i have everything i've ever wanted. why am i not happy?
August 28, 2006 11:04 AM   Subscribe

i have everything i've ever wanted. why am i not happy?

ok, this is a rather self-absorbed question... but one that i think goes to the heart of the human condition. so here i go - i live what most people (myself included) consider to be a great life. i 'm in my late 20s, have a beautiful wife, no kids but that was a mutual planned decision, a relatively new house, a new car, a fun job in the industry i always dreamed of and more "toys" than i can count. i get to travel a lot, see friends (although not what i would consider often enough) and get to meet new people all the time.

why am i not happy?

i've gone to a psychologist and they've told me i'm a normal guy who seems happy overall. but deep down i'm really not and i have no idea why. am i the only one who feels this way? is there anything i can do about it?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (64 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Happiness for you (like many others) may have a big component of getting what you want, not having what you want. Aim higher!
posted by kcm at 11:08 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you need more challenging projects.
posted by trevyn at 11:11 AM on August 28, 2006

Maybe you need to do more good in the world - maybe you need a little altruism to make you feel happier. Do you love your wife and does she love you? How about family and friends? Material success alone hardly leads to happiness - I wonder about the other stuff.
posted by n'muakolo at 11:13 AM on August 28, 2006

It always makes me feel great to volunteer--it will probably also make you appreciate the things and people you have in your life more. Feeling like a part of something bigger than yourself.

Habitat for Humanity is always looking for volunteers, and sites like volunteermatch.org can match you up with organizations, too.
posted by gramcracker at 11:15 AM on August 28, 2006

Hi, me-10-years-ago. I've been hoping to run into you.

You have everything you've always wanted, but you're still not happy? Time to re-evaluate what you want. Some folks call it a mid-life crisis, but that seems rather reductive. I sort of cruised through my first 30 years, not ever really deciding what to do, just taking whatever came along. Unfortunately, that included the woman I was married to. Sure, we basically got a long, and we more-or-less liked doing the same things, but I never really chose to be with her. It just sort of happened. After 10 years of marriage, I realized I never really liked her that much, and I left. Sure, it was a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist.

Since then, I’ve taken a lot more risks, made a lot more deliberate decisions to go after what I really wanted. I’ve changed and altered and re-evaluated and shifted what I wanted during that time, but I’ve ended up at a pretty good place. I’m married again (to someone else, natch), I have an almost completely different circle of friends (who I do see a lot), have gotten a home and a car and a good job and all that, and am, for maybe the first time in my life, happy with where I am.

You say you’ve been to a psychologist. You should consider going to another one, one who will help you figure things out. If you’re in the DC area, I can suggest one. The good news is that you’re doing this early—a lot of folks don’t do the mid-life crisis thing until much later in life, and lose a lot more time.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:15 AM on August 28, 2006 [9 favorites]

Do thinigs for yourself and they die with you - do things for others and you live forever - Pure & Simple.
posted by Pressed Rat at 11:17 AM on August 28, 2006 [4 favorites]

Damn - things
posted by Pressed Rat at 11:18 AM on August 28, 2006

Do you have a spiritual life? I don't mean church, necessarily, but do you do anything to develop or nurture the spirit? Putting something back into the world is a good way to address the balance of karma that's given you everything you want. Maybe some voluntary work, doing something for charity/the environment/animal welfare, etc.
posted by essexjan at 11:22 AM on August 28, 2006 [2 favorites]

happiness is not a prolonged state you can enjoy, it's more like adrenaline. you have to constantly push to get the jolt. I second trevyn in that you need to find challenges, professional or otherwise. the rewarding thing is not having but getting it, especially when what you set as your goal seems impossible at the outset.

take three dreams and turn them into goals (the difference being that a dream is impossible to achieve, utopian, whereas a goal is tangible, achievable). take long-term issues. what is the position you would like to have twenty years from now? where would you like to live? how would you like to look? what would you like to see done? take something big and start hammering away. every hurdle you overcome, every little victory on the road to the big goal will thrill you to no end if you pick the right thing to get into.

you can do pretty amazing things if you convince yourself of your own abilities. what matters is that you don't sit around idly. people who die on a couch are seldomly happy.
posted by krautland at 11:24 AM on August 28, 2006 [2 favorites]

>Hi, me-10-years-ago. I've been hoping to run into you.

greatest line ever, MrMoonPie.
posted by krautland at 11:25 AM on August 28, 2006

At the risk of getting stoned by the no-medicine crowd, you should see a psychiatrist (not a psychologist) or talk to your primary care MD if he/she is someone you trust. Unexplained depression often has a chemical imbalance component to it.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 11:25 AM on August 28, 2006

I think humans adapt to their enviroment after a period of time. Animals too. Suppose a deer is grazing in a field with flowers that have a strong smell. at first all it can smell is the flowers, but after a period of time, it can smell other things. Its kinda like if you are in a room with a fresh coat of paint or with a woman that has too much perfume on. Back to the deer, if theres a wolf sneaking up on the deer, it wouldnt ever know it unless the deer was to get used to the smll of the flowers so it could smell other things. The ability to adapt keeps it alive.

People who serve long prison sentences often have alot of trouble adapting to so much freedom when they get out.

So whats the point of all of this? Well, whatever your situation is, your body and mind will adapt to it and it will seem like everyday life after a period of time. You have to accept that your life will never be perfect, youll always want to do something else.

This doesnt mean you have to give up trying to improve your life, not at all. Improving your life and wanting a perfect life are two very different things.

If your desire is for a perfect life, youll never be happy. If your desire is to improve your life, or to be content with your life you can always be happy.

I think many of the happiest people understand this. Some people turn to religion, and are content in this life because they know in the next life they will have their perfect world. It can be achieved various ways. I wasnt specifically writing this for you, but I thought you might get some use out of it, so I might as well write it here.
posted by JokingClown at 11:26 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've honestly thought about this question a lot. I think the problem is with how people define 'happy'. How happy? As happy as that guy over there? How do you know how happy he is?

Really, I think the answer to the question is that no-one is really, truly, 100% happy. See also: the human condition.
posted by reklaw at 11:29 AM on August 28, 2006

Have you considered religion? Bring on the dissenting opinions, but I was in the same boat until I investigated Christianity. There was a part of me that was unfulfilled and just slightly mopey.

I believe that we were created for the purpose of worship. Many of us worship cars or music or significant others or jobs or self-- but all of those things eventually fail us, and we can't take them with us when we go. I've found that learning who God is, and how to worship him and have a relationship with him has brought more real joy into my life than anything else. When I started learning that I started to feel like a missing piece of me had come alive.

As a result, I now do things that have eternal value. Having a great house is great for us, but does it do anything long-term (I mean reallllly long term)? Not really. We mentor a young couple who needs an older couple-friend and help them with marriage issues. We spend time with our nieces and nephews and teach them about God. We pray for hurting people and see change happen in their lives. It's like living on a different plane.

I could go on. In short, take care of your soul. And consider giving of your time and energy-- not your money-- to make a difference in someone else's life.
posted by orangemiles at 11:31 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, well worth noting that religion can fill this gap for you if you let it (ie. you're willing to delude yourself). There's all sorts of research about how we may be wired for it. Whether you'd rather have happiness or truth, however, is something only you can decide.
posted by reklaw at 11:33 AM on August 28, 2006

Denis Leary: Happiness comes in small doses folks. It's a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt you eat the cookie you go to sleep wake up and go back to fucking work the next morning, THAT'S IT! End of fucking list!
posted by tumble at 11:33 AM on August 28, 2006 [4 favorites]

I just wanted to chime in to tell you how natural this dilemma sounds. Many of my friends have gone through it.

Here's my theory: the first part of our lives are arranged to move towards particular goals: first high school, then college, then maybe grad school, get a job, get married, maybe have kids...then what? Most of the goals that our society mandates get accomplished in our first few decades. Sure, we have additional goals -- get that big promotion, have another kid, get kid into college -- but none seem as vast or important as those first rites of passage. You've even phrased your question around that checklist of goals.

So of course you're going to experience a shift after you've worked your way through that checklist. Maybe you'll feel untethered, or directionless, or just unsatisfied. Either way, it's because you don't have a series of big life goals in front of you anymore.

So now what? Some say you should let go of needing goals. Find something else to give you that same feeling of accomplishment -- something like volunteering, as others here have suggested. Some people go off in search of spirituality. Or you could set another series of goals for yourself. Make a life list of what you want to accomplish before you die. Maybe you want a scuba-diving license? Maybe you want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro? Whatever it is, setting goals for yourself, and then seeking to reach them, may return your sense of purpose.

Good luck!
posted by equipoise at 11:35 AM on August 28, 2006 [6 favorites]

I sometimes wonder (and I do not mean this as an insult to anyone, at all, and I'm not talking about people with clinical depression) if people are unhappy becuase they spend too much time worrying about being happy. Like, back in the day, people couldn't worry about being happy becuase they had to worry about food, and shelter, and the like. Now, most people, well...we don't. There's so much free time we need to fill up with... something. So we worry about not being happy.

Of course, I also think marriages are ruined becuase people think they should have relationships like they show in soap operas, so maybe I'm just crazy :)

[Really Anon, try the volunteer thing. Also, if you don't work out, start doing that. Both helped me more than I can say.]
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:37 AM on August 28, 2006 [4 favorites]

I agree with MrMoonPie about the midlife crisis thing as well. Except crisis is a ridiculous word for it. its more like a "mid life yearning for adventure", or a "midlife enlightment".

Logically, you cant be sad and have a perfect life at the same time. So you need to find what isnt perfect about your life. Whether it is physically emotionally, or physically, SOMETHING is making you sad. if you dont want to be sad the only options you have are to hope the thing making you sad will go away on its own, or to find it and toss it out.

A bit of an extreme third option is to make your life crappy for awhile. Most people wouldnt go for this option, but i thought i would put it out there. Coming back to your own good life from somewhere worse will make you appreciate what you have in a way you did not before.
posted by JokingClown at 11:38 AM on August 28, 2006

i find that if i dont have a challenging goal to achieve im less happy than i should be.
posted by trishthedish at 11:39 AM on August 28, 2006

I found a good approach for deeling with what I think you are looking for in a book called "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy" by David Burns. I starting having those same feelings in my early - mid 20s and am now 29 and felling much better than I was then. I got the book from a friend and have given the book to four people with good results from two and two that did not read it or was not interested.

The book is a 'bible' on cognitive therapy techniques for deeling with different challenges in life.
posted by crhanson at 11:53 AM on August 28, 2006

Maybe you need to do more good in the world

Exactly my thought. When it comes time to put you in the ground and carve your tombstone, what is it going to say on it? "Here lies anonymous, he made good money and owned many shiny objects?" Not good enough! You don't need to take a vow of poverty and become Mother Theresa, but you do need to be pretty sure that the sum of your life makes the world a little bit better place for your having lived.
posted by LarryC at 11:54 AM on August 28, 2006

Ouch, reklaw.
posted by orangemiles at 11:56 AM on August 28, 2006

The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse by Gregg Easterbrook
posted by mmascolino at 11:58 AM on August 28, 2006

ditto equipoise and dpx.mfx. This is common. After you meet those first big initial goals, you might be thinking "now what?" All of the "scripted" part of your life is taken care of (except kids), now you need to figure out what you like doing for its own sake.

So, just two thoughts.
Happiness is easier to find in doing activities than in acquiring material things.
Happiness is easier to find if you *get out of your own head* -- in particular, by helping others, or facing nature head-on, or submitting yourself to a religious faith, or practice a challenging artistic hobby. These things will keep you from sitting around thinking about yourself and why you're not as happy as you think other people are.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:00 PM on August 28, 2006 [2 favorites]

Perhaps the problem is that the things you are doing and the objects you are collecting mean nothing, and so you are starting to feel that you mean nothing. Tomorrow, go to a good charity, one that does work you admire and that has a workplace somewhere between your home and job. Tell them you want to volunteer at least two nights a week, at least eight hours a week. Eight hours a week of saving lives will do you some good, too.
posted by pracowity at 12:07 PM on August 28, 2006

I agree with the posters who suggest that maybe it's time to start asking some deeper, "spiritual" types of questions. Who are you really? Why are you here? What's this existence thing all about, anyway? These needn't be religious -- you could read some introductory philosophy texts, try meditation, volunteer work, etc.

Also, could your decision not to have kids have anything to do with this? I've never wanted kids, but around 30, I started to feel a kind of unconscious pressure to reproduce -- like I was some kind of failure or traitor to the human race for not reproducing. This led me to ask whether or not there was something I could devote myself to -- e.g., something creative or constructive -- that would sort of take the place of having children. Maybe think about going back to school for something you've never really let yourself explore . . . ? (Myself, I chose to go back to school for writing, which had been a long-neglected passion).

Finally, problems with anxiety tend to start to appear around 30. You could be experiencing some form of generalized anxiety (e.g., persistent anxiety that you can't tie to anything specific). If this is the case, things like meditation, yoga, plenty of exercise, eating healthy, etc., might help.
posted by treepour at 12:07 PM on August 28, 2006

I must admit I agree with reklaw, but he is being a bit harsh (have a little compassion for the lost). I should also point out that if you fall short of full delusion, you'll be completely miserable. And, in the example of christianity, you may be racked my constant guilt or slide into stocism.

Playing with fire, in more ways than one, depending who you talk to :-)
posted by phrontist at 12:08 PM on August 28, 2006

volunteer, do something for other people, for a change. that's a good cure for self-absorption. and if it doesn't make _you_ better, at least it'll help others who need help more than you do

(maybe after spending some time with cancer patients your personal tragedy of good health, good job, youth and a nice future will appear less sad to your eyes)
posted by matteo at 12:12 PM on August 28, 2006

have a beautiful wife... no kids... more "toys"... i get to travel a lot... see friends (although not what i would consider often enough)... and get to meet new people all the time.

Yes, but do you enjoy any of those things? You list them like you're ticking stuff off a list. Do you love your wife and love being with her? Did you actually have a feeling you might want kids but went along with it because there was a part of you that didn't want it? Do you have fun with your 'toys' or do they really leave you empty afterwards? Why don't you see your friends often enough if you want to? Do you like meeting new people?

Forget about what the normal goals in life might be and what your might have been five or ten years ago. What's gonna give you a kick now? What DOES bring you warmth and enjoyment?
posted by humuhumu at 12:16 PM on August 28, 2006

At the risk of sounding glib, I once read a maxim that said:
"Happiness is not having what you want, it's wanting what you have."
So turn that around and ask yourself if you really want what you have.
Also, x-ing the suggestions to volunteer - that can be a spiritual practice in itself, and can work wonders for the soul (and I think that's what is unhappy here - your soul).
Personally, I think our culture's emphasis on 'stuff' engenders soul-deadening dissatisfaction, and deeply felt unhappiness. I almost think it's a mistake in our 'wiring' that we respond so well to the cultural imperative to buy/own everything we can get our hands on.
posted by dbmcd at 12:18 PM on August 28, 2006

It seems like you have set easily attainable goals and haven't really set an unattainable goal. Try to come up with a list of things in which you are interested or feel strongly about.

Maybe you feel strongly about the Middle East - why not try to work towards creating peace? Maybe your city doesn't have a strong bond between citizens and government - why not create and develop a grass roots organization to open up dialogue. Maybe there is a sizable homeless population nearby - work towards creating a social organization to help them overcome their personal or financial problems. Maybe you have always wanted to go to the moon - make contacts and make the necessary steps to become an astronaut.
posted by JJ86 at 12:22 PM on August 28, 2006

I don't want to poo-poo what everyone else has said about religion, taking up a hobby, studying philosophy, volunteering, etc., but they did not work for me. They might work for you, and, if they do, great. But I tried all of that, including the stuff about how I should just learn to accept that what I had was, in fact, as good as I could expect life to be.

I'm actually less active in such things than I was when I was 30, mainly because I'm not looking to avoid my otherwise bleak existence or fill any voids. I'm now happy with who I am and what I have, and I don't need the philosophy, religion, hobbies, walks in the woods, etc. Again, though, try them first--making a small change here and there will be much easier than making the sort of radical change I did.

But, please, do whatever you need to so that you aren't here 10 years from now asking the same question. When I was 30, contemplating turning my life upside down, that's what kept me from being complacent. I turned 40 last month, and my only wish was that I'm as happy at 80 as I am now.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:25 PM on August 28, 2006

Feeling Good is a terrible book if you're capable of critical thinking or have any backbone at all. The examples are facile and the author's contempt for you is palpable. I have seen it recommended so many times, and finally gave it a shot. Totally sucky.

Really, just stop being a Nancy and find something challenging to do. That's what people do when they have everything else they want: manufacture challenge.
posted by dame at 12:52 PM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Me? I would read.

A lot.

Of course, that's what I'd do anyway given your position, which is one that allows for the means and leisure to do a shitload of reading. I really like reading. But, if I felt a basic dissatisfaction with the way I was living, I'd be especially quick to the books, as I believe that one of the main functions of literature is to explore, diagnose, and, hopefully, to alleviate the sadnesses and misfortunes of life. If you want to know how others deal with the feeling of a hollowness inside of everyday life, a little Raymond Carver or Kierkegaard or Thoreau or Hesse or Chekhov might be in order.

It's odd to think it, but getting wrapped up in a fictional character's worries can eventually make you feel better about yourself. Not by making you feel grateful for all that you have, but by exercising your sense of compassion. And the more highly developed your compassion--your ability to understand and appreciate other people--the better you'll be able to understand and appreciate yourself.
posted by Iridic at 1:04 PM on August 28, 2006 [3 favorites]

dame, i'm not sure i agree with you there. sometimes "manufacturing" challenge can be just as empty as collecting material possesions. if all you've ever done is make things up to challenge yourself what's the difference between that and deciding you want a shiny new toy. still will leave you with the same empty feeling in the end if all your doing is chasing after something.
posted by tundro at 1:07 PM on August 28, 2006

Remember that everything you have now is something that one day you will have to face the loss of. This includes your possessions, your family, and your own body. So stop thinking about things as if you "have" them or whether you should "have" them. You don't have anything except the moments of your life, and they will be as good or as meaningful as you make them.

No one ever said that life was about being happy. There is not some big club of happy people out there that you can join. We are all struggling through, enjoying what we can. Some people have learned enough about themselves and their relationship with their surroundings that they can navigate better than others. Even these people struggle and suffer and wonder what they should be doing differently.

As much as you won't want to, I add my voice to those suggesting volunteer work. It sounds like you think that life is only worth living under certain circumstances, and it will do you good to see what so many people do with so little, the way that suffering tempers people, or shatters them. You need to understand that there is inherent worth in life itself, not just in the best life has to offer. We've all seen enough television to understand these concepts in a montage-television way and be bored in advance, but just becase something is cliche doesn't mean it's not true, and at this point it doesn't sound like your life is very interesting anyway. Understand that a lot of your curent decisions are based on thinking that doesn't reflect who you are anymore and be prepared to ditch it as obsolete. Life is waiting for you to seek it out.
posted by hermitosis at 1:27 PM on August 28, 2006 [2 favorites]

I second the whole spirituality thing. I'm not some crazy religious fanatic or pot-smoking hippy so listen up. There's more to life than just acquiring "things". You can't bring all the money you've made into the afterlife with you because once you die, money doesn't matter anymore. I've lived most of my life feeling "incomplete" and i've tried to fill that huge void in me with money, drugs, booze, and women, but nothing ever made me feel different. Try reading "The Four Agreements" by Don Miguel Ruiz. You might just find what you've been yearning for....
posted by deeman at 1:34 PM on August 28, 2006

I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I'm intrigued by some of the research on happiness that Daniel Gilbert at Harvard is doing. His book is called Stumbling on Happiness, and the premise is that happiness is not only fleeting, but surprisingly hard to identify. I've read a couple of cogent articles in which he's talked about the notion of complex happiness, a state in which the moments may seem less than happy but the whole adds up to happiness (parenting, for example, might fit this description quite often). Here's the NYTimes review of the book, I'm sure you can find other reviews on the web.

More generally, I'd ask what it is that you think is missing. I think that's the question you've got to honestly ask yourself and then set out to rectify if you can. If the answer is "Johnny Depp isn't my lover and I'm not 18 any more," then you're going to have to find a way to come to terms with that 'cause it's unlikely to change. If the answer is "I haven't written a book and I thought I'd be published by now" then get writing. I like MrMoonPie's answer because he acknowledges that life can be hard, and being happier can also be hard, but that you have to do something if you want things to change.

Saucy Intruder writes "Unexplained depression often has a chemical imbalance component to it."

I'd love to see a citation for this, think of the headlines: Human condition demonstrated to be 'chemical imbalance' in Lilly funded research. There isn't even any evidence that the poster is depressed, simply vaguely unhappy.Really, if one wants to claim that depression is a disease, one had better, at the very least, apply the very lenient diagnostic categories of that disease to that case at hand if they want to make an effective argument.
posted by OmieWise at 1:56 PM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Have you explored Buddhism? The Buddha started out on his quest to end suffering by wondering about and expressing very similar sentiments to those you've stated here.
posted by aebaxter at 2:11 PM on August 28, 2006

I strongly, strongly agree that you need to get out of your own head (and your perspective that the point of life is to acquire stuff and be happy) through volunteer work and/or real spiritual grounding, but in the meantime, here is a relevant link.
posted by pomegranate at 2:22 PM on August 28, 2006

I'm more on the pick-a-challenge side, but then I gravitate towards that before having everything, or much of anything, I've ever wanted. If the challenges seem empty pick more worthy ones. A consistent feature of most worthy challenges is that it either seems unattainable, or is.
posted by furiousthought at 2:36 PM on August 28, 2006

Read Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World". Do it.

The Savage : "But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.":
posted by zaebiz at 2:44 PM on August 28, 2006

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Rectitude is a perpetual victory, celebrated not by cries of joy but by serenity, which is joy fixed or habitual", which means happiness is not the same as pleasure, but rather peace of mind as result of righteous living.

Said Jesus Christ in John 14:27:

"My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid"

Peace is an essential component of happiness, and Jesus Christ is the author of both. He is the only way to the happiness you crave, as He is the only way to happiness in the next life. This I know and can testify is true.

To find happiness, would you be willing to look in places you've looked before? Would you consider something you have may have pshawed in the past?
posted by rinkjustice at 3:33 PM on August 28, 2006

That last sentence was another train of thought that escaped editing somehow. Everything beforehand stands.
posted by rinkjustice at 3:37 PM on August 28, 2006

Now I have nothing against religion. Well, OK, I do have something against religion. Anyway, I think it's pretty distasteful how some religious vultures start circling as soon as someone expresses any kind of vague unhappiness, is going through a tough time, or whatever.

Basically, if you're going to become religious, at least choose a nice bunch of folks (Quakers seem kinda cool, for example). Do your research before you let your desire for meaning in life get you dragged along to something that might turn out to be very nasty indeed.
posted by reklaw at 4:02 PM on August 28, 2006

Our Search for Happiness
posted by rinkjustice at 4:21 PM on August 28, 2006

I'm going to quote you something from one of my favorite books: Travels, by Michael Crichton. It's basically his autobiography.
   In August of 1973 I was flying back from Chicago, where I had screened Westworld. It appeared the picture would be successful. The producer and I had survived an impossible budget and an impossible schedule: to shoot and release a picture in six months. Many people had predicted we couldn't do it; some had even bet their jobs we couldn't. Heads would soon roll at the studio--but not ours! Now, with the intense pressure abruptly ended, the producer and I shared in a mood of almost hysterical self-congratulation. We had done it: not only had we made our dates, but the little low-budget picture actually seemed to work! Sitting on that airplane, we literally felt on top of the world.
   Suddenly I broke out in a drenching sweat. My clothes were soaked through within seconds. I was panic-stricken, in the grip of a powerful anxiety attack. But why at this instant of airborne elation? It took a while to figure it out.
   All my life I had pursued clear goals: in high school, to get into a good college; in college, to get into medical school; in medical school, to become a writer; as a writer, to make a movie.
   I was thirty years old. I had graduated from Harvard, taught at Cambridge University, climbed the Great Pyramid, earned a medical degree, married and divorced, been a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute, published two bestselling novels, and now had made a movie. And I had abruptly run out of goals for myself.
   I was stranded within my own life. That was why I broke into a sweat: what was I going to do now?
   I had no idea.
   In the following weeks, I fell into a lethargy, then a full-blown depression. Nothing seemed worthwhile. Needless to say, sympathy for my condition was in short supply. To be depressed by success was not attractive, or even understandable. My friends didn't realize that they might be next in line.
   I took to haunting bookstores, buying five hundred dollars' worth of books at a time, carrying them off in cartons. Books on every conceivable subject: dinosaurs, hot-air ballooning, Charles II, saturation diving, Islamic art, weather forecasting, computer graphics, Indonesian cooking, criminology, Benjamin Franklin, the Himalaya, Victorian cities, high-energy physics, tigers, Leonardo da Vinci, the British Raj, witchcraft, vegetarian cooking, the Inca Empire, Winslow Homer. Since nothing interested me, everything was equally uninteresting.
   One day I came across a book called Be Here Now. It was an esoteric, quasi-religious Eastern-philosophy book of the sort I didn't usually look at, but it had a handmade quality and an odd shape that caught my eye. The author was Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, an expelled professor of psychology at Harvard. I had been a reporter on the Harvard Crimson during the sixties when Alpert and his colleague Timothy Leary were thrown off the faculty for giving LSD to undergraduates. I remembered those incidents well. Now here was his book.
   I took it home and read it. The book was in three sections. The first section contained straightforward prose, the second section consisted of hand-printed words and pictures, a kind of messy collage; the third section was a guide to meditation.
   I read the first section. I expected to find the disorganized ramblings of a poor fellow whose brains had been scrambled by too much acid and too many mystical journeys that went nowhere. But instead I found a lucid history of a driven, successful East Coast intellectual who suddenly found his life, his houses, his cars, his lovers, his vacations, his work, to be unsatisfying.
   I knew exactly what he was talking about.
   I felt exactly the same way.
   Richard Alpert, a Harvard renegade, an obviously unbalanced man who had gone off the deep end of his life, now appeared before me as somebody I identified with strongly. I had a juggling act to do, to make it all right for me to agree with him. Richard Alpert must have something on the ball after all.
   But there was a further implication. Alpert, now Ram Dass--the new name stuck in my throat--I didn't even want to say it--Ram Dass had gone to India. And after several years he had come back with answers that seemed to work for him. He seemed to feel better about things, to have found a new perspective.
   He had made a pilgrimage to India.
   Should I?
   I couldn't stand the idea. The implications of it. I couldn't see myself as a holy seeker after truth. Wearing white robes, contemplating my navel. I still shopped at Brooks Brothers. I still liked Brooks Brothers.
   There had to be another way.
   My attitude toward mystical journeys was typified by the joke about the student who seeks the holy man in India, finds him meditating at the top of a mountain, and asks breathlessly, "What is the meaning of life?"
   The holy man says, "Life is a flower."
   The student is outraged: "Life is a flower?"
   To which the holy man replies, "You mean it's not?"
   That was my idea: nobody knew any more than I did. Not really. A professor might know more about his particular subject, and the resident of a city might know more about that city, but as far as reality was concerned, nobody knew any more than I did. I figured I knew all there was to know.
   What I knew was that the history of man demonstrated the inexorable triumph of reason over superstition, culminating in our acceptance of science as the best method for learning the truth and exploring the universe. That in the past men had believed all sorts of nonsense, but through the fruits of science we were able to roll back the darkness and live in the light of reason.
This meant that, however bad life might be now, it could only have been worse in the past ages. The history I envisioned was a history of steady progress. Nothing was lost, only gained. In no way were the people of, say, the Middle Ages better off than I was. That was inconceivable. Medieval people were suffocated by their social structure, impoverished by their economy, and driven by their religion to make those idiotic (if beautiful) cathedrals.
   I lived in a fast-paced scientific world, where technical journals were removed from the library after five years. In general, I preferred to look forward. We lived in an exciting time, in which we were learning the nature of reality at the subatomic level, the nature of th universe, and the nature of life. I was living in the most enlightened, the richest, the most advanced, the most liberated period in the history of man.
   And I knew that, despite my fame, fortune, and psychiatry bills, I was miserable.
   And it seemed Ram Dass was not.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:26 PM on August 28, 2006 [4 favorites]

The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to make two philosophical recommendations: Epicurus and Spinoza. Both were explicitly concerned with what happiness/joy means and how to obtain it, and neither was particularly religious (in fact, both have been substantially demonized over the centuries for what some have seen as covert atheism). Epicurus is probably easier to read; Spinoza involves some heavy lifting but may be more "deeply" satisfying in the long run. Both, I think, would ultimately recommend living a humble, contemplative (though by no means ascetic or hermit-like) life.
posted by treepour at 4:38 PM on August 28, 2006

Anyway, I think it's pretty distasteful how some religious vultures start circling as soon as someone expresses any kind of vague unhappiness, is going through a tough time, or whatever.

Well, I think it's pretty distasteful when some people try to give advice from their hearts and others stomp all over it like children and look down their noses. It's been done since the beginning of time, and it's really tired.

Basically, if you're going to become religious, at least choose a nice bunch of folks (Quakers seem kinda cool, for example).

This is the true part- find good people. There are some in every religion, every hobby, every corner of life. Find them. Hang out with them. Get involved in their lives. Celebrate their celebrations and grieve their sorrows. This is another way to make your life bigger than just you. I have met some good people at my church, some at Metafilter meetups, some at jobs, some through school. I cherish them all. I do see the ones that are part of an organized structure (church, Metafilter) a bit more, though- random friends can drift out of my mind for months before I think of how I miss them.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:54 PM on August 28, 2006 [3 favorites]

You crave the hunt. Not the kill.
posted by sandra_s at 4:59 PM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Omiewise has it with "Stumbling on Happiness" by Gilbert. It will give you a bit of focus. I would also recommend perusing the PostSecret website for their weekly update of people just like you expressing their potential.
posted by ptm at 5:16 PM on August 28, 2006

The reason that having the things you wanted doesn't make you happy is that wanting things (desire) and enjoying things (pleasure) involve different brain mechanisms, and unless you make a concerted effort to get familiar with those things that actually give you pleasure and retrain yourself to want those, your wanter and your enjoyer will be running at cross purposes for the rest of your life.
posted by flabdablet at 8:09 PM on August 28, 2006

reklaw: I think it's pretty distasteful how some religious vultures start circling as soon as someone expresses any kind of vague unhappiness ...

And I find it pretty revolting that there are people out there who hate religion and religious types with a passion approaching evangelical fervour. (I also find that aspect amusing, but that's just my nature). Hasn't anyone ever stopped to think that the reason religious types come out in these sorts of questions is because it has worked so well for them, and they want to do good in the world by sharing that happiness? They're not all predatory recruiting officers for evil immoral manipulative cults, y'know.

Am I religious? Hell, no! Am I a spiritual person? Hmmm, maybe. Do I believe that religion = delusion? Hmmm, maybe that too. Do I think religion - and I'm happy to see you admit that there are "good" religions out there, reklaw - is the right answer for certain people? Most certainly.

I've seen too many people get too much benefit from religion to believe otherwise. And while some of them may be wrapped up in organisations I believe are evil, and others may be bothersome by forever imploring me to accept Jesus into my life, I can still accept that it is doing them good to believe in something!

FWIW, I've found that the people who suggest drugs - both pharmaceutical and recreational - for emotional "problems of the soul" are more likely to be judgemental insistent arseholes than the vast majority of religious people. But maybe there's more of a problem with feral Mormons and rabid Southern Baptists in America, so the situation may be different there.
posted by Pinback at 8:09 PM on August 28, 2006

Oh, and anonymous? You have a hole. Find something to fill it. Something that you're happy wit, whatever that thing may be.

n.b. if eating babies makes you happy, please ignore my advice.
posted by Pinback at 8:11 PM on August 28, 2006

For me, happiness comes from wanting, working towards and then receiving -- but receving at the whim of reality and what's possible.

Try denying yourself something, try establishing regular things to look forward to. Anticipation of something good is a beautiful thing. I often can't function without it.
posted by cior at 9:13 PM on August 28, 2006

Civil_Disobedient: "One day I came across a book called Be Here Now.

Amazing. I thought the same thing. Right ON, C_D!
posted by Mr. Gunn at 9:45 PM on August 28, 2006

I read somewhere recently that a study found that the secret of happiness lay in life experiences. So, if all else is well (religion/spirituality, community, brain chemistry, relationships, challenging work), may I suggest that you try to increase the level, quantity, quality of your experiences. Acquire new skills (canoing, throwing pottery, macrame), meet new people (librarians, homeless, bushwalkers), go to new places (art galleries, India, the zoo), become active (politics, soup kitchen, letters to the editor), try new challenges (write a book, learn to backflip, skydive). I'm sure there are many to-do-before-you-die lists out there.
posted by b33j at 11:44 PM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

We're all feed the misconception that once we get what we want, we'll be happy. Everything in our society is soaked in this concept. If we're not entirely happy, we look to the future when we'll get there. Those of us that actually reach that point discover that nothing has changed - we have all the stuff we wanted, but we don't feel any happier, or any different. So... shit, what's left to do? Suddenly, the comfort blanket (of things getting better tomorrow) is gone. We're screwed. Everything we ever dreamed of is ours, and we're not happy. Time to blow the brains out.
Nah, you just have to realise, at a very deep level, that you need to like yourself and what you do - to take pleasure and satisfaction from who you are and what you do. That'll take several years. A good way is to become the kind of person you looked up too, but not become that way because you're trying to be like that, but because you've genuinely become that. When it hits you out of left field that you're everything you looked up to in a role model, it's easier to like yourself and what you do.
But you'll need to combine that with something fulfilling to do, or ultimately it will feel empty and pointless. What that is depends on you, but it will probably involve somthing larger than you, eg teaching others, sharing or helping, discovering undiscovered things, children, religion, art, whatever.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:25 AM on August 29, 2006

Sounds like not enough endorphins...do you have a chance to get physical exercise? Sounds as if you have done the things that are supposed to be fulfilling, but you are left wanting. A "fun" job does not necessarily mean satisfying. A "beautiful wife" may not equate with a stimulating companion with whom you will lose track of time...someone who will stimulate your mind as well as your body, and share your sense of humor.

Try to look beyond what society says you need to make you happy and pay very close attention to the things that bring you joy and hold your interest. What would you do with your time if everything else were stripped away? What is your vision of the future and what aspect of it interests you the most?

Once a person's basic needs are met...I don't believe happiness has anything to do with "things." For me it is a balance between stimulating four main areas of need: mental (creative/productive), physical (exertion/physical play), social (time with friends and family/peer approval/helping others) and inspirational (spiritual/finding life meaning/introspection). All four of these things when addressed will boost your endorphins and hopefully add to your feelings of pleasure and contentment, and ultimately, happiness.
posted by livinginmonrovia at 3:35 AM on August 29, 2006

This is just me, but I am happiest when I feel deeply, genuinely connected to others. In fact, the only times in my life when I stopped worrying about being happy and just enjoyed my life were times when I had a group of friends who I felt close to.

Many of the suggestions above can lead to deeper connections - some hobbies, volunteering, religion. But you may want to cut to the chase and just find a way to spend more time with your friends.

I have found that, in the past year since I stopped being in college and started working all the time, many of my friendships have started to feel "grown up" in an unpleasant way. Instead of just hanging around and talking and having fun, it is often necessary to make plans to do something. Conversations are spent "catching up," which can feel sort of shallow.

I would also recommend that you read Immediatism, by Hakim Bey. It isn't philosophy in the idle sense - it is radical but very practical.
posted by mai at 2:39 PM on August 29, 2006

There is some part of yourself you have turned away from because its presence in your life would threaten the tidy little "great job.great wife, great life" thing you have going. It haunts you, but you always thinK "Not possible."

Becoming happier in your life will entail immense dislocation and pain. As all growth does. That's life.
posted by trii at 7:39 PM on August 29, 2006

you know, as I am sitting here drunk and more satisfied than I probably should be from being social with someone I had been hoping to be social in a very exclusive way since fourth grade, an old saying came back to me. to err is human but to get even - that's divine.

now that you have all the material possessions you ever wanted (being rather successful myself, I call bullshite on that statement but then again I'm only a boeing 767 with a solid-gold bathtub away from what you're describing), have you considered philanthropy or its much more rewarding counterpart misanthropy?

philanthropy is rather easy to enjoy. if you're serious about helping the human race, give to the bill and melinda gates foundation, they fight aids and among NGOs they're admired for their refusal to waste money. if you'd prefer to meet interesting (and hot) people, make a pledge to moma. ten or twenty thousand dollars per year will get you ample attention, a bit more and they'll name an elevator after you. or try the aclu for the added satisfaction of making every republican in town nauseous.

ah, making people nauseous, that's a satisfying idea, isn't it? there must have been people who have hurt you in the past, who have used you or taken you for a ride. has it perhaps been five or ten years? what an excellent time to be the bad guy. come out of the woodworks, repay in kind. you know the saying revenge is a dish best served cold. it's true. if you need further encouragement, take a look at neil labute's in the company of men. ("let's hurt someone!") the bad guys have all the fun in hollywood and I can guarantee you the same is true in real life. run out on a bar tab or a hefty restaurant bill for cheap thrills. you're well-off, if you get caught, you can call it an oversight and probably get away with it.

or get yourself a decent problem. no man is complete without either one too many lovers, a bout of alcoholism or a nasty drug habit. besides, overcoming smaller issues makes for great dinner conversation at the jhovah witness parties.

please let me know how it went. you should have interesting stories to tell in no time and if I can make bail from whatever I get myself into tomorrow or the day after, I'll gladly listen.

but you're buying the drinks.
posted by krautland at 9:17 PM on September 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

--goes to the heart of the human condition.

It's an interesting philosophical question. What's really important in life?

Happiness isn't something that you can control directly. Even if you achieve everything you've ever wanted in life, you may not be happy. See the poem Richard Cory. Gerald Weinberg quotes Abd-el-Raham (912-961 A.D.):
I have now reigned about fifty years in victory and peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to be wanting for my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to fourteen. O man, place not thy confidence in this present world!
Darrin McMahon's Happiness: A History suggests that our focus on happiness is a relatively recent development. From the Economist's review:
His central argument is that the modern idea of happiness was an invention of the Enlightenment. The idea of heavenly felicity came down to earth, says Mr McMahon, during the 17th and 18th centuries. “Happiness, in the Enlightenment view”, he explains, “was less an ideal of godlike perfection than a self-evident truth, to be pursued and obtained in the here and now.” In 1776 America's Founding Fathers declared “the pursuit of happiness” to be one of man's “unalienable rights”, along with life and liberty.

Historically speaking, this was a radical change. For the ancient Greeks, happiness was largely bound up with notions of luck and fortune. Any man, however high and mighty, could be brought down by a twist of fate. The important thing, therefore, was not to seek happiness for its own sake but to live virtuously. Being good, as Mr McMahon nicely puts it, was more important than feeling good. For Herodotus and his contemporaries, happiness was not a “subjective state” but a “characterisation of an entire life that can be reckoned only at death.”
“Those only are happy”, [John Stuart] Mill reckoned, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”
Some concrete suggestions:

1. It's good to have things to look forward to. Try to practice delayed gratification: instead of buying toys immediately, wait for a while, so that you'll have something to look forward to.

2. Along the same lines: what are your long-term plans? Are you doing anything to make them happen?

3. Think about what's really important in life, besides material possessions. Different people will come up with different answers, of course: virtue, spirituality, helping people, responsibility, challenges, dealing with adversity, personal growth. If you have a clear idea of what's most important to you, you'll be in a better position to reshape your own life.
posted by russilwvong at 11:01 PM on September 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

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