I really like kittens. They are cute, cuddly, and in general good company. They are easy to take care of. Eventually they grow up into cats which are usually cute as well, although perhaps a little passive aggressive at times. They eat very little, will use a litter box with no prompting and will even hunt down and kill mice for you (again without you having to ask them). They are photogenic. There is a reason many people keep them as pets.
And then there are alligators. Alligators really suck as pets. They are not cuddly at all and are way more difficult to train. You can’t just go to Petco and pick up a cheap bag of alligator food. They eat much more than kittens and as far as I know cannot be trained to use a litter box. Then there is the inconvenient fact that if they get large enough they may consider you to be food.
Imagine your house full of alligators and kittens. This may be a little stressful for you. All of your attention and worry would probably be directed at the alligators. You may even forget you have any kittens (until the alligators start trying to eat them).
Right now you have metaphorical kittens and alligators running all around your house. The kittens represent the good things about your life, and the alligators the bad things. Now good and bad here are not absolutes. Alligators can have good traits and kittens can occasionally cause big problems. Maybe you have a really mellow small alligator that doesn’t like the taste of kittens that you keep around without too much distraction.
What do we do next?
There are really two choices.
- Get rid of alligators
- Add kittens
It seems silly when we frame it this way, but I constantly see people make the wrong choice. It is our natural instinct to add more kittens because they are cute, and cuddly, and fun to have around.
if you are trying to make your life better this is not the best approach. You need to start by getting rid of alligators rather than by adding kittens!* When I look around, often the most miserable people I know are the ones with the most alligators, yet they try and fix the problem is by adding more kittens. This doesn’t work. Alligators and kittens do not cancel each other out.
My life was full of alligators; things that required my time, money, stress or attention. For years I ignored these alligators and tried to become happier by either adding kittens or just pretending the alligators weren’t so bad. It didn’t work. After a while our lives were littered with alligators and kittens everywhere and we were getting tired of caring for them. We knew something had to change.
The first big alligator to go was Mrs. Happy Philosopher’s job. It’s incredible how much headache this alligator cost us with such little benefit. It took a lot of other little alligators with it. The house was more peaceful without that alligator which required so much time and effort. There was some space at last…
Although we filled that space with a few more kittens and the occasional alligator. Commitments slowly seeped into that space, although they were not nearly as bad as before.
A few years later I went part time and got rid of another big one. This time though, we went full-on alligator hunting. Once we started getting rid of them it became addictive. Once I could see this clearly they became much easier to purge. The worst ones added no value to our lives.
Over the years we have eliminated most of the nastiest gators from our house and we are much happier. We have added a few kittens here and there, but not as many as I thought we would need. It turns out the kittens that were here already were enough. I just wasn’t paying attention to them as all of my energy was focused elsewhere.
Subtract the bad things first
The most effective way to achieve happiness is usually through subtracting bad things from your life rather than adding more good things. We are not programed this way though. Through most of human history we have lived with scarcity, and it was to our benefit to keep adding stuff, no matter the emotional cost.
Not having enough kittens meant death, so we focused on addition. Most of us reading this live in obscene abundance. The marginal utility of adding more kittens is way past the point of a reasonable return on investment, but it takes energy to go against our programing.
Furthermore, everywhere we look we are told adding something to our lives will make us happier, better, more complete. Advertisers, politicians, parents, teachers and friends all tell us to do something or buy something to make us complete. Our entire culture and economy is based on the concept of more.
Many times we don’t need more. Sometimes we need less. Learn the concept of enough. Often the good things are already here, we just don’t notice them, in the same way we don’t notice our health or friendships until they are gone.
Sit down and list all the alligators in your life and figure out how to start getting rid of them.** Focus your energy here first.
*I apologize to anyone who was expecting a blog post about actual real alligators and kittens.
**Tell us what alligators are in your life, or ones you have managed to get rid of. How did you do it? How did your life change?