What truly makes us happy? Some say it is relative. What makes us happy varies from person to person.
Others that say happiness is a choice – it results from how we elect to appraise our current situation. In other words, do we spend more time reflecting on what we are grateful for or lamenting our deprivations and missed opportunities?
Another belief is that happiness is a goal (e.g. once I acquire (insert a noun), then I will be happy). The word is so ambiguous and ripe for debate that many people eschew the term altogether in favor of words like “wellbeing” or “eudaimonia.”
While this post is not specifically about life in Korea, a big part of my life in Korea is adjusting to my own physical, financial, and ideological independence. Each day I grapple with what I choose to believe. That involves wrestling with tough questions. What constitutes a meaningful life? What can I do today to best set up a fruitful future? How can I enjoy the present? At what point am I doing too much?
These are questions philosophers, psychologists, and self-help gurus have debated for centuries that ring relevant to many millennials today.
It doesn’t help that my preconceived notions of happiness are consistently called into question, revised, and then questioned again. When I was a young high school sprout, I dreamed of a happy life of fancy cars, bank accounts to the ceiling, 300 acres in Montana, a half-mile coastline in California, and a mega-mansion that athletes and rappers would envy. I also had no realistic plan to acquire such vast resources. I believed that happiness came from the stuff you had (that and video games, which probably explains my lack of a plan).
In other words, I spent my adolescence trapped on the hedonic treadmill.
However, when I transitioned into my first (and failed) attempt at college, the validity of my assumptions evaporated. I spent my work-study paychecks voraciously on (poorly chosen) clothing and new electronics and had zero happiness gains to show for it. I was lonely. I alienated my ex-girlfriend, my fraternity brothers, and virtually all of my classmates. Narcissism confabulated an inflated self-image that reality summarily rejected. I learned a painful lesson – happiness has nothing to do with the stuff you own. Rather, it revolves around the company you keep.
So I returned home and walked dangerously close to the imprisoning precipice that is “failure to launch.” The Matthew McConaughey film about a middle-aged man devoid of ambition living with his mother spoke truth to an alarming trend of young adults stuck in the nest with little impetus to fly away.
However, moving home wasn’t a complete failure. I was able to rekindle old friendships, living true to my newfound wisdom about happiness. I felt much greater satisfaction cultivating relationships with people I cared about than I ever felt on Xbox Live.
In dead-end food service jobs, I acquired an additional inkling of what happiness might entail. After grueling double shifts, I assumed I would descend into a miserable fatigue. Instead, I felt light and alive. The elixir of exertion buoyed my spirits. I was living with a good friend at the time. We were barely scraping by but moving forward nonetheless. However, though we lived in relative lack, I was happier than I had ever been in college.
Despite this slightly more intuitive view of happiness, I knew something was missing. While I learned that the expenditure of effort towards a clearly defined goal (a.k.a. service sector work) led to more wellbeing than pure sloth, I was yearning for a self-defined goal. I needed a passion to pursue.
After leaving school, I thought that passion would be screenwriting. However, an expedient rejection letter from USC Film School nailed that coffin shut. Months later, on one of my lunch breaks, a coworker recommended Duolingo, a free language-learning phone app. I loved it and haven’t looked back. To date, I am on a 780-day streak. I learned that I loved languages. I also learned that engaging in an activity requiring cognitive effort and consistent inquiry made me blissfully happy.
When I arrived in Kentucky for my second (and likely last) chance at finishing college, the principles of cultivating interpersonal relationships, exerting effort toward a defined goal, and pursuing an engaging line of inquiry helped me thrive. I went to office hours, reconnected with my fraternity, read widely, embraced the linguistics discipline with open arms, and strove to finish every reading and assignment to the best of my ability.
While I was no doubt working hard (and playing hard on the weekends), I was never exhausted. The wellspring of wellbeing never depleted. It kept me moving forward through tough times. When I finished my degree two years later, my former high-school-self seemed like a distant stranger.
Looking back at the past five years, I can only marvel at my own emotional and intellectual development. However, as people ascend a new peak, they soon realize that higher and more daunting summits always linger on the horizon.
Took this picture on New Year’s Eve. It may be grainy, but my friends are refined.
A view of my school’s courtyard from the fourth floor. Many kids hung out around the gazebos during the fall. I recall throwing a baseball, playing hopscotch, and participating in pull-up contests. Now they shiver and cry lonely tears of ice.
I’m not sure if the designer was lazy or if English word collage is the new design trend.
Santa sighting in a bar in Mokpo. I was disappointed to learn he was made of plastic.
Caught this crab trying to escape his tank at Lotte Mart. I respect his moxie.