Scott H Young

Happily Ever After


Brian Christian, from The Most Human Human:

“Nothing is more dispiriting than ‘And they all lived happily ever after,’ which means, in information entropy terms, ‘And then nothing interesting or noteworthy ever happened to them again for the rest of their lives.’”

There’s a pull in all of us towards ‘happily ever after’. The idea of a time when our struggles end and we finally have that life we want. People often criticize the idea as being merely a fantasy—life will never be perfect, accept it.

Maybe a better critique is that, even if we could live happily ever after, we wouldn’t want to.

Happy Endings and Psychological Time

If you agree that monotony speeds up your sense of time, then happily ever after has an even more sinister quality. The ‘ever after’ may actually feel a lot shorter.

I think it’s a mistake to assume that what’s pleasant and what’s interesting (in the time-slowing sense) are the same things.

Some activities would be both enjoyable, and slow the flow of time. Travel, adventures and interesting challenges would rank among them. Other activities would be both unpleasant and boring, such as mindless tasks.

But there are plenty of examples where the two aren’t correlated. Happily ever after, which is pleasant but not terribly interesting is the first example. Stressful engagement may slow time but be unpleasant.

I make this distinction because I believe we are all intuitively drawn to pleasant lives. That our childhood stories end happily ever after is just one example. Living an interesting life, especially if it involves moments of discomfort or unpleasantness, takes more deliberate effort.

Fighting to Avoid “Happily Ever After”

I began my first month of being a full-time blogger, how many people would—by not doing very much. After five years of juggling my business with school, travel and work, just doing one of those jobs seemed incredibly easy. I chose to savor the rewards of all my past efforts.

Despite my laziness, I actually got a lot done. Doubling the amount of subscribers to my newsletter and having the second best month financially in the history of my business.

What bothered me most wasn’t that I needed to struggle to keep my business going, but the opposite—that I could live this way forever. I had reached the closest thing to a “happily ever after” moment and it disturbed me.

Existential Angst of the Dull, Yet Pleasant, Life

Existentialism believes we do not discover our purpose; it has to be invented by each of us.

The term “existential angst” comes from this school of philosophy. The angst coming from the despair of asking why and getting no answer to the big questions in life.

Regardless of whether you fancy yourself an existentialist, the angst is part of the human condition. When struggling for a goal, you may be in discomfort, but your focus allows you to live in those constraints. When you reach the goal, the inevitable, “what now?” pervades your thoughts.

What disturbed me about my happily-ever-after moment was that I saw the possibility of slipping into that life. Working every day, sustaining my lifestyle and slipping into a pleasant coma of existence.

Bloggers often start out interesting and fresh, when they write part-time. But, as they become more successful their writing dulls a bit. The struggle is gone. Their life may be pleasant, but it’s no longer being lived aggressively.

The Discomfort of Happiness

A friend told me once that the most successful entrepreneurs, looking back on their careers, pointed to the beginning of their companies as being the happiest. I don’t know whether that’s true, but I think it fits within this picture.

The beginning of a company (or a life) is full of struggles as you try to achieve the goals you’ve set out. Once you’ve reached them, it’s easier to remain at a pleasant equilibrium.

From the perspective of psychological time, equilibrium (pleasant or not) is a worry, since it speeds up life, giving us fewer moments remembered or richly experienced.

From existentialism, equilibrium is also a worry. It’s the lack of an invented purpose (whether temporary or lifelong) that causes angst. We need some struggle to be happy.

The pleasant boredoms are the most troubling. Unpleasant monotony is fought against, so it survives only out of necessity. The pleasant routines of happily ever after are taken on voluntarily.

Never Settling Down and Avoiding the Static Life

The biggest implication of this train of thought is that settling down, the idea of choosing a long-term static lifestyle, is inherently dangerous.

This is a hard conclusion to accept. I’m not even sure if I can accept it. It seems to ignore all of our cultural wisdom (although our cultural wisdom also celebrates safe employment over risky entrepreneurship which I happily disregard).

How much routine do you need to accept to live the life you want? Is there a strict tradeoff between some lifestyle goals and your ability to stretch time and live adventurously?

For example, I’d like to eventually get married and have kids someday, does that mean settling into a static routine? Derek Sivers writes about being married and choosing to live in new countries every few months. Hardly settling down.

A bigger question is how much stasis in our routine is caused deliberately, by picking the type of lifestyle we want, and how much occurs as a by-product of being seduced by pleasant routines?

My Happily Ever After

It took me seven years of work before I reached my goal of running an online business full-time. I certainly don’t want to lose it. But now that I have it, I think it will be interesting trying to balance sustaining a pleasant lifestyle while still trying to keep the interestingness of the struggle.

In less than a week, I’ll be moving to Vancouver—a new city and a new chance to break routines, live a little more slowly and fight to keep time alive.

I’m interested in your thoughts. How have you balanced reaching lifestyle goals with the shifting process of keeping life interesting? Do you feel there is an inherent tradeoff between the traditional goals of having a family and the goal of keeping life varied? Please share in the comments.


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21 Responses to “Happily Ever After”

  1. Valentino says:

    It’s about alternating stress cycles to relax.. never lose the good stress, that’s were the juice comes from… isn’t it?

  2. Ollie says:

    Life is what you make it. Believe it or not, life really is perfect and beautiful, whether things aren’t going your way or not. Only the flawed can see flaw. Perfection can only see perfection. Happily ever after is true, but instead of avoiding it, look at what you consider to be “happy.” If you don’t, then you’ll only live “flawed ever after.”

    By admitting something is hard, even by a LITTLE, you’ve lost. Look at a baby or young kids. I think they have a good idea of a real “happiness.” In front of the attempt to keep standing or walking, they don’t have doubts or depression and probably can’t understand what it means to be “difficult”. I don’t want to debate that doing .. let’s say… quantum physics is harder than just standing up as a baby, you won’t understand me because you let the mindset of “difficulty” set in already.

    It’s time to take a deep breathe and ask “When did things suddenly turn so difficult?” I’m working on this as best as I can.

    An interesting idea to look at who is supposedly “the most happiest man on Earth” by our scientific standards, and it’s a monk, Matthieu Ricard.

    A monk………. out of all the possible occupations… and they live with pretty strict routine don’t they? Not only that, but they don’t have a lot of material things. Of course, not all monks live happily ever after. But it’s just something to think about.

  3. I have a friend who’s never lived in any country longer than 4 years straight. She now has 8 children and is happily married.

    My husband and I also recently decided to have children even though we’re not sure where we’re going to live. Just because it’s not the most common path to take, doesn’t make it wrong. We just like to keep things interesting and keep our options open.

  4. Chris Dam says:

    Well, it is not like the world is short of challenges. It is reasonable to feel a bit underchallenged if suddenly a few of them fall away, but you will soon enough find new ones. The nice thing about your position is that for as long as your business does fine without too much trouble, you don’t need your challenges in order to feed yourself.

  5. Banjo Steve says:

    Your youth is showing here. In “happily ever after”, you seem to equate happiness with being stress-free. I frequently told my students that you are only “stress-free” when you are dead.

    For me, “happily ever after” means that one is more able to choose the kind of stressful activities/challenges that are preferred.

    As for the implied boredom of settling down and having kids, well, the challenge of maintaining a good marriage and raising kids is one of the most stressful (and rewarding) experiences of all!

  6. Scott Young says:

    Banjo,

    I think my point is less that ‘happily ever after’ exists (in the sense that you can be perfectly without stress forever) but that you can accept a static lifestyle simply because the static lifestyle is pleasant.

    -Scott

  7. Eugene says:

    Scott, what makes the world go round is we don’t see eye to eye. I was determined to refrain from commenting because I think at your age you believe you see the “big picture.” You have no idea of what you discover you don’t know as you move through the human lifecycle. What you “thought” you knew keeps whittling away until you reach a point in your life (for me, early 50’s) where you discover you knew nothing… everything you “thought” you knew was based on incomplete information!

    Take those three magic yet interpretive words that believe it or not, is why I’m even commenting (without any expectation that you’ll truly hear what I’m saying; perhaps some of your blog readers will). I know friends who think movies that end happily ever after are b-o-r-i-n-g while conversely I prefer happy endings. As you may remember from past comments (unless I’m a forgettable blog commenter of yours, lol), my former religion was built on the hype that humanity would live happily ever after in paradise on Earth. Examining what they had in mind, however, yielded a heartbreaking epiphany for me. What their version of “happily ever after” entailed was living forever in paradise on Earth, in perfect immortal bodies that never aged, perfect intellect using 100% of the mind vs. just 1% their “scholars” accepted from the 1950’s myth of underutilization of human intelligence (taking deep breath, long sentence!), in a farm community pastoral setting — no advanced technology, space travel, or even Einstein-Rosen bridges to colonize distant worlds — and last but not least (give me a drum roll, please) presided over by a fascist regime claiming to represent the Jesus Christ of the Holy Bible.

    I figured that after a few thousand years in their “paradise,” I would commit suicide. Trouble is, they taught when you died in such a manner after inheriting such a “gift” of “eternal life,” you remain unconscious forever. And you know what? In their paradise that would be perfectly fine by me. I can only till the fields, attend pot lucks, and prance across fields of poppies like Mary Poppins for so many millenniums before life would become b-o-r-i-n-g and destructive fantasies of death would start haunting my daydreams.

    In that regard, Scott, you’re so right that the *wrong* happily ever after is poison. What about my version of happily ever after? Let’s tweak the above nightmare religious scenario (grim fairy tale) into something I suspect we both could live with. Let’s use 100% of our brains (vs. the 1% assuming that’s how human biology works) to colonize the universe. Let’s discover technologies and reach plateaus of human consciousness we cannot even fathom in our present “imperfect” form (the word “imperfect” was the bane of this religion, a state they believed existed due to the fall of man). Let’s assume in fact the mind is unlimited because instead of expanding (like those giant heads of aliens that 1950’s sci-fi writers dreamed up) that quantum physics allows infinite knowledge in an infinitely multi-dimensional human brain. Never bored, this happily ever after is very cool and ***IF*** there is a “God” then I certainly think THAT is what he/she has in store for the fledgling intelligence on Earth.

    As an aside, I have seen such disappointment in life, lost a few treasured loved ones, and experienced so many “near death experiences” (sometimes due to my own desire to seek out risky experiences that have enriched my life in hindsight, but only because I survived them) to want the kind of pleasant “routines” you understandably find so boring at your early stage of life. I doubt anything I just said will make sense or register at your stage of life, Scott, but I suppose if you have a good memory that one of these days you may think back to what a Eugene on your blog wrote and think, “Maybe he had a point.”

    As an extra stream of thought remark, this just entered my mind: Bernie Madoff lived a opulent and interesting life that was like a flotilla that blissfully sailed on a sea of human misery. Now the highlight of his day is the mess hall of some prison. George Lucas created the amazing worlds of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and his riches are earned. Peripherally these two men enjoyed amazing lives, one in a zero sum game, and the other in a positive sum game where everyone wins. Of course if you define zero sums strictly economically speaking (i.e. few planetary resources chasing 6 billion humans) then zero sums at any level of human existence is impossible to escape.

  8. Jerianne says:

    This is such a thought provoking blog and I must say “Thank You” Scott for giving me something to motivate me as a beginning blogger.

    I am finding that happiness is a choice and it’s something that kind of happens to you. Life has a natural way of ruffling our comfort zones and therefore making us transient through various feelings, emotions and sensations. This I believe is the backbone of our humanness.

    “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon.

    I really enjoyed reading this and will subscribe.

    Happy Blogging.

    Cheers.

  9. Anthony says:

    Welcome to the West Coast, Scott!

  10. Nick says:

    Wow. Some deep thoughts in the article and comments.

    I dont know much about existenislism (sp?) but it sounds on key to what you and Cal Newport talk about- the great life is invented, not found. In other words, there is no lightbulb moment where everything comes together, where you find your one ultimate purpose.

    A big part of living a great life is that once you complete one goal, you need another goal to replace it. This seems congruent with existenislism, in that you are responsible for creating the things you have value in. Or at least that what it seems like to me…

  11. Scott Young says:

    Eugene,

    I certainly don’t have any illusions of perfect knowledge–experience does guide ideas, and that is part of life. But I also won’t cede discussions simply because the other party feels I lack such experience. Doing so would be intellectually lazy.

    My point with the article wasn’t to attack your perception of happily ever after, or really to debate utopia. The point was to make a distinction between the amount of variety, in the time-slowing sense, in one’s life, and its pleasantness. While I would agree that the two concepts usually correlate (boredom isn’t usually enjoyable) I believe there’s significant deviation between the two ideas.

    What I find interesting is that this creates the possibility of tradeoffs, or at least of selecting a life to maximize one over the other. I don’t know which is better–seeking to maximize pleasantness, interestingness or some point between the two. But having the discussion lets us know a little bit more about what exactly it is we’re seeking in creating a life for ourselves.

    -Scott

  12. J says:

    Hi Scott,

    This post really hits me.

    My fear of perfection or (‘happily ever after’) has led me to some self-destructive habits. While I was at school, I avoided doing my homework any earlier than the night before it was due to avoid the discomfort of having everything done. I had finished it early in the past, but hated the feeling and so, opted for procrastination. As such, I never got the best out of my work – in terms of both grades and learning (I didn’t spend time with the material).

    I also do things like go to bed late and other things that lead me away from a healthy lifestyle. My house has been messed up for years because I think I’m afraid of what it would be like if it was pristine. I think I fear that if I didn’t have the weight of it on my mind, maybe there would be… nothing… on my mind.

    However, after reading this article, I feel like I could create new problems for myself. Meaningful ones. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so ‘perfect’ or uncomfortably comfortable if I had higher standards. Right now, it’s little things like sleeping early that make me feel perfect and uncomfortable. I think my fear is that once I’ve done everything, there won’t be anything to do. I’ll hit the dreaded ‘happily ever after’.

    I think the solution may possibly be coming up with something greater to do. Like, maybe sleeping early wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t my main goal in life. >.> I think I need to strive for something greater, and keep in mind the next thing greater after that. I might just aim for the impossible.

  13. A.I. says:

    For J, if (s)he reads it. I know I check up on places I’ve commented for responses.
    You should consider these things: (1) Maybe not commenting (or writing), at least so long, if you have little to say. (2) Maybe you shouldn’t worry about sleeping early or such little things. Maybe you should only worry about figuring out the big things and letting the little things fall into place (I don’t know personally, but I’m certainly getting the impression from Ryan Holiday and others). (3) Maybe you should consider that it’s preposterous to think that there will someday be nothing left to do (I think Tim Ferriss is a great example of finding many new crazy awesome things to do).
    Maybe? Best, A.I.

  14. Hey Scott.

    I can’t say I really agree with you.
    For me you have 4 parts of your life; Finances, Career, Health and Relationships.

    I think you can have a happily ever after when it comes to your career or finances.
    Like you could be a full time blogger making X dollars/month for the rest of your life.

    That just means that you don’t have to spend more creative energy there. You just let that part of your life go on.

    That doesn’t mean life if over!
    You can still work on your health, relationships, knowledge and personal development.

    You have so much more that might not make the earth shatter and not worth making a movie about, but on the other hand maybe you will.
    Life, health, relationships, living, having fun, doing other things than working, that is happily ever after and it is the best part of life.

  15. J says:

    A.I.,
    I thought I reached those conclusions at the end of my post a la “higher standards”, “strive for something greater” and to do so again “after that” (i.e. keep creating so there is never nothing left to do).

    I think it’s inappropriate to advocate censorship on the basis of opinion. I appreciate that I could have been more concise, but to suggest I should’ve abstained from posting altogether is another story. Even if everyone, including Scott, thought I had nothing worthwhile to say, I’m sure he’d appreciate knowing that someone read his article and felt enough about it to post their thoughts (even if they were long and repetitive).

    It might not have been much food for thought, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t something else to someone else.

    But, yes, perhaps I could work on condensing my posts whilst still getting the message across. Thank you.

  16. Peter says:

    It’s not enough to want to be happy. It takes some work, too, especially inner work.

    I just signed up for a free online seminar that digs into the real pursuit of happiness, which is part of growth and awareness. Starting June 10th is the Ultimate Men’s Summit. Features 75 luminaries sharing important insights on men’s transformation and 21st century masculinity. Includes: Robert Bly, Sam Keen, Jack Canfield, Neale Donald Walsch, Dan Millman and many more. All free!

    I’m really excited to be attending, it should be a great event. Women are also encouraged to participate, my wife just registered, too!

    For more details: http://ultimatemenssummit.com/feature/s

  17. Al Pittampalli says:

    Great post. Human beings need to experience constant growth to be happy. And growth is always preceded by discomfort. Happily ever after is a myth. And thank god it is!

  18. John Paton says:

    Hi Scott,
    Let me first check that I have understood your chain of thought. In the article you are questioning whether there is a tradeoff between pleasantness and interestingness when choosing the degree of variety in life. Its possible for life to be both monotonous and pleasant (for example being on vacation playing tennis all day). However, this scenario may lead to a lack of variety which could cause existential angst.

    Here are some thoughts:
    1) If interestingness and variety are pursued as a way of avoiding angst, might this quest eventually also gain a sense of monotony. It seems to me that if your life was all about travel, then travel might eventually become monotonous, and this in turn might create a feeling of angst. Perhaps any attempt to avoid angst is destined to fail?
    2) Perhaps interestigness and pleasantness are the wrong things to be maximizing. When we look at the example of the monk who spends hours a day meditating it seems that the important thing is the extent to which he is developing an awareness of the world. For him, it probably doesn’t matter whether his life seems fast or slow, or even whether his life seems interesting. From this perspective it doesn’t seem to matter whether life is filled with variety or not. The question is simply whether your current practices help you to keep on developing awareness.

  19. Michael says:

    If fear of future boredom is causing existential pain, then you are in a really bad and dangerous situation. (Of course, this applies to many people in Western society, and probably even more so to those in the ‘new’ countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). The further you are from simply perceiving the reality of your present moment and not recognising the existence of past or future time, the more unhappy you will be.

    There is no way to rationally understand or explain this problem or the solution. My suggestion to move to Vancouver, and then keep going. Spend a year or two in China. It will be cheap, there will be plenty to do and see, lots of physical, mental and spiritual challenges, and you will be surrounded by people. It will challenge you and broaden you in a way that is impossible to explain. Get away from the machine world of the West for a while. It will do you good.

  20. Chris R. says:

    Interesting article. I think one’s perspective may change when a spouse and children enter the picture as “happily ever after” may signify that one’s individual life and needs becomes fused with a shared life that needs to account for the needs of others. Routine may then be more of a choice to provide stability for security. I’m sure young children will have something to say about going through turbulence just because Mom or Dad choose to fight against happily ever after.

  21. Scott Young says:

    John,

    Yes–as I mentioned in my last article, the perpetual traveller would himself experience a sense of routine. But just because we habituate, doesn’t mean interestingness is impossible, or that all lives are equal in terms of interestingness.

    As for whether pleasantness or interestingness are proper things to maximize, that’s an even more difficult question. I’m skeptical of believing monk-like ‘awareness’ is correct either, however. We implicitly assume in our culture that the values of a monk is necessarily best–but in order to judge that, you need to use the same values, so it’s a tautology.

    I’d agree that interestingness or pleasantness are probably not the highest goals of existence, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless to consider the tradeoffs. One could talk about the tradeoff between location independence and salary, even though those are far from the ultimate goals of human endeavor.

    -Scott

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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