Making Life More Worthwhile

“[T]he quality of the journey has to become more important than […] your destination. Because, most of your life is the journey.” - Sam Harris

“If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?” - Naval Ravikant

During the last five years, I struggled a lot with happiness. Here, I’m using “happiness” as a blanket term for contentment, joy, satisfaction, and the like. I would have fleeting moments of happiness followed by drawn-out periods of emptiness and apathy. About three years ago, I started practicing mindfulness meditation regularly. And since about a year ago, I’ve been trying to puzzle out how to be more happy. Slowly but surely, ever-present apathy is making way for satisfaction and equanimity. Seeing this improvement, my overall “zest for life” has also increased. In this post, I try to articulate the process that is responsible for this positive shift in my life.

It’s simple, maybe even a bit simplistic. Broadly speaking, there are two things you can do to any activity to make it more worthwhile.

  1. Edit the activity itself in some way. You can modify it, or even remove it completely (choose not to do it).

  2. Changing your internal state while performing the activity.

I believe that any, or both, of these can be applied to most activities in life. And, doing so can dramatically improve the quality of your life.

Editing the activity

For any given activity, you are either obligated to do it (need/should/must), or you choose to do it (want), or both. If not, don't do it. For example, you might not fancy the thought of doing the dishes tonight. But if you don't wash them, your apartment might get smelly, which will make your housemate mad, which will make them want to stop living with you, which will increase your rent burden… you get the idea. You must do it. On the other hand, it's not like you need to watch the latest season of Attack on Titan, but you really want to.

If you already enjoy the activity, then you might not need to make any edits to it. If not, consider aligning that activity more with your interests and goals. As an example, I turned my GRE prep from a dull, dreaded activity to something that was fun and improved my writing. Similarly, I “studied” for the TOEFL speaking test by doing voice drills and mimicking dialogues in TV shows out loud. Or, I took an Aerial Silks class to improve my flexibility rather than just stretching.

Changing your internal state

Try this. Turn off all distractions and pay careful attention while you do your dishes (or any other chore) tonight. Feel the texture of the sponge, observe its motion as you scrub the plates. Vividly notice the interaction of soap, water and grime. Notice your thoughts and the sounds around you.

The odds are that doing the dishes was a little more enjoyable. You didn’t change anything about the activity here. You simply paid clear attention to something you were already doing. This kind of careful attention is one of the core elements of mindfulness meditation.

In addition to paying attention this way, there are some more internal states that you can invoke that can help improve your feeling of well-being.

  • Curiosity. Being more curious about even very mundane things can make them more interesting. “Hmm…changing lanes can create waves…traffic is so interesting!”
Changing lanes can create waves in traffic. Source: Sweet Random Science
  • Acceptance. I used to hate this word. For as long as I can remember, I've been obsessed with growing and changing as a person. Acceptance implied stagnation, not growth. I've recently come to realize that need not be the case. In fact, when you truly accept things as they are, you get a more accurate picture of reality. It's easier—and more effective—to grow towards a desired future while accepting the present.
  • Useful indifference. Don't care what others think. This is much easier said than done. Imagine that there's some activity you really want to do (e.g., pole dancing fitness class). But your friends are bound to make fun of you for at least a week if you did it. Before doing that activity, consciously resolve to not be affected by your friends' comments, and then just do it. That resolve should make ignoring your friends easier. As you do this more and more often, you might find that not caring what others think has become second nature. There is a great post by Tim Urban on why you should stop caring about what other people think.

Conclusion

Finally, I believe that applying both of these together—editing activities to make them more engaging, and maintaining a harmonious mindset—can make activities in your life, and thereby, life itself, more worthwhile.