I’ve spent a lot of time working on my experiential and physical health this year. The tech and creative industry (and Western culture as a whole) is filled with sad stories of overwork: burnout, long hours at an office, sedentary, stressed, unhealthy, and constantly delaying life until later, until “after.” After the project is over, after the promotion, after the kids grow up, after after after after, this is when I will finally experience life and take care of myself.
I too fell victim to this mentality for a while. How can you not, when you want to work hard and succeed? We all know that success is not all sunshine and butterflies. It requires sacrifice, dedication, a willingness to go farther and try harder than other people, and so we push, and we work, and we go hard and long and deep, because that is success, isn’t it?
It could be my Millennial cynicism at the concept of retirement, or just seeing too many empty, sunken eyes of my peers who should be exuding vibrance, or my own deteriorating physical health becoming more noticeable… but I quickly started to realize that this “virtue” of hard work was turning us all into martyrs, dying at the altar of dedication simply for its own sake. And for what purpose? Spend your whole life simply working hard, and all you’ll have to show for it at the end is a bunch of hours of work. It was all a little too Death of a Salesman for me to accept for long.
WHY are we really doing this? WHY do we keep pushing so hard? It’s not for the sake of work.
We’re all just trying to be happy.
So I decided to take my happiness into my own hands, and deliberately make decisions to support it. Yes, there would still be days, or even weeks, where I would have long hours to meet deadlines and obligations. It would still be stressful, and challenging, but damned if I was going to die with regret for never having lived.
And so, I began to focus on experiences. To travel, to meet people, to speak, to learn, to collaborate, to visit new cities, or new places within my own city. Ride my bike down new paths, read new books, hear new views. Photos of sunsets and sunrises, skylines and seasides. Laughing faces, friends together, selfies in fun locations, endless photos of road trips and airplane wings out windows, likes and favorites streaming in with envious comments.
And I focused on physical health. Became dedicated to exercise multiple times a week. Lifting weights to get stronger, biking farther, walking, dancing, staying active every day. Purchased a fitness tracker to help me with my goals. Prepared healthy and balanced meals, didn’t overeat, occasionally splurged on treats without overdoing it, lost weight, lost clothing sizes, got leaner, got stronger, got stamina. Better heart rate, better lung capacity, better abs. Strategic angled photos with the right lighting to show off the body I am slowly becoming proud of, that I am earning and working on, likes and favorites and omg you look great.
It’s wonderful, it’s glorious, it’s interesting. What a fun and fascinating life I live, I am told. Your social media account shows so many fun things, so many adventures, so many smiles in so many places. You look great, your life looks so cool, you’ve really figured it out.
I laugh when people say these things to me, and joke that social media must be doing its job to make people believe my life is so wonderful. Like most jokes, however, there’s usually a grain of truth. It’s true that I am living a life I am proud to have cultivated. But… is it happy? Am I happy? Why am I not happy?
Experiential and physical health are extremely important, but they are not the whole story. And yet, they are so easy to focus on because they are the things we can quantify. Places visited, books read, talks given, events attended, classes taught, side projects completed, weights lifted, clothing sizes dropped, likes and comments received. They can be photographed, blogged, Instagramed, Facebooked, Tweeted, Snapped, adorned with stickers and filters and served up to your friends and family, to the world at large, saying, “Look, I did this!”
Even trying to be better, even trying to be real, I am still presenting this ideal version of myself to the world, and hiding the total mess and chaos on the inside. No amount of external social validation for whichever particular contour of my newly-shapely abs I chose to share will erase the deep, bitter self-loathing I have towards my perceived physical imperfections, and the feelings of unattractiveness and unworthiness I have inside. No curated accounts of smiling faces met and beautiful places visited will help me when I’m overwhelmed and small and stressed and feeling like a failure and not sure I should even be doing what I’m doing.
I’ve pursued health the same way I once pursued work, for its own sake. Thinking it’s something I can quantify, thinking if I check off enough boxes, I will get there, and my happiness will come “after.” After I have given enough talks, after I’ve visited enough places, tasted enough new foods, flattened my stomach, shared my life online, posted the perfect anecdote. But, though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to share your life experiences with others, the photos and likes and comments and compliments won’t help me erase my hangups and insecurities, they might just help me mask them for a while.
And so I realize that it’s the less glamorous parts of health that I need to pursue as well. If we don’t address our mental and emotional health when we address our physical and experiential health, we are only addressing part of the story. When we treat our health holistically, I think that is probably the true path to happiness.