I’m a happy guy, but I wasn’t always that way.
Growing up, I was bookish and eccentric. Once a week, a short bus would arrive at my elementary school to transport me to the “gifted” program at another location.
I was kind of a weirdo.
As weirdos often do, I grew weary of the social friction my weirdness created and sought to conform; the result being an adolescent with little confidence and an underdeveloped sense of self, whose high school experience was characterized by isolation and anger.
University was different. It was a wonderful, formative experience, during which I found confidence and formed powerful friendships.
Unfortunately, just before the final month of my freshman year, my life was interrupted by the shocking discovery that I had cancer and needed to leave school immediately for treatment.
And by “treatment” I mean I was forced to say goodbye to my cancerous right testicle.
My self-confidence did not benefit from this turn of events. Due to mental shock and the physical repercussions of losing a reproductive organ, during my second year of university I became depressed and perpetually tired.
Daily life was a struggle.
The struggle slowly subsided, though. Surrounded by friends and occupied with a newly acquired exercise habit, I regained some energy and — as that dreary school year approached its end — I began enjoying life again.
And then more bad news.
In March of that year (2011), 11 months after my initial diagnosis, I learned that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and I would once again be leaving school early, this time for an aggressive cycle of chemotherapy.
The boredom of sitting through chemo and watching life from the sidelines birthed in me a spiteful ferocity. Who was fate to keep me from experiencing life the same way as my healthy peers?
Despite my physical frailty, I returned for my third year of university with maniacal energy. I partied too much, slept too little, and exhausted myself into a state of crippling sadness.
I wasn’t trying to kill myself but I was doing a terrible job staying alive. Multiple times I overloaded my feeble liver and fainted, waking up with white-clouded vision and an angry headache, feeling sick and confused. I’d spend the entirety of days after laying in the fetal position, wrapped in a blanket, leaving my post only in the ghastly scenario that I ran out of weed and needed to procure more, lest I shed my protective layer of numbness.
At this time I started taking anti-depressants. I found it odd that my hormone specialist prescribed them, nevertheless happy pills were appealing at the time. I stopped using the pills after a few months — they were volatile when mixed with alcohol and I was drinking far too often — but their presence in my life made a frightening implication: I was officially a depressed person.
This was the lowest point of my life.
I was trapped in an identity; anxious, lethargic, and unhealthy — a grossly distorted reflection of the person I wanted to be. I was lazy, irritable, self-pitying and self-loathing, prone to manic episodes and impulsive, destructive behaviour.
Sparsely able to cope with the formalities of daily life, I became frightened of the future. I was a dead-end, devoid of potential.
It’s an irony of good fortune, I think, to face misfortune in our youth. In youth, time and energy are plentiful, and naivety happily lends itself to optimism. Youth resists unhappy endings because it hasn’t learned to accept a future in which everything doesn’t work out.
Though I was an abysmal, dysfunctional human, a small faction of my psyche clung to rationality, screaming at me to resist this catastrophic descent.
Rising slowly but rising strong, the idea gathered momentum until it stopped feeling optional. I needed to get better. I needed to be better.
This was the autumn of 2012. I was 22 years old and adamant about fixing the problems I’d created in my life.
I stopped going out and drinking all the time, which was ironically made easier by my newfound job as a nightclub photographer. Instead of a haphazard slew of party nights, I found myself going out once a week, earning money and (generally) behaving myself.
I began attending class regularly and participating in discussions, begrudgingly at first but with growing enthusiasm.
I started researching, a lot, how to be happier, how to be healthier. My diet improved to aid my gym going, which increased at this time.
I also started dating again, which was vital for my confidence because surgery had left me feeling vulnerable and repulsive to the opposite sex.
Life had unquestionably improved and it was terrifying.
. . .
When you’re a mess, the solution is evident — be less of a mess. When you’re doing alright and you still feel unhappy, panic sets in. You question your sanity and your worth: “Do I have a chemical imbalance? Is depression my default state of being?”.
For the first time in years, I had a healthy routine and the energy to maintain it. But I still felt hapless, like an imposter. My life was in motion but viscerally I was detached, unable to extract joy where it was due.
What the heck, life!? My mental fog had lifted only to bring visibility to how unhappy I was.
Frustrated and craving fulfillment, I audited the timeline of my life, trying to learn from the happy points. I asked myself, “In your lifetime, what have been your most consistent sources of joy?”
Of course the answers revealed themselves — they were my fondest memories!
I realized I was happiest at times I was reading regularly. I was happiest when I was being creative, playing instruments, writing, photographing, making videos. I was happiest when I was spending time outdoors, skateboarding, snowboarding, walking, observing.
These activities helped me feel calm and connected to myself. Over my short lifetime, these pastimes had become intrinsic to my identity, yet I’d unconsciously discarded nearly all of them from my daily life.
Instead, I understand in hindsight, I’d spent years occupied with what everyone else was doing. Feeling an outcast since a young age, inclusion in the group was such a priority to me that it became the focal point of my life. Every day, instead of asking myself, “What do I feel like doing today?”, I’d message a few friends, “What are you up to today?”.
It seems harmless, the depressed guy craving the comfort of friendship, but the need for constant company became my toxic escapism and I neglected vital sources of colour and meaning in my life.
In my illness, I’d created an I and them narrative in which I was sick and unhappy and my friends were healthy and happy. If my peers were the archetype of happiness, it followed that to become happy, I’d have to become more like them.
No wonder I’d lost my identity.
As it often does, circumstance helped me help myself. When I returned to university for a fifth year to recover the credits I’d missed, my peer group had diminished substantially. The people I’d spent most of my waking life with for the past four years were no longer around, forcing me to seek comfort in my own presence.
In their absence, I started playing guitar most days of the week, taking time to learn new and difficult songs. I nudged my budding career towards my interests, finding creative work that interested me and leveraged my strengths. I started walking everywhere, taking time to appreciate my surroundings. I skateboarded and snowboarded every weather-permitting chance I got.
Most importantly, I think, I began reading voraciously, finding a link to my younger, happier self through timeless words on ink marked pages.
When happiness returned to my life, it returned in a way I’d never felt before; poignant and vivid — a palpable beauty in the air — gratitude illuminating every moment I’d have otherwise taken for granted.
Through those rough, formative years, I learned how to treat my mind and body with respect. I discovered life’s fragility and the importance of self-care.
Crucially, I came to understand the difference between self-improvement and self-actualization, a concept I’d been introduced to in a psychology course.
If the term is new to you, self-actualization can be summarized as the highest tier in a framework of self-mastery and fulfillment, named “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” after its creator, esteemed psychologist Abraham Maslow.
Self-actualization is an appealing concept because it explains both the importance and the limits of all those factors that may or may not make you happy, such as health, wealth, physical fitness, intelligence, and social status.
Rather than end-alls, as we often perceive them, these desirables are only facets of something more significant and individualized. This is vital because it tells us we are not defective when we get what we want and it doesn’t bring us happiness, the way I felt defective when my health, relationships, and schooling were finally in order and I still felt unhappy.
Although Maslow didn’t phrase it this way, I believe that self-improvement is itself a foundational need. Assuming our core survival needs are met, we all need an element of challenge to compel our willpower in all facets of life. Giving priority to self-improvement ensures we never slip too far down Maslow’s Hierarchy. Self-improvement gives us purpose and helps us preserve the good in our life.
Self-improvement is limited, though. You can become immensely powerful, for example, lifting heavy weights. If you’re training for the ballet, however, this approach will likely result in your body hitting the ground.
After the thud, while you’re lying in discomfort, you’re forced to consider that your approach was wrong all along.
Your life, the way you experience and make sense of it, is your subjectivity, the story you tell yourself. The speed of life forces this story into a perpetual state of rough draft, and drafts are wrought with errors and inconsistencies — good storylines coming abruptly to an end, bad storylines dragging on too far, cluttered and confusing passages, moments of outright nonsense.
Without ruthless editing, the story you tell yourself can quickly cease to serve you. Part of your job as a human being is to learn from your past, to discover what worked and what didn’t, what’s working and what isn’t.
That’s why self-actualization must take priority if we’re to live happy, fulfilling lives. Individualization is essential. Self-actualization is the realization of your true potential. Your potential — nobody else’s.
When you reconcile your self-improvement goals with an accurate self-image, you open yourself to feelings of pride, confidence and purpose which illuminate your existence and steady your path.
For me, happiness had always been there in places. When it became scarce, I was forced to ask myself what caused it in the first place.
It’s silly, almost ridiculous, that in the midst of what seemed to be a great tragedy in my life, the climactic moment of triumph or destruction, all I really needed was to do the things I’d always enjoyed doing.
If this sounds too simple to you, I’ve succeeded in sharing my message. Sometimes we need simple solutions to life’s complex problems.
How did cancer and depression teach me how to live? If I could package the lesson up as a bullet point strategy, it would be:
Don’t take happiness for granted.
Enjoy it when it comes. Remember what caused it.
Do the work.
Every day, in the most general sense, take action to improve yourself. Nourish and exercise your body, sharpen your skills, broaden your knowledge, test your mind.
Never be too sure of your story.
Relax your grip on your identity in order to let it grow. Tell yourself, “I am the kind of person who feels ____”, “I am the kind of person who does____”. Test different versions of these statements often. Let your predictions become your truth.
The crux is, #3 is the most important but it’s impossible without #2. This is where highly capable people feel lost and emotionally intelligent people feel incapable.
Action without meaning and meaning without action are both paths to sorrow, whereas meaningful action is the highest expression of life. The stakes are obviously high.
Do your absolute best to understand who you are. If you succeed, your past will never be in vain, your present will never be meaningless, and your future will never be hopeless.