Don’t make your happiness dependent on other people, and all will be well.
When I look back on my younger self, the 24-year-old Amit from 20 years ago, I feel alarmed. There is just nothing he is doing right. His outlook to life, his ambitions, his work ethic, his food ethic, his attitude towards other people: they are all wrong. He is obnoxious, arrogant and delusional, and it seems certain to me that this cannot end well.
I cannot reach out across time and warn that kid, and he would not listen to me. This is a common lament of middle-aged people like me: Oh, if we only knew then what we know now. Still, I am lucky to get here and no longer be that guy. I know similarly aged people who have not lost their youthful delusions, and wake up every morning unhappy. I feel bad for them – but not too bad, for reasons that will be obvious by the time you finish reading this.
This is the 50th edition of Lighthouse, and my last column in this space, so in the spirit of a happy ending, I want to bow out with a list of learnings. Here are a few things I learned along the way from being that guy to this guy.
One: You are not special. You are one of over seven billion people on this planet, which is one of 100 billion planets in the Milky Way, which is one of 100 billion galaxies in the known universe. So forget what the self-help books tell you: you are not unique or different in any way. You are one accounting error of genetic composition away from a gorilla, and everything you are is a result of luck: the genes you happened to have, and the environment you were born and raised in. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it should be a relief.
Two: You are not entitled to anything. I am shocked sometimes to see how entitled some young millennials feel, till I remember that in my time, we felt as entitled. This is a quality of youth. (And the natural consequence of thinking you are special, which we are hardwired to do, for how else would we live?) But the world owes you nothing, and the more entitled you feel, the more you will be disappointed. If you feel entitled to nothing, on the other hand, everything good that comes your way will feel like a delightful bonus.
Three: Stop looking for validation. Our lives can be dominated by the need for the approval or admiration of others. This is foolish for one simple reason: others don’t give a shit, and are caught up in their own corresponding anxiety. They aren’t thinking of you all the time. You are only the center of your own universe. So stop caring about what others think of you. It doesn’t matter – unless you take it seriously, in which case you are doomed to unhappiness, as you will be sweating over what you cannot control.
Four: Focus only on what you can control. One sure route to be unhappy is to make your happiness dependent on things you cannot control. You will then feel helpless and exhausted as you are buffeted by the winds of chance. Instead, you should only feel good or bad about events in your immediate control. The rest is what it is. (If you take the route that there is no free will, you could even achieve a Buddhist sort of complete equanimity – or you could just panic. Leave that aside for now.)
Five: Focus on process, not outcome. This follows on from the last lesson: you cannot control the outcome, but you can control the process. The happiest writers are those who take joy in the writing, not in the awards or the money. If you are stressed about outcomes, you will spend your whole life stressed, because outcomes are never satisfactory, and when we do get what we want, we immediately revise our expectations. If you just take joy in the simple act of work, and leave aside the results, much of the stress in your life will just vanish.
Six: Focus on the positives. I know people consumed by negativity, who wake up every morning angry and bitter that the world has not given them their due. They are the sole cause of their unhappiness. The world is full of things that can make you either happy or unhappy. Focus on the positives. This creates a virtuous feedback loop: you feel better and work better when you do this, and that creates even more joy for yourself. Cut everything that is toxic and negative out of your life, including people who are always cribbing. Life is too short to spend it sunk in despair. (Some might argue that it is because life is short that we spend it sunk in despair – but you cannot control that.)
Seven: Happiness lies in small things. What makes you happy? If you make it dependent on the fulfillment of big dreams, or the actions of others, you will be chasing an elusive goal. The biggest lesson I have learnt is that happiness lies in small things: the rich taste of strong coffee on a rainy day; a few moments of laughter with friends or loved ones; getting lost in a book, or transported by a song, or giving in to the magic of a film. Look around you, and I’m sure you will find many things that make you feel blessed. What else do you need? Why?