The Utility of Unhappiness

To many of you likely reading this article, it’s no secret that I’ve struggled with my weight over the past few years. I had a pretty good push forward in terms of my health in 2019 and since the start of 2020, it’s been mostly downhill. Today I’m writing some thoughts down about some recent ideas that have been floating in my head.

A big part of my every day is a search to maximize happiness. Very few things I do, are a result of a feeling of obligation. My job is probably the only thing that I do out of obligation currently. It’s not all bad though; working enables an income which enables all of the other things that I like to do that happen to cost some amount of money. If presented with an opportunity to maintain my current lifestyle, but without work, I would absolutely take that and at least try it out for a few years. I think I’ve read enough accounts about people floundering in retirement to push me off turning into a couch potato more than I already am. I think I would find something to do.

Back to the topic; basically all I do is because I those things make me happy. Some primary examples are as follows: I eat the foods I want because they taste especially good. I watch movies or read books that I find interesting/fun. When I engage in a particular hobby, it’s because doing that thing makes me happy in that moment. I passively engage in the shit-show that is online politics because I think it’s fun!
Some secondary examples may include some activities that aren’t “fun” per se, but I can enjoy them most of the time. Most of the things I do for my wife probably fall into this category. I want to see her happy, so I do certain things to increase her happiness, which makes me happy! I don’t think that sort of quid pro quo is bad; just a reality of life that I prefer to make the most of. I want to emphasize the difference between these and work. I don’t do them out of obligation in the traditional sense. I have a job because I am essentially forced by society to have one. I do chores because the utility of those actions creates happiness for another person that in turn creates a cyclical ingress of serotonin between us. A benefit is those chores usually make me feel better about my place in my life after they are completed.

Another secondary thing is personal hygiene. Because I work from home, it can be pretty easy to go a little longer than most people without taking a shower. I’ve tried to pinpoint where that changed, because I grew up as a kid taking a shower basically every day. Somewhere between the end of high school and the year I started college, that habit got broken and it’s been really hard to start it back up again. I never feel bad about it, but because I never seem to have a desire to jump in the shower, it can fall behind other things. Brushing my teeth is another example. Though, I was always terrible at that as a kid too. For my wife’s sake, I’m trying to get better at brushing, and her pressure (or usually outright refusal to engage) is enough to nudge me in the right direction. I appreciate the nudge and every time I get that reminder, I’m a bit embarrassed. Hygiene is something I never feel bad about (and sometimes feel great afterwards!) but that memory doesn’t seem to be sticky enough to form some neural pathway into my permanent habits.

Maybe that’s what it is? Things I like to do, are habits more or less?
Habits that have changed that I can remember in the past few years: Brushing my hair. Used to not do that one but once a week or so, but I think I was physically pained enough by those experiences that I decided it was worth doing more often. Similarly, the way I shampoo my hair changed after getting married literally overnight. Ladies, imagine washing your hair by lathering everything together into a giant ball of madness. Running your hands back and forth over each other, creating a massive knot of (clean) hair, and then you need to spend 30+ minutes brushing the chaos out. That was me for 4 or 5 years.

I feel like some car maintenance habits might fit into this category. I engage the parking brake whenever the engine stops because in theory it saves my transmission some wear from holding the vehicle stationary in park. I never cared about oil changes until I almost blew an engine up. My parents never told me that oil could burn up really fast on older cars!

Some patterns I’m noticing as I write these out. If something is going to cause me pain (physically or mentally), I’m just as likely to change my behavior in response to that negative stimulus. Sometimes that negative stimulus is monetary, like with the car stuff, or actual physical pain in the hair examples. I think the issue here though, is that there are some things that I want to make habits of, that I can’t seem to get through because it’s not fun/painful enough.

Back to the chore example. I’m not perfect in doing all my chores every day, but nothing gets me off my ass faster than the knowledge of people coming over to make me tidy up. Since we’ve moved into this new apartment in Jan 2020, I think the apartment has not been “clean” for perhaps 5 (or less) visits by outside parties. Even then, only one of those that I can remember wasn’t immediate family. The mere thought that my own parents could think I am a slob living in filth is plenty to kick me into gear and tidy up (at least a little). Meanwhile, I go to their house all the time with 5 kids at home which is a train-wreck 50% of the time. I have a feeling there wouldn’t be any judgement!

Just yesterday, I got an email that fire code inspections were happening and as soon as I read that email, I got up and picked up all the trash laying around from dinner the night before (take-out containers and empty cans). I’ve seen my next door neighbor’s apartment. The inspectors would be overjoyed at the “cleanliness” of my unit compared to theirs.

So to the title of this article, “The utility of unhappiness”. This idea has sat with my over the past few days. It was sitting with me as I shopped for groceries a few short hours ago. What if I made a conscious effort to recognize my unhappiness in some action, and confront that uncomfortable feeling? Maybe once a day, I ask myself, “what is something you’ve done that doesn’t make you happy right now, or in the near future?”

I actually have some ideas to send this to a few people and ask them to prompt me. And I say a few because I know they’re human too and new habits are hard. Then I can at least get some friendly interaction as well as check-in on my progress. Side-note: I wish reminder apps worked for me. Again, it goes back to the pain/pleasure thing. It’s not painful enough to ignore, so eventually I do just that!
Wrapping up this ramble-fest, the shopping trip today was somewhat influenced by these thoughts. I bought good food instead of 120 pizza rolls and 3 bags of chips and dip. I’ve not gone back for seconds on my healthy dinner yet in favor of writing this post; giving the food time to settle so I hopefully feel more full. I’m committed to taking a shower and brushing my teeth later this evening. I didn’t want to do these things. I’d rather watch some tv and veg out after a long day staring at this fucking screen.

Unhappiness in my mind is somewhat of a morally loaded term, but maybe it doesn’t have to be? Maybe it can be more of a neutral state, or a transition to something good? Changing that framing though is another exercise in habit building that I’ll have to struggle with in the meantime.
If you happen to be reading this and got way down here, thanks! I appreciate it. If you want to provide some accountability, please feel free to text me or send a Twitter DM asking, “How have you engaged with unhappiness today?”

If I don’t respond promptly, I likely read it and forgot to come back and respond due to “busy-ness”.

I appreciate any and all feedback you may have and if you’re struggling with similar feelings, maybe we can help each other out? One more thing to try to think about and engage with… 😉

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