What must now be a little over three years ago, I started reading Happiness by Design written by Paul Dolan . I came across the book the other day while rummaging around my bookcase for something new to take to work. Flicking through it I found a bookmark – a bus ticket for the 21 service from Livingston, a bus I’d have regularly gotten around that time – and realised I never actually finished the book.
Getting back in to it I was reminded of a few things, and rather strikingly impressed by how much of an influence that book had on my thinking to this day. I was taken back to the parallel moment those few years ago where I realised I wasn’t happy.
I was living with my now ex-girlfriend and for all intents and purposes I believed I was happy. I knew there were unsettled feelings beneath the surface of my life at the time but they were murky and difficult to look at.
One of the core points made in the book is the distinction between experience and evaluation. To give the gist of it, here’s an example from my more recent life. I was working as the Digital Content Creator at a local business and the job ticked a lot of boxes for me.
It allowed me to say I was employed for the skills and abilities I’ve taught myself – it allowed me to be paid for utilising what until then were skills I’d been honing for the sake of my own business ventures, validating all the time and work I’d put in (since at the time of taking the job I was feeling particularly lost with my own business).
I was only the receptionist when I started there – having taken the job on top of another one I was working to give myself an advertising budget – and was offered a promotion around the same time that I jumped ship on an affiliate marketing business I was beginning to dread.
It allowed me to pivot in a way that meant I was doing something that felt validating.
Over the coming months (six of them, to be exact) my satisfaction with the job waned. More surely by the day I was enjoying less of what I was doing and feeling less and less purposeful in my role, yet when I looked at the story of my life at the time I was still holding on to that job as a card to play.
I could still say to myself you’re officially a digital content creator! You were promoted! (and ignore the sinking feeling that attempted to remind me how shitty I felt much of the time).
The sentiment was wearing thin and when my six-month review was approaching it crossed my mind – although I thought at the time I would be kept on for sure – that I might take the opportunity to tell them I was leaving.
I’d realised that my own blog, my own website, and my business were receiving no attention because all of that was going on this job. Despite me still having most of my week free (I only worked two days a week there, and two days freelance elsewhere) it was the type of the attention that was being used there that left nothing to put in to my own ventures.
I tossed a coin – heads and I leave, I called as the coin fell to the floor, rolling under my desk. I scooped it out heads side up, but figured it didn’t count since I hadn’t caught it.
I tossed it again, caught it mid-spin and closed it in my fist: heads again.
Two out of three – I bargained with myself.
I rolled the coin off the desk. My attitude said it all; I obviously wanted to leave despite my behaviour acting out a different story.
I can’t know now whether I’d have followed through and left of my own accord, since a day or so later I found out that I would be leaving whether I liked it or not.
Usually being fired is a reasonable disturbance in your day-to-day life, but I think I was already framing this as a positive opportunity: time to put that energy and creativity I was wasting there to good use.
Reading that book the first time round, the distinction between experience and evaluation made sense in an instant. I realised I wasn’t happy in my relationship at the time despite the story I told myself being the opposite.
When I looked very honestly at my day-to-day experiences of being in that relationship, in that house, I was miserable - my silent experiencing-self muted by the narrative of being happy with this person because I was telling myself I was and felt that I ought to be.
It’s a powerful realisation to have: that we’re living at times by such competing internal standards. I don’t think I believed myself, looking back, having realised I was miserable with my partner. Despite the carnage of that time I was comfortably self-deceived, only slowly edging my way towards acceptance.
It was a slow-burn, accepting that truth. Not only in the context of the relationship, but realising the split in myself and subsequently coming to know it better, seeing other areas of myself that were at silently at war.
Much of that time was spent in a state of turmoil that I would later come to look at as intense self-development. Three years on and I feel I’m mostly left, in the form of memories, with the stories I was telling myself. How was I making sense of those experiences, and what narrative was I weaving out of this?
It’s refreshing now, re-reading those chapters and feeling a warm reassurance in knowing I now not only can say but feel that I am truly happy in my current relationship. The type of distinction is subtle, if you haven’t yet experienced it – but the trick is that you have, you might just not be as conscious of those experiences.
Part of the book discusses just that: making those experiences of happiness – of both pleasure and purpose, as Dolan defines it – more salient. Making them more apparent to yourself so you can acknowledge and realise they are happening.
Becoming more aware of our states of being and doing, internal and external, takes time and a fair deal of persistence. Coming to understand your beliefs and emotions, or the way you use your time, or your spending habits, all demand that we come to know ourselves quite well.
It also asks of us to be in-tune, at least often enough, with our direct experience – even, and perhaps especially, if that means coming to a stand-off with your evaluations of your life.
Overall, how satisfied would you say you are with your life? Most people upon hearing that sort of question begin to reel off facts and figures: well I have a good job and earn X per year, I live in a good part of town and the future is looking rosy. That may well mean that you are satisfied with your life, but it isn’t directly answering the question (partly because it’s not a very good question).
Whether you asked me three years ago or today, I would give you much the same answer to that question. My evaluation then and now is similar – that life is going pretty great – yet my experiences are vastly different.
Back then I may well have said that I was satisfied, and that’s not untrue: I would have said at the time I was satisfied. A fly-on-the-wall perspective on each scenario would soon show however that the lived experiences in each case were hugely different.
These two sides to ourselves, these points-of-view, are valuable. It isn’t wrong in any way to go by the judgements of our evaluative self – and in fact it is a simplification of our hugely complex modes of experiencing the world to say that there are these ‘two sides’ yet it lends itself to understanding ourselves in fewer words which can be useful.
It provides a path for insight to realise we can function in these two ways, and to see how at times we may be at-odds with ourselves. It’s worth asking then, if these parts of ourselves are in disagreement under the radar, how can we uncover those differences in experiencing and evaluating?
How can we know whether - as the title of this piece asks - we are living in an evaluation? It’s sort of a trick question, since aspects of ourselves and our lives are always going to be evaluated. We will tend to have some form or other of this narrative-self, so the pertinent question is how in accord with your actual experience are these narratives?
To the degree that the stories we tell ourselves line up with our lived experience, our goals, our behaviours and so on, we feel a sense of flow. Uncovering these subtle forms of self-deception is part of the process of aligning yourself with your life - with your vision, in the grandest and most day-to-day meanings of the phrase.
A simple question to ask yourself to start the ball rolling would be this: who do I tell myself I am?
Not as part of your CV, or Instagram bio, but on waking up in the middle of the night aware of nothing but the sound of your heartbeat – who do you think you are?
Yes, the former self-definitions are just as useful, as they show you who you think you are (or want to be) to other people. It is the contrast that is interesting to me.
Questioning the ideas we have about ourselves is no easy task and will take you through layers of uncertainty and realisation you never would expect to be stirring so close to the surface.
Questioning yourself, your lived experience and your history, is to question the world that brought you to be, your family and friends, your hopes and any expectations you have of life.
You are in control of how deeply you ask, and how profoundly you hear the answer.