The Hard Truth About Being Happy

“What is this idiot doing?”

I was driving to work, minding my own business, and I’d decided to switch out to the fast lane because traffic was slow.

As I moved out to the left lane (the lane specifically reserved for fast drivers who need to drive fast quickly), I immediately had to hit the brakes because a 1998 Buick was only going 45 mph. There were three lanes available on this particular highway. Two of the three would happily accommodate a driver who preferred to amble around mindlessly.

Yet, there he was. In front of me. Ruining every plan I’d ever made in my life.

“What an idiot. Did he get his license yesterday? Is he trying to cause a thirty-car pile up? Am I the only person in the world who sees this?”

Being inconvenienced by incompetence in that moment was unquestionably difficult.

But there was more to it than that.

I'd spent almost my whole life being the center of the universe -- and I was exhausted.

No one can understand the burden of being the only one who sees the never-ending failures of every other person on earth.

And they were always in my way.

If I went to the grocery store, someone always did something stupid. If I went to the mall, the worker always made a dumb mistake. If I watched TV, the only shows on were infantile.

It never ended. The weight of the world’s ineptitude was suffocating and depressing.

Then, many months ago, I found a YouTube video about a commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave back in 2006. It’s called “This Is Water.”

That nine-minute video changed my life.

In his speech, David Foster Wallace talks about adult life and how it can seem so mundane. He talks about how, in these mind-numbingly mundane moments, we all have a choice.

We can seethe, complain, and rail against the imbecilic personal injustices committed against us every day.

Or we can realize that we’re not the center of the universe.

What if, David Foster Wallace might ask, that person driving 45 mph in the fast lane had recently been in an accident?

What if he had just gotten out of the hospital yesterday and was too afraid to drive fast again?

What if he chose the fast lane because the other lanes were too congested, and he was feeling scared?

Furthermore, what if that worker at the mall has another job working nights at a nursing home? What if she was up all night comforting a lonely old lady who had just lost her husband? What if she never left her side for a second because she didn’t want that lady to feel alone, even if it was just for one night?

And what if that’s why she rang up the wrong amount on your receipt?

In the video, David Foster Wallace shows us our options. We can choose to be angry all the time, or we can choose to see those inconvenient, banal times as sacred. We can open ourselves to the magic that is choosing how we think about our lives.

Do you know what happens when you stop being the center of the universe?

You stop being angry. You stop getting annoyed. You stop hating every single person who’s “in your way.”

The drive to work becomes fun again. The trip to the store becomes a happy part of your day. The smile you give to the mall worker (instead of an angry stare) makes two people’s day a little bit happier.

It was hard to give up being the Center of the Universe. I liked thinking I was smarter than everybody else. It made me feel important.

But it didn’t make me happy. It won’t make you happy either.

So the next time that waitress gets your order completely wrong, do what I do and remember, “This is water; this is water.”

Then smile, be kind, and leave her a big tip.

You won’t believe how much better you feel about the universe. And vice versa.  

My book is called The Inevitability of Becoming Rich, and you can find that here.