Is happiness a choice or a matter of circumstance?
Another one of those feel-good philosophical question that perhaps have been discussed a gazillion times in other articles and posts. There is also a movie and book with the same title (although I think that’s more of a realistic, inspiring, yet brutally honest account of an individual).
Anyway, back to the above question.
My personal take is, happiness is a choice.
And that has been my view since 12 years ago.
So what shaped this view then?
In 2016, I went on an overseas internship in Mumbai, India. It was a short stint, 3 months and I was based in Mumbai during this time.
Well the internship program itself was mediocre to be honest (after all the hoo-haa of an overseas internship), but the life experience there was totally mind-blowing, and it had helped shaped my values up till this day.
Well it was just a short three months. But within these 90 days, I had experience 5 days of flood, possibly another 2-3 days of riot, and 1 day of bomb blast.
Yes, you heard that right. Not exactly something that we experience everyday. For a young Singaporean adult, that was quite a big deal (or at least I think so).
The riots were scary. However, I stayed in a part of town where we were not too close to the commotion. I can’t remember what was the cause of it, but it was pretty nerve wrecking nevertheless. And watching the events unravel on TV was rather lurid.
As for the bomb blast, that was a harrowing experience. I remembered that the first thing I did was to call my parents in Singapore, to let them know that I was safe and sound. I figured if they hear from me first, it would be more reassuring than to catch it on the news later.
I recalled when I called my mum and told her what happened then, she simply acknowledged it. I guess news of it hasn’t yet spread and not reported in Singapore. She told me to be careful and stay indoors. After which, I received a call from the Singapore consulate trying to account for my safety.
The next day, my mum called me back and sounded frantic. Ok, apparently she saw the commotion unravelling on TV, the news reports, the damage caused and was frenzied. In fact she wanted me to fly home immediately, which was totally understandable. But anwyay, I got to stay throughout the internship program.
That event was pretty devastating in many ways, but I am glad that the people of Mumbai has jumped back from it and rebuild the city.
Don’t mean to sound like an ignorant, naive airhead here, but the first day I experienced the flooding, it was quite an exciting experience for me.
For the baby boomers, many of them might have had experienced floods in the 1950s and 1960s in Singapore, when the country was still in its developing stages, and where huge, wide canals were not yet the norm. Although we are getting more cases of ponding here and flash floods nowadays, I guess it can’t be compared if you have to live through a few days of flood water, with the water level not receding seemingly.
Yes it was gross, and dirty and all. But hey, there wasn’t much of a choice. You just got to live with it. At least until the situation got better.
I remembered I had to trudge through the floodwater which was at least knee length high. The cab could only stop at certain areas (because they couldn’t drive through the flood waters and it would damage the engines). So basically that means we had to walk through quite a bit, and the quarters that I was living in was one of the more badly flooded areas.
These are not normal experience. And for someone from Singapore, where it is generally safe and sound, we take safety for granted. But in other parts of the world, this might be what people are living through daily.
I can still remember vividly in my mind, the images of the children playing in the floodwater. In fact, they were canoeing around and were swimming in it! And what really caught me, was the faces of those kids having fun.
These are kids who live in the slums, one of the poorest areas and districts in the city. With the flood, they basically lost most of their stuff, or what they owned. And yes, their living quarters are pretty much less inhabitable now but look at the fun and all the joy that they are having. The adults on the other hand, were busy clearing water in their backyard. When we made eye contact, I smiled at them.
And they smiled back at me.
Which took me by surprise. They have basically lost everything. But yet, they could still manage a smile.
And the kids, they were making joy in such harsh conditions. I won’t know how to react if I were them. Probably crying.
That made me think a lot.
Why is it that even though they are so poor, and they have lost everything but yet are still able to smile and make merry?
Shortly after my internship ended, I returned to Singapore.
I think it was within the same month, or a week or so after I got back from Mumbai, I flew to Tokyo for a year long study program.
It was my first time to Japan, and Tokyo and I was pretty awed by all the glittery, neon lights in the city. The high tech trains, the technology they employed, etc.
When I finally managed to transit my life as a student there, I took the subway to campus, live like a local.
One of the areas that really stood out was how often the delays were. Ok, just to be fair, the Japanese train systems is one of the most robust in the world. More often than not, the trains are always on time. And it’s really reliable and efficient. In fact, there’s even a late chic that you can get from the station managers when you exit if the train is delayed. That’s how much the Japanese value time, or puntuality. And I love that culture.
Ok then, so what did I mean when I say they are delayed? Well, whenever there’s a delay in anyone of the lines in the Tokyo metro system (even if they are not run by the same train company), there is always an announcement made so that commuters can plan their routes accordingly. What I had realised then was that, more often than not (other than earthquakes etc), what caused a disruption in the train system, is this thing call “人身事故”, which is loosely translated as “human accident”. In a nutshell, suicide. I know this sounds crazy but at least once a week, we will get flashes on the screen telling us that another trackline somewhere is delayed because someone decided to jump off the railway track. And to the Tokyolites, it’s a norm. And there’s very little pity given to these cases as people are more annoyed by how their schedules are delayed because of that.
Tokyo is one of the most developed and advanced cities in the world and enjoy a high economic status so it’s actually pretty daunting to read that people are jumping off railway tracks to commit suicides. In fact, Japan has one of the highest suicide rate in the world.
So what is it seemingly about this glitzy city that can’t offer that drives people to end their lives? There are lots of theories out there, but one of the main reasons is that the economy has not been doing as well, and has put a lot of pressure on the people, many of whom are the “Salaryman”, who have families to feed at home, and also bullying in schools, etc. Well, the reasons varies but what stood out is that, these are mainly first world problems.
You see, the transition for me from Mumbai to Tokyo was huge. A developing city to a developed one, one where wealth distribution was terrible to another which seemingly is doing better yet suffering economically, one where slums could be seen everywhere to another where houses are built using the most full-proof quake technologies adhering to the highest building standards.
And yet, the people I met in Mumbai seemed to be happier.
Compared to the people in Tokyo.
The people in Mumbai smiled in times of adversity whereas the Tokyolites seemed so stressed out and tired daily.
And that itself, is a juxtaposition of the world that we live in.
You see, most of us don’t get to choose to be in the circumstance that we are in. We didn’t choose to be born poor. We didn’t choose to be retrenched. We didn’t choose to want to live among the flood waters. We didn’t choose to get bullied. But yet, this is what circumstances has bequeathed us with.
But at the same time, we can choose how to react to our situation.
We can wallow in misery. We can try to end our lives. Or we can laugh it out and try to ride it through.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonades.
Yes I know it is easier said than done.
But when I remember the faces of the happy children making merry in the flood waters, it dawned on me, it’s actually possible. Just that as adults, do we have the courage to face adversity, and recover from it?
And that itself, takes not just tenacity, but also conviction, and mental strength and resilience.
It’s easier to wallow in self-pity.
But we have the choice to be stronger than what we are.
We can choose to think that happiness is in some other place that we are not in right now.
And when you think that you have a roof over your head, electricity and clean water supply, food on the table, you are actually unhappy compared to the people with neither of those.
And that, is very very odd.
But at the same time, the norm.
For we are always perceiving happiness to be the next big paycheck, promotion, bigger house, bigger car etc. and not the intrinsic little things in life.
But is that really how happiness manifest itself?
Look around you and you will probably find your own answer.
For everyone is different.
But at the same time, our little pockets of happiness could be just beside you.
If you look close enough.
You don’t need to travel too far to pursuit it. Nor spend too much money to buy it.
Happiness is an emotion. You can’t buy it. Happiness is fleeing. You can’t chase it.
But yet, you can feel it with just the simplest things.
Contentment. That is what drives happiness.