A young man came from a good family, had a good education, and knew that a good future ahead of him. Still, with all of these good things in his life, he was not happy. The young man felt that something was missing.
He went in search of the happiness that was missing. In his travels, the young man heard stories of a woman who lived on a mountain top, after discovering the secret to happiness. He found the mountain and made the climb to the top. There he found her, tending some cabbages.
“What is the secret to happiness,” he asked her?
“There is no secret,” she told him, and went back to pulling weeds from her garden.
“Can you teach me to be happy?” The young man persisted. “Perhaps this is a game that enlightened people like to play,” He thought to himself.
“I can teach you to grow cabbages,” she said, “but I can’t teach you to be happy. You must do that for yourself.”
“The people in the village say that you have discovered the secret to happiness, and that is why you are on top of this mountain,” the young man said.
The woman sighed. She looked at him tenderly, as if he were a lost child.
“OK, I lied,” she said. “There is a secret to happiness. I did find it long ago, and that is why I stay up here on this mountain. I can teach it to you, but only if you are truly determined to learn.”
“I am!” the young man shouted, almost falling over himself with excitement.
“It won’t be easy,” said the woman. “It may not make much sense.”
“I can do it!” replied the man, “just tell me what it is!”
“I’ll need you to sit out here all night, to prove that you are determined to learn. In the morning, I will teach you.”
The young man sat there all night. He thought about his life as he watched the stars. A symphony of crickets and the crash of the nearby ocean provided background music for his thoughts.
He remembered being happy as a child, but also feeling lost, like something was missing from the world. He remembered his mother telling him he wouldn’t amount to anything if he didn’t study harder. He felt hurt at the thought of his mother rejecting him. He knew she meant well.
A coyote howled in the distance, and the man lay down in the dirt with a rock as a pillow. He was cold and tired, but he knew he would soon be happy, and so he felt like a king in his palace.
He remembered being bullied at school until he found a good group of friends. He smiled as he remembered playing board games until late at night.
He remembered his first kiss, how adult he felt then, and how innocent that seemed now.
He remembered the first time he realized there was injustice in the world, and felt anger welling up within him, at the thought that he could not stop it. “When I am happy,” he thought, “then I will be able to fix these problems with the world. I know it.”
He wondered if there were anyone in the stars, looking up at him, the way he was looking up at them. He felt cozy on his planet — one of billions in the galaxy, he’d heard. He wondered if there were anyone else out there like him, looking up at him in the night sky, wondering if he were there, too.
He’d learned a lot of math and science in school. Those subjects were hard, and the truth was often confusingly tricky. He figured it was only natural that happiness worked the same way.
Eventually, he fell asleep.
When he woke up, the woman was ready.
“Happiness often comes and goes,” she said. “I’m sure you’re looking for the kind of happiness that lasts.”
“Yes, of course!” said the young man.
“Well,” said the woman, “think about it from a physics perspective. You want to make a lasting change on the world. That’s going to take a lot of energy; otherwise thermal dissipation would just cause your happiness to melt away.”
“Uhhh… I guess,” said the man.
“Entroy’s a bitch. Things fall apart, you know? You’ve got to make a change that’ll last.”
“I guess that makes sense,” said the man.
“Remember,” the woman smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. “I told you this would be a bit confusing. But I did figure out the secret to happiness, and that’s why I’m up here on this mountain. You see how happy I am, with how little I have.”
The young man remembered all the villagers saying that she’d discovered a secret. Of course it would be odd. She did seem to smile a lot, as if that were a permanent habit.
“Now I don’t want to get into aliens, permanent blockchain history, and retrocausality because we’d be here all night, so I’ll just tell you the short version. You trust me, right?”
“Yes, I trust you,” said the young man. She had to know the answer. She was so confident!
“What you need to do,” she said, “is pick up a rock down there on the beach, and throw it up to the moon. Any rock will do.”
“What? Throw a rock to the moon? That’s impossible.”
“I know, she said. It sounds impossible. At first, I thought it must be, too. There’s a bunch of stuff I can go into, if you want, about how your mind navigates the multiverse by selecting possible futures from among plausible worldlines, and how effort reverberates through the future because the past is constantly recorded and analyzed by future intelligences, but if you trust me on this, all you have to do is keep trying, and eventually you’ll get there. That’s how I got here.”
“Ok,” said the young man.
“One last thing — this is very important,” she said. “You can only throw each rock once. If you don’t get the rock up there on your first try, the attempt at a history quorum will lead to a long debate and may just be too fractious to resolve into a retrocausal energy stream. “
“What?” he said.
“Always throw a new rock,” she said. “Trying over and over with the same one won’t work. If you pick up a rock, and it leaves your hand, and it doesn’t end up on the moon — don’t pick that one up again. Get a new rock for each attempt. If you drop one, it’s better to get a new rock, just to be sure. You’d hate to have to do this twice.”
It sounded crazy.
He spent ten weeks on that beach, picking up rocks and throwing them into the air as hard as he could. He found the most efficient way to throw rocks up into the air, spinning around to use his entire body like a trebuchet. He found the rocks that would go the highest — big enough to grasp entirely but small enough to fit in one hand.
He was sore, he was tired, and he was in pain from the rocks that fell down and hit him on their return. None of them came close to landing on the moon.
He kept trying, and he never seemed any closer. His skin was burned from the summer sun, and his hair smelled of seaweed and saltwater. His hands were raw from throwing all those rocks.
The hunger for happiness he felt at first had burned itself out. For a while he was just smoldering stubbornness. Eventually he realized that by giving up, he’d have to face how foolish he’d been. His embarrassment took over for the stubbornness, and he kept going. Every few weeks, he’d find some way to make the rocks go up higher, and he’d feel a burst of effort that would last a few more days.
After ten weeks, he was left with bruises and sores, a broken spirit, and a big pile of rocks from his various failed attempts.
He went back to the mountain and approached the woman.
“You tricked me, didn’t you,” he said. He wasn’t angry. He was just tired.
“You tricked yourself.” She said.
“There is no secret to happiness, is there?” he asked.
“Nope.” She said.
“So what did you figure out. What was your secret? What was the point of all that?” he asked her.
“You seem to think I’m a very happy person. I don’t disagree with you. I went through the same path you did — trying to find a shortcut, or a quick solution for happiness. That doesn’t exist. Most of what I told you was nonsense, but the energy thing wasn’t. If you want lasting happiness, you’ll need to put a lot of energy into it.”
“So is that why you’re up on the mountain? Because it has more energy to make you happy?”
“Sort of,” she said. “I spent a while throwing rocks at the moon, too. I didn’t get any closer than you did — but I did make myself a nice pile of rocks. Eventually I came to understand that a mountain is just a big pile of rocks. If you pile up enough of those rocks — even small ones — eventually you have yourself a mountain.”
“I don’t understand,” the young man said.
“The choices you make in life can add up to something big, even if they’re small choices. I used to think I’d be happy if I could have some big accomplishment — start a company and sell it. Get married. Buy a house. Those are like big rocks. You can push a few together and get yourself quite a hill to stand on.”
She continued, “I found that after a few of those, I still wasn’t where I wanted to be. There are many smaller choices I make for myself throughout the day — how to sit, where to walk, and what to eat. Should I have this extra piece of toast? It’s those small choices that really seem to make up the majority of my happiness. The big choices rarely matter all that much. A bunch of small choices, well made, over and over — that’s what happiness is. That’s how it works.”
“That sounds good,” he said, “but I still want to save the world,” he said. “Small choices won’t let me do that.”
“I know,” she said. “I do, too. You’ve got to know your limits. One lost kid at a time is about the best I can manage.”