The importance of “doing” for one’s happiness lies not only with the need to get away from passivity and all the trouble it brings. Really, it goes much deeper.
It is bound up with the dirty little secret – and at the same time, one potential secret weapon – in our quest for a good life: how good we humans are at cheating ourselves.
This has already been an undercurrent in the discussion so far; it is where many (if not all) the “faulty connections” we construe have their origin: We think that money will make us happy, but never stop to appreciate it, never get enough. We hunt after the next new thing that will be perfect, and forget about what we have (let alone how great we thought it was before we actually had it). At the same time, we can’t do without these things we have forgotten once we are threatened with losing them.
There is an upside to this trap of our own thinking, though. The same way we cheat ourselves, particularly about the importance of possessions – forgetting about some things, overestimating other’s importance – we tend to be great at putting all the things we did do in our lives into a coherent story.
Looking back over a life, regret typically comes from the chances we did not take.
Dreams deferred, job opportunities passed by, people met and lost from sight… those are the things we tend to regret.
Having married a jerk, had a disastrous vacation, gone into a boring job… as long as we don’t just feel pushed into something like that without any control, as long as there is no immediate chance to change the decision, our minds go about synthesizing happiness of it:
“the guy was a jerk, but at least now I know to stand on my own two feet”
“the vacation was a disaster, but now I have hilarious stories to tell about it”
“the job was crazy bad, but it added the push to the shove and got me to do something more, finally”…
You live, you learn – and you make a story of a good life of it.
Hearing it described like that, it sounds somehow insincere, if not unreal.
One does have to be careful not to go overboard: Buying something while leaving the payment to be figured out later, for example, is hardly the risk that is meant here. Jumping into a marriage just because you are head over heels in love at that moment may not be the best choice – but neither is leaving all your options open.
This synthetic happiness is just as real as any other kind of happiness. In the growth that is involved in it, it may be better (not least, longer-lasting) than the burst of joyous feeling one may get from other founts of happiness we most certainly see as real: good food, enjoyable companionship, loosing oneself in dancing and drinking.
You do, however, have to set the right context for it to develop: you have to do something, and to do it wholeheartedly, until it either works out nicely or it’s time to give it up and do something else. You cannot, however, waffle and waver and keep on comparing possibilities and holding all options open.
Of course, this is much harder for a maximizer who wants to choose the very best option (as opposed to satisficers who just look for enough information to act on it and feel they have found the “best-enough” option for the situation as it is right now); and it works out more easily if you are not a person who thinks too much, and too negatively, about him-/herself and his/her life.
Maybe this is why a little trust in a god or fate can also help you get through difficult decisions and phases: letting even something as silly as the throw of a dice make a decision for you takes some of the responsibility off of you, and makes it easier for the mind to just decide that “it wasn’t me who brought this about, so I better make the best of what I was given”…
Thus, the very idea that we can – and will – learn from risking something, that we can turn negative experiences into sources of happiness (as long as we just do something and decide to see what we will learn from it with an open mind) makes it much easier to venture forth. And hardly anything is more important in these times than that we don’t let ourselves get cowed – or “comforted” – into passivity any longer.