It’s not so much a limitation of any language but more a difficulty in human conceptual capability that the words and concepts of “joy” and “happiness” can be both nearly identical and completely different depending on the context and intent. Not that I’m a linguist — bet you a real linguist would mock the dumb physicist for venturing so far outside his field — but I think there is a good way to think about these concepts as distinct. For now, I like to think of “joy” as an emotion that is fleeting and often called “happiness;” whereas “happiness” is a state of being that is the agglomeration of several different emotions and is for more persistent. Much like how the weather on any given day can be either hot or cold while the climate of a region is much more fixed and consistent, emotions can be very fleeting and spurious while one’s state of being is fairly consistent; especially compared to how fast one’s emotions can turn around and then back again. Consistent may be a bit of an overstatement. It’s something that usually persists though the one’s days or weeks of troubles and reliefs, but surprisingly fragile when struck just right (or wrong) at the right (well, wrong, really) time. Everybody intuitively knows this.
Even the amateur armchair philosopher (or as we call them now, social media influencers) will make a solid argument that virtually nobody aims for a life of joy, or what they might call a simple pursuit of happiness. Even the most short-sighted of people still balance the choice of doing what brings them joy at the moment against many other factors like social expectations and internalized morality and ethics. The more adept philosophers (or perhaps YouTube content creators) will point out that the “pursuit of happiness” better describes an ongoing drive to reach a state of contentment, experiences of joys and successes, and a place of belonging. How this happens can be vastly different for each individual. The psychologist will quite correctly point to any number of mental and emotional mechanisms tied into fundamental biological needs that contrarily point out that the overwhelming majority of people really are just looking for the same thing. But for practical purposes it’s fair to think of the devoutly faithful homesteader raising a family in the privacy of a rural community to be vastly different from the political activist looking to build an engaged community within a metropolitan city. This is perhaps just a very long way of pointing out (again, what everybody kinda intuitively knows) that everybody has to build their own happiness.
The conundrum for me is that for having felt quite a bit of joy in the last decade, I don’t know if happiness has ever really graced me for more than brief periods. Then, too, whether it was genuine happiness or just as much wishful thinking. There are certainly very specific times I can say I was happy. At certain events, the kind which when I think back on them bring me joy, I was definitely happy. And many other times I felt close-but-not-quite-there to happiness, or rather my over-analyzing brain told me I ought to be in a state of happiness. Such times were far and few between, though. And they had been more frequent earlier on and have slipped away steadily in recent times. The paradox is perhaps that joy is something I’ve felt more and more often, almost as if it were taking place in lieu of happiness.
My life now is objectively good by any reasonable standards. I have health, wealth, job success, and none of the encumbrance that has befallen so many others I know. There must be quite a few in my age group who would dream of having my life. Every day I remind myself how lucky I am in this regard. I can easily count ten people I know personally who undoubtedly have had a harder life than I have. But people aren’t stones. We’re not sitting on a line from mud to diamond, and certainly the forces driving life that blindside some completely miss others. And even the hardest rocks will have their weak-points where even the slightest impact will shatter the whole thing.
Certainly only the very luckiest of us live in a state of mostly happiness, and among them only the wisest will realize it. At the same time I feel it’s almost self evident that some have at their disposal more means of attaining happiness than others. And while surveys and such studies — even the ones that are properly conducting and peer reviewed — ought to be viewed with a critical eye, there does seem to be shifts in overall happiness between times, ages, and peoples. There is something to measure there, and being in a population that ought to, statistically speaking, be happy, is still only a probability. That one ought to be happy is certainly not the same as being happy.
So for me, for having much joy in my life, while also having success in so many other ways, stands in extreme contrast to the lack of happiness I perceive.
Certainly one large culprit is my career being trashed through 2020 and 2021. My work environment was my most-frequented social environment, even if it was the one I valued least. As the job became difficult and I was ostracized from my leadership position, the amount of positive social interaction I had, which already felt like a trickle, became virtually nothing. And during that time period, even though I was able to maintain a much better degree of social interaction than many others, covid completely annihilated so many of my plans and hopes for the future. But in the end this is only a small part of the problem. I’d felt my happiness decrease steadily prior to all this. The drive to succeed in my career masked this as I still had something to focus on and weigh against it. My career getting upended was perhaps less a cause for loss of happiness so much as it was just giving a looking behind the curtain.
If only I could this easily figure out all the thing that are dragging me down, I could just fix them. Or at least try. Or at least try to work around them. Not much else is as clear in my mind about how much it impacts me. Over the years I’ve certainly spent quite a bit of time thinking about it, though, and a few things are coming into focus for me. And a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, as more pieces fall into place the bigger picture gets clearer. And for me it’s clear that I just have far too little interaction with peers.
I have some wonderful friends who share my ideas, interests, and intentions in life. They are the kind of caring, compassionate, and considerate people I want in my life. But the rate at which we have any kind of meaningful interaction is slim — something going forward I will assume is largely consequence of my own inability or inaction to foster interaction. Well, that’s second in line to a world which has somehow made it more difficult to stay in touch in spite of our fantastical technological advances. (And again, covid highlighted this but only because it was something that was already an issue.)
While a world limited by physical mail isn’t one I want to be in, we can often see in those old letters how much care and thought was conveyed by them. It was something real to literally hold on to, the scarcity of communication made it that much more precious, and the cost in time and effort to write really kept front and center how important such communication was. Meanwhile today we could span the globe with an instant call to anybody, though various social, technological, and political problems drive people away from sharing that time with their loved ones and instead idling away with doomscrolling or inane-but-entertaining dance trends. This is one of those topics I could write a whole separate blog post about… some other time.
Back to me, though. Try though I might, the internet just isn’t useful for social interaction of any meaningful type anymore. Covid has isolated enough people that even safe gatherings were simply not (and still aren’t) much common. But more importantly, having a lifestyle of fitting my life into my career was probably one of the biggest dampers. Not that with everybody having jobs, family obligations, and a thousand other things there was much opportunity there, either. But perhaps I can look at the bright side and say that I’m now unburdened by the need for a career. One holds the keys to their own misery and happiness, and having exhausted all tools at my disposal to manage both, it’s clear I need to try a new approach.
The only way is forward.
Not that I’m clear yet on what that exactly means. But I’ve certainly felt a shift inside me to push harder and move faster. I’ve tried to live most of my life attuned to the idea that it’s better to cast away from safety to try and explore instead of risk the regret of inaction later in life. And that has been highly successful in avoiding regret. But it’s not making me happy, and the only option I seem to have is to really push headlong into the storm and accept the battering that will come. I don’t know that I have any time left to be delicate and prudent. Dedication and patience have certainly kept me out of trouble in many ways. Lack of a negative isn’t the same as a positive. Not that I’ve even really tried to avoid trouble; it’s just always been a matter of trying to find the best path forward. But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, what is supposed to work just… doesn’t for me. So damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
My life has really accelerated over the last few months. Call it desperation or inspiration, I’ve found the motivation to tackle a lot of things I’d been putting off as unimportant or unpressed. In retrospect this started earlier on when I started aggressively paying off my house. Since then I’ve cleaned out old boxes from as far back as high school, reorganized the many material things I have (including disposing of some genuine refuse that I had no reason to hold onto so long), and opened up time in the week to spend on actual important things. But in the bigger scale, I’m looking to really push forward hard. The new job has me traveling to Chicago often, and it might make sense to move there (temporarily, or not?) so I can try something else. Or maybe I should just become unemployed, stay at home to relax, and “take time to find myself.” While that’s a fairly cliched saying, and not something I seriously intend to do, there’s certainly a kernel of wisdom in there. And since I’m bypassing the limiters of the reasonable and rational, perhaps I get one of those “teach English” jobs and live in Japan or Korea (or both) for a while.
One way or another change is coming. A lot of it certainly has. But I’d be a complete fool to keeping doing what I have for the last decade and expect anything to get better. I certainly can’t think of the last decade since I graduated as wasted. I doubt that who I was back then would be up to this challenge. But that same decade has seen my happiness dwindle to a thread at times. Hanging on just isn’t an option anymore. The gloves are off, the limits removed, and I’m going to fight to build the life I want with everything I have.