Want to Be Happy? Solve a Problem.

In life, they say, two things are certain: death and taxes. A depressing prospect and one it doesn’t pay to fixate on, but it’s true that we’re always going to have problems, big and small. When we solve one problem, others will crop up in its place.

Case in point: I finally land that big client, which solves my money problems. But now I have to fight DC traffic once a week to meet with him.

Or, my husband and I decide to solve our “feeling connected” problem by having a monthly date night. But now we have to find a babysitter and agree on a place to go, which is trickier than it sounds.

I decide to replace my ill-fitting cheap-o scratched sunglasses with expensive sunglasses. They look, fit and feel good. They even help me see better. But now I have to worry about losing them, breaking them or having them stolen out of my car when I’m in DC with that client.

Notice how simple problems are replaced by bigger, more complicated problems? In life, we are always  exchanging and up-level one problem for another.

The cool thing is, solving problems can actually make us happier. “Happiness comes from solving problems. The keyword here is ‘solving.’ If you’re avoiding your problems or feel like you don’t have any problems, then you’re going to make yourself miserable. If you feel like you have problems that you can’t solve, you will likewise make yourself miserable. The secret sauce is in the solving of the problems, not in not having problems in the first place,” says Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (which is maybe the best book title, ever). Mark’s thesis is that most people choose one of two possibilities: 

1. They live in a state of denial of their problems, which manifests in constant distraction like watching TV, drinking, an over-emphasis on their social life or working out or any type of short-term band-aid … at the expense of everything else, or

2. They live in a state of constant victimhood. This type of person often says or feels, “there’s nothing I can do” about their problems. They often blame others or their circumstances for their bad feelings, which gives them the quick high of moral righteousness. But like many drugs, righteousness too is short-lived. These victims become angry, helpless people who easily slip into despair (and throw entire baskets of laundry across rooms). These folks start to believe they can never be successful.

Oh man I am such a poster child for each of these possibilities! I have literally tried all of the distractions out there (running, working out, partying, TV, self-help) and then some, and I always come up empty-handed. Actually, distraction does help for a while because you’ve found this new avenue, hobby, friend or drug to take your mind off how depressing your life is. But since it only covers up the problem, there’s an insecurity and worry that underlies everything. You’re scrolling social media, making sure the party you went to, the run you went on or the friends you have are better and more meaningful than everyone else’s. You always come down from the high and suffer the inevitable (sometimes actual) hangover when you’re living in denial. It creates tons of anxiety, because you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

Victimhood is equally bad. These victims are sometimes able to escape their bad situation through leaving a bad job or a bad marriage. But they never take an active role in creating what they actually do want in their lives. They might not even know what their “best life” would look like if they were actually living it! When you’re on the pendulum between moral righteousness and victimhood, it’s easy to slip into depression. There’s a feeling that there’s no way out, and that you’re not really in control of your destiny. 

Is it any wonder then that anxiety and depression are two of the most common problems out there today?