How to Be Happy In a World Designed to Depress You

My grandmother's neighbor Ivan taught me a lot about finding joy in the mundane.

When the pandemic first hit, we thought our lives would get more simple. We no longer had to worry about our outfits. We no longer had to figure out the logistics for getting to work, dropping the kids off, and making plans with friends. Our calendars were wiped clean.

But even though everything was stripped to its most bare-boned form, we still found things to worry about.

We started getting on Zoom calls, and suddenly, we began obsessing over our pixelated appearance. This has led to "perceptual distortion," which occurs when we “highlight a fault, then focus disproportionately on it until it becomes magnified” in our perception. Our smartphones can further alter body image, due to the angles at which we hold them. As a result, the plastic surgery industry has exploded in popularity over recent months.

“Celebrities have to look good in front of people,” says Gordon Lee, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. And now, for many who are living through the Zoom Boom, “so do regular people”.

One of life’s great ironies is that simplicity has become pretty complicated. Technology was supposed to make our lives easier — and it has, in many ways — except it hasn’t made them simpler.

There’s always a notification here, an email that needs responding there. Things compete for your attention at all hours in the night. In turn, this “easy” world has made us reactive, defensive, worried, and distracted.

As a result of the pandemic, we now live online. We've begun to over-identify with our virtual selves more so than with our un-filtered regular selves.

Happiness has never felt more elusive. That's because we think happiness stems from success and appearance and money and stuff. That's not happiness; that's excess.

I’ve written about minimalism before, and noted that the worst form of excess is to achieve everything you’ve ever dreamed of and realize that somehow you’re still not happy and that something is still missing. And that, my friends, sucks.

There’s this famous passage from Matt Haig’s memoir Reasons to Stay Alive:

"The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more?

"How do you sell an anti-aging moisturizer? You make someone worry about aging. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind.

"To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business."

So this leads me to my grandmother’s neighbor Ivan. He lives in a small town near the Rila mountains in Bulgaria where it’s not uncommon to see sheep, chickens, and cows just casually wandering around.

Ivan has animals, he does a ton of physical work every day, and he seems genuinely happy. His biggest worry the last time I saw him was how horrible airplanes are for the environment and how he sees them in the sky every day now.

He couldn’t care less about anti-aging moisturizer, plastic surgery, or smartphones. He may lead a simple life, according to our standards, but it’s not in any way less busy or fulfilling.

It's not that Ivan doesn't have problems in his life, it's that he's learned how to find beauty in the mundane. For example, he loved this picture so much, he asked my grandmother to get it printed so he could frame it. He had never had a picture with his sheep before. It's a life of minimalism, but it's also a life of deliberately finding small, daily moments of joy.

So here's one thing we can all take away: Rather than obsessing over what we perceive as flaws, maybe for once we could appreciate the wrinkle or the gray hair that we see on our Zoom screens. It's a revolutionary act to notice those tiny moments of beauty so we can stop stuffing the pockets of beauty brands and plastic surgeons.

As Haig writes, “Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind."

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