If you want to be happy, stop chasing things
The funny thing about happiness is that, the more we chase it, the more elusive it becomes. Happiness is a subjective state in the present tense, while modern life is an objective experience of future potentiality. To reconcile that chasm, we must focus on the here and now rather than worrying about the maybe and never.
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon once said. Indeed, I am particularly guilty of this. Struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I’m often haunted by preoccupation, falling into traps of cyclical fixation. Ideas are the endless currency of OCD and processes are the bank. Sometimes it can be difficult to break free from their demands.
I’m routinely a prisoner of plans and protocols, schemes and strategies, obsessions and obligations. I once even had a life plan, stitched together in Microsoft Excel, that told me what I ought to be doing in 2068. Such is the excruciating purgatory of life with OCD, adrift betwixt genius and misery with little grasp of context.
In my search for psychological peace, I have attempted many forms of self-help, from antidepressants and therapy to minimalism and Buddhist meditation. I have made many changes in my life, such as quitting alcohol and compartmentalising responsibilities, but sometimes we just forget to take care of ourselves. Sometimes, things just get a bit too much and we fall out of kilter. Just as we don’t always remember to water those office plants, we often neglect the most important thing of all: our own inner happiness.
What is mindfulness?
I would love to practice mindfulness more readily. I would like to make time for regular meditation. Going for long walks and the occasional run would also be nice. It just isn’t happening at the moment. One day, I will get there, but these things take time. We are human, after all, and robotic demands don’t always seep into our brains.
It is easy to dismiss mindfulness. In bygone eras of codified masculinity and stiff upper lips, such a concept was ridiculed as wishy-washy mumbo jumbo. We want results, goddamn it. There is no time for heavy breathing and pondering a distant shore. Now get back to work. Go and make some money. Oh, and fetch me a coffee on your way.
Mindfulness isn’t all flowery daydreams and blue-sky thinking. It is the state of being conscious or aware of something. It is the process of being present, mentally and psychically, in the current moment, calmly acknowledging your thoughts and feelings but not reacting emotionally to them. In this regard, mindfulness is a convenient tool in the fight against obsessive-compulsive meltdown, and it is something I’m keen to explore with greater commitment.
How mindfulness can help manage anxiety
I also struggle with generalised anxiety disorder, which again is often misunderstood. Anxiety is a natural response to danger or discomfort, the residue of a fight or flight decision we are forced to make. However, a surplus of anxiety causes mental disorder, often leading to demonisation, pessimism and the imagining of anxious situations that are usually set in a fictional future.
If mindfulness helps us stay present, anchored to the current moment, it is by logic a mechanism to cope with the paralysis of generalised anxiety disorder.
Mindfulness teaches discipline and awareness, allowing the exponent to alter his or her viewpoint. By practicing mindfulness, we are able to put enough distance between our experiences and our feelings to objectively analyse the world and our place within it.
Here, we see how happiness is a brand of contentment, which in turn is a form of self-discipline, honed by mindfulness. Contentment is understanding the distinction between need and want. Happiness is having the conscious fortitude to leave those things in their own unique places.
How to deal with unrequited love
For example, unrequited love is one of the most harrowing causes of mental ill health. When we fall in love with someone, but they don’t love us back, our perception of need and want is distorted. The indignation gnaws at us and the rejection bites hard.
We fall deeper into the abyss, conflating our own self-esteem with the opinions of other people. Past a certain point, we no longer want to find love, we feel like we need to, or else the world will lose all meaning.
In actual fact, it would be nice to experience that relationship, but it is not essential for our survival. Nor does it instantly preclude happiness. Conversely, by eschewing the rat race of courtship and failure, we are sometimes more likely to find genuine love for the right reasons.
Be yourself, and the right person will love you for it. Be somebody you are not, and the wrong person will exploit you for it.
Why you should stop obsessing about progression at work
The same theory applies to work. All too often, people are consumed in future ambitions and overarching roadmaps. We always need more. That next big contract. That next prestigious promotion. That next business plan, growth strategy, marketing pipeline, recruitment drive, outreach initiative or business development process. On and on and on. Next, next, next. Need, need, need.
We spend an ungodly amount of time complaining about our jobs, but most of those moans are inspired by mythical futures and emotional deductions. They are top-down moans, fashioned by the forces of what if, rather than bottom-up moans, encouraged by genuine hardships from day-to-day.
Of course, some workplaces are toxic, and I have certainly experienced that nightmare, but the manner in which we pursue tomorrow, breathless and reckless, often makes today even more unbearable.
The difference between want and need
All of these problems can be solved by ceasing to chase things in life. Want things, but understand that you do not need them to survive. Have ambitions and dreams, bucket lists and goals, but do not sell your soul to achieve them because achievement is a vacuous concept of capricious personal creation.
I spend a lot of time writing, blogging and building a personal brand. That’s because I want to. I find those things enjoyable. When I have slipped across the spectrum, dabbling with affiliate marketing and ecommerce ventures, the joy of producing content has been diminished by the need to write in a way that generates income. In this way, relying on other people is the quickest route to discontentment, while seeking the approval of anyone is a proven way to drain your own happiness.
This distinction between want and need lies at the heart of managing OCD. At least in my experience. By nature, I want to do many things. I’m an obsessive-compulsive, after all. I want to visit innumerable cities and watch a myriad of football matches. I want to read a thousand books and write dozens of my own. I want to love and laugh and listen to Pete Doherty and appear on podcasts and write poetry.
Lord knows, I want.
But do I need to do any of those things? Do I need to buy fight tickets on a credit card just to keep up? Do I need to visit all 92 Football League grounds in five years to be considered a real fan? Do I need to spend hours in the library and write every single day to fulfill my potential? Do I need to attend every Libertines gig and post it on social media? Do I need to record a podcast every Saturday morning to stay on track?
No, I do not.
It is okay to fail and it is okay to have a day off.
It is enough to just be human, to just be you, so don't let anybody change your internal chemistry.
How I'm learning to manage OCD
In the throes of OCD overload or depressive exhaustion, I will often try to do and be everything I have ever wanted all at once. The sense of anxiety is absolutely unbearable. There will be a tsunami of ideas, inspiration and potential projects. My world will become flooded with want. In order to ride the waves and keep my head above water, I must learn to sieve the genuine needs from that whirling excess and let everything else happen of its own accord.
The genuine needs are food, warmth, hot water, electricity, accommodation and being there to support the people who really matter in your life. The genuine needs are enjoying every moment as if it is your last and stopping occasionally to let yourself breathe. The genuine needs are love and rest and comfort and inner peace.
Only you can define those attributes.
The flashy watch and the expensive car? The iPhone and the Instagram account? The endless metrics and grandiose job titles? Those are not genuine needs. For some people, they are perfectly agreeable wants, but problems arise when you need those things to fuel your own sense of worth.
The power of happy coincidence
I subscribe to the happy coincidence theory of personal and professional development. Rather than committing blood, sweat and tears to reach nominal standards of success, I pursue my passions without having them affect other people. I’m very happy in my own company and I’m incredibly productive on my own terms, defined by my own emotions. I do not seek external approval, and nor do I need the kudos that comes with apparent achievement.
If, while sticking to my own process, self-sustained and individualistic, nice things happen, then great. Fantastic. That is a happy coincidence. I recently gave a speech at my old high school and I have appeared on various radio shows. I have published a book and interviewed one of my heroes. However, such things merely complement my independent progression through life. They do not define me, and nor do they become me. Happiness creates those pleasant interludes, but those perceived achievements are not intrinsic to happiness itself.
Naturally, the side-hustle generation will be aghast at such a suggestion. LinkedIn is awash with sales gurus and life coaches preaching the gospel of Gary Vaynerchuk at random intervals throughout the day, sliding into DMs with see-through spiel. Work. Grind. Push the envelope. Chase, folks, then chase some more. Bang down doors and refuse to take no for an answer.
Well, I have trialled that approach, and it only leads to insecurity, paranoia, narcissism and depression. By contrast, when I have focused on my own passions, in my own time, for my own enjoyment, without chasing approval or money or connections or leads, great things have happened.
When offered to the world without expectation, unadultered passion comes back to an individual as opportunity. Passion is a personal experience unburdened from the need for social approval. Living in accordance with your own inner yearnings, without expecting benefits in return, is therefore the most effective tool of contentment.
The less I have pursued happiness, the happier I have become. And the happier I have become, the more I have achieved. Nothing else really matters in the end, so the sooner you stop chasing those elusive ideals, the quicker you can enjoy what is actually happening in your life.