In This Episode: A ‘secret’ to Uncommon Sense used to be passed down from generation to generation… but has started to die out, which explains a lot. Learn it to reduce stress and fear, and increase satisfaction and happiness.
019: How to be Happier
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- No links or references this week: this was all dictated out of my own head. Vladimir had dropped me off at my lodgings, and I went right in and wrote down what happened since I knew this was a story I wanted to tell here.
There’s a phrase your grandmother used that is an underlying building block of Uncommon Sense. It has been passed down through generations, but it seems like that passing along of wisdom died out in recent decades. In that phrase, that underpinning of Uncommon Sense, is a primary secret to reducing stress in your life, reducing fear, and increasing satisfaction and happiness. And I’m going to tell you what it is: you can put it to use immediately.
Welcome to Uncommon Sense. I’m Randy Cassingham.
“They” say that common sense is not only uncommon, it’s less and less common over time. Of course, if that’s true, Uncommon Sense has to be less common these days too.
And if it’s true, it’s at least in part because something that used to be passed down from generation to generation has been fading out. If your mother didn’t say it — and it does seem to be passed down more through mothers than fathers, but certainly some fathers gave this advice too — then your grandmother probably did, and your great-grandmother and previous generations almost certainly did.
I was in Las Vegas last week for meetings, and while driving in, I noticed my car had developed an issue, so I made an appointment with the local dealer for service the next morning. Nothing huge, but then I was stuck without a car, so to get where I was going I checked my Lyft app, and sure enough, there was something like 8 cars available within a few blocks, so I summoned one, and it pulled up within a minute.
“Randy?” the driver asked — he had my name on his screen. I knew his name already too: “Vladimir?” He nodded and I got in next to him. “How are you?” he asked. When I replied “I’m great!” — he almost looked surprised. I wondered about that, but didn’t say anything …yet.
As he drove, we chatted. I was trying to figure out where he was from: his accent wasn’t obvious, but he volunteered that he’s multilingual: he speaks Spanish, Russian, Italian, French, and I think a couple more. And, he said, he’s working on English. I asked him if he minded my asking where he was from. Cuba, he said.
His turn: he asked me what I do for a living. I told him I’m a writer. “Sorry,” he said, “my English isn’t that good yet. I don’t know that word.” so I used the Spanish word, escritor, which of course gave him instant recognition! “Do you know Spanish?” he asked. “Muy poquito!” I admitted — very little — so he very wisely stuck to English. He wanted to know what I write about. “I write about how it is very important to think,” I told him, “because I believe a lot of the problems in the world are because people react to things, rather than think about them.”
He pondered that for a moment, and then said, “May I ask you a question?” Clearly, he was thinking. Sure, I said. “In Cuba, about 75 percent of the people are very happy. Yet they have nothing. Nothing! In America, people have so much — you have everything! But 75 percent of the people here seem so unhappy! Why is this?”
Smart guy, Vladimir. As an Uber and Lyft driver (like many, he works for both), he meets many people every day. In a transient town like Vegas, that’s a lot of different people — a major cross-section of humanity, mostly Americans.
I asked him how much he worked. “Ten or twelve hours a day,” he said: he’s a full time driver, no other jobs. “Usually from 5:00 in the morning to 5:00 in the evening,” but then he wants to be home because his wife gets off work at 5:00, and his children get home from school. “My family is muy importante to me,” he said, knowing I’d understand that, “just like in Cuba: they’re everything.” Is he happy? “Yes.” Does driving make him enough money? “Yes.” Do you have the things you want? “Yes.”
But then he seemed a little apologetic: he said he has a TV, but it’s not a really big one like most Americans have. He has a smart phone — he needs that for work — but not a real fancy one: not the latest, not the greatest. Then he added, almost sheepishly, that he was saving money because he wanted his children to be able to go to school and have better jobs when they grow up.
I asked him, Do you want a bigger TV, a nicer smart phone? Other things? After thinking about it, he said, “No. My TV is fine. My smart phone does its job. I have the things I need.”
Getting the picture? He’s falling into the American trap just a little, but he’s resisting.
Let me explain. He’s starting to compare himself to others — to the people around him. In Cuba, everyone is poor. In America, we range from hungry homeless to multi-billionaires — no matter where we are in life, someone else has it better. Yet, it’s a disease: he’s seeing the personification of the classic American idiom, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” He understands that he has enough — and he has bigger, important long-term goals in mind, like most parents: to help his children succeed more than he has.
“OK,” I told him, “here’s the answer to your question: Americans — most of us, not all of us; maybe 75 percent! — are very short-sighted. We think about the right here, right now. Sure, we say we want to save money for the future, but mostly it’s an excuse: we want to save more, but tell ourselves, “I can’t afford it right now.” Yet when we get a raise, and can now afford to save more, our spending goes up too, because we look at our cousins, or our neighbors, or our friends, or people from work, and they have a new smart phone, and we don’t. They have a 60-inch flat screen TV, and we only have a 40-inch.”
Vladimir was silent, pondering. Then I hit him with the other side:
“That’s short-sighted because we don’t look at the rest of the world, like you have.” He looked at me through his over-sized rear-view mirror, and I continued: “You understand what it is to have nothing, but you did something that we don’t do: you realized you were happy. You didn’t need things to be happy, because you had your family: you realized they’re ‘everything’ to you, yes?”
“Yes!” he said.
“When people compare themselves to other people, rather than their own goals that are important to them, like their children, or saving for retirement, they’ll always be unhappy. There will always be others who have more than us, and that’s a trap: we forget to look the other way: Americans have more than about 90 percent of the other people in the world. We don’t understand that our lives are so much better, so much easier, so much more comfortable, so much better fed, than most of the world. So we whine and complain and — as you have seen — so many are absolutely miserable! You’re doing it right, Vladimir.”
I pointed at his smart phone, which was showing the map of where we were going. “Stay on course: you’re doing it right.” I looked at him through his mirror, and as he grasped what I was saying, a big smile crept across his face. He was totally silent for the final minute of our ride, and as we pulled up, he said, “Randy: thank you. This is interesting to think about.”
Ah, a man after my own heart: he realized he needs to think about all of this!
But what does this have to do with what your grandmother said, that piece of advice that’s the key to happiness — that I haven’t told you yet? It’s definitely related, even though I didn’t have enough time to explain it all to Vladimir.
It’s about Americans’ incessant desire to look at others for clues to what we want. We think we’re the only ones that are struggling, the only ones with problems, the only ones who feel like we’re behind everyone else. And that’s just dumb.
Everyone is struggling. Everyone has problems. Everyone feels like they could do better. Everyone. Everyone! Yeah, even that rich dude you’re jealous of, because he’s looking at even richer people and comparing himself to them!
So what’s the advice grandma had, that profound secret to happiness?
Listen carefully: “Mind your own business.” Your mother, or grandmother, almost surely said that to you when you were looking at others to see what they were doing, or worse, comparing yourself to neighbors, family, or friends. Or the mayor, or the businessman, or the lady and the man having dinner in the corner of a restaurant that didn’t seem to be married.
But we’ve lost how profound this advice really is. We don’t understand it. So let me tell you what just about everybody today doesn’t grasp about this advice: it not so much about that it makes you look nosey, because you are, but it also makes you unhappy.
Let me give you some examples. What if, let’s say, that guy over there? You think he might be gay!
It’s none of your business.
You might object here. But… it’s none of your business!
But what if he comes on to me?!
It’s almost certainly not going to happen: that’s projecting your fear on to him. Understand? Your fear. But hey: if he expresses interest, be flattered! Maybe you’re not as ugly as you feared! And in the very unlikely event that it does happen, here’s what you do: say “no thank you” and move on. See how easy that was? See how you don’t have to invest emotion or fear, and have it crowd out some of the happiness and joy in your life?
But what about …oh, transsexuals. What if a man who used to be a woman — or vice versa — wants to use your restroom? You know what? It’s none of your business: they have to pee. Do you want to jump through hoops when you have to pee? Then shut up and let them mind their own business.
This isn’t about politics, and it’s not really about gender identity or sexuality. It’s simply that it’s none of your freaking business what other people do, just as it’s none of their business about what you do. Because you know what happens when you mind your own business? You significantly reduce stress in your life, you reduce fear, and that is a major factor in increasing your life satisfaction and happiness.
Your great-great-grandmother knew this, and she tried to pass it down.
How did your neighbor afford to get a new car? You guessed it: it’s none of your business. But how do they afford all that stuff? Maybe they can’t: maybe they’re digging themselves into a black hole of debt because they’re trying to keep up with you! Or, at least, their impression of you, colored by their own fear. “But they’re on government assistance!” None of your business: maybe a family member got it for them so they could get to a new job and get off government assistance. But you didn’t think of that, because you know what? That’s none of your business either.
It’s not just what was at the base of Vladimir’s question, that comparing yourself, your belongings, your place in life, to other people. That’s crazy-making! As he observed with his outsider perspective, it makes so many of us hugely unhappy. Set your own goals, and work on achieving them. That’s hard enough without having to pry into what everyone else is doing.
It really is a primary underpinning of Uncommon Sense — and happiness. Trust me: it’s why I told Vladimir “I’m great!” when I had just had car problems and took my car to the shop for hundreds of dollars in repairs: he was surprised that I wasn’t unhappy!
This might be some of your business: Yes, the story I told you about Vladimir is true, and I didn’t even change Vladimir’s name.
Last, if my granny is looking down at me, I hope she’s smiling. Because even though I sometimes struggle in life too, and don’t have everything I might want, I’ve got a pretty darned happy life, thanks to not just listening to that sage wisdom, but practicing it. If you really live it, I can almost guarantee you’ll be happier too.
The Show Notes and transcript for this episode are at thisistrue.com/podcast19
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I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.
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