Forced To Be Happy
I do not particularly enjoy running. I’m also not very good at it. On a good day, I run three miles with a couple walking breaks mixed in. On a bad day, I run one mile before rewarding myself to an overpriced smoothie.
The buildup to running is dreadful — finding clean exercise clothes, putting on tennis shoes, walking to the park. I hate knowing that in just a few minutes, I’ll be sweating and panting, counting down the seconds until I get to stop.
I do not want to run. But I do it anyway because it makes me happy. Not long ago, I wouldn’t have understood that the things you want are not always the things that make you happy. Previously I thought, if I want to watch Netflix for the next five hours, I should do that — because happiness is important, and that’ll make me happy. If I want to eat McDonald’s, I should eat McDonald’s. I want it, so having it will make me happy.
In high school and college, I spent countless weekends half-watching a Netflix show while using my phone to window shop at stores I can’t afford. In the moment, that’s what I wanted to do. But did I actually enjoy that experience? I don’t think so. By the time 20 minutes passed, I would feel a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction and angst. I wasn’t having fun. But I still wanted to keep mindlessly scrolling on my phone while listening to a show as background noise. It didn’t make me happy, but I still wanted to keep doing it.
Achieving happiness sometimes requires you to fight against what you want. It’s not enough to follow what you want to do in the moment. You have to force yourself to do things that want on a more profound level — that fulfill your deeper want for happiness and self-actualization.
This is not to say that relaxation isn’t important. Watching TV, window shopping, and eating fast food can help you let loose after a long day of paid work. My problem was that I was doing too much — to the extent that it no longer gratified me.
Happiness takes work, and as humans, we try to minimize our work. However, things that require work often make us happier than things that don’t. Most of the time I do not want to run, but I force myself to do it because it elevates my mood and makes me feel alive. I have to push back against what I “want” and choose instead what makes me happy.
External vs. Internal
“Work” sounds undesirable because we associate it with paid work. Paid work usually feels unpleasant because you’re beholden to an external need for money. You might also have little autonomy and be forced to complete tasks that don’t interest you.
But not all work is bad, contrary to what some might say. Even Karl Marx believed that work is key to a fulfilling life. Where he differed from capitalists was believing that it should not be a means to survival, but a means to human flourishing.
Working to satisfy others, whether that’s the bourgeoisie or your parents, can feel tortuous. Like many other Asian children, I was forced to play the piano. I endured weekly lessons, daily practice, and debilitating performance anxiety for ten years before calling it quits. I still feel a little traumatized when listening to Chopin.
Working for external gain, such as the satisfaction of my piano teacher, or the ability to buy food and pay rent, doesn’t bring the same joy as working for internal gratification. I run almost everyday because running itself feels good, not in order to make money or impress someone. I read because I enjoy learning, not because I’m studying for a test or my boss told me to. Running and reading require work. If I exclusively listened to the lazy voice in my brain, I wouldn’t do these things at all. I would sit on the couch and watch TV all day. But running and reading fulfill me in a way that watching TV does not. Being happy requires work.
I’m still a lazy person who spends a lot of time on my phone and watching Netflix. I don’t think this will change any time soon. But I have consciously poured more time and effort into activities that make me happy, not just activities I want to do in the moment. For example, I’ve limited myself to one episode of Westworld per weekday and two episodes per weekend. I try to read a little bit of The Economist everyday. I run 3-4 times a week, often to Juice Generation. I think that’s a start.