The Happiness Hack

In 2008 - amidst the fury of the financial crisis - one of the greatest short squeezes in history occurred.

To oversimplify, in October of that year, there weren't enough available Volkswagen shares to cover the short position on the company. This essentially meant that short sellers who wished to cover their positions could be forced to pay ludicrous prices. Thus, the Volkswagen share price skyrocketed.

German billionaire, Adolf Merckle, was short Volkswagen stock at the time and lost about 1/2 a billion within a couple days. Merckle - worth about $12b at his peak - was an industrialist with a vast business empire, which began to unravel due to the bad bet. Still, Merckle had more money and success than any of us could ever dream of.

Merckle's financial wealth fell, but was still at a height most of humanity will never experience. Most people think they'd be happy with 1/100 of what Merckle was left with. But clearly he felt differently.

In January of 2009, Merckle stepped in front of a speeding train.

Happiness is relative and an unachievable pursuit for most.

Many mistakenly believe that happiness and self worth are tied to an absolute - usually material - goal or measure. Of course, this cannot be true because we are biologically hardwired to always want more. Indeed, the personal state of happiness is counter-evolutionary and cannot exist for long. If our ancestors found sustained happiness when they discovered a warm cave, we'd still be living in caves.

Because sustainable happiness is largely unachievable, the pursuit of happiness will make you unhappy.

Don't despair. I have a happiness hack!

Stop making happiness the goal. Stop thinking, "if I just achieve X I will then be happy". Because there is always something better than X. Always.

Instead, your goal should be to suffer.

I realize that sounds ridiculous. But have you ever wondered why martyrs exist? It's because people find great satisfaction in suffering for a cause they truly believe in.

To be happy you must find a cause or goal worth suffering for. The cause may or may not be measurable or achievable, but it must compel you to take action. It must make you want to fight. You may never achieve your goal, but, ultimately, it is the suffering you endure in pursuit of that goal that will lead to happiness.

What are causes worth suffering for? I cannot answer that question because it varies by individual. For some, sacrificing 60 hours a week to push their employer's company forward is a noble cause. For others it is a sad waste of a life.

The act of suffering on its own doesn't necessarily equate to happiness, as one might expect (although for some, pleasure is derived from the suffering itself). For most, the sacrifice is an excruciating personal investment to achieve something remarkable. Pleasure cannot be decoupled from the suffering and the suffering must be connected to a worthy cause.

One might think that they are already making sacrifices to achieve their goals. Let's clear this up: 'Sacrificing' $500 for a coat doesn't fit the concept. 

The pleasure derived from the acquisition of material goods is fleeting because the sacrifice - the effort to raise that $500 - had no connection to the goal. In contrast, if you designed and crafted the coat by hand the satisfaction derived from the entire process would be much greater, provided creating a coat was a goal that ignited your passions.

Adolf Merckle gladly suffered his whole life to build a business empire. Creating something of that size simply isn't possible unless you derive satisfaction from the sacrifice required to pursue the cause.

It is a mistake to assume Merckle killed himself because he couldn't cope with the loss of financial wealth. The reality is that he could not accept the wasted sacrifice for an empire that was falling apart.

1 comment:

  1. As I continue to watch people change and evolve, I can see that the very nature of growth is struggle. Those old adages about "growing pains" are simply true. And putting oneself "in service to" those struggles does indeed sharpen our sense of place and the happiness gleaned from that place.
    It's with a deep sigh that I know about folks who succumb to the hurdles of loss when they have struggled so to achieve their success. But I frequently think "if only they could have taken that one extra step past and perhaps found the rebound towards their next purpose.
    Curious how it works in this very temporary life.
    Here's to our good struggles forward for ourselves and the forging of paths for others to follow.
    Thank you for these good thoughts.