In the past days, I had a series of heart-to-hearts with friends good and distant, old and new. The essence of these conversations were variations of the same question: are you happy? Some just casually inquired while others bluntly told me that I seemed unhappy, or well at least not glowing. If we discount that those conversations were after 9h workdays with a 2h commute, I felt that they were valid. Am I happy? Do I need to be happy? Thinking, or rather pondering on this topic for a few days – here is what my mind distilled.
Thinking back, I can recall many occasions, when I was momentarily happy. Fun trips, good jokes, great books, and a million other that made me happy. Usually for a duration between a few minutes and a few days. But constant happiness? I can’t recall such a time. I had better years than others, better stages of life than others, but I would not go as far to declare some as happy and others unhappy. In my humble experience of 28 years, I noticed that usually happiness came to me when I was not chasing it down. The pursuit of happiness, it seems, is the best way to scare it away.
At 28 I am somewhere in between the first quarter and first third of my life – a good moment to pause and draw conclusions. A moment to measure, so to say, my achievements against my aspirations. For myself, I do this exercise very often, in small increments. But should you never have done it – here is a guide:
A note ahead, it greatly helps, if you ever kept a diary.
Remember your teens, your last years of high school (it’s ok, you can mentally airbrush away the acne and the awkwardness) and try to remember what you wanted to achieve, realistically. (Let’s be honest, few of us had it in them to be a rock star). Where did you want to be in 10 years time? Of my foolish aspirations, a newspaper clipping exists, a profile of the locals they called it… At 30 my plan was to be married, a published author and have at least 1 child. Browsing through my diary I can also add that I dreamed of travelling the world and I especially dreamed of going to Japan. I wanted to become more self-confident and self-assured.
Don’t pass judgement yet, it’s too early.
Then remember your early tweens – maybe your first job or second year of university, what did you want to achieve in 5 years time?
I no longer gave naive interviews in local newspapers, but digging out my old diaries, at 30 I wanted to have a successful career in a leadership position, ideally as regional manager. Maybe slowly start thinking about starting a family. Going to university, moving out from home and all the way to Indonesia had given me a great boost in self-confidence. My new goal of self-improvement was to have better hold over my emotions, become a bit more stoic and in control.
Again, still too early to pass judgement.
Now, at 28, in two years time, I would like to return home and set up my own business. Tourism and hospitality are what I have in mind. The idea of being a wife and mother? Few things scare me more. My character? I have been learning a lot about empathy, emotional intelligence and caring for others. I would like to become a mentor to people (and I practice on our poor interns, who have adopted to calling me their “office mom”… I wonder if that is a compliment)
Finally, where am I actually? How does it compare to my aspirations and dreams? Judgement time!
Well, obviously they changed a lot, as I embarked on my journey through life. I became wiser, more experienced and also more realistic in my dreams (I do still plan to become a published author, just not at 30 anymore… other priorities took over) But all in all, I give myself a solid “on the right track”. By the way of a little detour, that led me to Indonesia, Germany and Portugal – I finally came to Japan, the country of my childhood dreams. Learned the language and even landed a job here. 2-3 years working here and I could land that formerly coveted leadership position. I could also save up enough money (and courage) to maybe start that foolish “business of my own” project that has been spooking around in the back of my mind for about a year now.
My Japanese skills could be better than they are. But that is just me being hard on myself, or to quote a good friend of mine: “You speak Japanese, you can live here without a handicap… what else do you want?”. I met great and truly inspiring people on my way here, who encouraged me, challenged me and supported me to become, who I am today. And if I may say so, I do like and love who I am today, so either way, I would not change any of the things I did…
By the way, this is also the moment, to acknowledge any achievements, that one is proud of. Silently, in your mind, give yourself a good clap on your shoulder. That one thing, yes, you really nailed it!
So, where does this exercise leave me with my question? Am I happy? Maybe, I can’t say. I am not even sure if I want to be… I do feel that I am content with life. I live in a great city, I really love my apartment and how at home it feels, the safety and security of Tokyo and the convenience that lets you be your most lazy self (Ashamed to admit, that I buy souvenirs for visits home on Amazon – they come ready-packaged and go from box straight to suitcase…). Japan is a country of mesmerizing beauty and the food is just heavenly. Even the cheapest joint will serve you a quality meal! But “content” is a complicated word, it sounds like a compromise, does it not? Like settling for something less than happiness, “just” contentment. The word means something entirely different though:
in a state of peaceful happiness.
a state of satisfaction.
Why do we perceive it so? Because we are constantly bombarded by the “best-version-of-myself” on social media? Because everyone around us is in a constant race to show off how happy they are? Maybe; cleverer people than me have debated this topic, and I will pass on passing judgement. Great presenters have shared their views on this on TED.
I just know, in those moments of pure happiness, bliss even – the last thing to cross my mind, was to make a post on facebook. It would have been sacrilegious to the serenity of that moment. Why interrupt it, for such a trivial matter, when you can savour it. My last such moment was when I first arrived in Japan. My dream, you must know, was to see Kyoto during the cherry blossom season. I arrived in Japan on the 17th of March 2016 and less then a week later, I was in Kyoto – peak season for cherry blossoms that year. It was there, in the stunning garden of the silver pavilion that the gravity of the moment hit me: Here I was, 25 years of age, foolish and immature seeing my childhood dream come to life. As the cherry petals danced around the roof of the pavilion and its white walls reflected in the pond I was at perfect peace with myself and my surroundings. My mind was blank, no thoughts, just pure emotion. Serenity. I could not have lasted more than 1 minute, but for me, it lasted a lifetime. It was as much a great experience, as it was a humbling experience. I was able to fully blend out the noisy tourists, crawling all over the place. It was packed, but in my memory of the moment, they are retouched away. So I just stood there, meditating in a way. And asking myself, what do I do next? My big dream is fulfilled? Where do I go on to next?
Maybe this is the root of the problem? I never came up with a new big dream. Yes, I have aspirations, but no guiding star, no singular moment to strive too. In a way, I have been like a boat on a peaceful sea, just enjoying the ride, but not really hoisting the sails. Maybe this is what I need? A new big dream? That will require some more pondering.
For now, I think, I will continue living my life with the goal being contentment, rather than the pursuit of happiness. For those moments of unexpected serenity, are a much better experience. I will however no longer have heart-to-hearts after 11h workdays… next time it will be, after a relaxing visit to a Japanese hot spring inn.