5 Things You Think Will Make You Happy (But Won't)
If 80s movies taught us anything, it's that at some point you're going to run into a mysterious relic that lets you switch bodies with other people.
Would you use it? Would you choose to switch lives with, say, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie or Dale DeBone? Most people would.
But let's say the artifact doesn't let you choose, but will instead switch you randomly with one of the other six billion people on the planet. Virtually nobody will take that deal, for fear they'd switch with some poor villager in Nigeria.
So what does that say about us? Well, according to experts, it says almost everything we think about what would make us happy is dead wrong. Let's look at the five things we're most wrong about, with some pictures of adorable animals for good measure.
Go to the little girls' aisle at the department store, if you're not there already. On the shelves you'll see the dominant little girl fantasy isn't Cinderella or even Dora the Explorer. It's Hannah Montana. Playsets come complete with a camera, makeup and a mirror for Hannah to admire herself in.
The girls play with that when they're eight, and by 16 they're on MySpace, pouting at the camera in their underwear and watching the friend requests pour in. In a recent survey of high school kids, 51 percent said their ultimate goal was to become famous.
This is brand new to humanity; for thousands of years, material goods and security dominated. Now, fame is at the top. Obviously part of the reason is the perception that anybody can get famous these days--reality TV and YouTube have proven that you can become a celebrity for doing not a goddamned thing. But there's another, less obvious factor. And it explains why so many famous people are miserable.
So What's the Problem?
Experts say where you find kids who desperately want to be famous, you find a history of neglect at home. Parents were either absent completely or, at best, emotionally distant dicks. It turns out the whole surge in aspirations for fame came right along with the explosion of single parents and "broken" homes. Only half of today's children live with their original two parents.
You can see how this sad mechanism works in the attention-starved mind. The kid is programmed by biology to love a parent, but the parent doesn't return the love. Fame lets them turn the tables on that arrangement. When you're famous, millions love you, but you don't even know their names. It's purely one-sided. They wait for hours in the cold for your autograph, you barely glance at them on the way to your limo. You get to take their love and wipe your ass with it, the same as your parents did to you.
"I love you!" "Your deaths would mean nothing to me."
But it turns out that kind of massive, paper-thin adoration is a poor substitute. Famous people are four times as likely to commit suicide as the rest of us (Hell, you'd think it'd be higher--everybody reading this has seen more than one of their favorite performers self-destruct).
Wait, it Gets Worse...
If you're saying that your parents were awesome and that fame still looks pretty freaking cool, well, we're not done. Studies show nothing is more stressful for a human than when their goals are tied to the approval of others. Particularly when those "others" are an enormous crowd of fickle strangers holding you up to a laughably unrealistic ideal built by publicists, thick makeup and heavily Photoshopped magazine covers.
You could seek comfort from your circle of friends, only now your friends have been replaced Invasion of the Body Snatcher's-style with hangers-on, vultures, unscrupulous characters and plain dumbasses who only want a piece of the spotlight. . . even if it means selling you out later.
For example, have you ever lit up a bong at a party? Were you worried that one of your friends would snap a photo of you, sell it to a tabloid for thousands of dollars and ruin your career?
Well become famous, and then try it.
Let's not bullshit each other. You see those ads on the side of the screen? And at the top? And at the bottom? Go look at one of them. We just made $800, baby. Seriously, they're set up to detect the position of your eyeballs. If you actually click on one, we make enough to fill our SnoCone machine with Cristal.
Most of us get out of bed everyday purely because it edges us one step closer to some kind of financial future we want. If we won the lottery, most of us would show up to the office the next day wearing an ankle-length fur coat and enough bling to make Mr. T look Amish, and only stay just long enough to take a dump in our boss's inbox.
So What's the Problem?
Hey, remember when we said earlier that most people wouldn't do the body-switching thing for fear they'd wake up in Nigeria? Well according to surveys, Nigerians are happier with their lives than the people of any other country.
Can your country fit three to a motorcycle? Didn't think so.
The USA came in 16th.
Hey, did we mention that the average Nigerian makes $300 a year? That's less than a hundredth of what the average American makes. America being the country that hands out 120 million prescriptions for anti-depressants every year.
China is turning into a great object lesson in this, as their economy explodes and incomes skyrocket, but levels of happiness and personal satisfaction are dropping at the same rapid rate.
There's a couple of reasons for it. First, your brain adjusts feelings of happiness downward after you've reached some goal or other. It regulates the good feelings, presumably so that you have motivation to reach the next goal instead of just lounging by the pool for the rest of your days.
The second one is that as social creatures, we compare ourselves to our neighbors. This is why executives can cry about the $500,000 salary cap that comes with taking government bailout money. Their friends are making $3 million a year and live in igloo made out of cocaine. We can laugh at their complaints, but of course then you're giving the Nigerian permission to laugh at yours. That guy made 100 times more than you, you make 100 times more than the Nigerian.
Once you start hanging around the other high earners, you'll want all the stuff they have. No, that's not right--you'll want the stuff that's so much better than their stuff that they'll vomit with envy. As one magazine for Wall Street bigshots put it, you want the stuff that will be "a huge middle finger to everyone who enters your home."
"Yeah, same model as yours. Only covered in solid fucking gold."
But what about sudden wealth, like if you won the lottery, or sold your novel for $10 million? That'd be cool, right, because you'd still remember your former life and appreciate your new riches! Well, just ask William "Bud" Post, who wound up broken and bankrupt after he won $16 million in the lottery. It turns out that while he knew how to handle the stress of being poor thanks to a lifetime of experience, he had no concept of how to handle the new and alien stresses of wealth.
Wait, it Gets Worse...
Remember the whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers phenomenon we talked about with famous people, where suddenly all of your friends turn into leeches? Same here, only worse. With your newfound riches, suddenly "friends" pop up from all over. Cousins who you've never met, forgotten classmates from school, women who'd never even look your way before, all suddenly in your orbit, complimenting you, doing you favors. Then they casually slip it into conversation that they're going to have to default on their mortgage unless somebody helps out.
Your very own entourage!
Suddenly every relationship is in doubt. Do they actually care about you? Or do they just want a seat on the Bling Train? Would they sell you out to get to your cash?
That lottery winner we mentioned above . . . somebody hired a hitman to take him out, to get to his money. That somebody was his own fucking brother.
We know all about this one first-hand. That old stereotype about how comedy writers and heavy Internet users tend to have bodies chiseled out of solid sex? It's true. One visitor remarked that the Cracked office "Looked like a Manowar album cover came to life."
Office Christmas party, 07
Yes, being physically attractive has concrete advantages. Attractive people earn more, get better grades, have better jobs and find more successful partners than average or ugly people. Strangers are more likely to help them in a crisis. They have wider social circles.
So What's the Problem?
Remember, we're talking about happiness here, not success. For one, attractive people have the same self-esteem problems the ugly people do. Like money, attractiveness is relative and if you're hotter than your friends, at that stage you start comparing yourself to people in the media. You know, like the magazine covers we mentioned before, the ones that that have had the living shit Photoshopped out of them.
Before and After
In other words, they've adjusted to the experience of being attractive the same as our high income earners have adjusted to having money; they just pick other flaws to worry about. Sure, if you used the magical artifact up there to become Angelina Jolie tomorrow, you'd notice the difference over how you're treated now. But if you were born Angelina Jolie, you'd have no way of grasping it, the same as right now you don't realize what it's like to live life with some kind of horrible deformity (if you do have a horrible deformity, then you don't know what it's like to live with a worse one. Work with us here).
Wait, it Gets Worse...
You know how when the hot girl at the bar tells an unfunny joke, all the guys laugh anyway? Or when the office stud makes a mistake, the female boss laughs it off?
Attractive people live in a world where most feedback they get is bullshit. The compliments mean nothing--they've learned that's just the sound people make when they walk by. That's why studies show they tend to dismiss the genuine compliments they get in other areas (their work, personality, sense of humor, creativity) because it gets lumped in with the same counterfeit flattery they've been getting their whole lives.
"I find your views fascinating."
We're using the broader definition of the word "genius" here, meaning anyone with an extraordinary talent or skill. So for instance Dennis Rodman was a genius when it came to rebounding basketballs, but was probably not a genius in the way that Einstein was.
Or was he?
But as Dennis demonstrates, genius--whether it involves writing ground-breaking computer code, picking stocks or writing the dopest rhymes--means one thing above all else: You are forever granted an exception to society's rules.
The fictional archetype for this these days is TV's Dr. House, whose being a genius means he gets a free pass to do drugs on the job, break hospital policy, insult his superiors and treat patients like shit. But don't blame the writers, the real world examples are just as extreme, from Hemingway to Kanye West. Being a genius means you get to do great things, sure, but it's also a blank check for douchebaggery.
Who could turn that down?
So What's the Problem?
Want to know what it's like to live life as a genius? All you have to do is go hang around with the stupidest, most incompetent people you know. Cringe at their stupid jokes, feel the frustration as they fumble even the easiest tasks and fail to grasp the simplest concepts. Being a genius must be like that, only everyday. Everyone is an idiot compared to them. They're living Idiocracy.
We can't imagine what it's like to make friends in that world. Genuine connections will be rare indeed when every honest expressions of thought or feelings on your end is met with a look of dull Keanu Reeves-esque befuddlement.
If you're not the Einstein kind of genius, it doesn't matter, any situation where you're 10 levels above your coworkers is going to be daily frustration. If you're a genius at spreading concrete, that feeling only occurs to you in the form of everyone else being sloppy and helpless. No wonder they wind up treating people like dirt.
Not that you'd have time for friends anyway. Genius takes practice. Lots of it. Shows like House don't tell you that to become as good at your job as Dr. House, you've got to devote an enormous amount of time to working, studying and practicing your craft (at least 10 thousand hours, according to that Malcolm Gladwell book everyone is quoting these days). Behind the genius is hundreds of weekends spent pouring over texts while everyone else was at the party, playing bikini Twister.
This is what they do at parties, right?
All of this is a great recipe for the stereotypical depressed, moody genius who dies alone and bitter.
Wait, it Gets Worse...
If your genius lies in some kind of creative field, then there's a good chance you have actual mental illness to deal with. While only one percent of the population suffers from bipolar disorder, it is claimed that 50 percent of poets, 38 percent of musicians and 20 percent of painters have it. It's just part of the package.
Eminem, prior to launching music career.
Compare the number of great musical innovators who have died of suicide or drug overdose versus, say, the number of plumbers who have died the same way. It might be better to just stand in the poop all day.
You never hear little kids say they want to be "powerful" when they grow up. Parents don't encourage that sort of thing, since it's kind of terrifying coming from a toddler.
Yet, power is what everything else on this list is about. Fame is about having power in the relationship with the fans. Beauty is about gaining power through others' sexual desire and jealousy. Genius means society needs your skills more than you need its approval. Money . . . well, money and power are conjoined twins.
So it's pretty safe to say that while not many of you reading this specifically aspire to go into any kind of political office, a great many of you do aspire to some kind of power. Maybe you're eying the kind of job where you'll be the boss, or maybe you want to go into law enforcement. Or maybe you're just driven by that bitter, unspoken urge almost all of us feel at least once in our youth: "I'll show them! I'll show them all."
So What's the Problem?
Saying "power corrupts" is stating something so obvious we feel stupid even typing it. It's like saying elevators elevate. If you found out tomorrow your congressman was caught firing orphans out of a cannon, you'd barely raise an eyebrow.
It has nothing to do with the "culture of corruption in Washington DC" the Libertarians are always talking about. You find it everywhere, from the asshole supervisor to the bitter gym coach. Small people driven to mindless, unethical behavior, drunk on just a few drops of bullshit power. They often can't make friends, their marriages end badly, they self destruct. The world is full of these miniature, sad Tony Montanas, destined for a proverbial bloody downfall.
Usually instead of a mansion it's a cubicle, and instead of bullets it's a series of pissy emails
Wait, it gets worse...
The thing is, it's the desire itself that's poisonous. You find that need for power most in the type of person who hates having to obey all of society's social contracts, particularly the ones that require them to not act like cocks all day. These are the people who are only nice guys because of fear of retribution if they do otherwise, so their main goal is to become strong enough that no retribution is possible (this is why sociopaths tend to seek positions of power, by the way).
So it's not just that power will destroy you. It's that the urge itself is bad news. That desire for power is a vicious, ravenous animal and feeding it only makes it strong enough to tear its way out of your belly and go on a bloody rampage.
"So what will make me happy, Cracked.com writers? What's left?"
For the next 10 seconds, stare at this picture of a guy hugging a tiger.
Notice how you weren't worrying about your job during those 10 seconds?
Experts have figured out that the brain has no ability to actually predict your emotional reaction to life changes that haven't happened yet. In other words, you physically do not know what you want. The act of sitting around pondering it is apparently what fucks you up.
This might be because for most of human history, we didn't have time to do that. We were too busy gathering berries and running from wild animals. Now that we've got things so under control that the animals hug us. . . well, we're like the guy up there who didn't know what to do with his lotto winnings.
This may be why studies show friendships, altruism and religious practices bring happiness. It may be that taking the focus off your own happiness is what makes happiness possible.
If that sounds like a mind-boggling, ridiculous paradox, clearly arranged by the gods to torment us. . . well, we agree. Here's a video of a baby porcupine eating a banana.
In addition to helping write this article, David Wong is the author of the critically acclaimed horror novel John Dies at the End, which is now like ten bucks on Amazon. In case you thought we were finished shedding the light on what won't make you happy, then check out 5 Reasons Being Single Sucks Even More Than You Thought and 9 Awesome Places to Have Sex (And the Horrific Consequences).
Or do something that will actually make you feel a little better about yourself, help save the world through micro loans in the Cracked forums.