No Wonder They Call It “The Pursuit of Happiness”
If anyone would've asked me about this topic six months ago, I'd have given them my best Cheshire cat impression before sowing the seeds of revolutionary thinking. It was brilliant! Thought provoking! Dare I say even life-changing! But if that were the case, then why has it languished for so long?
I thought it'd be simple enough to write about how to be truly happy, but inevitably found that the real truth is that happiness is completely subjective. It's so profoundly personal that nothing anyone can say will ever convince another person that their definition or source of happiness is better, purer or more correct.
Disclaimer: There Is No Answer
I've thought about this almost every day for the last several months and found myself circling round and round (like a hula, hula hoop) at times finding support for my first thought, then eventually reversing every step that I took towards a final answer. I found that trying to come up with a solid, universal answer is like trying to plant a permanent flag at the point where waves meet the shore; that point is ever-changing.
This has been the hardest topic to write about thus far, mainly because there is no single answer. Instead of trying to convince you of why we should do this, or think that, I’ll just tell you the story of how my perspective of happiness was forever changed one December morning in 2006.
Chickens > iPads
Having spent my first seven years in the Philippines, I know a bit about the not-so glamorous 'lyfe.' Although my parents did what they could, we definitely were not keeping up with the Jones'. In fact, one of my regular pastimes as a kid, in our miniscule, rural community was spending half a day chasing chickens in hope of getting myself a pet. Spoiler alert! I never did get to catch myself a pet chicken, I could say that it was one of my biggest regrets, but to be honest, looking back on it, I was content running around after them. They were simple pleasures for simple times. It's a far cry from the children of today who can be seen fiddling with their parents' iPads, or better yet, their own.
I’m Not Complaining
We moved to Canada in 1997, and for the most part, life continued similarly. My parents treated my brother and I to things more often than back home, but there was still an attitude of making do with what we had. When my teenage years came I developed the need to have the newest shoes, or the right clothes for high school (yeah, it happens). Luckily for me, in the summer of 2006 I was hired for my first job. It gave me a little extra money to spend at the local movie theatre, save in the bank, and other times to drop a crap-load for something crazy. Life was good and was only getting better.
In December of the same year, my high school offered a few students and I the opportunity to live with a host family in the Dominican Republic for a week to learn and experience what life was like for families who were living in, or close to poverty. I remember thinking to myself that I'd lived that reality already and that I wouldn’t really learn anything new. My parents, however, thought that it would be a good idea, and so I caved and went. Little did I know the effect those seven days there would have on my life.
It was on the morning of the sixth day. The smell of our host family's cooking, a ramen-noodle soup with roughly chopped cubes of canned ham (SPAM for the unenlightened) was wafting into my room, while outside the familiar soundtrack of the neighbourhood’s early morning hustle and bustle roused me from my bed and prompted me to check up on my housemate. He too was awake and taking in the sounds and scents of the environment. He also had an unequivocal awareness that it was ramen and SPAM for breakfast.
After we had wolfed down our meal, much to the delight of our host family, we walked out to their small porch to see the hubbub on the street. There was a group of children on the unpaved, stone-strewn street in front of our house whooping, hollering, and laughing while playing a game of football (or should I say futbol). They were like any other group of kids that we would have seen in our own neighbourhoods; it was comforting. In fact, it was nice to see how certain things transcended distance, borders, language, and even culture.
However, reality crept back into the situation and soon we both noticed that despite the similarities, there was a stark difference between our neighbourhood kids and this group of rambunctious children. We saw that the ball they were using was aged, roughed-up and only half-inflated. On their feet, most of the kids wore ratty shoes and flip-flops, if anything at all. It was a jarring sight. Still, they trudged on as if they were on a field wearing cleats, shin pads, and those fashionable high socks. Looking back on it, the uneven ground must have wreaked havoc on their heels, and caused the dreaded stubbed toe-syndrome on more than one occasion. Yet in all those drawbacks I don’t remember seeing a single child without a beaming smile on their face. To them, they were playing “the beautiful game,” and so, all was right in the world.
Reality Hits Hard At Home
We returned to Canada the week before Christmas and slid back into our daily routine as students, or at least we tried to. After all that we had seen and experienced, we had become aware of what life was like for families outside of our borders. In school, many of our peers, and teachers commented on how gloomy we were considering the holidays were only a few days away.
This reminded us more of our host families. I was having a hard time dealing with the fact that we had so much while our host families had so little. However, nothing hit me harder than what I saw when I returned to work. I was helping customers at my cash register when I looked around at the dozens of televisions playing Christmas movies about giving and sharing. It was a perfect juxtaposition to the sight directly below them: customers were haphazardly zipping by one another in an effort to beat their peers to their desired products.
I watched as my co-worker was swarmed by multiple patrons, each trying to get him to focus on their needs. The growing number of customers soon eclipsed his ability to multi-task, and eventually irate consumers soon accused him of ignoring them purposefully, and demanded to speak with our manager. In the time it took for the manager to arrive, a series of vitriolic statements were made towards, and about my co-worker. It was brutal. He had put in his two-week notice the day before and had promised that he would work until his last scheduled day, but after that episode he quit on the spot. He had had enough of the abuse and anger he faced every Christmas.
After hearing the customer’s verbal slaughter, I thought about the Dominican kids playing football, and the joy they exuded from what little they had. To have been in a home of happy, cheerful people just a few days before where a feast for guests was ramen noodles and SPAM, and now, standing in a fluorescent-lit department store teeming with sheer abundance, yet drowning in a cacophony of complaints, rage and disrespect was absolutely ludicrous. How could people living with so little be so happy, while people surrounded by so much, be so malicious?
After that Christmas, I questioned everything I thought about money, desire, and what mattered most in my life; the key being my life. I asked myself what I could live with, and what could I live without, and I examined how I interacted with the world. It was life changing, at least for a time. It has been ten years since I saw those kids playing football and I wish I could say that my standards, actions, and definition of happiness have remained as steadfast as in 2006, but just as the name of this website says, Lyfe Happens; things change, and sometimes we must concede to practicality. For instance I used to believe that true happiness came from love, not wealth or material things.
Money Isn't Everything, But It's Something
No amount of unconditional love can pay bills, purchase food, or provide security. It can be tough to be happy without those three things. Still, I try my best to live as close to the principles that I established for myself back then, but like the point where water meets the beach, life has a funny way of testing your line in the sand.
Let Me Conclude By Leaving You Hanging
As much as I’d like to leave you with something snappy and thought-provoking, truthfully, I don’t have all the answers. Besides, the answers that I have might not be sufficient by your standards. It’s like the saying goes; one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia.
One definition of happiness can’t speak for all. I'll say this caveat though, if your happiness comes from someone else’s sadness, you might want to rethink that because in the words of Scott Pilgrim, “that is eeevil”. Don’t be an Evil Ex, be better. Apart from that, in the end, all I can do is tell you the story about how I came to understand what happiness and contentment are for me, and if you were wondering how I define it, telling you would defeat the purpose of this piece. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide what happiness is so get out there, seek it out, and let the eternal chase begin!