The recent untimely and unfortunate suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have inspired me to share my thoughts on this.
Although I didn’t personally know Spade or Bourdain (but how well does one truly know anyone?), I have experienced suicide in my own life. My mother committed suicide at 40, when I was 20 years old, after a long struggle with alcohol and drug abuse. She committed suicide around the same age, and in the same general manner, as her mother did (my grandmother).
What inspired me to write this is a mixture of sadness, empathy, and genuine curiosity.
As someone who is constantly in pursuit of happiness, driven toward it after having such a tumultuous childhood (and even early adulthood, really), I’m dismayed when someone who apparently “has it all” decides to end their life.
After all, life itself is such an incredible gift. The odds of being born are so small, they make it so that being alive is nothing more than a stroke of pure luck.
Something around 100 billion people have ever been born. So the current population of Earth represents about 7% of the human beings that have ever walked the planet. And this is also the pinnacle of human civilization. For all of that to come together for a person just right is a huge present, and I’m saddened to see any of that thrown away.
The average person might look at a wealthy celebrity that commits suicide and think that if that celebrity can’t make it, how does a regular Joe Schmoe have any chance at all?
Well, I want to interject here and add a few of my thoughts to the broader conversation.
Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness
This one should be obvious, but it continues to escape most people.
A celebrity perhaps controlling a lot of wealth does not necessarily correlate all that well to their overall well-being or sense of life satisfaction. I’ve done my best to cover this via discussions on Maslow’s Hierarchy and the hedonic treadmill, but it bears repeating.
Once you have your basics in life covered and paid for (shelter, food, security), most of the aspects of one’s life that will add happiness and satisfaction either don’t cost much or don’t have anything at all to do with money. Furthermore, getting to the point of having those basics covered doesn’t require much money in this modern age of abundance.
Mo’ money, mo’ problems. And when you’re a celebrity, any issues that an everyday person might have to deal with are magnified rather significantly. Fame and/or fortune are not really worthwhile aspirations in life, and the former will likely in reality cause a great deal of life dissatisfaction.
When people are shocked to see someone supposedly rich decide to kill themselves, they seem to be under the impression that money and happiness operate at a constant 1:1 ratio, where an increase in the former will result in an equal increase in the latter.
It’s almost as if people believe that a 100-fold increase in money will result in a 100-fold increase in happiness, but it’s just not true at all. If anything, the opposite tends to happen due to the expectations, workload, and stress that come with attaining and maintaining that 100-fold increase in wealth.
While Americans are just about as rich as they’ve ever been, on average, the US suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014, with 2014’s number coming in at the highest recorded rate in 28 years. Money and suicide, as far as I can tell, have little to do with one another, much in the same way that money and happiness have little to do with another.
Happiness Is A Moving Target (And It’s A Target Only You Can Aim For And Achieve)
But if money doesn’t buy happiness, what does?
Well, it’s a complicated question. There is no one-size-fits-all right answer for everyone.
But I will say this: happiness is a moving target.
What I mean by that is, happiness is not a destination that you somehow reach one day and then you’re done.
Happiness is an ongoing pursuit. It’s the joy you feel while striving toward your potential, as the ancient Greeks defined it.
The thing is, though, that potential differs from person to person. Moreover, the striving might look a whole lot different tomorrow than it does today. What worked yesterday might not work today or tomorrow. And what made us happy five years ago might make us miserable right now.
So you’re not only striving, but you’re also striving in, potentially, a different direction at least somewhat often. And I believe this really trips people up. It’s especially difficult if you’re not aware that you should be traveling in a different direction, or if you’re not aware of what direction you’re even traveling in right now.
The solution to this is to be constantly mindful, purposeful, and cognizant of where you are, who you are, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and whether or not it’s truly making you happy.
Furthermore, remember this is your target. It’s nobody else’s target.
Never rely on anyone else to make you happy.
I was guilty of this in my younger years – relying on a girlfriend or someone else in my life to make me happy and feel good.
It never worked. Plus, it created impossible expectations, which set up a situation that was sure for disappointment.
You must aim for that (moving) target. You must be constantly seeking happiness for yourself. Never make it someone else’s job to try to fulfill unrealistic expectations (making you happy), only to be disappointed when they inevitably let you down.
Don’t be dependent on someone else to create a life for you. Create your own life. Then surround yourself with people who complement and add value to your life.
Don’t Feel Trapped
I’ve shared stories about my mother’s suicide.
But I don’t think I’ve yet publicly talked about a suicide that happened much earlier, that also impacted me.
That was the suicide of Kurt Cobain.
I was a huge fan of Nirvana. And I was pretty devastated when Kurt killed himself. This devastation happened right around the time I was settling into a new home after being adopted by my aunt and uncle. So I wasn’t really in a great place myself. And then to see a celebrity that I thought “had it all” kill himself was profoundly sad to me.
It became a mission of mine to find out why this guy would have done something like this.
Some people just wrote it off to mental illness and drug addiction. And, sure, you can do that.
But I think there’s a bit more, or even a lot more, to it than that.
See, I think Kurt felt incredibly trapped by expectations. Expectations that he, people around him, and the world at large had placed on him. And this must have weighed on him with great force.
His suicide note included references to his lack of enjoyment of creating and listening to music, as well as the guilt he felt about this. The music became nothing more than a job to him (evidenced by the fact that he felt like he should have had a “punch-in time clock” before he walked onstage).
He could have, and probably should have, quit music and done something totally different.
Likewise, one wonders if Anthony Bourdain still had a real passion for creating shows, traveling for, writing about, and talking about food – something he had been doing for so many years already. The travel, for example, must have been grueling. Maybe he truly loved it once upon a time. But it’s useful to ponder whether it was out of pure love and passion that he continued to move along in that same direction.
Or was he doing it for the money and the expectations? Was he doing it because he had been doing it for so long and didn’t know what else to do? Did he stay on that path because it was the path that he was already on, relying on momentum to carry him forward without introspection? Did he continue because he was secretly unhappy inside, thinking that playing this part that everyone loved would make him happy?
Did he feel trapped?
We’ll never know. And I’m not trying to oversimplify matters.
But what I am saying is that we are guilty of entrapping ourselves.
We put ourselves in boxes. We get into a job, or a business, or a niche, or whatever… and then we just, well, stay there. For many years. Maybe our whole life. We get comfortable. Collect the money. And we don’t really think about whether or not we’re truly happy to continue doing it. We don’t ask ourselves why. We become almost like an avatar of ourselves. A caricature. And we lose a piece of who we really are.
There are no ongoing checks on one’s state of mind or happiness. No honest conversations with oneself, or someone else, about what we’re doing and whether or not it’s still the right path to take.
We sacrifice personal growth for the sake of continuation. We let momentum overrule introspection. We let ease and money talk us out of being challenged.
Well, I think that’s a huge mistake.
Sure, we might be skilled at whatever it is we’re doing. And maybe we can make good money at it. And continuing to do something is often much easier than doing something new. But none of those are good reasons to actually go and do something.
Derek Sivers has noted that decision making should be binary: if it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.
Well, this should be applied to whatever you’re doing on a regular basis.
Forget the money. Forget the expectations. Forget the comfort. Forget what you were doing yesterday or last month.
Focus on the here and now. And ask yourself, honestly, if you’re completely and totally enthusiastic about what you’re doing.
If it’s not a hell yes, it’s time to strive in a different direction.
We might only get one life, but we can live multiple lifetimes.
Don’t trap yourself. Don’t let money fool you. Don’t be afraid to let a lifetime die. Don’t shy away from the next great adventure in your life.
Indeed, I’ve been open about my own awareness that writing will not be something I do forever. I’m quite sure there will come a day when I wake up and I’m no longer enthusiastic about putting content together. And when that day comes, I’ll stop.
I’m glad the day hasn’t yet come. I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about putting content together. But I won’t do any of it simply because I’ve been doing it. Momentum doesn’t override joy or logic. I will only continue to write for as long as it’s a “hell yes” for me. And the same goes for any cause, work, or project I take on. The full-fledged passion must exist.
Dealing With Dark Days
I’ve had my fair share of really dark days.
Seeing my dad leave for the last time at eight years old, just after he promised to take me to karate lessons.
Waking up to find out my mother had stolen $80 from me overnight (so that she could afford to keep partying) – money I had saved up cutting grass, raking leaves, and shoveling snow in Detroit at 10 years old.
Being adopted, moved out of Detroit, and placed in a small town of only a few hundred people, at 11.
Losing Jennifer, my first love, in high school to a breakup.
Getting the phone call about my mom, in my junior year of college, exactly when I was struggling at school and thinking of dropping out.
Dropping out of college, feeling like a failure, and having no idea about my next step.
Seeing my bank account one day in my early 20s, realizing I had spent almost every penny of the small inheritance I had received upon turning 21.
Getting fired from my job during the Great Recession, finding no other work, and having debt and bills breathing down my neck.
Moving halfway across the country, from Michigan to Florida, to pursue a better path forward, not knowing a soul in the world or if it would all work out in Florida.
Many Mondays (and other days) where I was completely dismayed at having to wake up at the crack of dawn, get ready, and trot down to the car dealership for 11 grueling hours.
Being absolutely devastated to learn my two youngest sisters resented me for my success relative to them, in 2014. This was after moving back to Michigan to be closer to them. I ended communication with them after declining to financially assist them, and I haven’t spoken to them in four years.
Learning in late 2014 my adoptive parents, who I idolized almost like gods, were abusing certain people for years, making it impossible for us to continue having a relationship.
Watching Dividend Mantra, a blog I had spent almost five years of my life building into something special, fall apart in a rather quick and spectacular fashion.
Seeing my seven-year relationship with Claudia dissolving.
Moving away from the US, where I was born and raised, for Thailand in late 2017. Again, I didn’t know a soul in the world, and I certainly wasn’t sure if it would all work out. Saying I initially felt overwhelmed by the cultural differences and being completely alone halfway across the world would be an understatement.
I’ve had many challenges. Many days where I was really, really bummed out. And I’ve been disappointed by many people (including myself).
I hesitate to say I was outright suicidal at any given moment.
But I will admit that thoughts kind of race through your mind about whether or not it’s worth it to carry on. You feel this dark shadow, following you around. It’s hard to find the light in those moments.
What helped me through these days were four things:
- I made sure to talk about how I was feeling. I would have a conversation with someone I trusted and loved, looking for reassurance that it’ll be okay. I had to vocalize. If I had kept these emotions bottled up, they would have destroyed me. I found it necessary to open up. Letting out a good cry has gotten me past some bummers.
- I took the time for heartfelt introspection about where I was, how I felt, why I was there, and what next decision or path would make me feel the happiest. I admitted defeat or failure. And I did my best to learn from this. I asked myself how I got there, why I was there, and what I might do in the future to avoid a similar defeat.
- I allocated as much time as I could toward the things, people, or activities that made me feel most joyous and alive. For example, even if (especially if) I was having the worst day in the world, I made sure to hit the gym, break a sweat, and let those feelings run through and out of me.
- I kept my mind, as much as I could, focused on tomorrow. While it’s wonderful to be present and in the moment (under any other circumstances), I don’t really like to be present when the present totally sucks. So I visualized a brighter, better tomorrow. And knowing that the sun would rise the next day and I’d have an opportunity to see what that held in store for me, kept me going. Moreover, I used this conceptualization about a better and happier future version of myself to kind of catapult myself into an improved tomorrow. I looked at my darkest days as kind of “bottoming out”, acting as a coiled spring. I figured it couldn’t get much worse, so it must get a whole lot better. That coiled spring effect was rocket fuel for better days ahead, which was a catalyst I used to execute on point #2.
Through it all, I persevered. I pressed on. And now I’m financially independent in my 30s, living the life of my dreams in Thailand.
It’s absolutely, certainly, positively worth it to carry on and see what tomorrow holds.
But in order to move past these dark days and make the most of those tomorrows, we need to acknowledge failure/defeat – either on our part or on the part of others. We must recognize mistakes and learn from them. Most importantly, however, we have to move on. We cannot dwell on these issues. We can only admit something went wrong, do our best to not repeat these issues, and then become a better version of ourselves from the experience.
We have to see every setback as a short-term obstacle, not as an insurmountable and permanent barrier.
Our challenges do not define us. But our ability to persist does.
If you need help, you should seek it. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US) phone number is 1-800-273-8255.
This article was not meant to demystify suicide, nor am I at all minimizing the impacts of mental illness and addition problems (both of which I saw firsthand with my own mother) as they relate to suicide.
Rather, I simply wanted to take a moment to expound on how money doesn’t buy happiness, despite what a lot of people continue to believe. In fact, more money can lead to less happiness. And that’s especially true if/when we allow ourselves to become trapped by expectations and obligations that a previous version of ourselves may have been more than happy to oblige.
We change. We grow. We become different people. And it’s important to not only acknowledge this, but we also need to be constantly cognizant of how we feel as we go about our everyday routines.
Don’t be afraid of change. Don’t be afraid of failure.
Be afraid of being unhappy, because unhappiness can lead to tragic consequences.
And these concepts aren’t related just to what you do for a job/living. You should be mindful when it comes to all aspects of your life: your job, your relationships, where you live, etc. Everything. Nothing is off limits from scrutiny.
An object in motion stays in motion. We know this from Isaac Newton.
Don’t be that object that stays blindly and mindlessly in motion. Stay in motion because you’re cognizant of your direction and completely enthralled by it.
If/when that direction no longer makes you happy, after an honest conversation with yourself about your mental state, stop. It’s time for a new direction. A new lifetime.
We undertake physical checks all the time. But mental checks are not something we talk about or even look into.
Talk to people. Talk to yourself. Be honest about where you’re at. And remember there’s always tomorrow. Don’t think as if today’s problems will continue indefinitely, into a linear and unchanging future. Admit failure. Let those emotions out. Learn. And then move on.
Finally, if you’re not happy, it’s time to make a change. Now.
What do you think? Has a suicide ever shocked you? Do you ever feel trapped by expectations, money, momentum, or comfort?
Thanks for reading.
Image courtesy of: kjnnt at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
P.S. If you’re interested in becoming financially independent, which can allow you to live just about any lifetime you want without financial repercussions or concerns, check out some amazing resources that I personally used on my way to becoming financially free at 33!