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.