To this day, one of my favorite online articles is The Oatmeal’s comic on being “Perfectly Unhappy.” For a while I wasn’t sure why. Could have been his usual humor and insight was better than usual. Or I read it for the first time while in a good mood.
But I’ve found the real reason: I’m not a happy person either.
This doesn’t mean I’m miserable or don’t like my life. But the parts of my life I enjoy the most don’t fit common definitions of happiness.
I remember going to a typical party event in college. There was a big crowd of students, a band playing music, alcohol passed around, and lots of visible skin. It all felt pleasant, but I didn’t feel happy. Instead I felt stale and self-indulgent. I was zoning out in my own little world. I’m not saying it was boring and others should have felt that way. That’s how I reacted to it.
The basic gist of my thoughts during it was I felt the gathering lacked meaning. Lots of people indulging in whims and pleasures was enjoyable. But it was also meaningless. People were just following their base desires. I realized I cared more about meaningful activities than happy ones.
But I had no idea what I found meaningful.
Tear Myself Apart, Put Myself Back Together
Since leaving college, I’ve been searching out activities I find meaningful. Whether they make me happy is secondary.
And I’ve found that meaningful activities are ones that make me a better person. Even if I’m not too happy doing them. Even if it’s painful.
Sometimes it’ll feel like I’m beating myself down or tearing myself apart. But I’ll put myself together and be a little better than before. In a physical, mental, or emotional way. But it makes what I did feel meaningful. Like I made good use of my time on Earth. It wasn’t wasted remaining the same while everything else around me kept on moving. I moved forward in some way. Any way.
All the things I love the most fit this in different ways:
- Coding - Coding is puzzle-solving. There’s an endless supply of puzzles it gives that may or may not be possible. With most I likely can’t tell which it’ll be from the start. It’ll be a rough time figuring it out. So I need to prune and update my knowledge constantly. Learning nothing will make me useless in a few years. I whack my body of knowledge with a hammer to check for weak spots. I feel the stress, repair them, and do it again.
- Reading - I enjoy reading things many people wouldn’t like. Things that make my heart squirm and my brain yell. New ideas I’d never considered that shake up my head. They make me question my core philosophical, political, and religious views. They push my mind into turmoil. I discard everything I’d accepted as normal and start building again. Only to break it all again later for something stronger.
- Boxing - Boxing is an easy sport to push myself in. Each workout lasts eight rounds. At the end of each I’m covered in sweat, I’m sore, and sometimes fall over. My knuckles will be cut, my core aching, my legs trembling. The rest of the day, I pull my body back together. Then I do it again in a day or two.
- Volunteering - I helped at a soup kitchen a few times in college. I’ve started doing so again after work. It’s tough to see another side of society I’m rarely exposed to, even if it is to help. To see people struggling, and be greeted with everything from thanks, indifference, or hostility. But it makes me question my own perspectives on life as a whole. What matters to me, what I should care about, and how I should (and shouldn’t) judge others. My heart gets twisted and I try to straighten it out before I return.
All these meet my definition of meaningful, so I’m drawn back to them. But they usually don’t make me happy.
They make me feel frustrated and inadequate, insecure and lost.
They make me feel astounded and intrigued, busy and complex.
They make me feel like a human going headfirst into the turmoil of existence. Seeing a spectrum of ideas and feelings that push me up, drag me down, and toss me somewhere else. To find something new. To struggle with a new obstacle. To discover a new strength.
Most of all, they make me feel I’m making the best possible use of my time alive.
So like The Oatmeal, I’m not happy by the typical definition. And that’s okay.