It began with a casual conversation in a large shopping mall in central Singapore. A long-time friend of mine and I, then fresh from junior college, were wrecking our heads over possible university options, merits and drawbacks of selecting various courses, and everything else that nervy teenagers discussed before they embarked on the next phase of their educational lives. A huge advocate of the “heart-over-head” idea in the career and education aspects of life, I told my interlocutor to choose a path that he would never regret, that would make him happy. To my absolute shock, he responded calmly with a sentence that continues to remain etched in my memory today, that he does not “think life is about just being happy”.
I strongly believe that humans find true meaning in life when they achieve fulfillment and happiness. Call it a natural instinct all humans are endowed with, or the result of Hollywood overdose, but I used to find it perplexing that people do not perceive happiness as an ultimate objective that they wish to achieve before they leave this world. What good would that enigmatic goal that you seek do you, if you do not end up happy and satisfied with life? After all, “being happy” is what most people want for their loved ones before any sort of departure, be it a break-up, a temporary sojourn, or even death. That is a fundamental similarity that we would wish for all that is close to us to possess – happiness.
Over the years, I tried to decipher what my pal meant by paying attention to the decisions that he made. One of those that stood out was how he pursued a subject that was hardly the most interesting (maybe even to him), but it was clearly one that had a much brighter prospect in Singapore than what he would have probably loved studying. I started to speculate if this entire discussion was about short-term versus long-term happiness. As I attempted to delve further into this topic though, I soon realised that I was only able to make such a distinction because in these two views, happiness takes on a different quality; the former was about being able to do what you like, while the latter was clearly more about economic and social security.
While that comparison eventually yielded little, it is with an understanding that happiness fundamentally consists of a mixture of values and beliefs for everyone that I feel, in retrospect, that our disagreement years ago might not have been a disagreement at all. Perhaps we were striving for something similar, but words alone were inadequate for us to convey the entirety of our thoughts to each other. Perhaps to my friend, “being happy” is a physical characteristic that is frivolous and mundane. We usually find it when we are sitting down with a group of friends, moving excitedly on the dance floor every Friday night, or enjoying a fantastic movie in the company of our other halves. It was pleasurable, hedonic, and almost a dirty word to use.
I understand “happiness” in a completely different manner. To me, “happiness” is a much more nuanced, complex concept that might be best felt or experienced, rather than described. I am happy when I strike off a line in my bucket list, when I hear something refreshing in Political Theory class that I have never thought of, or when I was there to help a friend when he or she was down. Sure, happiness has its physical manifestations; some examples include relaxing, slothing around, and behaving like you own the town. However, without experiencing its spiritual dimensions, one can’t be truly happy. That is because, as a being driven purely by physical inclinations, we will eventually find ourselves emotionally bankrupt, unable to appreciate any larger themes of a life that we only see transience in.
I continue to ponder what the meaning of life is, and what I can or should bring to this beautiful world. The best answer that I have for myself is to “live every moment in your life the best that you can, the happiest that you can”. That is my definition of “being happy”, and all I can say to you, my friend, is that I wish for you to be happy as I am too.