How To Find Happiness When Everything Is Out Of Your Control

This essay first appeared on Frankie Nicoletti’s personal Medium.

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“You can’t outsmart roulette.”

The problem is that humans are bad at predicting what will make us happy. We over- or underestimate our emotional response to outcomes because we misjudge our ability to adapt to change. This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation. For good or for bad, we get used to changes. The fancy new apartment isn’t as exciting two months in as it was on moving day. That devastating breakup hurt for a moment but after a while you were just single. We understand hedonic adaptation slightly better for negative things than we do for good things (“time heals all wounds”) but it happens in both situations.

We still try to optimize for happiness, whatever that actually means. My generation was raised to be robust worker bees. The value of our lives is tied to our productivity. Everything is high stakes and we can succeed if we just worked hard enough. We were in control. We were just beginning to understand that this is a lie before the COVID-19 global pandemic hit. Nobody is in control.

I was a digital nomad briefly. I used to have the best dates the first night I would get to a new city. Those connections were very low stakes. I was visiting and we had the luxury of never seeing each other again. It feels equally like time is of the essence and that nothing matters very much. This creates a perfect storm for me to have fun without judging myself.

These pockets of chaos are very precious to me in a world of high stakes and self-discipline. Its like procrastinating on an assignment in school: If I waited long enough I wouldn’t judge my work as harshly as if I had done it in advance so procrastination was sometimes beneficial. It’s too late to make a different choice. Turn in what you have and hope for the best.

I created a chaos pocket on purpose in 2014 — a big one. I was a deeply unhappy accountant. That summer was the closest I ever came to becoming an alcoholic. I was in denial about having anxiety and depression and the only way I knew how to self-sooth what were definitely panic attacks was entire bottles of cheap wine. I knew what I wanted: to rage quit my job and to move to California to work in tech or fitness. I had been fantasizing about rage quitting for a year when I was introduced to a guy online who had an interesting proposition.

He and two others had purchased a Katrina house in the 7th Ward of New Orleans. They wanted to restore it and open a bookstore. He offered me room and board in exchange for manual labor and help getting to California with a tech job. Two of the three people involved were software engineers. I dissolved my life in five weeks, dyed my hair bright blue for my last day of work, and announced to my stuck up colleagues that I was quitting to be unemployed and homeless. I drove to New Orleans in early October with whatever fit into my car.

‘Room and board’ meant ‘sleep in the house so that thieves couldn’t take our tools’ and eat anything that could be prepared on a camp stove. I showered with a garden hose run through broken floor boards in an ancient claw foot tub. I faced my fear of heights, the dark, and cockroaches. I repaired floorboards — when I wasn’t falling through them — and delicately cut vintage glass from older windows to repair the ones in the house. I did my laundry at a fine establishment that also sold fried chicken and beer. I drank cheap whiskey with street kids and went dumpster diving. I studied for the bootcamp entrance exam wrapped in a sleeping bag with finger-less gloves. Throwing a tarp on top of your sleeping bag adds a significant amount of extra warmth when its 30–40 degrees. I knew what I was getting myself into. I also knew that once I left my old life I couldn’t go back. This was a one-way ticket to life change.

In my mind, it had to be worth it because I completely ran out of money, was briefly on SNAP, had to take the entrance assessment three times, ran my credit completely into the ground from nonpayments because I didn’t know how to negotiate deferment, and survived a winter in New Orleans in a house with no heat or proper running water (and no hot water that didn’t come out of an electric kettle). I finally got into the bootcamp with a start date at the beginning of February. A very kind and generous person gave me half the tuition because I was only allowed to finance half and I was able to complete the bootcamp in a relative’s basement. I wouldn’t have survived that gruelling schedule without regular hot showers.

At the end of the program I flew out to San Francisco with $600 in my pocket and a return ticket for a month later. I was at another point of no return. If I had to go back without a job I didn’t know when I would be able to try again. I crashed couches and hostels and ate a lot of PBJ and tacos. I applied to at least 10 jobs a day which turned into 10 on-site interviews. The last on-site interview turned into a job offer. I started at SolarCity on June 1, less than 30 days after completing the bootcamp.

I would never have made that kind of radical career change without a chaos pocket. I would not have been able to save enough money because I would have talked myself into spending it on real things instead of hypotheticals. I wouldn’t have had the support I needed because nobody I knew before was in tech. I would definitely have become an alcoholic. Instead, a stranger offered me a hand and I jumped in with both feet.

Last week I was furloughed from a new job that I already loved. Until that moment I was still trying to control my experience in the pandemic. I was trying to maintain the life I had before lockdown, pretending like it wouldn’t affect me. But it did affect me; it affected everyone. The pandemic is bigger than all of us. I was already down the rabbit hole, the furlough just forced me to see it. This is a chaos pocket and we’re all in here. It’s too late to make a different choice. Turn in what you have and hope for the best.

We’re not going to survive COVID-19 with our mental health intact by trying to optimize during lockdown. Fuck the productivity cultists. During my New Orleans chaos pocket I had to be kind to myself. I did the best I could until I made it to California. During this lockdown I will be doing the best I can: working out in the living room, running in a sweat-wicking mask, baking bread, heavily using social media, catching up on movies I haven’t seen, and looking for another job.

I am calmer today than I was before the furlough because I have accepted the chaos. I hope you do, too. I can’t outsmart roulette. I am abandoning the detailed plan for my life in favor of daily satisfaction from doing the best I can and being generous with myself. Like learning to code with gloves on because my hands are frozen this is going to be hard. We are not ok and we need to be ok with that. Do what you can and be compassionate with yourself and others. All you can do is your best and your best is good enough.”

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