mind. Comfort requires only a decent-size sofa.

I know that preparing a new dish for my family will greatly increase my happiness. I know that shopping for the ingredients and working in the kitchen will increase my happiness. But I also know that there’s a yet another frozen pizza in the freezer which can be rendered delicious in less than 20 minutes. And that I can check out my latest Facebook post while I wait.

The next time you consider engaging in any activity, ask yourself “Will it make me happy or will it make me comfortable?”

Comments? Leave them in the section below.

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Difficult Things Make You Happy

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My son loves watching videos and playing games on our iPad. He become giddy with excitement when I allow him to do so. The problem is that when it’s time to stop, he invariably becomes sullen and moody.

I point out to him the transformative effect the iPad or – more precisely – turning off the iPad – has on him. In response, he promises he’ll be more self-aware (my words, not his) when his time is up. And when his time is up, I’ll be damned if he doesn’t slide right back into grumpiness. It’s as if we had never had our conversation.

Conversely, homework is something which he does not look forward to. He’ll do it, to be sure, but he does so grudgingly. And when he’s done? He’s happy.

In short, the iPad makes him unhappy and homework makes him happy. Why then does he not plea for more homework and less time on the iPad? Because he, like most of us, lacks self-awareness. He thinks the iPad makes him happy because it’s fun. He thinks homework makes him unhappy because it’s boring.

Like many others, I have struggled with cultivating the self-awareness to do those things which make me happy. One area where I have largely succeeded is exercise. For example, I’m an avid runner, putting in anywhere between 20 to 50 miles week. My primary motivator is knowing that getting my run in – even if it’s only a relaxed 30-minute jog, makes me happier, not to mention more pleasant to be around. (“I owe it to others!”).

Would I characterize running long distances as fun? Not really. Do I wake up each morning aching to find time to put my tired legs to the test? No. Do I ever put up a big, fat zero in my running long because I just can’t bring myself to lace up and head out the door? All the time. But in general, it because I have enough self-awareness regarding the effects of exercise on my mood to get some in each day.

Notice the parallel: exercising is for me what homework is for my son: not something I particularly want to do but something I have to do because not doing it will make me irritable. Which, funnily enough, makes me want to do it.

If you’re a responsible person, the vast majority of your days are spent doing things you’d rather not be doing. At this very moment I can think of many things I’d rather be doing than sitting in Minneapolis airport writing this blog. So why am I doing it? Because I know that having written it and sent it out into the world I will have accomplished something and accomplishment is one of the greatest sources of happiness.

There’s part of us that wishes we could enjoy a sense of accomplishment without doing the hard work it necessitates. Call it the path of least resistance, the death wish or just plain laziness. The point is that if you think of those things you have to do as essential for happiness, you’d do them more gladly.

Comments? Leave them in the section below.

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