Happiness is ice cream.
It would be simple if it was just that, but it is, more or less, ice cream. Watching movies in an empty theater is fun and getting drinks with friends is great too. Sex can be pretty amazing. I could keep going but you get the picture. I've experienced happiness and you have too.
But how did we get here? Every day that we wake up in this weird world, we have to decide who we believe about happiness. We’re told stories about what will make us happy. Constantly. A friend describes her perfect dinner at a new restaurant. Your date recommends their latest Netflix binge. A coworker gushes about a trip overseas. And more than anything else, we’re bombarded with media - a kaleidoscope of ecstatic people, doing things we haven’t experienced or we’re not experiencing right at this not-happy-enough moment.
In the book The 4-Hour Work Week, author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss wrote, "Happiness can be bought with a bottle of wine and has become ambiguous through overuse."
We can't possibly do it all, so we need to pick and choose about what gets us going.
But what about the happy people of the stories we don’t hear?
I’ll give you an example. We don’t believe monks. We rarely hear their story. What do we know? Bald men in robes, meditating away most of their days. These weirdos don’t watch television. They don't have sex. They barely know what’s going on around the world outside themselves, and yet they claim they’re at peace when people ask.
No one is holding us back from joining them, but no one is hiking up the mountains and shaving their own head.
What about poor people? Being poor can be a harrowing experience. We assume most poor folks are miserable. But it turns out, maybe not. In his book Tribe, journalist Sebastian Yunger writes, "According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities - like the United States - run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders."
Why are we so quick to question these stories? Or worse, reject them? We tend to only believe the stories we've heard many times before, but what if we've been wrong this whole time? What if we’re stifled by our own experience?
Consider this. There are some people in this world so committed to hunting down their happiness that they voluntarily drilled holes in their skulls! The procedure is called trepanation. It's the oldest surgery known to man, primarily because human beings would suffer a lot of trauma clubbing each other over the head way back when and drilling a hole would release some of the pressure. But, back in the early 1970s, Amanda Feilding did this to herself with an electric drill after she couldn't find a willing surgeon. She claims trepanation "works by restoring the full pulse pressure of the heartbeat". A hole in the skull increases cerebral circulation, Feilding says, and releases the limits your skull places on the brain when it finally seals shut. The result is an increase in well-being, a more free and creative state.
How can you honestly believe you're going down the right tracks for happiness when people are out there confidently drilling holes in their skulls? We barely believe that throwing away our smartphones for a second and going on a hike will feel good.
The challenge is we're sold different versions of happiness every single day. Most often, it's the dream to be rich, famous, and free. Jim Carrey, arguably one of the biggest stars in the world, a man that brought happiness to millions of people, once famously said "I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer."
The truth is we don't know. But if Jim Carrey said your dreams are not the answer, and Amanda Fielding is still alive and kicking with a hole in her head, it might be time to rethink our definitions of happiness.
And if there is something out there as good as ice cream, movies, drinks with friends, and sex, I'd like to hear the story.