Almost everyone I know is unhappy about one or more aspects of their lives. In the USA most people are fat, most are unhealthy, most live with a constant background of noise, and a great many people are afraid of a great many things, most of which will never happen to them. Meanwhile constant financial insecurity coupled to the idea that ever-more possessions is the route to personal fulfillment means that nearly everyone, even the very wealthy, is perpetually dissatisfied.
Frankly, if you wanted to design a mode of living that ensured the maximum discontent for the greatest number of people you’d have a hard time improving on normal life in the USA.
The good news is that because the causes of unhappiness are so obvious we can quickly analyze the sources and arrive at credible actions to move towards better ways of living.
If you’re sitting comfortably, we can begin.
Let’s identify some of the most harmful inputs. Consider mass entertainment. All those rape-murder procedurals, all those end-of-the-world shows, all the violence, all the weapons. The stock components of tedious Hollywood trash that induce fear and fill the mind with impressions of vulnerability and harm. Our brains respond to what we experience, and by filling our minds with negative experiences we harm ourselves.
That’s why I’ve not owned a TV in more than thirty years and avoid the pulp churned out by Hollywood. Furthermore I never watch or read any US “news” because it’s all empty context-free sensationalism designed to grab eyeballs and boost ad revenues. It’s mindless noise of no value. By avoiding the daily barrage of fear and hate and violence that the US media churns out by the second, I relieve my sensitive brain of a great many harmful inputs. By way of analogy, few of us would think that smoking 200 cigarettes a day was a good idea, but we seem oblivious to the 2,000+ images of violence the entertainment/news industry throws at us every day. So let’s stop accepting this absurd input and let our brains deal with the reality around us instead of the manufactured reality the media presents.
The USA is based on the idea that happiness is achieved largely by means of acquisition. I know many people who are always looking forward to their next purchase, whether it’s a new car or new clothing or new kitchen appliances or new bicycles or whatever, as though possessing these things will magically improve their lives. I have a friend who is perpetually in financial straits but who spends a great deal of her income on new bikes and kayaks and ultra-light hiking equipment and so forth. In her mind she “needs” all these things in order to get out and about and enjoy nature.
In reality of course she doesn’t need to be fixated on the next shiny new toy. Her current bikes and kayaks and hiking equipment are all perfectly fine; they’re just not the latest, greatest, most advertised stuff. But for her, having perfectly serviceable equipment is insufficient because someone has just posted on InstaSnap or FaceSpace their shiny new carbon-fiber bike and how can anyone live until they’ve got one too? When we cease to think the road to contentment is paved with possessions we can begin to enjoy what we already have.
This leads us to the next action: social media. Although we may read articles about how false social media can be, about how those glossy enviable InstaSnap pics and stories are really fake, our brains don’t understand that. Our brains think it’s real.
So why use social media? It’s not really anything more than electronic graffiti and we rarely benefit much from it. Work out which social media platforms actually provide tangible value (for example, staying in touch with real-life friends who are geographically distant) and delete everything else. Also remember your phone is a tool for you to use, not something that should control your life. Turn it off when you don’t need it. Restrict yourself to checking your apps no more than twice a day. If someone important to you really truly needs you, they can text or call. There’s no need to check InstaSnap obsessively every time a stupid notification pings. 99% of the time it’s empty noise. So get rid of it.
Look up. This follows from the paragraph above. How many people do you see obsessively staring at their phones, their heads forward and their attention entirely on a small glass screen? Humans aren’t evolved to live like this. Put your phone away and engage with the real world. Talk to people. Many will be shocked because we’ve forgotten how to do this simple thing, but you’ll find a few who are relieved to be interacting with another human being for a change. If you don’t absolutely have to send that text, don’t do it. There’s no real reason you need to be watching that YouTube clip about the funny cat, or posting a picture of your dinner. Focus instead on real life, on the moment you’re actually living. These seconds will never return. We get each second of life just once and once only. So why waste it staring at someone else’s ersatz existence when you could be embracing your own precious moments?
Do stuff. 86% of US citizens are fat, obese, morbidly obese, or hyper obese. The primary reason for this is not genetics or uncontrollable environmental factors or poverty or food deserts. The primary reason is because the average US citizen walks less than three miles per week. Only 3% of the population takes regular strenuous exercise. As our bodies are evolved to perform constant physical activity it’s not surprising that lack of doing stuff leads to all kinds of adverse physiological outcomes. We need to get up off the sofa and move around and use our bodies. The health and psychological benefits are immense. So let’s get up and be active.
Eat healthy foods. Seriously, you think the human body evolved to cope with pizza, McSlop, and Kentucky Fried Cancer? When you eat junk you poison your body. You screw up your endocrine system and pretty much everything else. Most people probably wouldn’t think it was clever to take a chain saw to their genitals, but few seem to realize that eating junk is not far removed from that kind of self-harm.
Ever wondered why so many people have such unsatisfying sex lives? When your body is in a perpetual state of low-level sickness due to consumption of inappropriate foods, it’s difficult to do much even when you really want to. Sure, it can be difficult to find healthy inputs (raw fruits and vegetables, raw fish and meat) and it takes time to prepare and cook them whereas there’s a McSlop outlet just a minute away. But really, why kill yourself slowly just so an executive you don’t even know in a large corporation you don’t work for can make her quarterly bonus by poisoning you and your family? I’ve traveled extensively throughout the USA and I know that even in benighted places like Arkansas and Louisiana it is possible to buy healthy inputs on a tight budget. No one is truly forced through lack of alternative to subsist on Bloater King and Diabetes-Cola.
Absorb healthy inputs. This is the converse of avoiding unhealthy inputs. Once you’ve deleted social media and turned off your phone and stopped consuming mass entertainment, you’ll have a ton of time to really live your life. Read a book or watch an informative lecture on YouTube. Go out for a walk with a friend or family member and talk to each other. Eat healthy food you’ve prepared yourself. Look up, look around. The world is often far more interesting and beautiful than we realize when we’re heads-down worshipping our devices 24/7.
If you live in somewhere awful, try to get away on a regular basis to the local park or pond or forest. We evolved to be in nature 100% of the time, not in concrete canyons and suburban tracts, so when we’re in places that have plenty of trees and running water we automatically feel more at home, more at peace. We feel alive and happy in a way that no amount of staring at a screen can ever reproduce.
This all sounds great but most people will think, “I could never do that.” We’re social animals and so we do what everyone around us is doing. We watch the same shows, we eat the same junk, we repeat the same sound-bites. No one likes feeling on the outside of the group. But the problem is, the group is busy self-harming in so very many ways. I have a few photos of my parents taken fifty years ago. Everyone has a strong alcoholic drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The ashtrays are full, because everyone was smoking eighty per day. The bottles are empty, because everyone was knocking back a pint of booze per day. We can look at photos like this and ask ourselves, “what on Earth did they think they were doing?” and then we have McSlop for lunch while staring at our phone’s screen.
Maybe you can’t do any of the positive things for yourself that I’ve sketched in this brief article. But at least now you know your unhappiness is because you’ve chosen it. Your discontent isn’t an existential necessity, it’s your personal choice. And perhaps, one day, you’ll decide the time has come to make different choices.