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exploring the myth of a feeling :
Of all people, I’d protest the most if someone tells me each of our lives are neutral. What gives meaning and degree of good/bad to our experiences are ourselves, usually the mind. For the most part, we can agree that with the exception of life-shattering events like the death of a loved one, a diagnosis of a terminal illness, or being financially unstable do not signify a rosy outlook, a significant big proportion of events in one’s life is subjective to how one perceives and reacts.
Perennially, we like to have what is lumped into “happiness”, defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as a state of well-being and contentment. Are we doomed from the start if we believe that happiness is a state that once we arrive, we are good? I am prompted to question the legitimacy of happiness, and whether pursuing such a state is practical or prudent.
Happiness is subjective. In the movie, the Pursuit of Happyness, the main character Chris Gardner has a memorable speech that I really like:
It was right then that I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson and the declaration of independence and the part about our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part in there? Maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue. And we may can actually never have it no matter what. How did he know that?
This was one of the most memorable movies from my childhood. Two aspects especially strike me. One is the use of the word “happyness” in the title. Happyness vs. happiness signifies a continuous and unforced state of being. Changing “y” to “i” means you shape and alter it. Second, many details in the movie were simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Kicked out of his apartment, Chris brought his son, Christopher to the subway station to spend the night. To comfort the son, he pretended that the noise of the trains was from dinosaurs and that they went back in time. He then rushed the kid to the bathroom to go to sleep, pretending the room was a cave. The scene wrappred up with toilet paper strewn all over the floor, the kid slept soundly on his dad’s legs while the father heaved in silent.
In another setting, Chris saw the word “Fuck happiness” painted near his son’s kindergarten. He was adamant that the phrase be erased. As a viewer, I respect Chris’ effort but also pity him. Isn’t it crazy to maintain a high level of hope when your life is in shamebles? Should we all be neurotic and upset when you are homeless and out of money?
I’m turning 24 and life feels as if I’m going through the coming-of-age phase again. When I was in college, I thought getting a good job in America would equate to attaining the utmost happiness, an reward for my accumulation of five years of hard work. The high lasted three months and in place of “happiness” was a void that needs to be filled again. An elusive sense of happiness was what I’m searching for.
One day when I was at work, I got sent an article featuring a mutual who got accepted to multiple top tier master programs. It’s common for Vietnamese news outlet to write about Vietnamese who landed big opportunities in Western countries. Interestingly, I was mirroring her life to a T being a few years behind her in age. The jealousy monster would have taken over in the past but it didn’t that day. The moment that I could walk away from things I thought I need to be happy is the moment I can start living in the present.
There is no such thing as the endpoint for happiness. If you are lucky, life consists of mostly monotony and a few key events that you are content with. And then there is acceptance of what you have and will be going through.
Perhaps an indicator of a good life will be one that is plain and calming with the occasional sprinkle of joyful events. As humans, we are excellent at resetting our baselines of “happiness”. This TED talk by Dan Gilbert referenced a study exploring how major life traumas affect people suggesting that if the traumas happened over three months ago, with few exceptions, had few impacts on happiness.
We synthesize happiness but we think happiness is a thing to be found.
I had a friend from home who I love dearly, confronted me when I explained to her how miserable I feel: “You want to be in America because you want the money. Why don’t you just move back home?” I was stunned. How dare she said I am money driven.
I was ready to argue, that it was not because of the money. It was because I want to gain experience and have a solid career start. Maybe there is partial truth in that defense but a lot of what my friend said was accurate too. Not for the money directly but I wanted to prove that I could do hard things even when I don’t like it.
Moving away from that stage, I ask myself these questions: Am I present, attentive, and focused when I’m choosing to do certain things? Do I only care about the end goal or do I actually appreciate the process? Not much different from learning about moderation in relationships that I wrote here, I am figuring out how to maintain a healthy level of expectations with life experiences.
What I learned over many years from being easily excitable and equally as easily losing interest are:
If I could calmly sit down and do something and still enjoy it, like reading a book or learning about a topic I am intrigued, it’s a good sign.
If I gravitate towards doing something when I’m bored, it’s a good sign.
If I am patient to practice something for years, it’s a good sign.
If I am constantly looking around to compare myself to peers, it’s a bad sign.
If I am overly excited and burn myself out in a few months trying to master a skill or knowledge base, it’s a bad sign.
Extreme enthusiasm in my personal experience is usually overcompensation for a lack of true commitment. Lasting interests are more valuable.
As a kid, we may be tempted to go after what makes us “happy” like buying a new toy, hanging out with our best friend, or watching a favorite show. Being adults means showing up and trying our best, the rest is really up to the toss of a coin.
Thank you for reading Life with MD. I am venturing into a more philosophical realm in this piece. I’d love to know what you think about it.
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