There are plenty of books giving advice on how to be happy. I’ve written one myself (Teach Yourself How To Be Happier). But there’s a tendency to ignore the corollary, how not to be unhappy. I’ve been reflecting on the importance of this following a big fire near my home in Spain.
How did that fire start? The authorities are sure it was a cigarette end, tossed from a car window. That simple, thoughtless act destroyed something like 13,000 hectares of forest along with wildlife, farm animals and homes. Some people were seriously burned. In another nearby fire on the same day two people died as they tried to escape down a cliff that proved too steep. That second fire was started in the same way by a discarded cigar butt.
I don’t know if the people responsible are aware of what they’ve done. If so, they must be feeling terrible. But it’s certain their actions have caused a lot of misery to others.
Those cigarette and cigar ends are symbols. So much of life is like this. People literally hurl tobacco into their own lives and set them on fire. It’s a fact that around half of smokers will lose two decades of the lives they would have had. And yet there’s no evidence at all that smokers are happier than non-smokers. Smoking is a huge risk with no upside.
Alcohol is similar. There’s zero evidence that drinkers are happier than teetotalers. Okay, a small quantity can make you feel good for a short while, but serious drinking is a threat to long-term physical and mental health.
What about driving too fast? What about the quick, unprotected bonk with someone you hardly know? What about getting sunburned on holiday then going out the next day and getting even more burned? What about fooling around with drugs?
These are all examples of happiness being sacrificed for a transitory thrill, or less. If you want to be happy, don’t make yourself unhappy. Think through the consequences of your actions.