Happiness Is Future Tense

I don’t know what this post is about yet, but it’s probably about my favorite friendly ghost, happiness.

I do know that I need to blog every day (as recommended by one of the greats of our technological time, Seth Godin), and write through the bad writing to get to the good, so here goes.

While learning how to be happier, I keep forgetting to not go backwards. Backwards means seeing patterns. Backwards means giving credence to the bad times, which can always be found, if you look over your shoulder.

I’m writing this from a new neighborhood, and a new coffee shop, a cove away from the stresses of 9 to 5 and the trappings of home. It’s close to where I used to live. It’s full of sleek new hotels, and last night I stayed in one of them. The bed was two feet off the ground and the television was ten feet up the wall. I thought of Japan and its enclosed spaces and felt at ease. The tiny bottles of shampoo and body lotion smelled like cucumbers. I thought about my work (advertising) and how much scent matters, and how challenging it is to convey scent with an ad.

This picture is of Ludlow Coffee Supply, a respite from my regular routine in Brooklyn. I’ve been renting out my apartment more and more on Airbnb. I learned yesterday that the name Airbnb comes from ‘air mattress,’ because that’s how the founder first began their venture, renting out their air mattresses and giving guests a local’s experience of San Francisco. You have to start somewhere.

Trading my home for other people’s homes and capsule hotels in the Lower East Side, I’ve never felt more free. Before the tiny hotel with the too-low bed and the strange blue lights, I was in a cabin in Vermont, following my dog through the owner’s frisbee golf course in the woods to a calm pool of cold water. We’d been looking for swimming holes for two days. I was reminded how boring my life would be without this dog.

But there has to be a catch, right? Poverty and uncertainty must be just around the corner. And, probably, death. Well, definitely death.

On a 15-mile hike in Zion National Park a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking a lot about money. I was thinking mostly about money. I was doing calculations in my head, adding up expenses with every click of my walking stick against the sandstone under my feet. I’d found the stick halfway through the hike, and took it back to my camp to carve symbols representing the trip in it with my pocketknife, then left it for the next camper.

Numbers kept me company on this hike, and ravens, and the walking stick, which seemed almost alive after awhile, like a pet. And I was thinking about the parts of my brain being squeezed by stress, and how if I relieved them of this feeling, I’d probably have to hand over the stress to other parts of my brain. I was thinking about switching jobs, going untethered from the work and group of coworkers I love so dearly, and what life would look like if I did.

So of course I thought of the past: going freelance after the great recession, and watching my income yo-yo between $18,000 and $55,000. Things are so different now, but the “story” I tell myself about myself, to borrow a Tony Robbins term, takes the past of most resistance against risk, and what often comes down the road from risk: happiness.

This again makes me think of the Airbnb founders, who, for one thing, ran up $20,000 in credit card debt trying to sell Obama O’s (which was a strategy to bring more attention to their core product). The Airbnb founders who launched their site six times, with hardly anyone noticing the first five times. The Airbnb founders who failed over and over again for four years.

My own hard times taught me, a bit ironically, how many things I am good at. Financial stress is a great kick in the pants, a great enabler of pivots. My hard times also taught me that there’s a difference between choosing a simpler life and hiding behind one. Between working hard for the things you really care about, and letting yourself off the hook. Thinking you’re unburdening yourself of stress, when really you need stress to be challenged, to grow stronger.

What kind of stresses are the right kind, and at what juncture? At this moment, I’m looking for the stress of the new, the stress that comes from starting a new job, learning a new language, trying a new sport. Failing and failing, and bouncing right back up, because the thrill of proving something to a new thing and new people–and my past self–is too great to resist. And I’m relishing the stress of being a nomad because the feeling of stepping into another person’s world, however superficially, and letting others do the same with mine, is far more powerful than the risks.

And because the stress of living out of one canvas tote bag, I recently discovered, can be alleviated by the scent of cucumbers.

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