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Happiness In Game Development: Why Try?

I’ve written a couple articles on how to be happy as a game developer, but just realized I have yet to talk about why we should even try to be happy. In an admittedly messed-up world, here are some reasons why it still might be a worthwhile goal.

Jamie Fristrom, Blogger

August 6, 2014

5 Min Read

I’ve written a couple articles on how to be happy as a game developer, but just realized I have yet to talk about why we should even try to be happy. I kind of thought it was obvious. But lately a friend of mine has been ranting about how happiness is for saps. The gist of his argument is that the world sucks and we should be angry about it, not happy about it, because maybe that will motivate us to Do Something About Things.

And, well, it’s hard to argue. All the sexist bullshit I see; the fact that one out of six women get raped; Gaza; seeing some of my wonderful friends struggle through their lives with hardly any income to speak of, yeesh. Yeah, it makes me angry. And sad. I used to be numb to that kind of stuff but the older me is like a raw nerve.

For a moment, after reading his rants, it made me embarrassed to have named my company Happion Laboratories, and to be so dedicated to the pursuit of happiness myself.

And then I remembered: seeking authentic, lasting happiness does not mean you’re a douche bag. In fact, it likely means the opposite.

A lot of happiness science studies confirm it - the people who are in good moods and score high on tests of happiness (and low on tests of depression) are often the ones who donate more of their money and volunteer more of their time. (Some sources: *How of Happiness*, by Sonja Lyubomrisky; *Happy Money*, by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton; and the movie *Happy*.) They’re people who are doing good and making a difference. 

Take the Dalai Lama. He sure as hell has a right to be angry. And yet some people think he may be the happiest person on earth. Is he a sap? 

Whereas people who chase status and More Stuff are often mysteriously unsatisfied and depressed.
Since I’ve started reading about happiness science I try harder to give back more, and spend a lot more on charity and other people. My pursuit of lasting happiness has led me to become a better person.

So that’s reason number one to try to be happy.

Reason two appeals to logic. If we shouldn’t be happy as long as there’s some injustice or awfulness out there to be angry about … then that sounds like nobody should be happy until everyone is. Which means that nobody will ever be happy. Is that we want for each other? We don’t want each other to be happy unless absolutely everyone is?

There’s something to be said for putting on your own oxygen mask first. Maybe your anger will motivate you to help people but I think it’s just as likely that your unhappiness might motivate you to stay in bed all day and not lift a finger.

Finally, there’s another reason I try to be happy. I am super-fucking-privileged. I am a middle (or upper-middle, depending on how you count) class white male in the United States. Most of the world has it worse off than me. I have no right to complain. Although I suffer from dysthymia (or maybe it’s cyclothymia) and have had some bad crap in my life I feel obligated to work past it because I imagine the rest of the world looking at me and saying, “What does he have to complain about? He gets to make videogames for a living.” So the last thing I want to do is be unhappy about my personal situation. 

Now, if you find yourself with a belief like “happiness is for saps” or “nobody should be happy until everyone is” or “I can’t help the world unless I’m angry” - those are the sorts of hyperbolic all-or-nothing thoughts that clinically depressed people often have. You may want to take a test for depression (there’s one on this website: it’s the CES-D under the Questionnaires) and if you score high consider therapy, self-help books, and/or antidepressants.

But how far do we take this? It’s good to be happy sometimes, but if we’re ecstatic all the time then something’s wrong with us. 

Something I’ve been wrestling with lately is how much to expose myself to secondary trauma. When I hear about sexual assault or murdered children on my twitter feed, it does affect my mood. It does make me sad and angry. And so I sometimes wonder if I should tune out - after all, most of this stuff is beyond my circle of control - what can I do beyond retweeting and making pitiful contributions to rape awareness programs and the like? It seems I have to choose between being angry and numb. Is it really numbness, though? Although we are magnetically drawn to focus on what’s wrong, if we could step back and look at all the progress we’ve made over the centuries, and remember that most people are doing … okay ... most of the time ... maybe ‘numb’ is the wrong word. Maybe we’re just balanced, aware of the whole. 

The balance I strike? I don’t read or watch the news. But I do pay attention when people rant on my social networks, and often ask, “So what can I do?”

I don’t want to tone-police. If something makes you angry, by all means, get angry. Don’t fight it - that can fester. Go ahead and rant and fix things. But don’t stay angry forever. And when you’re done … be happy again.


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Jamie Fristrom


Jamie Fristrom is a partner, technical director, and designer at Torpex Games and he's writing this in the third person. Prior to Schizoid, Jamie was a technical director and designer on Spider-Man 2, his biggest claim to fame being that he invented its dynamic, physical swinging system. Other games he's worked on include Spider-Man for PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube, Tony Hawk for the Dreamcast, Die by the Sword for the PC, and the Magic Candle series of RPGs. Jamie wrote the "Manager in A Strange Land" column for Gamasutra, blogs at www.gamedevblog.com, and (he thinks) holds the world record for number of post-mortems written for Gamasutra and Game Developer.

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