Fishing for Happiness

Instead of complaining, identify what you want and go for it.

By Sean Grover

When I was about 10 years old I often went fishing with a family friend, Old Mickey. I guess he was “Old Mickey” because no matter what his age, he always seemed old.

To me, Old Mickey was the spitting image of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. He was lean and cranky, with a crew cut and a gravity-defying cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth. Old Mickey had two favorite hobbies. The first was complaining about his job. His coworkers were lazy; his company was run by a bunch of morons. And his boss? “Fuh-get-uh-bout-it!”

Old Mickey never seemed to stop complaining, except when I caught a fish.  On those rare occasions, when I actually got a fish into the boat, he would pat my shoulder and say simply, “You done good, kid. You done good.”

For Old Mickey, that was a rave.

Old Mickey’s second favorite hobby?  Envisioning the joys of retirement. For him, retirement was the gold ring just out of his reach. Grasping that ring would transport him to a magical land where the fish are biting and the seas are calm.

“Another eight years and I’ll retire.  And I can fish every damn day. … Five more years and I’ll the happiest man on the water.”

And the countdown continued.

When the big day finally arrived and his lifelong dream of retirement was at hand, we took one of our last fishing trips together. Looking out on the water, Old Mickey told me he decided not to retire.

I nearly fell overboard.

Retirement was when he could enjoy life, wasn’t it? Retirement meant he could finally be happy, right?

Old Mickey gazed at the horizon silently. Sadly, he kept working right to the very end, and continued complaining about his boss, his coworkers, and his company. For him, the happiness of retirement was a phantom city that vanished upon arrival.

The other day as I was leaving my office, I thought about Old Mickey. Why didn’t he retire? He certainly could afford to.

Then it hit me.

He was unhappy for so long, he knew no other way to be. By putting off his happiness for some time in the future, without realizing it, unhappiness had become his way of life. He lived, like many of us, thinking, I’ll be happy when I have this or that. But if we become so accustomed to putting off our pleasures until another day and not enjoying the present moment, we’re in danger of never really enjoying life. In fact, we will probably be quite miserable.

A Buddhist scholar, Daisaku Ikeda, advises: “Unless we live fully, right now, not sometime in the future, true fulfillment in life will forever elude us. Rather than putting things off till the future, we should find meaning in life, thinking and doing what is most important right now, right where we are—setting our hearts aflame and igniting our lives. Otherwise, we cannot lead an inspired existence.”

The determination to find happiness right now in your present circumstances may sound challenging, but it will revolutionize your very way of being. Every time you complain, you choose helplessness over empowerment. Instead of complaining, identify what you want and go for it.

Many years ago, I decided to kick the complaining habit, resolved to give it up completely. Each time I had the urge to complain, I would refrain. Sounds simple, right?  Give it a try.  For me, it was a ferocious battle. Without complaining, I found that I didn’t have much to say.

Without being aware of it, like Old Mickey, my complaining habit was undermining my ability to find pleasure in simple moments.  Each time I complained, I may have felt justified, even satisfied.  But it was a short-term, empty satisfaction that paved the way to feelings of depression and isolation. Complaining may seem like a small harmless habit, but don’t underestimate the cumulative damage it can cause.

Over time, I practiced focusing on the positive, used more encouraging words and thoughts when addressing others or thinking about something that happened to me. As my complaining nature began to transform, people noticed a change. My mood was lighter. I was flexible when obstacles arose instead of feeling defeated or quitting altogether. I was more playful and relaxed.  Today, I may fall off the wagon now and then, but complaining no longer robs me of the opportunity to find value in every moment.

Overcoming my complaining nature and learning to enjoy the present moment was like catching the biggest fish ever. I imagined Old Mickey smiling, patting me on the back and saying, “You done good kid. You done good.”

So all you fellow complainers out there (and you know who you are), you have a choice: You can continue to play the victim in life or you can join me in saying, “The complaint department is closed.”