Imagine that no matter what you chose to do for a living, you would be paid the same amount. Not free money – you still have to work a more-or-less full-time job, but the income is fixed no matter what you pick. And let’s say that the amount of money is small – enough to live on, but not much more. No wolves at your door, but not a life of luxury.

What would you do? I think the intuitive answer is that you’d seek to maximize your happiness with your work. You’d do work you truly enjoyed with people you liked. You’d seek meaning and purpose in your work, perhaps. Maybe you’d just do something easy so that you weren’t stressed. These all seem like viable answers.

A lot of people seem to think that they’re actually in this situation, but don’t do the obvious things. People seem to think that no matter what they do, they can’t “get ahead,” but instead of accepting the fact they think is so immutable and maximizing the other aspects, they just keep working at jobs they hate and complain about them. They hate the grind, their bosses, their environments, the actual work they do, and yet they keep at it – even though they’ll loudly tell you that they think it’s all for nothing.

Maybe this is just an example of actions speaking louder than words. Maybe for all their grousing, these people really do believe that if they grind long enough they’ll catch their lucky break. Or maybe they’re just in a sort of permanent “survival mode,” afraid to make any change at all for fear it will be a negative change resulting in an even worse situation.

I’ve always thought of ambition as a good thing. I still do, but I’ve been re-defining the word a lot lately. I used to think of ambition as applying only to money and status – more impressive titles, more money, “climbing the ladder.” I put a lot of myself into that way of thinking.

But maybe that’s not the only way to look at ambition.

I’ve always thought of someone’s level of happiness as innate. People just have a certain baseline level of happiness, and the only way they can adjust it is mentally – just “be happier,” maybe by ignoring bad things outside of your control. But maybe happiness is something you can actually change through external factors that you build into your life.

What if the original hypothetical scenario I presented in this post applied to happiness instead of money? What if you had a certain baseline happiness that couldn’t improve as long as you maintained a more-or-less active life. (In other words, it could decrease if you just sat around in the dark all day, but as long as you generally did stuff a normal adult would do, your happiness level would reach a baseline level, but never improve.) This happiness level was enough to keep you from breaking down during the day, but not much else – not joy, but call it “survival happiness.” What would you do then?

Would you maximize money by working in high-stress, high-danger roles, realizing that you wouldn’t get any happier if you were less stressed and safer? What would you do with the money, if the rewards couldn’t make you happier, either? Purpose matters – I think intellectually it’s worthwhile to make the world a better place even if you yourself don’t get joy from it. But what would that look like?

There’s a tremendous amount of research that says past a certain point of material success, you don’t get any happier from it. And that point of material success is pretty low! Basically as long as the wolves aren’t at your door and your bills are paid, people’s happiness is more or less completely unaffected by increases in living standard. If Bill Gates is happier than me, it’s not because he has more money.

Just like in the first scenario, though, lots of people think they’re in exactly this situation but don’t do what it seems like they should. Lots of people think they can’t get any happier, but they don’t seek out meaningful things besides happiness, such as purpose or meaning or even money. They just keep doing what they’re doing, perhaps thinking that if they grind long enough, they’ll suddenly hit this moment of enlightenment and their baseline happiness will shoot up and sustain itself at that higher level.

Two things I’m realizing more and more, day by day:

  1. Absolutely nothing is automatic. Nothing just happens if you do the same thing day after day. If every day you make ten dollars, then after a thousand days you’ll make ten thousand dollars, that’s it. You won’t suddenly make a million. Likewise, if you’re stressed and anxious and miserable today, you’ll be stressed and anxious and miserable for the rest of your life unless you do different things.
  2. Absolutely nothing can change from inside your head. You can’t think your way into wealth, you have to act. But you also can’t think your way into happiness. It’s not a matter of a different perspective or reflection or choice, except in the sense that different perspectives or choices can lead you to different actions. Actions which build a different life.

If you want the room around you be more green, you can either paint everything in the room green, or you can wear green-colored glasses. But when it comes to happiness, there are no glasses you can put on to make the exact same life make you happier. You have to get out the paint and paintbrush and get to work.

I admit that’s scary. It’s scary to me. Just like the people who are in a survival mindset with money, afraid that any change may actually wreck the delicate house of cards they have and make their situation worse, many people can be “survival happy.” They have just enough happiness to not jump off a bridge and they’re afraid that anything they change will make things worse.

But you can’t think like that. You can’t. It’s scary. It’s terrifying. But you can’t protect and shelter a candle flame forever. You have to risk moving away from it to build a bigger fire you can light with it. Otherwise you’ll just watch it slowly burn out.

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