The longer I live the more I learn about how NOT to enjoy life. The opposite lesson is much harder to figure out – how to enjoy life. I have learned a lot about what makes life less than pleasant. Commuting, for one thing. Poor health, for another. Bad relations with my friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and even just people on the street. Overeating. Spending money on crap that you don’t need 72 hours later. Worrying about the future. Agonizing over small things. The list could go on and on.
What I’ve learned is that identifying the things that make life more enjoyable is difficult. You make think you know; you may think you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain, but maybe that’s not a truly life-changing statement. You may say “I love my kids, they make life more enjoyable” – but is that true all the time? If you’re a parent you know that there are plenty of 3 am puke-on-you sessions that are not, by any measure of the word, enjoyable. You may say you enjoy money or free time or food or any number of things, but often that’s a passing enjoyment. The true measure of something that is truly enjoyable is something that is unrelenting, unending and endlessly renewable.
I can give a few examples of things that are enjoyable by that definition. Health. Nobody ever gets tired or ceases enjoying good health. You may take it for granted or ignore it, but trust me, you enjoy it. Nobody gets tired of learning new things, or gaining respect for work well done. Nobody gets tired of being loved. It can be taken to extremes – stalkers, etc. – but I’m talking about the normal healthy human expression of love. My daughter lights up like the sun over the ocean when I smile at her, and I can’t imagine ever getting tired of that. My son puts his head on my shoulder and, unprompted, says “Papa I love you.” I could hear that a billion times and not want a second of that time back. My wife smiles at me without any reason and I get thrown back to the early days of dating and the starry eyes. Reading a good book is always enjoyable. Good times with family and friends are never a disappointment.
I have realized that you have to be careful about what you focus on for your own happiness. I focus on money, for example. Money is not, and should never be, the focus. The acquisition of the ability to get what you want might be a focus, or financial freedom, or freedom from debt, or the power to do something meaningful or enjoyable with that money – but money itself is not the focus. I focus on my kids, but my kids themselves are not the focus. Making sure that I am the person that they need me to be, without reservations, should be the focus. I cannot control how they react to me, but I can make myself the best possible parent I can be, and take pride in their reaction to that. I can’t guarantee I can control my physical state (I have some control over my physical state, but none over genetics or chance). I can take the steps to ensure that I have done what I could to prepare for whatever my body may throw at me in the future.
If you are looking for happiness in things, or other people, or external events you are bound to be disappointed. In the end, there is only one happiness – in making yourself into the best possible person you can be and hoping that doing so translates to benefits for the rest of the world (which translates to your family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances and humanity). It’s hard for me to remember that I can’t actually change the way my kids or my wife or my relatives think. I can only make myself the happiest, most persuasive person I can be and hope that optimism transfers to them as well. Hoping to change external events or other people is a great way to ensure that you don’t enjoy life. Focus on improving yourself – as a person, a worker, a spouse, a parent, a friend, a son, a sister, a brother, a cousin, a citizen, whatever – the rest will follow.