March 23

What to do when nothing makes you happy

If you touch your heart, like really really, touch your heart, you may realise that what you’re looking for isn’t money. It’s happiness.

You’re tirelessly pushing forward with your job. You’re working harder than you ever did. Yet when you take a step back and ask yourself,

Am I happy?

you struggle to answer the question with a great whoop. You wonder if this is it.

What to do when nothing makes you happy
Is this all there is to life?

Why are we so unhappy even though we live today with more comfort, than ever before? You don’t even have to go back 50 years. Just go back 15 years. Can you imagine that 15 years ago you would have had to ‘suffer’ with loading webpages on your phone for 5 seconds? Today, one second, and we are ready to go.

Can you imagine that 15 years ago, you still had to physically go down to the store to order food you loved? Today, Grab anything you want.

Can you imagine that 15 years ago, we were content with waiting a month for a delivery? Now? One day and we are complaining. It’s not enough to have Amazon Prime. It needs to be Amazon Prime NOW.

But why are we still so unhappy?

I want to hazard a guess at a problem that has intrigued philosophers for millennia. I don’t have the answers, but after working through this for many years, here are 3 insights I would like to share.

But first, my story

You can skip past this to go to the how-to. But I share this to give you some context to my own search for happiness. As a young child growing up in an elite school, I never felt like I measured up to the luminaries around me. Whilst students were winning international competitions, I was there struggling to pass my own exams. That came to a head when I eventually graduated from the Alevels with BAD results.

Literally, my results spelt BBAD. Or bad.

The irony. I came to the point where I started toying around with the idea of ending my life because there didn’t seem much of a point to life. It seemed that the most important thing was simply finding a way out. After all, I couldn’t live any of my dreams. What was the point to life in that case? Fortunately, a friend talked me out of it. But that was not before I saw a psychiatrist, and eventually a therapist. The professional help then supported me to see a different side to life.

Fast forward 3 years, and this time, I had reached the pinnacle of my university student career. Awards, a first-class honours, and regular invitations to speak at different conferences led me to the top of my student career. But strangely I found nothing.

What to do when nothing makes you happy
shining a torch on success led me to see that it was not success that led to happiness.

I found a deep resonance with a quote that once said,

I reached the top and found that there was nothing.

I thought all these things would bring me happiness, but it didn’t. I thought that constantly thinking through my life purpose (which I dutifully did every weekend), would bring me a greater alignment. After all, wasn’t this what people said? That if you lived according to your purpose, you would be happy? Or if you achieved XYZ, you would be happy?

Nope. I found the futility of chasing those achievements for happiness.

Then I came back to Singapore to look for a job. I fell into a deep grief over not finding a job. I turned to binge eating to stuff the emptiness inside me. I had to even see a psychiatrist to get help. I couldn’t imagine how far I fell. One moment I was overseeing multimillion pound budgets, and the next moment I was seeing a psychiatrist.

Oh the irony.

My job contract ended in October 2021. I thought I would fall back into depression, especially since the last bout of depression came when I didn’t have a job. Since then, I’ve been gigging in different ways, supporting myself with income from writing articles. And it feels like I’ve found happiness again.

How? I’ve wondered a lot about that question too. Because it seems that on the surface

  1. The income is much more unstable with the gigs coming irregularly
  2. There is no certainty about what each day would look like
  3. There’s pressure from my parents about getting a job

It would seem that I should be more anxious about life.

But I’m not. I’m more happy. Why?

3 things.

Do it for the money

Okay, this sounds contrarian. Because everyone is saying,

Chase something you love! Don’t chase the money!

But if we look at the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, who loved what they did, they also happened to be very rich. There’s a point in arguing that beyond a certain amount, money does not significantly add to your life. There’s an argument in saying that we should live humbly and simply, and that luxuries do not genuinely add to our lives. Yes, that’s true.

But doing work that would struggle to feed you, isn’t going to help. Over the past few months, gigging has helped me to see the value of being paid by task, not by time. When you’re paid by task, you start seeing the real value of what you provide. You start to dissociate the quintessential equation of waged work today,

Time = money

What to do when nothing makes you happy
The time = money equation in careers may be a broken concept you need to reexamine.

That is a fallacy.

Whereas when you’re paid by time, you end up just putting in the hours, rather than working just enough to complete the work you need to do. In other words, when you work by time, you don’t work to maximum efficiency, but you work to minimum efficiency. You may end up dragging the time, because the boss says you need to be there.

That is no recipe for happiness. If you look at how athletes work, they don’t spend 15 hours training. Or if you look at how the likes of billionaire investors Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett work, they don’t work all the time. In fact, Buffett loves saying of Munger,

He can make a billion dollar decision in 10 minutes.

That’s where all their returns come from. Not from dragging out their time spent at work for money.

Therefore, if you want to apply this principle of ‘doing it for the money’ in life, I would invite you to do this.

Work to task, not to time. Look at what are the highest leverage tasks you can do, that move you most towards where you want to be. Then keep focusing on doing that.

Go kick soccer with some kids

I’ve recently started playing soccer again. It was something I loved when I was younger, but over COVID, I found myself stopping because I thought I had to keep working.

Kicking soccer helped me to discover the fun of playing in groups again. Life doesn’t have to be so serious, all the time. When you start looking at how you can have fun with people, you realise that fun is a goal in itself. You don’t always have to be a lean, mean, economic machine. There’s more to life than productivity.

Goofiness

Recently I was celebrating my friend’s birthday. I took a pao, or a small bun, stuck a candle on top, and clicked on his doorbell.

SURPRISE!

Growing up, wearing suits and ties, we think that life always needs to be uptight and serious. It doesn’t have to be. Honestly.

There’s space in life for being silly. Even at work. Why not allow yourself to have fun? Here’s something practical you can do, from Brené Brown. She talks in her book, Dare to Lead, about permission slips. You know those slips that you gave to your mother to sign when you needed to go on a school outing?

Well give yourself permission to do that. You can give yourself permission to have fun in a meeting by writing,

Permission granted to have fun!

Try that.

Life doesn’t have to be so serious

I was speaking to a friend recently who’s gone through some rough patches in life.

He’s been in 6-figure debts, and come to a point when he needed to go through a court-mandated Debt Consolidation Plan.

So many people go through life feeding their stomachs, but never feeding their souls.

Food for thought, heh?

What are you doing to feed your soul?

Let me know in the comments below.


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