Before we get into the meat of this topic lemme give it to you straight: Unless you learn to embrace suffering and take great pleasure in it, you’re guaranteed a miserable, depressing life. I hope Alive at Work’s author, Daniel Cable, doesn’t mind my one sentence summary of his book but his message resonated so much with me that I’m printing t-shirts** to recognize the people I know who suffer best.
His book convincingly argues that suffering in pursuit of a goal you consider important is the ultimate state of happiness. A cyclist grinding up a mountain to become physically and mentally strong. A Navy SEAL candidate in the middle of Hell Week. A young salesperson making countless cold calls with dreams of earning a President’s Club trip. All examples of people deep in the throes of suffer who have their eyes on a prize. Yes, these are uncomfortable scenarios that our fear-mongering instincts tell to avoid, but diving headfirst into them is our best move.
Eventually, though, the struggle ends and (hopefully) the goal we cherished is in our grasp. Hooray! Time to celebrate, right?
“Yes,” I suspect author Daniel Cable would reply, “but not for long. The longer you bask in the glory of your accomplishment, the dumber, lazier, and more miserable you’ll become.”
Upon reaching one’s goal, suffering’s pain and struggle fade (good) along with the drive that got us there in the first place (bad). The “want” that drives us to reach the mountaintop is replaced by the elation and enjoyment of having done so.
And here’s the rub: Wanting something is healthy and productive. Wanting something so badly you can taste it releases dopamine, the brain’s ultimate superpower drug. Dopamine floods us with desire, energy, and that coveted feeling of being in the flow. It motivates. It drops us into a laser focus trance that fully engages our brain. In short, dopamine makes us happy because it gives us a sense of purpose.
Enjoying something, on the other hand, triggers the brain’s reward system which, it turns out, is unhealthy and counterproductive. As Alive at Work describes it, “When we experience the pleasure of a reward, it is the opioid system, rather than the dopamine system, that is being stimulated. These systems lead to very different effects: dopamine has an animating effect; opiates induce a happy stupor.”
In other words, working diligently toward a goal that’s important to you – the top of a mountain climb, the girl of your dreams, the promotion at work – releases dopamine. You may not be comfortable while you’re going after it but you’re filled with purpose. Your brain eggs you on by pumping out dopamine and as a result, you’re fulfilled.
Once you summit the mountain, date the girl, earn the promotion, etc. you enjoy a brief, opioid-like high, “Wheeeee!!!”, followed by a hangover and, “Now what?” quandary. And next thing you know, you’re coasting down the other side while the brass ring you just had to have goes on a shelf (or in today’s world, posted to Instagram) and quickly starts collecting dust.
Here’s the image that came to mind for me when I considered this emotional roller coaster:
Who doesn’t dream of striking it rich at an early age and retiring? Ah, the bliss of kicking back on a beach without a care in the world, relaxing every day from sunup to sunset! Nowadays when I hear others share that dream I chuckle to myself. How preposterous.
One friend of mine hit paydirt at age 40 and after three years of retirement confessed he was miserable and desperate to find meaningful work. My grandfather, a hardworking farmer and school administrator who retired in his 60’s with little plan to do anything productive, promptly lost his mind and shriveled into oblivion.
My point is if you’re not hungry to reach a goal and not working hard to accomplish it, you are not a happy person. If your basic needs – food, shelter, clothing – are met and you’re not fired up about reaching some sort of mountaintop, your brain is mush. You are coasting downhill, your brain isn’t feeding you that rush of dopamine, and at best you’re “enjoying” life in a state of happy stupor.
What does happy look like? Here are a few examples:
- My father-in-law, Clay Ambrose, and his mother, Josephine. Both were hard working realtors who never tired of their work. Both of them lay on their deathbeds within arm’s reach of a cell phone (Clay) and typewriter (Josephine) working deals that fueled them with dopamine until the bitter end.
- All my Latino friends with whom I worked at The Fence Company. This team of hard working immigrants taught me the value of manual labor and the satisfaction of a job well done. These guys had a clear goal – a better life for themselves and their families – that drove them to work hard and smile while they did it. They never took unnecessary breaks, never demanded entitlement that was unearned, and without getting too political, deserve to be part of the American fabric more than most of us who by luck happened to be born here.
In short, happy means productive. It means working every day with a commitment and discipline to go do something that in the moment doesn’t feel good (exercise, making cold calls, digging ditches) but delivers in its afterglow a sense of accomplishment.
Meanwhile, unhappy means the opposite of what we assume. Unhappy = All our needs met, waking up whenever we want, little accountability toward others, no challenging goals to chase, and faced with decisions no harder than whether to fill the blender with rum or tequila. Yes, you will occasionally enjoy these respites – especially if you worked hard to earn them – but remember that these rewarding periods of enjoyment flood you with opioid-induced stupor. And let’s be honest, none of us inspire or look our best when we’re glazed over in a happy stupor.
What goals are you chasing? Why are they important to you? In what ways must you suffer in order to reach them?
Embrace the discomfort. Feel that rush of dopamine as your brain cheers you on. Celebrate your success but quickly replace your opioid-induced happy stupor with the most important question of all, “What’s next?”