Silicon Valley gossip columns enjoy pointing out that Oracle’s software titan Larry Ellison, whose $40 billion net worth makes him one of the top 10 richest people in America, is not the happiest guy around, mainly because he always compares himself to Bill Gates.
Meanwhile, on the Appalachian Trail, some backpackers feel smug because they got a spot in a shelter (which only has three walls and frequently has rodents nearby), whereas the latecomers have to set up their tent in the rain. For some reason most backpackers covet the spots in the shelters, and prefer cramming next to snoring neighbors than setting up their tent.
I suppose if we put Larry Ellison on the Appalachian Trail, he might feel better about himself if we somehow made sure that he always got to stay in one of the shelters (and Bill Gates had to sleep outside under a shoddy tarp).
“Oh Happiness! Our being’s end and aim.” — Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in Essay on Man
Let’s say you’re thru-hiker (someone who spends months hiking an extremely long trail). Now imagine that someone visits your campsite and gives you and your four friends an envelope. You open yours and it says that you get a free pizza at the next town. If you’re like most thru-hikers, you’d do a somersault with your backpack on!
Clearly, you would be ecstatic: most thru-hikers value fresh food more than anything on the trail. Indeed, you might think that thru-hikers spend most of their time thinking deep thoughts during their long days of hiking in the wilderness. You might imagine that they are gathering the wisdom off every branch and every stream. On the contrary, most spend their time fantasizing about grilled cheese sandwiches, fries, shakes, and ice cream.
Therefore, if I were to ask you if you were happy about getting a free pizza, you would shout emphatically, “Yes! Woo-hoo!”
But now imagine that your friends finish opening their envelopes and not only do they all get a free pizza, but they get to stay at the Ritz Carlton, have a foot and back massage, stay in the Presidential suite with a Jacuzzi, and have all their laundry done for them.
Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of others. — Ambrose Bierce
Now, all of a sudden, you don’t feel so good anymore. You went from a state of exhilaration to one of melancholy. From a purely rational perspective, if you were happy before, you should still be happy now. After all, you still get your free pizza, and that’s what got you so excited in the first place, right? I didn’t take that away from you, so you should still be happy.
However, when we’re trying to decide how happy we are, we tend to look at how other people are doing to help us make that decision. This is natural and it’s hard to fight this primal tendency.
Use the urge to compare yourself with others in a positive way. Instead of avoiding the comparison game, just change who you compare yourself to. If you want to instantly make yourself feel depressed, think about all the people who have much better lives than you. Conversely, if you want to make yourself instantly feel happy, compare your state to those less fortunate than you.
Moreover, don’t just compare yourself with those less fortunate than you, take it a step further—compare yourself with people who are less fortunate than you and who are happier than you. It is at that moment that you will realize that you have no excuse. It’s all in your head. What else can explain why so many thru-hikers, who effectively live like bums in absolute squalor, are happy and fulfilled?
One who is content with what one has is always happy. — Chinese Proverb
The implication of this Chinese proverb is that the fewer desires you have, the easier it will be to satisfy them and be happy. Confucius reinforced this philosophy when he praised his favorite disciple, Yan Hui: “A bowlful of rice to eat, a gourdful of water to drink, and living in a mean dwelling; all this is a hardship others would find intolerable, but Hui does not allow this to affect his joy. How admirable Hui is!” Clearly, this is proof that Confucius would have admired thru-hikers. Then again, it could also be used to prove that he would have respected participants in the TV show Survivor.
Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. — Abraham Lincoln
Some psychologists believe there are seven factors that influence whether we are happy or not. Let’s look at them. Next time you feel like you’re being short-changed on one of them, compare yourself to the following:
- Wealth: We’ve all met plenty of poor people who are happy. In case you haven’t, just ask yourself if Gandhi or Mother Teresa were happy.
- Education: You don’t need to have access to encyclopedic knowledge or a Ph.D. to be happy. There is a reason that we say, “Ignorance is bliss!” There are tribes in the world, such as the Aborigines, that have little access to the Internet, TV, newspapers, books, and other sources of knowledge. Are they despondent?
- Personal freedom: In every repressive regime there have been plenty of happy people. The Diary of Anne Frank demonstrates how a Jewish family in Nazi Germany enjoyed the simple moments of life even under the most confining of situations.
- Equality: South Africa’s racist laws were extremely unequal. Yet many of its citizens did not let that be an excuse for being miserable and depressed.
- Health: Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, seems to enjoy every day of his life despite being confined to a wheelchair and living with ALS. Magic Johnson still maintains his ever present smile, even though he is HIV positive. Lance Armstrong kept a positive spirit in the face of cancer.
- Social position: Order takers at McDonalds aren’t the pinnacle of the social ladder, but try to find an unhappy one among those who were selected to represent McDonalds in Utah’s 2002 Olympic Games. McDonalds picked their most service oriented employees from all over the world and flew them in for that world event.
- Life-events: Some of us get big lucky breaks (e.g., winning the lottery), others get big unlucky breaks (e.g., getting paralyzed from a car accident). However, just like there are unhappy millionaires, there are happy paraplegics. A tragedy does not force you to be unhappy for the rest of your life.
Happiness doesn’t depend on outward conditions. It depends on inner conditions. — Dale Carnegie
I’m not suggesting that you learn to be happy living the monastic life. Nor am I saying that people who live in challenging conditions have no right to complain or to try to improve their situation. I’m simply suggesting that it is possible to enjoy life without all the things that we typically think of as basic requirements.
Too many people think, “I’ll be able to start enjoying life once I get __________________.” Don’t put it off for tomorrow or next month. Even though there is some correlation between having the above things and enjoying life, they are not necessary to enjoy life. Just ask anyone who has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.
This is a modified excerpt from Chapter 1 of Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America. You can read the whole first chapter for free. Or you can buy the book at my shop, Amazon, Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Google Books. (The best deal is at my shop). It’s also available as an audiobook. This article first appeared on Tiny Buddha.