How to avoid being unhappy and how to find happiness.

This started as a comment in reply to the sad posting on Hacker News that Linux Kernel contributor Andre Hedrick had taken his own life. I’ve seen a huge number of posts on HN during the last 2 to 3 years about depression and I worry that the Valley is an environment especially condusive to creating a very unhealthy mental state through creating unrealistic expectations and social disconnection. So here are my thoughts:

I think that many more people are at risk of falling into depression than ever before, particularly in the Valley. One of the reasons is that we are constantly exposed to the achievements of our idols and the most capable people we know via social networks and social media and we benchmark ourselves against that.

Until a decade ago your benchmark for “I’m awesome and I’m doing great” was your neighbors, your work colleagues and your friends. Now it’s the one in 100 friends or their friends who are mega-wealthy and fly to Belize for breakfast in their chartered jet and are back for lunch. If you’re not keeping up, you feel like you are somehow failing.

In the valley this is massively compounded because you are constantly surrounded by the mega-successful and are occasionally included in their jaunts. As a young 20-something you start to think you’re a loser because you aren’t vesting Google stock options or enjoying the wealth from your first $10 million exit.

If you want to be happy, do what you truly love, however humble it may be. It’s important that you’re also honest about what it is that you love. Don’t try to convince yourself that you enjoy being a “geek” and being surrounded by technology. If you enjoy the feel of cutting and shaping wood then go be a carpenter and be conformable in your own skin. If you like getting up at 3am, making bread and meeting your neighbors every morning then go be a baker and be happy.

There are in my humble opinion very few people that are actually cut out to be true geeks and to derive pleasure from long periods of solutide with nothing but the glow of a monitor and what it contains to keep you company.

Know yourself, know what makes you happy and take pleasure in the simple things in life, like the good, ordinary people who surround you every day.

Update, response to comments and some additional data:

Thanks for the comments and thanks Hacker News for taking an interest in this post. I’ve received many comments regarding clinical depression including from those with a family history of clinical depression. While it is tempting to simply answer by saying that this post is targeted at those who are simply “unhappy”, rather than suffering from a diagnosed condition of clinical depression, I find myself hesitating because I feel that often a diagnosis of a disorder leads to acceptance and complacency.

One inspiring story that comes to mind is that of John Nash who Sylvia Nasar writes about Nash’s life in great detail in “A Beautiful Mind”. [Ignore the movie, it is unrelated to the book] In her detailed biography Nasar describes how after years of drug treatment, electroshock therapy and treatment with insulin-induced comas, Nash actually found a way to succesfully treat himself by going on a “diet of the mind” as he describes it.

So if you are depressed, and even if you do suffer from clinical depression that a doctor has diagnosed and prescribed medication for, I encourage you not to give up and simply accept the prescribed treatment, but continue to look for ways to modify your behaviour, your environment, your diet and your situation to improve your prognosis.

I’d like to remind you of one final thing. Humans evolved largely during the Paleolithic era into the species that we are today. This period covered 2.6 million years of our history. We have only been “modern humans” for the last 30,000 years, which is only 1.1% of the Paleolithic. We have only been using the Internet en-masse for roughly 20 years. So when you think of creative ways to change your environment, consider which environment your species spent most of it’s time adapting to.

I wish you the very best of luck.

23 thoughts on “How to avoid being unhappy and how to find happiness.

  1. I’m the marketing assistant for Robert Scheinfeld, a NY Times bestselling author who just wrote a new book on how to be happy. It’s called “The Ultimate Key To Happiness.” It offers a v-e-r-y different approach to defining what happiness really is, and a very different step-by-step path to experience it all the time, no matter what’s going on around you. The Internet has gotten so complex. So many options. Can anyone here share ideas for how to get the word out there about this important new book? I’d love to hear your ideas. I’m sure there are tons of ideas I’ve never thought of before.

  2. Yep. Happiness lies within ourselves. We should just know how to discover it. 🙂

  3. It would be grand to do something you love to do – but for many, this simply isn’t possible. I’m going to guess a good number don’t really know what they like until they are well into their 20’s, and by then, they’ve already chosen their career. Many more people are simply stuck due various life situations. Few people actually choose to work retail or be a career waitress because they love the work yet they lack the resources necessary to change.

    And I would like to repeat things said in the above comments: Being able – or even doing – what you love is not going to help depression. There is nothing like knowing that you should indeed be happy about some sort of change or event (like finally doing something you know you’ve always enjoyed) and not actually being able to feel that way. I have usually opted to feign happiness just to keep the questions away.

  4. “Until a decade ago your benchmark for “I’m awesome and I’m doing great” was your neighbors, your work colleagues and your friends. Now it’s the one in 100 friends or their friends who are mega-wealthy and fly to Belize for breakfast in their chartered jet and are back for lunch.”

    Wow. I would feel depressed too if I measured success by how rich I am, compared to the world’s 1%.

    Our grandfather’s considered success building the world. Our parent’s considered success changing the world.

    Think about that.

  5. While I appreciate the intent of your post, what you have described isn’t depression. I wish it were that simple.

    Depression in some cases can be genetic, it isn’t necessarily triggered by external factors (life situation, environment etc). My depression is very likely genetic. I have lived with continuous thoughts of suicide since puberty, I only realised that wasn’t normal until I was 23. During that time I *have* been doing what I love, programming. Unfortunately it has no affect on my state of mind.

    I urge you to read more about clinical depression.

  6. You’re conflating depression with being unhappy. Having depression is not the same as being depressed.

    This is a very common misconception. People who tend to be happy with their lives and just generally enjoy life are often incapable of understanding what it’s like for those with depression. They try to relate by remembering those times in their life when they weren’t happy—maybe after losing a family member or being stuck in a job they hated—but they don’t realize it’s nowhere near the same thing as having depression.

    Your advice may therefore help someone who’s depressed because of situational problems, but it won’t do anything to help someone who has clinical depression or manic depression (a.k.a. bipolar disorder).

    (I speak from experience as someone who’s suffered with severe clinical depression since his teenage years, throughout his entire adult life.)

    Unlike being depressed, which is when you’re unhappy because of your circumstances, depression is a general inability to find joy in anything—even those things you normally love. For someone who’s depressed, making bread might cheer them up if they enjoy baking. For someone with depression, making bread will do nothing to abate their unhappiness, even if they used to love baking.

    You suggest that this blog post was inspired by Andre Hendrick’s suicide. But his problems were not those that could be treated by building a chiffarobe or making bread. If you’re depressed, just making some simple changes to your life can make a big difference. But if you have depression, you’re just trading one pointless activity for another.

    The **only** way to work around having depression is **to get treatment for depression**. Even someone who, by all rights, should be very happy—a good family life, making good money doing something they love, etc.—might commit suicide if they’re severely depressed. It’s only through treatment for depression—talk therapy and, in most cases, medication—that someone with depression will have a chance of managing it. And it just might make the difference between life and death.

  7. It’s very hard to take of the weight of social clichés and just be yourself.

Comments are closed.