(ON TOPIC) Double Rainbows, Butterflies, and Happy Places

Think of a place that’s really perfect.

Your own happy place.

Go there and all your anger will disappear.

-Chubbs, Happy Gilmore

Telling people I live in New York City usually gets me one of four responses: “I’m so jealous”; “You’re so lucky”; “You must be so happy”; or, “OMG tell me about all the celebrities you’ve met.” And I’ve been getting this last one a lot. I don’t, however, have too much to say about the celebrities I’ve met. Yes, it was cool talking to Jennifer Aniston and Jude Law, but chance meetings with celebrities certainly don’t define my happiness in the city. In truth, I’d rather tell these people about my friends, the real heroes of my life. But I’m jumping ahead of myself here. Let’s take a few steps back and start with this little thing called

HAPPINESS.

Until recently I would’ve wholeheartedly agreed with the following two statements:

  1. Happiness is inside you. Therefore, you can be happy wherever you go.
  2. Life should be devoted to the pursuit of happiness.

And why wouldn’t I agree with these? The ideology upon which Western civilization has been founded have led me to buy into these very notions of happiness. Aristotle, for one, believed that happiness was the highest good, maintaining that “happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Eudaimonia, a Greek word commonly translated as happiness, is a central concept in ancient Greek ethics, to which Aristotle and his little thinking buddies contributed. Also, until the eighteenth century, people even believed the Garden of Eden was a real place! (In The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, NPR foreign correspondent Eric Weiner points out that Eden ironically appeared on maps where the Tigris River met the Euphrates, which is now modern-day Iraq.) Oh and then there’s that famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence outlining our unalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” [Emphasis via italics added myself.]

But enough with the history. My trip to China this semester, in addition to Weiner’s book about bliss, have me thinking about this elusive thing we call happiness. So, what better way to test the above two statements than by setting out on a trip around the world to find the world’s happiest places. Given financial constraints, though, I’ve had to live vicariously through Weiner on this one. Using the emerging field of positive psychology, Weiner visited some of the world’s happiest places to explore the origins of bliss. I recommend reading the book for yourself, but in short, he found inconsistencies throughout because there’s more than one path to happiness. (The chart below summarizes his findings.) And this shouldn’t be too shocking.

Place Happiness is…
Netherlands A number
Switzerland Boredom
Bhutan A policy
Qatar A winning lottery ticket
Iceland A failure
Moldova Somewhere else
Thailand Not thinking
Great Britain A work in progress
India A contradiction
United States Home

There are numerous factors contributing to one’s happiness, namely those stemming from physical and cultural environments—friends, family, envy, socioeconomic status, etc. Even if you’ve been on vacation anywhere away from home and said to yourself, “I could be happy here,” I’m not so sure you can actually jump readily to this conclusion. Happiness, as Weiner explains, isn’t a location. It’s relational. It’s inside, and it’s outside. As British philosopher Alan Watts writes, “If I draw a circle, most people, when asked what I have drawn, will say I have drawn a circle or a disc, or a ball. Very few people will say I’ve drawn a hole in the wall, because most people think of the inside first, rather than thinking of the outside. But actually these two sides go together—you cannot have what is ‘in here’ unless you have what it ‘out there.’”

So what does this mean for me? I decided to do my own little experiment, and the results are obviously shown in various chart forms below. It seems I have four happy places, which are the four locations to which I’ve been the most emotionally and physically attached. As the pie chart shows, my heart is torn between Michigan and New York, but also between Maryland and China, albeit less so.

Place Happiness is…
Maryland Home
Michigan Friends
New York My friends and career
China A currency conversion working very nicely in my favor

I suppose my conclusion is this: Devoting life to finding happiness isn’t the answer. If you’re constantly looking for something better, something more (like a place where you can find home, friends, love, a career, and a reasonable cost of living all in one), than how can you take count of what you already have? With this in mind, maybe pursuing contentment is a healthier goal. Thinking about this reminds me of something in a book I’ve been reading called The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh. Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who lives by the motto of “Be here now.” As he writes, “When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is happiness. But later, when we don’t have a toothache, we don’t treasure our non-toothache. Practicing mindfulness helps us learn to appreciate the well-being that is already there. With mindfulness, we treasure our happiness.”

This puts my struggle in evaluating my happiness/happy places into perspective. An example of said internal evaluation goes like this. Bare with me here:

I’m in Michigan now and I love the grass and the trees and my friends and being on a college campus. It’s a small city though, and Detroit scares the crap out of me. I think I miss New York now. It’s more of an anonymous lifestyle in the city, kind of like you’re an extra in someone else’s movie, but at least it’s an entertainment hub and my career is there. I guess I can give up college and trees for a chance to pursue my dream. But neither Michigan nor New York provides me with the comfort of being in my room at home in Maryland. Or being a stranger in another country like China.

But why?! Why do this when I could instead be mindful and say to myself:

I feel incredibly lucky to have more than one place that makes me happy. I feel lucky to have such good friends in more than country, and this makes me happy. Or content. Or both. Life is good.

We’ve come full circle now and returned to where I began: Friends. Happiness, so it seems for me and many others, is family, or friends, or a family of friends. At risk of sounding too sentimental (read: too cheesy) I’ll say that surrounding yourself with good people who make you smile is the best thing you can do for yourself. Staying away from the toxic powers of envy and jealousy can’t hurt either. All the time you spend envying someone else takes away from the time you could spend noticing all the good in your own life.

Now “OMG tell me about all the celebrities you’ve met” can be followed by, “How about I tell you about my friends, like Claire, the Intern/Producing/HBO Queen. And Will, the hardest working director I know who’s going to be the king of downtown NYC theater one day. And Chelsea and Caitlin who are doing something I don’t fully understand with rats in a psychology lab in Michigan but who will most definitely cure some disease in the near future.”

And all of this will be coming from pure admiration, not envy or even jealousy, her evil stepsister.

I just saw “It’s A Wonderful Life” for the first time and words from a concluding shot will end this post perfectly: “No man is a failure who has friends.”

Holy Moses. Happiness on the mind got me preachin’ like Oprah.

(This video is the one thing I left out of my last post about 2010 but I must have cut it for a reason. This video fits even more perfectly with this post. Enjoy. If this isn’t happiness, I really don’t know what is.)

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3 responses to “(ON TOPIC) Double Rainbows, Butterflies, and Happy Places

  1. OMG, you live in NY!? Have you ever poked a sleeping homeless man on the subway!?

    Whitney

  2. I do live in New York but I’ve never poked a sleeping homeless man on the subway. I have, however, offered a homeless man a McDonald’s cheeseburger. He turned it down and made me mad.

  3. J,
    You are really beyond your years! You have such incredible outlook on life. I am VERY proud of you but you already know that! Love, Mom

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