2014 was the year I got serious about happiness.
It was a strange thing to look at my life and realize how rarely I was happy. I'm making a good living as a writer, which has always been my dream. I have a wonderful family, and we all have our health. It felt like I had hit all the necessary milestones to feel both very adult and very content, but my brain rarely rewarded me with the sort of happiness I craved.
I've often heard that happiness is a skill, not a feeling, and I realized how little time I was spending working on the skill of happiness, while waiting passively for the feeling to reach me. It also seemed like my love of gaming and pop culture was hindering this journey, not helping.
From Steam sales to streaming content there was always so much to do, so many piles of shame, that even free time began to feel overwhelming and stressful as I tried to get through everything I wanted to do in the rare time I had for my "fun" pursuits after the children went to sleep. When Netflix, the Kindle app, a gaming laptop and gaming consoles both new and classic offered nearly endless choices, it's easy to become overwhelmed without playing or consuming anything you used to find enjoyable.
This is how I deal with these feelings, and it's a combination of many small things that led me to be much more content and less skittish about not only gaming in particular, but life in general. You're free to take or reject any bit of this advice, everyone is different and you may already be perfectly content with life, but if even one of these things I've learned helps you, that's a win. Here we go!
Give yourself pop culture goals, and stick with them
This is an interesting one, because the more pop culture I had available the more lost I began to feel. Should I watch a movie I've been meaning to see? Should I read more comics through my new Marvel Unlimited subscription? What game should I play? I have a stack of books I've been meaning to read, which one should I read tonight?
I became paralyzed by choice, and the things I used to consider fun began to feel like homework. I spent so much time trying to decide what to do that I used up all the time I had in which to do it. My free time became exhausting. I realize this sounds like a first-world problem, but the reality is that we're constantly offered the choice of entertainment, and you can almost start to feel guilty about not keeping up with all your favorite diversions.
I've often heard that happiness is a skill, not a feeling
So I started making specific goals in the morning, before I had the free time itself later in the evening. I didn't deviate from these goals; if the kids were all in bed I just got to work. I woke up, made a cup of coffee, and said to myself "Today I would love to finish 15 percent more of Far Cry 4, and read three more comics in the House of M event."
And then at 10 p.m. or so when I had 90 minutes before I fell asleep to unwind? I put in Far Cry 4, I got that 15 percent done, I read my three comics, and then I went to bed. I didn't worry about what I wasn't doing, I focused on the fun things I had already decided to do.
Suddenly I was finishing game after game, catching up on my reading and feeling like my free time was spent in a productive, enjoyable manner. The trick for me was just to pick something I wanted to do, get the rest of the choices out of my mind, and go straight to that entertainment and follow through when I had the chance.
If you have a large family or simply many obligations in life — and this is just about everyone — setting concrete, workable goals for what games you want to play or books you want to read and chipping away at the list in an organized manner may make a huge difference in how you approach your free time. These things became fun again, instead of feeling like obligations that waited for me at the end of every day.
This also brings up to my second suggestion...
Buy fewer games
How many games do you own that you don't play? How much money do you spend on games when you have a big pile of games you'd like to finish? I've already talked about why waiting is always better, but I've become brutal about looking at what I'm playing before I buy a game, and once I'm done with a game I bought I tend to get it out of the house either by selling it online and putting the money back in my gaming fund, or giving it to a friend.
Some people love their collections and would never part with a game, and that's perfectly valid. For me, I felt less stressed about how many games I wasn't playing when I only kept the games I was working on, and got rid of things as I finished them. The few games that seemed like they would have long-term appeal were put on the shelf. The collection of classic games went into storage.
It felt good to give games away after I had beaten them; my friends and family tend to like this approach for the obvious reasons, as well. By selling the games the moment I had finished them when I knew I was unlikely to return to them I was able to save a ton of money on the hobby, which could then be spend upgrading my computer or even put in the kids' college fund.
Some games I want to save, as I know I'll likely check out new Destiny content and I'll return to the PlayStation 4 version of Grand Theft Auto 4 again and again, but most games sit on the shelf. By getting them out when I can get the most value from them, or make my friends the happiest, my house has a bit less clutter, and my hobby is a bit more manageable.
Work out for 30 minutes a day
I used to think about working out as a way to lose weight and look better, but once I started seeing it as something to simply do for a bit each day it all became a bit clearer. It doesn't really matter what you do. If you want to run, lift some weights, do some push-ups... it doesn't matter. Just be physical for 30 minutes a day, which is just about long enough to break a sweat and become a bit more aware of your body.
The resulting weight loss and extra energy are the obvious benefits, but I found the mental health boost this caused to be much more beneficial in my own life.
This is a solution to multiple problems
"In 1999, a randomized controlled trial showed that depressed adults who took part in aerobic exercise improved as much as those treated with Zoloft. A 2006 meta-analysis of 11 studies bolstered those findings and recommended that physicians counsel their depressed patients to try it," the Atlantic reported.
"A 2011 study took this conclusion even further: It looked at 127 depressed people who hadn’t experienced relief from SSRIs, a common type of antidepressant, and found that exercise led 30 percent of them into remission — a result that was as good as, or better than, drugs alone."
Everyone's mental health is different, and I'm certainly not advocating getting buff as a replacement for medication or therapy if those approaches work for you or could work. For me, however, 30 minutes of strenuous physical activity has led me to feel much better about just about everything in my life in a way that's easy to quantify.
It also gets me away from the computer and helps to clear my mind. I rarely find solutions to my personal or professional problems by idling in front of a screen and passively ingesting meaningless entertainment, pictures of cats or the other constant distractions you find online. I almost always find another way to think about things after working up a sweat on the treadmill.
This is a solution to multiple problems. Studies show it can help you with feelings of depression, but it can also clear your head if things become cluttered in there, and if you're sedentary in your work and personal life it only takes 30 minutes of real activity a day to burn some calories and give you health benefits.
I've lost weight, become calmer and often feel happier in general after my 30 minutes. I've actually fallen off this habit in the past month, and I can tell by my moods. Writing this has reminded me how important my workout breaks had become, and it's time I get back to it.
Plus, it's easy for me to read on the treadmill, which helps me with my pop culture goals. It all ties together. You may want to run, or get a set of used weights from Craigslist, or do whatever. It doesn't matter, unless you specifically want to work on parts of your body. For me the act of using my body in an extensive way, breaking a sweat, and getting away from screens for 30 minutes brings with it so many benefits that it's an easy priority to make in my day.
This may be a hard sell for many people, but hear me out. I take a tiny amount of time every day, usually between five to ten minutes, and I meditate. I simply breathe in and out, try to clear my head, and let the thoughts come and go. I set a timer, and when I hear the beep I get up and go back to work.
It's the simplest step in this list, but it's the hardest to stick with. It makes me feel silly, for starters. I find it very hard to remain still inside my own head for even tiny periods of time. A co-worker had actually suggested this practice to me, and had me read the book 10 Percent Happier when I came to him for mental health help. I didn't have to hit rock bottom, thank the maker, but I did more or less admit that my life had become unmanageable.
Dan Harris, the author of the book, presents a no-bullshit look at meditation and he struggled with many of the same issues with the practice that I still feel. But the risk versus reward ratio was hard to pass up: Give up a few minutes a day, and get 10 percent happier. The video does a good job of selling meditation in a practical way.
By meditating, by slowing down and spending time with myself for even a short amount of time per day, it's made it a bit easier to be mindful of what I was doing throughout my day and why I'm doing these things. I still yell way too much, I'm not perfectly happy or content, but a 10 percent improvement? Absolutely.
Which is the secret to all of these tips in this story: They all involve becoming mindful, slowing down a bit, and looking at why you're doing things. It's about finding yourself in the often overwhelming torrent of content, even if that content is supposed to be fun. It's about taking control back of your body and brain, even in the tiniest bit.
None of these things solved my problems, and I still struggle with damned near everything, but I'm not drowning anymore. The ocean will always be there, nothing will take it away. But these four tricks taught me how to swim.