Happiness is Simple, Not Easy (Part 1 of 3) 🌱
Idea #1—Living In Accordance With Our Nature
If we’re not careful, being happy can feel like a chore.
We chain ourselves to self-help gurus and “productivity experts” who pedal the newest journalling, habit-tracking, and meditation apps. They discuss the need for a healthy microbiome, a minimum effective dose (MED) of exercise, and meaningful social connection. They swear that this next change we make in our life will finally be the one to cure our inadequacy, loneliness, and purposelessness. In 280 characters, they make happiness feel like a million miles away.
Before Moleskin journals, was everyone unproductive?
Am I doomed to unhappiness if I can’t afford kombucha and a Peloton bike?
Being happy, in my opinion, involves achieving three straight-forward goals. They’re simple, not easy. Keep an eye out for parts two and three coming down the pipeline. Today is part one.
Idea #1: Live in a way that is in accordance with your nature.
Currently, we understand that personalities, interests, and individual temperaments are the result of the complex interplay between an individual’s genetics and their environment. In trying to understand which is more relevant in determining our nature, we usually conclude it is the unpredictable combination of both that makes us who we are. As a result, the behaviours and activities that energize, motivate, and drain us will be different than the behaviours and activities that do the same for our peers, our siblings, and our parents.
Defining nature is tricky, though. Generally speaking, it’s the organized pattern of behaviours and attitudes that make each of us distinct. Ending the definition there, however, feels too sterile to be complete. Deep down, we know that our nature is so much more than that.
The only definitions of nature that feel correct to me leave a little room for the metaphysical. Our nature is the behavioural manifestation of our soul. It’s our identity, and the father of our disposition We don’t know who or where we’d be without our nature. Every achievement we’ve earned and every opportunity we’ve lost can be a reflection of it.
Sometimes, however, we make decisions that do not agree with our nature. Sometimes, they are insignificant decisions — where we choose to eat for dinner, which clothes we choose to wear, or where we choose to go on vacation. Then there are more consequential decisions, like what we choose to do for work, what we choose to study in school, where we choose to live, and who we choose as our life partner. When we make a decision that is contrary to our nature, we feel a tension build. We feel a quiver in our guts; something doesn’t feel right.
This is cognitive dissonance. Traditionally, cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress we experience when we observe ourselves behaving in a way conflicts our belief or value system. Sometimes we are aware of the mechanics of the contradiction, and are therefore in a position to correct it, but oftentimes, it’s a subconscious need that is being left unsatisfied. Friction builds until we are surrounded by an unavoidable agitation and restlessness. We look for ways to calm the tension in our nerves without knowing where to start.
Einstein famously said that compounding is the most powerful force in the universe; the effects of compounding on cognitive dissonance can be ravaging. Days of decisions that do not agree with our nature can snowball into years or decades of compounded cognitive dissonance, the psychological tension manifesting in a myriad of harmful ways. It’s a recipe for anxiety, awkwardness, stagnation, and above all, unhappiness.
Frogs in Boiling Water
Many of us are so accustomed to doing things that conflict with our nature that the tension is indistinguishable from daily stress. We lack the self-awareness to differentiate between healthy, motivating stress, and the subtle, destructive sort of stress that can develop into something caustic over time (e.g., panic attacks, heartburn, insomnia, etc.). We are completely deaf to the internal alarm that goes off whenever we’re behaving in a way that conflicts with our nature. We feel like a square peg being crammed into a round hole but can’t fathom why. We’re so comfortable overriding that instinct and writing it off as fear that needs to be overcome. But sometimes it would do us wonders to listen to that alarm. Not all battles are meant to be fought. Not all mountains must be climbed.
Like wet concrete that hardens over time, I believe that the older we get, the more static and impervious to change our nature becomes. If you are bookish or outdoorsy, regardless of the incentives to change, it will be extremely difficult to do so. Any shift in behaviour will be nothing more than temporary tolerance until we can return to a state that is once again in harmony with our nature.
A difficult thing to internalize is that no single nature is intrinsically better than another. Each attempt to change our nature is rooted in feelings of inferiority and shame. And we can’t be blamed for those feelings. We see how people who have the capacity to sit in front of a computer screen for hours learning to code are rewarded by the job market. We perhaps see our insatiable and sporadic curiosity or our disinterest in climbing the corporate ladder as an inherent weakness. It feels nearly impossible to separate a fact of our nature from our judgment of that fact. But we must. Feeling shame over our nature is required unlearning if we ever hope to behave in a way that is aligned with it.
We envy those that act decisively and seem to always know what they want to order at restaurants, or whether or not they should pursue a professional opportunity. They radiate confidence and seem so sure in their choices. When we have a deep understanding of our nature, we can make quick, daily decisions that will be aligned with our nature, further strengthening our sense of identity and diminishing our sense of cognitive dissonance. In fact, it’s apparent when someone is behaving in accordance with their nature. We even have a term for it. We watch someone being effortlessly brilliant from afar and we say the person is “in their element.”
When I was in undergrad, I had a hard time imagining a future in the field I was studying. Medical science graduates pursued either medicine or research, and neither piqued my interest. I could spend all my time in a library cubicle and do decently well, but collaboration, creativity, and presentation always felt more natural to me. In group work, in a brainstorming session, or in front of a crowd is where I felt most competent and most comfortable.
We all know people who moved away for school and seemed to flourish in their new environment, or changed jobs and became so much more of a joy to be around. We know people who made the conscious decision to separate themselves from stale friendships and seemed so much more energetic as a result. These people made major life decisions that aligned with their nature and reap the rewards on a daily basis. But this is an individual, personal journey. Someone else’s dream can easily be your nightmare. The mountains can be a playground for adventure or can feel ominous and isolating, the bustle of city life can be fun and energizing or perpetually exhausting. Taking a promotion can feel like it will unleash your potential or commit you to overwhelming stress.
Some of us go many decades, though, without ever truly understanding what it means to revert to a state that’s in accordance with our nature after a lifetime of decision-making predicated on what sounds best for other people. Unless things change, we will feel unhappy in perpetuity, locked into a mindset convinced that solace and a calm mind are always elsewhere. So how do we discover our inherent nature? How do we practically develop deeper self-awareness? Practical, since traditional philosophy will encourage meditative contemplation and prolonged isolation to uncover the truth, but of course, that isn’t going to work for us. We need something concrete and prescriptive, and we need it fast.
How to Live in Accordance with Your Nature
The irony of providing another framework in a piece that began by disavowing advice isn’t lost on me. That being said, I really do believe that to sieve through the onslaught of advice to find the pieces most applicable to us, we must learn what our nature is. It’s the one skill that recontextualizes all the others. We need to become reacquainted with the unique building blocks that make us who we are, and we may even find that some of the facets of ourselves that we are most proud of have yet to be uncovered.
Intentional exploration is the mindful attempt at collecting enriching experiences. Intentional, since what we choose to try should be informed by what we are already interested in and can imagine being pulled deeper into. Then we must engage in some honest introspection. We must, vulnerably, admit to ourselves whether or not we really enjoyed the experience. Not whether we would have liked to be the kind of person who enjoyed that experience, but whether we actually did. If we did, we can do more of the same, and if we didn’t, we must pursue something different, guilt-free.
For this strategy to work, we must redevelop a sensitivity to that feeling of cognitive dissonance and better understand which behaviours augment or diminish that feeling. It’s simple, not easy.
We need to listen to ourselves and actively work to understand what our subtlest emotions are trying to teach us. After all, it’s only a matter of time until our quietest feelings, backstage and muffled, make their way centre stage and belt their needs into the microphone, demanding to be heard.