Why You Need to Suffer to Be Happy
The f*cked up origin story of human happiness.
I’ve never really considered myself “a confident person”.
My lovely brain is constantly riddled with anxieties, intrusive thoughts, and insecurities — all of which I’ve worked tirelessly to deal with over the years.
But in the last year or so, I’ve changed the way I think about confidence.
I’ve stopped playing the confidence game because I think it’s stupid. I’ve stopped trying to force myself to be confident. This, ironically, has done incredible things for my confidence.
However, this article isn’t really about confidence.
This article is about suffering and happiness.
This article is about how when you stop trying to be happy (and start seeking suffering), you become happier (and also more confident).
This is a weird one. Buckle up, and let’s dive in.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Viktor Frankl, psychologist, author, and Holocaust surivor
What causes modern suffering?
Viktor Frankl (the guy who said the quote above) was in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
You’re reading this article on a piece of technology that didn’t exist 30 years ago. I wrote this article on my laptop and edited it on my fancy iPhone while drinking a cup of tea.
Odds are, your life is much “easier” than Mr. Frankl’s. Mine is too.
And yet, people today still struggle with a lot of the same problems that ole Viktor did. We just have a different kind of trap.
And what is it that modern people fear?
Instead of fearing Nazis or death camps, people today often mostly fear being unexceptional by their own standards — we fear not getting what we want out of life. We are terrified that our lives won’t end up the way that we imagine they will.
We’re not scared of Nazis (even though they’re still around somehow), we’re afraid of mediocrity.
Maybe I’m being audacious, but I’d argue that the modern fear of mediocrity is for many people as strong as the fear people had of the Nazis in World War 2. People do crazy things to not be mediocre.
We make ourselves miserable for this goal.
See, the source of suffering doesn’t matter much in terms of the sensations it creates.
Luckily, modern problems are a bit easier to solve than the problems of 1930s Germany. At the very least, we don’t need to go to war with a crazy person to make you happier.
We just need to get you to stop wanting results, and start wanting pain.
Before you dismiss me as a masochist, let me explain:
What if you were an ugly troll with no skills?
When I’m anxious about my improvement, I sometimes play through thought experiments like these in my head:
If I was destined to be a god-awful writer, would I still write?
If I was destined to lose every grappling match for the rest of my life, how much longer would I compete?
If most relationships that I have are going to fail, are they still worth having?
If the situations above actually happened, my life would have a lot more suffering than it currently does. That’s kind of why I do these “cynical thought experiments”.
The answers you have to these questions (or whatever your version of these questions are) will say a lot about your resilience to “suffering”. When the suffering is inevitable (which it is anyway), you realize have to develop a response to it that is deeper than just trying to fix your results.
It should be pretty obvious through this framework to see that there’s more to life than just getting results, but that doesn’t mean we always think that way.
Personally, I’m very competitive. I’d rather eat a Tide pod than be mediocre at something. I usually live with a “success or else” mindset — where little matters to me except results.
The problem is that this is terrible for the kind of personal growth that is sustainable (and desirable for most people).
Growth, happiness, and peace happen when you start seeking suffering through failure.
Ironically, when you do this, it will probably make you more successful in the long run.
This paradox can be best explained on a micro level with Jiu-Jitsu training:
Why it’s good to fail.
In Jiu-Jitsu, if you come into the gym and only do easy rounds, you’ll have a fun training session.
If you only roll with people who you can tap out, you’ll feel great about yourself. If I only write based on what performs well, I’d feel great about my writing because these threads always perform well.
But in the long run, both of these actions would make me miserable, because easy wins are not what I really want. I want growth.
In life, suffering is like rent. You have to pay it eventually, and the longer you put it off, the less control you have over when it gets paid.
If you skip hard workouts, your performance will suffer when it matters most. You’ll create your own hell based on your inability to struggle.
So here’s what you need to do:
You need to do difficult things that you know you need to do — even if it means you’re going to make less money, have more anxiety, and be in more pain in the short term.
Your soul depends on this.
Call me corny, but I care about that stuff. I want your soul to be happy.
It rains. Even in a perfect world, it rains.
When you get on an airplane on a rainy day, you experience something beautiful.
The plane takes off, and at first, it feels like you’re flying into your dark, cloudy doom. The world is grey. You feel lethargic (probably from a lack of Vitamin D), and you’re not even sure if it’s a good idea for the plane to take off when the world looks as gray as it does.
I’m not a nervous flier, and even I’ve wondered about safety getting onto a plane on a grey and rainy day. When you get on an airplane on a rainy day, you fly into the storm.
Then, after the plane takes off and you fly into the clouds, for a moment, the world is just a grey fluffy mess. It’s like you’ve flown from Earth to the inside of a pillow.
A few seconds later, you exit the pillow, and you’re in the open sky.
This is the part I like:
If you fly high enough on a rainy day, the sun is always shining.
To put it in the words of Jimmy Buffet on the CDs my mom used to play on road trips when I was a kid, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere”.
But it’s not 5 o’clock for you, bud.
What gives you the audacity to think that you don’t have to deal with the suffering of a rainy day?
What makes you think you get to skip to the good part of the day, where it’s 5 o’clock and you’re knocking back an ice-cold beer (or whatever your drink of choice is) and a slice of pizza?
Freedom ain’t free — and I don’t mean that in a corny, Toby Keith kind of way.
I mean that “life ain’t all sunshine and rainbows”, in a corny, Rocky VI kind of way. You need to earn your sunset, in a corny, Jocko Willink kind of way.
You need to suffer a little bit to realize that the world is perfect as it is.
See, over time, you’ll probably realize the sunshine and rainbows you’re after are usually just bandaids for unresolved trauma and anxieties. You can’t “find fulfillment” in a relationship, a competition win, a trip, or anything else.
You can’t find fulfillment at all, actually. You can only get a little taste of it, by committing to living the way you know you’re supposed to live.
Fulfillment comes when you stop running and start suffering (unless running is your chosen suffering, of course).
Fulfillment comes when you start doing hard things — even when they suck.
Especially when they suck.
I’m not really sure if the message in this post is going to land.
People don’t usually love when you tell them to suffer. Being hedonistic is more trendy and sounds better than putting your nose to the grindstone over and over again.
“Just love yourself!” or whatever they say on Instagram.
I won’t say anything about that.
Actually, no. I will:
It’s hard to love yourself when you don’t even respect yourself, and it’s hard to respect yourself when you don’t have the values to qualify the standards you deem respectable. It’s hard to love and respect yourself when you haven’t earned the love and respect you so desperately crave.
Growth is more complicated than one-sentence mantras that you can stick on your water bottle or use as an Instagram caption.
I just got done with a little vacation in Europe, which was a culmination of the last 6 weeks of training my ass off, teaching seminars all over the Midwest, writing every day, and competing several times.
I enjoyed every second of my vacation because I earned it. I suffered a little bit for it.
The doughnuts you earn are better than free doughnuts.
If you don’t resonate with that, I can’t help you.
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