Reader Request Week 2014 #3: How I Stay Happy
Kate George asks:
You seem happy and well balanced. You have a great daughter and although I don’t know much about your wife you speak well of her. You are fairly consistent on your blog and don’t seem to have much angst about the times you can’t be here. How to you maintain your equilibrium, sense of humor and kindness when you must get really worn out with everything you do?
Well, one answer to that is that the reason I seem largely happy and well-balanced is that I intentionally choose to project an online persona that is largely happy and well balanced. I’ve always been pretty open about reminding people that the online John Scalzi is a tuned and mediated version of me — not a lie, but a presentation of who John Scalzi is that brings some elements to the front and moves other elements to the back.
The online version of me is (usually) friendly and engaging and funny, tells clever stories about his family, friends and pets, and so on. He also almost never talks about his home life in any great detail, never tells you when he and his wife are having a point of contention or when he gets annoyed with his child, and keeps most of his significant personal frustrations to himself. Why? Because it’s usually not your business, and also because it’s not usually relevant to what I do here.
Here’s one relatively harmless example of the difference between the online me and the offline me. Last year, when I did a recap of the LoneStarCon 3 convention, I mentioned that I came into the Worldcon not being “in the best of moods.” Generally speaking, this is true. A more accurate statement would have been to say I was in such a bad mood from the first half of 2013 and so tired from a combination of factors that I originally had no desire for, interest in or intention of attending the convention at all. The reasons for this are numerous, some of which are public enough to be guessed at but some of which are not; the point is I’d gotten to the stage where my feeling about most of humanity (and the science fiction/fantasy portions of it in particular) were, “you know what? Fuck all y’all, I’m going to sleep through August.”
The only reason I attended at all was because Krissy essentially told me I had to. Her exact words to me explaining why are not a matter of public record, but the gist of it came down to “You’re going to win the Hugo this year and I want to be there for it, and that thing is half mine for putting up with your whiny ass all this year.” So we went, and two things happened. One, I got in a lot better mood generally because I was seeing friends and other people who I liked, and I remembered that in fact I did like most people most of the time, including science fiction folk; Two, Krissy was correct about the Hugo thing, and I’m not going to lie: winning that rocket made me pretty damn happy.
Moral of the story: Listen to Krissy. And also: The online John Scalzi is a public persona — not a false persona, but one designed for its medium.
With that noted, I will also admit that by and large I am a generally happy person. I am susceptible to periods of irritation, fatigue and crankiness like any person would be (see above), but by and large my psychological resting state is one of pleasant contentment with my life — which is to say that mostly, happy where I’m at. How do I manage that?
1. I don’t appear to suffer from depression as a medical issue, which means I don’t have my own neurology inclining me toward being unhappy. Given the number of people I know who suffer from depression in this way, many of whom I count among my close friends, I’ve come to recognize this as a fortunate thing which I get for free. I’ll take it.
2. My life is good in all the ways a life can be good — happy family, excellent friends, good career, nice material possessions — and while it’s possible to have all that and still be fundamentally unhappy, for me I am mindful of the benefits that accrue to me from all of those. Reminding one’s self of the good things one has in life does smooth out the cranky parts, at least for me.
3. Related to this, I am in a fortunate position in my life where, with regard to most of the things I do, the worst case scenario is that my life is no worse off than it is right now. Reminding myself of that fact eliminates a lot of stress and allows me to be cheerful about taking some risks (and sometimes screwing up or failing).
4. I strictly limit the number of people I am obliged to pay attention to, when it comes to living my life. Currently, the people to whom I must listen in this case are my wife, my daughter and (rather down from there in terms of importance) editors and the occasional business partner. Everyone else gets paid attention to on advisory basis — or not, since I also consider the source. Knowing who I must pay attention to, and keeping that number small, is a key to happiness.
5. I also stay aware of the amount of time/energy/influence I can bring to things and as much as possible budget accordingly — which is another way of saying I try to know my limits, both when it comes to work and to things in my personal and online life. I’ll note that my assessment of my personal limits here will often run counter to what other people think I can or should do (this is particularly the case when someone wants to point me at a problem they see online), but this is where point four comes in handy.
6. Related to point five, and with particular regard to the online world, I remind myself that I have a great deal of control of who I interact with and who I don’t. Most people are lovely and deserve the same courtesy and kindness I would hope to get, but some people prove themselves not worth my time. Those folks I stop paying attention to. I know they’re still out there, hopping up and down and hoping I’ll engage. I won’t — or if I do it will be in a manner of my choosing, not theirs. Recognizing I have this sort of control makes me happy; it also makes the people who think I should respond to them they way they want me to unhappy. Which also makes me happy, because, honestly. Fuck ’em.
Now, one thing to be clear about is that most of these points bring into stark relief a certain amount of — here comes that word — privilege I have in my life; bluntly put I have the means, ability and social capital to accentuate the things that make me happy and to minimize the things that make me unhappy, and more so than many other people. Do I recognize that fact? Absolutely. Is that fact it fair? Possibly not. Will that stop me from acting on it? Nope, because I still have to live that life, and I want to be happy.
And even with all that going for me, and to repeat, I still can be unhappy — note my mood going into LonestarCon 3. That’s because I can’t control some things that have an impact on my happiness; I sometimes make decisions (or through inaction allow others to make decisions) that act against my happiness; I can despite my best efforts focus on the things that irritate me; I can still sometimes be unhappy just because.
(And, also — and this is very important — sometimes I need to be unhappy because I’ve done something foolish and/or stupid and/or ill-advised and being unhappy is the appropriate response, as part of the process of correcting my own bad action.)
What I can say is that when I am unhappy, I usually try not to wallow in it too much. If there’s a reason for the unhappiness — and particularly if I am the agent of it being in my life — I try to correct it. If there’s not a reason for it, I try to get happy. Sometimes you do need to make the conscious choice to be happy. For all the reasons listed above, usually it’s not that difficult for me to do. That’s a good thing. And it’s a fortunate thing. It’s a happy thing.
(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)