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.

Krissy, being right. Photo by Alan Wagner-Krankel.

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.)

28 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2014 #3: How I Stay Happy”

  1. Your wife is very pretty and seems like a smart woman, too.

    I find it’s hard when you have a family to balance everything. All we can do is try. I’ve learned to mellow out a lot in just the past year, but I’m not going to lie–it takes hard work sometimes to let something go instead of getting worked up about it.

    Plus, like you said–I don’t struggle with depression and see so many people who do, so I really can’t complain (although of course, I do sometimes anyway).

  2. I love #4. That is a very clear explication of what I’ve been doing for the last decade that has made an enormous difference in my general happiness level.

    I know so many people who feel like they have to check in with Other People Nos. 1-infinity before they can make a decision or take an action. It makes them miserable and inefficient, and the outcome is never better than if they had just asked that One Important Person.

  3. Knowing who I must pay attention to, and keeping that number small, is a key to happiness“, amen to that!

  4. I’m going to risk whatever quantity of good will I might have accumulated here (and perhaps a mallet-blow for veering off-topic) by wondering aloud about the aptness of “privilege” as a descriptor for what was once called “good fortune” or even “good luck”–that is, those elements of one’s situation that arise from factors outside one’s control or responsibility.

    Just about any term dealing with this matter is going to carry historical/linguistic/dead-metaphor baggage, and my medievalist education makes me especially aware of the assumptions and world-view trailing along behind “good fortune.” (See wheel of fortune, divine providence, and a bunch of other pre-modern ways of dealing with the uneven distribution and unpredictable cessation of life’s goodies, not excluding original sin and divine grace.) To my ear, “privilege” has its own baggage, rooted in political arguments about responsibility, individualism, playing fields, distributive and restorative justice, and so on. And part of that baggage is a suggestion that unearned benefits or conditions not shared with everyone are or ought to be a source of discomfort or embarrassment.

    Before the term became a shibboleth, it was less freighted–in fact, my recollection is that it generally appeared with the prefix under-, unless it was used before “background” or “upbringing.” The former usage was a euphemism for “poor,” while the latter substituted for “rich.” (Sidenote: “entitled” seems to have crowded out the more directly judgmental “spoiled,” let alone my mother’s “spoiled rotten.” In this I hear old-fashioned moral judgment being nudged toward language that is overtly psychological/sociological but still fundamentally moralistic.)

    I just realized that there is a conservative-realm term that at least partly parallels “privilege”: “blessed.” It comes from a vastly different metaphysical world, but it carries much of the same sense of the irrelevance of agency, of being the receiver of some good–of moral as well as grammatical passivity. (For some reason I think of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican.)

    Mallet me if you think it necessary, but your reflections on “happiness” fired off a bunch of neurons (neuroses?) that are still snapping in the background, and those thoughts are still growing connections. But I’ve probably stirred up enough potential strife today.

  5. Russell Letson:

    To be clear, I think I certainly am using the word “privilege” here to encompass the idea of “good fortune” or “good luck” — and I am the first to admit much of my position in life is due to being lucky (with the admonition that “luck” is what happens when you follow through on a nice break — not the break itself). However, I am also using the word to encompass more contemporary definitions as well, i.e., the unearned advantages I get for being a straight white male, etc. Combining both concepts into a single word here works well enough for this particular entry.

    With that said, let me request generally that we don’t go into a wide-ranging discussion of what “privilege” is and (should) mean here, except in the specific context of this entry.

  6. “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.”

    That is awesome.

    I recall some events from last spring that might have been difficult for you.

  7. Maybe privilege is something like talent — you may get some, but actually it’s what you do with it that’s really significant. You got some of both, and you’re doing damned well by it.

  8. “…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.”

    I wish more teachers/parents understood that. There’s been a very concentrated effort, in recent years, to make sure every child perceives himself as a “special snowflake”, and they should never have to experience any negative emotion, even as an appropriate response to the child’s own behavior. In this country, all we’re guaranteed is the right to the *pursuit* of happines, not happiness itself. There are an awful lot of folx out there who think they’re “entitled” to happiness, no matter what the cost. I’m glad you’re not one of them.

  9. I’ve always said the smartest thing one can do is marry the right person. And I have no doubt she deserves half that trophy. :)

  10. small typo: “tells clever stories stories” -> if you want to deal with it. Otherwise easy to ignore

  11. Hi John, nice post. I have a small issue with point 5, however, and I hope you won’t dismiss it out of hand because I’m not one of the people you normally choose to interact with.

    Here’s my point. Not everyone is right about something all the time. It can be about something big, or it can be a very minor thing such as a misunderstanding of communication or intent. For example, someone posting something on your blog that you misunderstand and misinterpret, causing other readers to read the post and your response and get the wrong idea. It’s OK, it happens. However. When they attempt to bring this misundertanding to your attention in the hope that it will get corrected and, well, you “refuse to engage” that person . . .

    My point is that it is too easy for someone in your position of command and authority at this blog to make assumptions (and you know what they say about assumptions). Hey, it’s your happy life and it’s good that you’re happy, and you’re probably right not to care about the opinions of random commenters, but refusing to engage someone who is trying to point out that you made a factual error and not a difference of opinion makes you come across as a less than ideal person.

    Should you care about what people think of you? You probably don’t need to now that you’ve achieved a certain level of professional success, but people don’t stop growing as people until they stop being people.

    Anyway, I will keep reading and enjoying your blog and your books and will also continue to be somewhat envious of your life (still being in the poor stage of my own).

  12. I really appreciate the honesty with which you answered this question. Having been married a long time & raised 3 kids to adulthood I am always a bit suspicious of people with “perfect children” and never complain abut their spouse. It makes sense that you don’t share the less than perfect events that happen to you, like they happen to everyone. It is none of our business and really would not make for a fun read (unless you presented it in a humorous way). The mistake would be in a reader assuming that simply because you never told us about some huge dust up you had with a teenager there has never been a cross word between you. Take it as read that people’s Christmas letters only tell the happy stories & thats OK.

  13. Thanks John.
    I do suffer from depression, and am in therapy for it, whilst at the same time enjoying a lot of privilege – in the context of your post. Financial and professional freedom, and a happy marriage. I really need to remind myself of the good things more.

  14. Calvin:

    Why would I do that?

    Actually, a way to increase happiness is to giggle at the silly people who think that a) my positions would change because I work with Fox now, b) that Fox, as a company, gives a shit. You’ve all seen The Simpsons, right? Anything I’d say here pales in comparison.

    So yeah: silly.

  15. 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.

    How much more terrible to have that privilege (including notably the lack of depression) and choosing not to exercise it, eh?

  16. On the whole depression thing: I do suffer from depression (chronic, endogenous variety – or in non-medical terms, it’s an ongoing problem and it doesn’t have any particular reason, it’s just the way things turned out). I will say this much about it – my life became a whole lot easier when I realised the core of my problem is my brain hates me and wants me to be miserable. All of a sudden, it wasn’t “my problem” as such. It’s a physiological and psychological issue, and sometimes the best defence I have is effectively telling my brain to go tie itself in a knot, and getting on with life anyway.

    This doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that I don’t have my bad periods. I estimate I spend approximately a week each year fighting with my brain about the notion of suicide (as in, working hard against all the habit-building I’ve put into turning thoughts into actions[1]), and I just had two of them this past weekend. It sucks. But if I know it isn’t something I’ve done, or something I’m responsible for (it’s just a quirk of the biochemistry) then there isn’t the whole burden of self-applied guilt about “I should have been better” or “I shouldn’t have done X” to be dealing with.

    One practical thing I’m doing to try and teach myself about thinking positively (or at least not actively thinking negatively) is I have to write down at least three things per day which went right, or which were good about the day. They go into a notebook, and I keep track of the good things in life when I need to. I’m also working to turn my habitual thinking from what I haven’t accomplished to what I have by keeping track of all the stuff I do during a day which is housework related (and I pay myself 10c per item). I find these things build my happiness (in so far as I have the capability to recognise it) and help me deal with the days my brain hates me too.

    (I’m sharing these just in case they might be of use to someone else.)

    [1] Suicidal depression is so much fun. First it puts an air gap between thoughts and actions, so things like “get out of bed and get dressed” can take hours to do. Then, once I’ve finally figured out how to reliably turn a thought into an action, along come the suicidal days, to remind me once again why this is a BAD IDEA!

  17. PS – apparently one of the things I do to stay happy is locate typos on awesome blogs and squee when the author notes he fixed it. :)

    Otherwise, I probably need to work on number 4 – focusing on making happy those people on the short list. It’s a strange part of human nature that those we live with often get the short end of the stick emotionally. It would probably work better for everyone if we focused our care mostly there. Good on you, John, for figuring that out.

  18. Great comment thread! Late remark: to what extent do you believe opportunities for creative outlet correlate to happiness? I suspect creativity correlates strongly to happiness for many and you have created a life with positive feedback loop of creation. Well done sir!

  19. Oh, point 6. I needed to hear point 6 today. Yes.

    (And thank you again for your very significant help at one point in 2013. I knew you were juggling a lot of stuff, and I so very much appreciate your being willing to do something which took a substantial amount of hostly and moderatorial energy and attention.)

  20. Nicely put sir. Points 4, 5 and 6 are so under appreciated by too many who spend their lives trying to please the unpleasable or putting up with nasty people under some alleged obligation (typically family). Family says something nasty to you – start ignoring them. Keep the spouse happy, interact with only those you have to work with, don’t let the bastards grind you down.

  21. A thought provoking post. We all have a “public face” don’t we? I work in a retail pharmacy. There are times when I have to really struggle to be pleasant to my customers, but somewhere during my almost 4 decades on the job I learned to set aside my personal “bad day” and focus on what my customer of the moment needs from me. Mr. Heart Patient couldn’t care less that I just spent 20 minutes fixing a co-worker’s stupid billing error, unless of course it was his prescription that got fubared.

    “Whatever” would be a lot less enjoyable if you were constantly ranting about what particular thing was pissing you off at the moment.