I’ve been chasing happiness my whole life. It’s a bit of a paradox because years ago I accepted that a permanent state of happiness can never be achieved.
I’ve been trying to get the right grades, have the right girlfriend, earn enough money, have a cool job - all so that I can be happy. Permanently happy.
It’s a dumb goal because happiness is a mood. Moods are like the weather. Sunny days come and go; There won’t be sunshine forever. You can’t be permanently happy. Even if you NAIL your lifestyle, you won’t be happy for long.
Imagine I am super wealthy. I have a big house and lots of cars. My wardrobe is pimping. I have a good group of mates. I go to concerts and hit the bars a lot. I have a personal chef. I have social status. I am fit and have a great body. I’m basically a more widely accepted Dan Bilzarian. I’ve achieved Peak Lifestyle.
Give it one week. After one week of this awesome life, I’m confident that I’d think “Okay, now what? What am I doing here? I can’t live like this all the time”.
It’s weird because I think I’ve been subconsciously chasing some version of that lifestyle. This thought experiment was helpful for me because it pointed out that even if I get everything I’m shooting for, it still won’t be a good outcome for me. It made me see I was shooting for the wrong target.
A few months ago I finally snapped. I thought “What the fuck am I doing? I’m trying to be happy all the time. All of my decisions are aimed at achieving something unachievable. This makes no sense.”
What I’m starting to realise is that instead of pursuing happiness, you can pursue meaningful projects. These projects won’t provide you with happiness. They may actually cause you to suffer. However they can provide you with a sense of meaning & accomplishment. Meaning is what I want to chase now, not happiness.
Meaning lasts more than 20 minutes and doesn’t depend on your brain’s chemistry at any particular moment. You can feel a sense of meaning even when you’re sad or unmotivated.
I’ve recently started drawing a huge amount of meaning from fitness. Becoming fit is hard because it’s not a one-off thing. You have to re-decide to do it every day. The positive outcomes of being fit are what’s driving me. But the big revelation has been the meaning I’ve derived from the process.
Imagine it is your goal to become insanely fit. You’ve worked out every day for 12 months and you’ve done it intelligently. After working out you’ve stretched and then eaten. The workouts have been designed to hit specific muscle groups so that those muscles have time to recover whilst another group is being worked on. You’ve been eating really well - lots of protein and fats and vegetables and not much sugar. You’ve given up the beers & the smokes.
That whole process sucks. It involves an excruciating amount of pain, waking up early, fighting to 8 reps when you were convinced you were going to fail at 5. The first few weeks are extra shit because your body isn’t used to it. Your roommates order pizza and it smells BOMB but you don’t have any. You’re constantly sore. You know you’ll get lit if you go to the concert with your mates so you just don’t go. You’re spent all this time cooking and washing up and because you’re eating so much, you’re doing a lot of cooking and cleaning. You get mad social anxiety when you order something different from what the group is having because you’re worried about seeming difficult.
You have some injury or sickness that you have to manage. This makes it hard for you to determine whether the pain you’re feeling is good pain or bad pain. You can’t improve without pushing yourself so maybe the pain you’re feeling is progress. But maybe by working out this much you’re making your injury worse so all this training is making you go backwards. Now you’re wondering: “Is my brain just tricking me into taking the easy way out because it doesn’t want to work hard?”. It’s psychologically taxing.
None of these things are fun. They do not make you happy. In fact, they mainly suck. But they are punctuated by fleeting moments of accomplishment. The first moments of satisfaction start after only a few weeks.
When you’re competing against others you feel the thrill of being dominant whilst others are tired. In a social environment you start to feel more calm in front of others because you’re comfortable with your body.
You see yourself slowly changing in the mirror.
You feel happier and calmer. Especially after extended cardio. On those days you don’t give a fuck. Nothing can bother you. You go into the workout with all these worries. You finish 2 hours later with all the same problems but like 10% of the worries. You realise that the worry you felt wasn’t productive to begin with.
After you put in a big workout, you can sit on the couch and feel guiltlessly lazy. You actually need to recover to improve so it’s virtuous to watch another episode.
People are more interested in dating you. Even straight people of the same sex seem to be treating you differently. You notice yourself getting faster, lifting heavier, being able to exert for longer.
You notice strange benefits that you didn’t expect like being able to jump higher. Or when you run, your core and shoulders aren’t bouncing around as much because your lats and abs are now holding your frame together. You didn’t even know that they weren’t supposed to bounce around like that to begin with.
You see that your mates are getting more and more out of shape as they get older. You think “I’m doing something slightly unusual here. This is awesome”.
You work out in the morning. Then you turn up to work. You feel like a successful adult who has their shit together. No matter what happens at work that day, you’ve already done something to improve yourself. So you’ve ruled out the possibility of the day being a total failure.
One morning at the breakfast table, you’re aware of a new sensation in your back. There’s more muscle there than there used to be and it feels odd because it’s a completely novel subjective experience. But once you realise that the sensation is a result of all your hard work it becomes so satisfying that it’s like a hug from the inside.
You see all these improvements and you start to wonder how far you can take this. How much further can you improve? If you’ve maintained discipline for this long despite all the legitimate reasons you had to quit, what else can you get done if you set your mind to it?
It begins to carry over into other areas of life. You’ve trained the “just do it even though it sucks” muscle and it’s now firing in other contexts. The bins are full — you can’t be bothered to take them out. You just do it anyway. Now your kitchen is tidier. You remember you haven’t replied to your parents — you don’t have the energy for it right now. You reply anyway. This project isn’t just making you fitter, it’s making you a better person. It’s improving your body, your relationships and your mood. It’s changing who you are.
Strangely, you start to become addicted to the fight. You started this project for the outcomes but now the process itself is becoming part of the attraction.
You start to notice how your mind reacts to being challenged. There are distinct tracks that your mind can go down when you’re hurting.
On good days you feel like a force of nature. It’s hurting but you know that you’re not going to quit. You’re driving the workout, rather than it driving you. Everyone just needs to get out of your way.
Other times it’s a slog fest where you’re just surviving. These days teach you that sometimes you’ve got to turn up even when you don’t want to. Even when you’re nowhere close to being on your A-game. Sometimes you have to go through the motions so you can keep up the momentum of the broader project. You think “Okay, I’m going through the motions today but I’m going to come back here tomorrow and do some serious damage”.
Then there are the really low days. You think “This is dumb. Why am I swinging this kettlebell around by myself in the dark? I could have done anything with my life and this is where I’ve ended up. No one else cares about this and I’m only doing it because I’m selfish and vein.”
And of course there are shades of grey between these mind sets. For example, in one particular workout you might feel 10% “this is dumb”, 20% “this is a slog fest” and 70% “I’m fucking shit up today”.
After you’ve gained a familiarity with these various mental states, the negative feelings you get when you’re hurting begin to worry you less. If you start working out and it’s a “slog fest” day, after enough mental familiarity with pain, you’re just like “Okay, this is going to be one of those workouts. Fine. Let’s get it done.”
You can see a simple project like “I want to become really fit”, can quickly spiral into a life changing mission that requires your full time attention.
Commiting to some arbitrary project can have a lot of power. It orients you. It transforms you into a more capable person in seemingly unrelated aspects of your life. But the best gift it provides is that it gives you a reason to wake up in the morning. I wouldn’t say it makes you excited to wake up in the morning because a lot of the time you’re fucking tired. However, it gives you a fierce drive that makes you feel dangerous.
In my own little life, the friends I find most interesting are the ones that have a project that gives their lives meaning. Some have started companies. Some have peddled across continents on a push bike. Another is a parent and has more focus & dedication than any founder or athlete I’ve ever met. One studied ancient Rome for 4 years and is writing a fantasy novel set in that period. Another is working on making artificial general intelligence safe. One goes to the gym nine times a week. These people are making the most of their brain and body and heart.
I admire my heroes because they did something hard. Mandela was locked in prison for 27 years. I’m 27. That’s my whole life. Turing invented computing whilst having to hide who he was. Elon Musk is enabling commercial space travel & electric transport at the same time. Churchill didn’t give in when he probably should have because he couldn’t handle seeing a Nazi flag above Buckingham Palace.
These people weren’t pursuing happiness. They were miserable a lot of the time. They had real challenges that were bigger than any you or I are likely to face. However, they ran towards discomfort like a firefighter running into a burning building when everyone else was running out. They ran into the flames because they were trying to achieve something that mattered more to them than their own personal happiness. There’s a Nietzche quote: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. You need a project that gives you a sense of meaning. Fuck happiness. It’s too fickle.
I just picked fitness as an example because it’s the project that’s giving me the greatest sense of purpose right now. But there are obviously other meaningful projects out there that might resonate with you more deeply. I think the most common one is the process of nurturing children into good people. But it could be starting a business or publishing a novel or becoming a navy seal or caring for a loved one.
Whatever you choose though, you have to feel a sense of meaning. In order to feel a sense of meaning, the project has to be hard. It has to be the kind of project where you redecide to commit to it every day. The outcomes of that project succeeding have to continually appeal to you. You then have to develop a borderline sadistic infatuation with the battle. You fall in love with the fight.
In a universe that has no meaning, we have to make our own. Otherwise, we have no reason to push through when sadness comes. And sadness will come.
Someone like me isn’t going to find meaning in religion or something metaphysical. There’s a Tim Minchin quote I like: “Let me assure you, there is no meaning. Searching for meaning is like searching for a rhyme scheme in a cookbook. You won’t find it and it’ll bugger up your souffle”.
He goes on to say, “I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up”.