In Pursuit of Happiness

What does it mean to live an authentic, happy life? This is the question everyone asks themselves – from the ages of 21 to 98, when hopefully, death will provide the answer.

I have a sneaking suspicion that regrets are most indicative of what we find 'meaningful'; as in those cliché deathbed accounts, where we hear the old man moaning, 'if only I had lived more and worked less.' My coworker voiced her sentiments the other day, with that old adage, 'in North America we live to work; in Greece they work to live.' Though Greece doesn't have much of a leg to stand on economically, I'll never forget this delightful story about Stamatis Moraitis, who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer while living in the US, and given nine months to live. Deeming the funeral too expensive, Stamatis moved home to Greece to die. Nine months came and went, and now he's 98 and passes his time picking olives and drinking wine. The irony? All of his former doctors had long since kicked the bucket from their high-stress, fast-paced American lifestyles.

The moral of the story isn't that we should all flock to Greece. If anything, we should move to Bhutan, the only country in the world that ranks their Gross National Happiness rather than the GDP. I recently watched a beautiful foreign film called The Lunchbox, the story of two complete strangers who elope to Bhutan. The result was an elusive but happy ending.

Clearly, the notion that simplicity is a correlative of happiness is nothing new; what's challenging is putting this into effect. From a very early age, children are taught that success is a precondition of love and acceptance – otherwise known as 'happiness.' But it is not: success is loving and accepting yourself no matter what you do, because what you 'do' does not define you. Your career is simply a label that makes you comprehensible to yourself and someone else; it is an opening line for inane conversations like, 'oh you went to Cambridge, so you must be really smart.' It has nothing to do with your reality (you might be the dullest tool in the Cantabrigian shed) or your value as a human being, because we are all reducible to nothing, as the Good Book says: 'for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return' (Gen 3:19).

Is this a cop out? I think not, though it certainly complicates the matter. Happiness isn't as straightforward as it seems; happiness is peripatetic, making us restlessly examine every aspect of our lives for where we went wrong. We ask ourselves whether we'd be happier if we'd pursued that relationship or that career, and we become paralyzed by the infinite number of possibilities set before us and, by extension, the infinite potential for failure.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that happiness can only be located in the present moment and, though I can only judge from my own, limited experience, I believe this is true. As a little girl, a seaside picnic lasted an eternity; as a woman, I barely notice the taste of strawberries; and the once-blue ocean is grey and humming, as my mind is fixed upon the horizon, planning the future. The biggest challenge I've faced as an adult is attempting to recover my childhood self; to recover the present moment in the pursuit of happiness.

With age comes stuff, and there is something so appealing about relinquishing worldly things: selling your old books and clothes, and compressing your life into a backpack and two cardboard boxes. I have friends who have done this, and I very much admire them for defying societal expectations and moving halfway across the world to live in a tent or hammock. This is not to say that material things are all bad – some objects do hold an intrinsic, sentimental value – but that simplification forces you to prioritize: do I really need this? Am I using this object to fill a gap or need in my life? 

When I moved back home, I consigned many of my belongings because I realised that I never wanted to haul that many suitcases through the London Underground again. I've even toyed with living in one of these tiny houses, if not for financial reasons, then for issues of sustainability:

The point is, I'm happiest when I least expect it: in the simplest of moments: skiing through snow-laden forests in wintertime, writing a poem, or making genuine connections with people. When I asked a friend what she missed most as a result of her full-time job, she replied 'sleep.' I would gladly sacrifice money or prestige for actual dreams, time and energy for those I love, being creative and staying active. The digital age is not a far cry from the industrial age, in that it keeps us up at our desks all night, working. We need to reexamine our definitions of success and productivity in order to move forward – if not for the good of the planet, then for our own wellbeing.