Sometime in the next month I’m going to try to learn how to play the piano again. I took lessons when I was six years old, and I’m proud to say that my mother put up with my constant whining about it for over a year before her resolve weakened and she let me quit. At the time I felt strong and empowered, certain that an extra hour of playing in the dirt every day was infinitely better than learning an instrument that might someday provide me endless enjoyment and help me impress women. It is for this reason, by the way, that we rarely allow six-year-olds to wield executive authority.
Twenty-five years later I decided to try again. I bought myself a keyboard, invested in some training manuals, and got right to work. Lesson 1 was “Distinguishing the Piano From Other Instruments,” and I’m proud to say that I nailed it. I also mastered Lesson 2, “The Basics of Sitting Down,” and I was certain I’d be a concert pianist in no time. Then things got hard, the books expected me to play things, and I quickly found easier ways to occupy my time.
Now I’m about to try a third time, and I know what I’m in for. I am going to hate the process, at least at first. At some point I will be certain that I will never have what it takes to get good at this stupid instrument. Seriously, piano makers – 88 keys!?!?! Are they all strictly necessary? I will contemplate quitting about a million times in the first six months, and if I give in to any one of those impulses then I will once again fail to learn how to play the piano. But if I persevere and continue working at it, I will continue to improve.
And that is exactly how we find happiness. If you are not happy now, or if you believe you could be even happier with something that you don’t currently have, then pursuing it requires some kind of change – eating out less often to save money for that African safari, going back to school to have a chance at a better career, having uncomfortable conversations with friends or loved ones to get them to understand how you feel. The pursuit of a goal always involves struggle, and all of us occasionally succumb to the ease of giving up the fight and sticking with whatever we already have.
Normally, that’s a perfectly fine way to be. If you want a bigger or more expensive house than the one you’re living in but don’t have any way to save up the money for it, then sometimes the best option is to revise the dream and look for a less-expensive option, or even to find happiness in the home you already have. And if you want to learn the piano but decide the effort is not worth the reward, then go ahead and do what I’ve always done – remind myself that I’m pretty good at the drums and that there are still a lot of women who like drummers.
But when our goal is happiness, and when our current state is one of unhappiness, then revision and surrender are no longer good options. Being happy is always better than being unhappy; it’s always worth the work. The problem is, all of us occasionally succumb to the same temptation in our pursuit of happiness that we do in our pursuit of learning an instrument or a foreign language. All of us occasionally decide that fighting for happiness isn’t worth the time and energy. And in those cases, all of us are wrong.
That’s really all there is to it. We search for the things that we believe will make us happy, and then we have to be willing to put in whatever work those things will require. That’s the reason parents universally say that parenthood is simultaneously the most rewarding and most exhausting experience of their lives. If we decide the work is too hard, then we continue to be unhappy. If we don’t, then we become happier.
So if you’re not as happy as you think you should be, there are probably dozens of ways you could find what you’re looking for. Some of them will be easier to achieve than others, but every one of them will take some amount of work on your part. As long as you’re willing to do whatever work is necessary, then you’ll eventually find the happiness you’re looking for.
That said, don’t hesitate to start small. All of us need little victories to encourage us along our way. Which is why I’m first going to focus on buying a cheap keyboard. Pretty sure I can handle that. And then I’ll be halfway there!