Happiness is Picking Your Problems

Or, Life is a Big Game of Whack-a-Mole

The first of The Three Most Important Things is that the whole point of life is to be happy. But what is happiness?

For an answer to that I’ll turn to one of my favorite quotes, courtesy of Marshall Goldsmith:

The great Western disease is, ‘I'll be happy when... When I get the money. When I get a BMW. When I get this job. When I get the relationship,’ Well, the reality is, you never get to when. The only way to find happiness is to understand that happiness is not out there. It's in here. And happiness is not next week. It's now.

This is invaluable insight and it has helped me tremendously. But if you think about it carefully for a while, I think you inevitably arrive at a question:


Why isn’t happiness next week? Why doesn’t getting a new BMW make you happy forever? Through hard work and determination shouldn’t it be possible to achieve a permanent, or at least sustainable, state of happiness?

The answer is no, of course. And the reason, it turns out, is that life is like physics: each action has a reaction. Everything you do changes something, often multiple things. Ideally those reactions are good reactions, but not always. No matter how good your intentions, many actions still have some negative consequences. Like it or not life is basically a big game of whack-a-mole.

So what’s a poor guy (or gal) to do? Should we just acknowledge that everything will always be a mess and resign ourselves to being miserable? Many people do, unfortunately, though at least now we can compassionately understand why. But I think there’s a better way, one that I credit to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck:

Happiness is picking your own problems.

There is no utopia to be achieved. There is no life without problems. Really - ask anybody you think has a perfect life and they’ll educate you otherwise. Some problems are better to have than others, for sure, but like it or not life is an on-going series of problem solving exercises. The people who are happiest, therefore, are the ones who pick their own problems.

You’re always going to have problems. I doubt you need me to tell you that. So which problems do you want to deal with - the ones someone else (a parent? a spouse? a friend?) chooses for you? The ones that come your way randomly because you’re wandering through life letting it happen to you? Or do you want to tackle the ones you find fulfilling on their own? The ones that get you closer to your long-term goals? The ones that make the world a better place? The choice is yours, it turns out. Simple but not easy.

Maybe Goldsmith was partially wrong. Maybe happiness can be both now and next week. If you define happiness as having good problems to solve I think you can have both. You’re going to have problems to solve next week anyway - why not make them problems that you like?