In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. “If you aren’t going to do something right, then don’t do it at all,” he told me.
He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I knew that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’ve lived my life like a raging bull, tunnel visioning and charging forward toward the goals that I thought would bring me happiness in life.
There were things that I thought would bring me happiness but didn’t. And there were things that surprisingly gave me more joy than I could have ever imagined. It was in those moments that something finally clicked for me.
I’m reluctant to call it “the secret to happiness,” because it might not work for you, and it certainly didn’t work for the man who taught it to me.
Despite the opening line of this article, it wasn’t my father who taught me this truth. It was a man named Jay Gatsby. You might have heard of him.
“They said he was third cousin to the kaiser and second cousin to the devil.”
It may be cliche, but it was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic masterpiece that taught me the secret to being happy, along with some pearls of wisdom About Time by Richard Curtis. Yes, it is a novel written nearly 100 years ago and a 2013 romcom that showed me the key.
And the key to happiness is time travel.
Before you laugh me out of the room, let me tell you that I am 100% serious.
As a writer, I have a code, or rather, a belief.
If your writing changes one life for the better, just a single life, in whatever small or large way, then it was worth it.
Your words were worth writing and your words were worth reading.
I hope that this article can change one life for the better, and I hope that it is your life.
Have you ever felt like what you have in life isn’t enough? Maybe you worked so hard to finally get the job of your dreams, but after the papers were signed and after a few months at the desk, you realized it was ok, but it wasn’t exactly what you wanted.
Or maybe, in your love life, you were chasing the person of your dreams. And for the first few months or first year, it was fireworks. But eventually, those fireworks died out.
If you’ve felt this way before, about any aspect of your life. If you’ve ever said or thought that “It wasn’t as good as I thought it would be,” then this article is for you.
You see, old sport, it is my opinion that those fireworks never died out in the first place. Eventually, you just stopped seeing them for what they are. The same thing happened to Gatsby.
I think what many fail to realize about Gatsby’s life is that the real tragedy wasn’t his death.
The real tragedy was when he finally achieved everything he had dreamed of and, in his heart, it wasn’t enough.
When he finally reconnected with Daisy, the love of his life, his destiny was doomed.
My favorite lines from the Great Gatsby novel and my favorite scene from the 2013 film adaptation illustrate this perfectly:
“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”
In both the original novel and the 2013 film adaptation, Gatsby is entranced by a green light at the end of a dock across the bay from his home.
The reason he reaches out toward it in the night is that the love of his life, Daisy, lives in a mansion just beyond that green light.
Like Gatsby, we all have green lights at the end of a dock, those things in our lives that seem just out of reach.
Maybe it’s a love interest, a promotion, a new job, a new car, a new house.
We all have a green light that seems to keep us going. And we think once we reach that green light, everything will be better.
If I just get her to go out with me, I could die a happy man.
If I just get that promotion and that raise, everything will work out.
This job sucks, but once I save enough for a down payment on a new house, it’ll all be worth it.
So we reach our hand out towards those green lights, hoping they'll be everything we thought they would be.
And then it happens.
You reach that green light.
And when you get there, it was everything you thought it would be.
For a while, at least, all is right in the world. You ride that high like a firework at its apex.
But then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, the moment passes.
When Gatsby finally had the girl of his dreams in his arms, something changed.
“Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Now it was again a green light on a dock, and his count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.”
What happened to Gatsby, happens to all of us in life, at some point.
The green light loses its brightness.
And you’re unhappy.
We spend all our lives gazing at and reaching out towards these green lights and we forget to enjoy them once we reach them.
The truth is...
What happens more often is that your vision gets clouded. Perhaps you see another light in the distance and think that one is brighter than the one you have now.
You let a few weeds grow around the green light next to you, until it's so covered in moss and surrounded by overgrowth that you forget how brightly it used to burn and how desperately you used to reach out toward it.
I had to borrow a quote from Atlas Shrugged for the heading of this section, because Gatsby never did end up happy.
He didn’t realize his hamartia, which is pretty much the same fatal flaw of everyone who is stuck in a rut.
He didn’t realize that what he already had was what he wanted all along. Instead, he kept needing more.
He got Daisy to fall in love with him again, but still, that wasn’t enough. Next, he needed her to tell her husband that she never loved him.
And his list of needs went on, more green lights in the distance, promising “The orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” (Gatsby Chapter 9)
There is a psychological precedent for this need to always want more. Some even say that humanity’s perpetual quest for something more is the key to happiness itself.
However, I believe that true happiness comes from both the fulfillment of your goals and the ability to love what you already have. And the latter isn’t as easy as it sounds. You can put on a smile and you can fool others, but you can’t fool yourself.
So how do you calm the vicious cycle of wanting? How do you remove the moss covering the green lights that you used to long for? The answer is time travel.
In Richard Curtis’ 2013 rom-com, About Time, he gives us his take on the key to happiness.
Amidst the laughter, the simplistic take on time travel, and the common romance tropes, there is a key idea presented at the end of the film that has become my motto for life.
Live every day as if you had time traveled back to it on purpose.
At some point in everyone’s life, we ask ourselves or our friends the question: where would you go back in time if you could relive a moment in your life?
Imagine that moment was today.
If it were so, would you worry about the mortgage?
Would you wonder whether or not you were going to get that promotion at work?
Or would you enjoy the day for what it was: a fleeting moment that lasts only once - a chapter of your life that eventually, you won’t be able to go back to.
Instead of letting the small worries and annoyances in life bother you, you’d live in that moment, soaking in every second, every breath.
I know it’s a big ask. It requires strong imagination on your part, but if you can do it, you can make any day magical and full.
But to help you in your time travel journey, I took this idea about time and took it one step further. I learned how to really time travel.
My first experience with time travel was when I was 21 years old.
You don’t need a spaceship. You don’t need a telephone booth or a Delorean.
All you need is your mind.
The human mind is a powerful thing. And because of the nature of time, we already know certain things that will happen in the future.
During my first time travel experience, I had a lot going on in my mind.
I was getting ready to move to Japan to start my English teaching career. As a result, I was trying to sell a bunch of my things so as not to burden my family with my old junk.
That day, I went home in the afternoon after my university class. When I entered my home, it was silent.
My parents were probably out grocery shopping or something, and my elder sister was still at work. The only sound I heard was the sound of my dog’s tiny footsteps on the tile floor as he came to greet me.
His tail wagged and he lay down, waiting for his belly rub. I sat down next to him and petted him and, in that moment, it hit me.
That house was never silent, and in it, I was never alone.
That rare moment of silence and solitude gave me a glimpse into the inevitable future.
A future where my parents are gone. My sisters and I are all grown and living our own lives in our own houses.
I looked down at my dog and remembered that he too would be gone someday.
I time traveled to a time where I could no longer return to this childhood home, a time where my dog had moved on to greener pastures.
And, in that moment, I wept for the child in me that was soon to be gone forever.
Then suddenly I came back to the present.
I was back in my body petting my dog as he lay on the floor looking at me, wondering why I had tears in my eyes.
I felt like I had come from the future and was given a second chance. I felt like I was an older version of myself who had time traveled back to see my childhood home again, to see my dog again.
I hugged him and kissed him, and smelled him. I wanted to remember him, remember the feeling of the tile floor, every nook and cranny of the house in which I’d grown up.
I wanted to remember everything.
After that moment, I loved my parents a little bit more.
I felt grateful for my warm house and my warm bed. I didn’t complain about having to take my dog for a walk.
On the contrary, I relished it.
Every time I walked him, I wondered if it would be the last, and inside I hoped each step could last a bit longer.
Now if that one moment, that brief instance of time travel, could create such a profound change in me, imagine what else it could do?
There are two ways to travel through time. You can go forward or backward, and the direction you need to go depends on what issue you’re having in life.
Gatsby had achieved so much he had forgotten to enjoy what he had. He had forgotten that in so many ways, he had already achieved his dreams.
On the contrary, my university self was so focussed on the future. I was so focussed on the career, the climb, that I had forgotten to look at the bigger picture of life and couldn’t enjoy the fleeting things we all take for granted.
Since then, I’ve time traveled often to fix my mindset when it needs correction, and to make each day more full.
This method is part time travel and part interdimensional travel.
When my wife and I are having an argument, for example, let’s say a big argument.
I'm talking about those fights where you don’t mean it, but somewhere inside of you a thought pops into your head “would my life be better if I just wasn’t with this person?”.
So instead of dispelling that terrible thought, I explore it. I close my eyes and I travel to a time and dimension where my wife and I are no longer together.
I wake up in my bed and I’m alone, her warm body isn’t next to me. Her childhood stuffed animal best friend that stays on the bed with us is gone too.
I go downstairs and open the door to the kitchen/living room to make my morning coffee. I look to the dining table where my wife is normally typing away at a work email, but instead of her, I see nothing. Instead of the drone of the tv white noise she keeps on in the background, I hear absolutely nothing.
In the afternoon, during a stressful event at work, I go downstairs to give her a hug to relieve some of the stress, but there is no one there to embrace me.
If I want to, I can travel to the past and to a different dimension, a dimension in which I choose not to pursue my wife.
I go to a dimension where I don’t ask her on that first date.
I live my life as normal with her in the background, we’re friends, but we never become more than that.
Final Scene from Your Name
And then the memories that we had made together start to disappear: the first time I held her hand, the time she rented a studio to play the piano for me on my birthday (she had practiced my favorite anime songs and had given me a private concert).
The first time she met my dog, I was worried that he would react the way he always does to strangers: barking at them and attacking them until he tires himself out.
But the first time she met my dog, he smelled her, wagged his tail, and lay down at her feet as if she were a family member returning home.
But that moment, all those moments, had faded away.
Then, I snap back to the present, in my dimension. I had almost forgotten what our fight was about. It seemed so trivial now in comparison to a life without her.
I apologize to her and speak with a more clear mind. The time travel didn’t make the problem go away.
Of course, it didn’t.
But it reminded me that I was speaking to the love of my life.
After we spoke, we understood each other’s perspectives better and today I literally can’t fully remember the cause of that argument.
Traveling backward in time can help you in other ways too. It’s helped me to better enjoy my work and as a result, do better at work.
One of the things I hate most about myself is that sometimes I complain about work.
Like many people, I think “ugh what else do I have on my plate today?” Sometimes I even thought, “Damn, maybe this isn’t for me?”
In those instances, I travel back in time. I go back to when I’m slaving away as a university student in my creative writing classes, hoping and praying that one day I can make a living off of my writing.
I could be writing short stories for a magazine no one’s heard of; I could be writing the instructions on a coffee maker. I don’t care what it is.
All I wanted was to make a living from the words I put down on the paper. I don’t even need it to be a lot of money, I think to myself.
I’d rather get paid minimum wage for my writing, than a high salary at some job that I dislike.
Then I travel to a different time. I’m in my tiny apartment and I just got my first freelance writing gig for a video game website called TheGamer. I’m so happy that my girlfriend and I go out for dinner to celebrate.
I travel again and this time, I’m an English teacher in Japan, but the hours are long and the lifestyle is unsustainable. So I work hard and double down on my writing gigs. I bolster my portfolio and my resume and I get a lot of rejection emails. I get rejected from so many writing positions that I can’t remember all the company names anymore.
But I continue on pressing forward, hoping that someone will give me a chance to fulfill my dreams and my passions.
Then I come back to the present and remember that the life I have is the life that my university self had dreamed of. I had gotten too used to it, too complacent that I had forgotten where I had come from.
I remember that these tiny annoyances, the occasional bad days, are nothing compared to the joy of being able to make a living off of a trade I’m passionate about.
So how can you do this too? Let’s use the example of being in a conflict or argument with someone close to you.
When you’re feeling angry at someone or having an issue with someone, your significant other, your siblings, your friends, go to a place where you can be alone. Preferably it’s a silent and even a dark room.
In the About Time film, the protagonist uses a closet, but you don't have to go that far.
Step 1: Close your eyes. And travel back in time. Go back to the first time you met that person, or the first memory you have of them.
Step 2: Go through and relive all the good times. Don’t just see pictures in your head. Close your eyes and go back to your body in that moment. Think about the smell that’s in the air, the scenery around you. Don’t just play a movie in your head, be in that memory and try to use all your senses.
Step 3: Go to a timeline (a dimension) where that person doesn’t exist in your life. Maybe you never met them; maybe they died. Imagine all the memories you just lived through never happened. Imagine that the memories start to fade away and that soon you too won’t be able to remember them anymore.
Step 4: Come back to the present.
Give yourself a few seconds to come back and see how you feel. If you did this process completely and genuinely and you still feel a burning anger or hatred, then perhaps there are bigger deeper issues at work and the relationship has grown so toxic that it might be better to part ways.
But hopefully, your mind is a bit clearer and the issues you may have been having seem trivial compared to the good things you both did together and you remember the best version of that person.
Sometimes your job may truly suck, and maybe it just isn’t what the job description advertised in the fine print. If that’s the case, all the time travel in the world probably won’t fix it.
However, a lot of the time, people just get complacent or stuck in a rut. Often we forget how lucky we are to even have a job in the first place. When you’re in this situation, try this.
Step 1: Use the same time travel method pointed out above, but this time, go back to before you had this job.
Step 2: Find that place in time. Maybe it was when you were a student grinding out your studies, dreaming of being free from school and joining the workforce in an industry you're interested in. Maybe it was when you were pulling your hair out trying to find a job, applying and getting rejected from various companies. Find that time and be in that moment again.
Step 3: Next go to the moment when you interviewed for your current position, and then go to the moment when you got hired. Relive that happiness again.
Step 4: Come back to the present.
How do you feel now? Were you able to remember that this exact job is what you dreamed of doing as a student?
Do you feel fortunate to have this job? If your answer is no to those questions and it didn’t help at all, perhaps this truly isn’t the company for you and it’s best to start looking for employment elsewhere.
Of course not.
Can the cliche saying “You never know what you got ‘til it’s gone,” be the key to everything? Can simply realizing we’re taking things for granted turn a crappy job into a good one?
Of course not.
Can the mere remembrance of the honeymoon phases of your relationship solve all marital issues?
But what time travel can do is give you clarity and empathy.
It can get you in a better mindset to make decisions that could greatly impact your life.
Time travel can help you remember where you came from and be aware of where you’re going.
With that knowledge in mind, I’ve found it much easier to empathize with the people I love and those close to me.
More importantly, I’ve found it easier to be thankful for all that I have, and to enjoy each day, every meal, and every moment in a richer way.
While that might sound flowery, I want to clarify that no, I’m not some monk living in the mountains thinking about philosophy every day.
I’m just a regular guy working in tech who plays games in my free time and is going through all the stresses and troubles that people in their late 20s go through.
Hopefully, my guide to time travel will help you live a slightly happier life as well. And hopefully, you too can just try to live every day as if you've deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the final full day of your extraordinary, ordinary life.
Image via ScoopWhoop
Disclaimer: I am in no way a mental health expert and I'm not qualified to give any serious advice about mental health issues. Please take this article as just my take on what has helped make me happier. I hope it makes you happier too. If you're in need of mental health care, please don't hesitate to see a professional. I, myself, use betterhelp every week.