I’m happy to be unhappy… and I dare say that makes me happy. No, I’m not trying to jumble your thoughts with a tongue twister. Instead, I want to delve into what happiness really means, along with why so many people, programmers especially, are often unhappy.
And, hell, let’s shoot for the stars and try to put together a plan to cultivate happiness as well. Ambitious? Sure. But perhaps ambition, driven by resentment, is an integral part of happiness…
A lot of people think that if you lock down a well-paying job, get that dream car, start a family, and all that jazz, you’ll be happy.
Yet happiness never seems to last. Sure, a brand-new Tesla or a shiny Mercedes might bring a smile to your face for a few days. But a month down the road and your new sedan feels like any other car. The same with that big promotion. You were so happy for the first month, but as the weeks go by, you find yourself stuck in the same old rat race. Happiness is often fleeting.
Now slow down and think about the events that really made you feel content. Often, your happiness is associated with overcoming some obstacle. Did that brand-new Mercedes really cheer you up? Or was it the fact that you did so well on a work project that the boss recognized your effort and gave you a bonus?
Happiness, I argue, is tied to overcoming obstacles and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with it. Maybe you built a stunning website, or you landed a big contract with a vital client. Or perhaps you coded kickass software that blew your customers away and runs like a charm.
Overcoming challenges may be the most important and consistent source of happiness. And if you want continued happiness, you need to continuously overcome obstacles. This leads to a feeling of accomplishment at work, at home, and during personal pursuits.
This is why I’m also happy to be unhappy. I’ve realized that if I’m not happy, it’s often because I’m not accomplishing an important task, rocking a difficult project, or solving a vexing problem.
Accomplishment might mean programming new features or resolving bugs in the software my team and I are building. Or it could mean something more personal (sorry, I’m keeping this focused on careers, you’ll have to buy me a drink if you want to get personal).
Edith Hall suggests that Aristotle believed that "happiness comes from a continuous effort to become the best possible version of yourself."
The best possible version of yourself… what a goal. Is the best possible version of yourself rich? Successful? Well-respected? Maybe all the above, but would being rich, respected, and successful alone be how you define your best self? Probably not.
Many intelligent, hard-working people have the nice house, the great car, the 2.5 kids, and a loving partner. If you’re a good, let alone great, programmer, willing to put in a bit of elbow grease, you’ll find plenty of companies ready and willing to pay you a solid if not great salary. And from the outside looking in, a lot of programmers appear happy, driving expensive cars, carrying premium laptops, taking vacays to exotic locations. It’s not hard to acquire the material goods with a programmer’s salary.
But is 2.5 kids and a house in the suburbs really your "best" self? Is middle-management the peak of your career? Are you truly happy? Again, probably not. Your best self requires more.
So how do we stay happy, driven? Frank T. McAndrew once said, "Dissatisfaction with the present and dreams of the future are what keep us motivated."
For the ambitious, this means we’re constantly dissatisfied with our current situation or results, and we want to achieve or produce more. The key to happiness, simply put, boils down to: resent, overcome, repeat.
Yes, the key to happiness starts with resentment. You’re not happy with what you got. Never settle and always strive for more. Do you want a nicer car? Cool! Do you want to code software that offers more features and fewer bugs? Great! Do you want to be recognized for your work with monetary bonuses and a corner office? Get at it!
Resent your current situation and turn that into a drive to do more. That might mean stepping up to the plate as a leader at work, or doubling down to increase your programming skills. Work harder, secure more rewards, then improve your current situation.
And when you upgrade from a Mercedes to a Bentley? Repeat. Never stop being hungry. Double down again, set more goals, then overcome them.
Yegor Bugayenko is founder and CEO of software engineering and management platform Zerocracy.