Progress and Happiness

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In moments of good company or great achievement, happiness comes in like a breeze on a hot summer day and then it passes. There is no point during life where we can have so much money or so many friends that we will be happy forever. It is as if progress is in our DNA. Sit still long enough and you will become restless, then unhappy. Keep moving and you will find pockets of happiness everywhere along the way.

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Achieving a goal is an odd thing. When we achieve it, we are robbed of the journey which had been a large part of our life. So when we achieve something it is not long before we set our sites even higher. It seems to me that greed, then, is at least somewhat in our DNA.

Take this example:

  1. You work in a bakery but want to act for a living
  2. You start taking small roles
  3. Then supporting roles
  4. Suddenly you can afford a modest lifestyle from your theater pay
  5. One day you’re offered a star role in a daytime TV show. You’ve succeeded.
  6. Two years later you decide you want to move from daytime TV to a weeknight drama
  7. You succeed again. Your show gets great ratings. People recognize you on the street
  8. You see an amazing movie and think, “I want to be a movie star”
  9. You fail. You feel rejected and trapped.
  10. Instead of feeling overwhelming excitement for having beat the odds and become a successful TV actor, you feel unhappy with yourself

Progress is like a drug. The more progress we make, the more we want of it. That’s probably why we see actors become producers and directors. They’ve reached the summit of acting and yet the summit is just a place. The summit, by itself, offers no great stories and it teaches no lessons. So the climber looks for a climb that offers more stories, and lessons and adventure.

Our love for progress is why retirement can be the worst thing in the world for those who can’t fill the void that retirement creates. We think that we want to be millionaires but that’s not entirely accurate. Take this example of receiving the same amount of money in two different ways:

  • Scenario 1: You receive a lump sum of 350k for a 3 year contract to work for a company
    • It happens all at once
    • Then you have to work for three years without making additional progress

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  • Scenario 2: You double your salary every three years, starting at 50k
    • Year 1: You make 50k
    • Year 2: You get a raise and make 100k that year
    • Year 3: You get another raise and make 200k that year

This illustrates how we are confused. We’d almost all opt for the 350k but then for three full years we have to work 9-5 with no expectation of anything great happening. There would be nothing to look forward to. We would have three years of buying material shit to keep us entertained. I think, to a lot of us, waiting out that three years would feel like a prison sentence.  I think that the second option of continual progress would actually feel more rewarding if you could do an experiment to live out both scenarios. For those three years you would feel like you’re really kicking ass.

There are thousands of books on how to achieve your goals. That message paints the wrong picture. “How to achieve your goals” sounds like a lot of work and that phrase includes the possibility of falling short. Our goals sound a long way off. Really, our goal is progress and that is right at our feet. So maybe we should say fuck the goals. The message should be start doing something today and then do it tomorrow too.

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