On Happiness, Carpe Diem, and Brains That Sabotage

*warning – longwinded philosophical contemplatings ahead*

So in the massive stack of books that I got from a local friend, there happened to be included Eat Pray Love. Now, the hipster in me has seriously avoided it (ew, mainstream), and I’ve had mixed feelings about Elizabeth Gilbert (probably stemmed from a really negative class discussion in Marianopolis after watching her TedTalk wherein one classmate ripped her a new asshole). That said, and although I was hesitant about taking the book off my friends’ hands (or rather their bookshelf), I grabbed it anyway. Its orange spine peeked at me ever since amid the more appealing titles of Midnight’s ChildrenTrainspotting, and The Silmarillion. I also had every intention of reading Dune, as I’ve been promising Andrea for months now, but as is often the case with the intuitive pull of certain books, I picked it up and read the back, the front, the first page.

I very ignorantly hadn’t realized (forgot?) that the book took place not only in Italy (a place which I’ve never had much interest in visiting), but also in India and Indonesia. I’ve been having mad India cravings for the past year now (I blame my Hinduism class last autumn), and now that Indonesia’s so close, I’ve been very curious about booking a visit. Aside from that, I’ve been wanting to try some travel writing/memoir writing (pretentious, I know, but isn’t that what blogging is anyway?), so I figured, what the hell. I’ll give her a go.

I’m glad I did. I’m not far yet, but even 70 pages in, it’s exactly what I was looking for. Granted I only agree with 60-80% of what she says, depending on the subject matter, but I do admire her style of writing. I could go on, but I don’t want this to be a book review: instead, I want to talk about some of the ideas she brings up, mainly on the subject of happiness since that’s what the book’s quest is about. Happiness something I’ve been…well, not struggling with, but rather hung up about for as long as I can remember.

Like her, I tend to question if I’ve indeed earned the happiness. Conscious or unconscious, this question is the shadow of guilt that always hangs over each moment of idle pleasure, the stick from offstage cueing me to hurry up and get on with my next line – as if I’d forgotten. Maybe, as Liz suggests (if I can use her nickname candidly), it really is something American – and North American by extension, if I may be so bold as to assume America’s influence on Canada. “Do I really deserve this pleasure?” she writes. “This is very American … the insecurity about whether we have earned our happiness” (page 62 for those of you with the movie-cover paperback).

Do we have the right to buy strawberries if we feel like it and eat them with tea while reading in bed? Have we earned that evening spent with coworkers spooning chicken soup, drinking Earl Grey Lattes, and googling shirtless pictures of men on our smartphones? Can we really justify curling in a beanbag chair to shoot our way to Mexico for the sole purpose of obtaining a particular poncho outfit?

I perhaps digress with a few too many specific examples, but if you suspend disbelief for but a moment, it’s important that I say these are all recent moments of mine wherein I’ve felt guilty. Or rather: like I’ve been wasting time. Wasting time?! Even writing that makes me snort with silliness. And yet that sentiment is there all the same, an animated wet rag following me around like a Halloween ghost costume with hound dog eyes.

So, I take this time (and yours), to contemplate what gives with this whole happiness complex.

Recently my sister’s friend fraped her facebook account (leaving several statuses of “I like bums. I reeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaallllllly like bums. Like we’re talking a strong desire for bums.“). As we were giggling immaturely about it after, she mentioned that her friend also happened to stalk my profile photos and say something along the lines of, “Damn your sister has an awesome life!!”. To which I say, with absolutely no ego or arrogance, yes, I really fucking do.

I was also talking to BB about choosing a life path, the anxiety that comes from commitment, and the fear of failure of said commitment. Above all came the anxiety of happiness. Which sounds ridiculous, but the human brain is more talented at forcing you to analyze your happiness than I am at overdressing.

Are you happy? interrogates the brain. Why are you happy? Should you be happy?

…and on and on, that henpecking wife in white frills nagging her husband while he reads the paper in his favourite armchair. To which I’m increasingly of the opinion, give it a rest.

To triangulate the thoughts of Liz, my sister’s fraping friend, and my chat with BB, I’ve been wondering if happiness when traveling should always amount to productivity, ambition, and a go-get-em attitude. And, since traveling is but a metaphor for life itself (we’re all on a one-way trip, right?), I venture to extend this question to the macrocosmic scale of the big L-I-F-E.

For Liz, she learns that there is little as satisfying as the Italian saying il bel far niente, or the beauty of doing nothing. Pleasure lies in those moments that act as a proof of living, discovering that “happiness inhabited [her] every molecule” (page 64) from something as simple as sitting on her wooden floor with a newspaper and savouring the art of constructing a simple meal. Ambitious? Certainly not. Productive? Not in the classical sense. Go-get-em? More like do-you-have-wine-with-that?

But that’s where happiness lies for her.

Not saying that’s the golden ticket into Happyland for any and all, but why should it be denied by the brain as an acceptable way to pass the time? Is it evolutionary, idleness abhorred by genetics and made paranoid by millennia of predator/prey instincts? Strong possibility. Is it a social construct set by governments to keep society working like a well-oiled machine? More than likely. Is it the deep rooted need – and perhaps curse – of human intellect to feel the desire to employ our intelligence lest we leave behind an unaccomplished life? Yeah, I’d buy that.

But does that mean we have to chase the carrot our whole lives and leave happiness as a blur on the wayside?

Back to my sister’s friend thinking I have an awesome life, well, though I confirmed that above, I can’t say it’s as glamourous as what my facebook profile pics make it out to be. (Okay, I did meet William Shatner while in a velour Trekkie costume…). Yes I went to Australia for five months, but I had to save for four years to go. Yes, I’m teaching English in Korea – but it’s a 9-5 job like any back home where I have to dress a certain way, deskwarm, and curb my travel impulses to a mere 18 days a year. And yes, I have a lot of great memories with friends from around the world, but having friends from around the world means having to say goodbye on an equally frequent basis as hello. But what makes me happy about my life is that alongside my many ambitious carrot-chasing goals – and here’s my super-deep-pov-about-the-world – I try and make myself happy.

Sure, I try and exercise the productive/ambitious/go-get-em lifestyle as much as the next person, and sure I chase the carrot at times, but I do it because of what I want to experience. Makes for an especially inefficient road trip, with pit stops every half hour instead of three, but as I’ve noticed from my brief life’s experiences, happiness becomes a lot less blurred this way, and a lot more tangible.

I try to do what makes me happy – and I realize that it’s easy for me to say that because I’m young and unattached by various burdensome responsibilities, but it doesn’t take much to try and live like this, and it definitely doesn’t have to be fancy; it’s all about putting in the hard work when and where it’s needed, follow-through, and the imagination to come up with awesome life goals, as small or big as they might be. And, as my sister added, trekkie cosplays (tru fax, where would I be without you!).

To be honest, I’ve found that seeking to attain happiness from the big, grand, generalized plans is usually when I have a hard time finding any at all. Far too much stock is placed on them to act as an instahappy pill, but those big plans are only good for setting up the occasion for awesome things to happen within them, just like a club or a party offers the opportunity for a good night but doesn’t guarantee one. You have to meet the universe halfway, in my humble opinion.

And wandering, open and aimless, within those constructed opportunities are where I’ve found the greatest happiness. Insignificant trip to the market in Cheongju and buying too many bananas and dumplings? Check. Wearing ugly sweaters with my brain twin and playing video games by ourselves because our ugly sweater party failed to congeal? Check. Making a spontaneous snow C3P0 and R2D2 with my bestie SSG and dressing up as Luke and Leia because there’s sticky snow? Fuck ya, bud.

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So while there’s value in chasing the carrot, and it’s good to carpe diem, I also have to remind myself that once it’s seized, enjoy it while it’s there. It’s as important to recognize happiness as it is to look for it. To bring it back to productivity, ambition, and go-get-ems…well, they’re important, but if I were to live an ideal life, I’d use them as a means to an end, not the end itself. It’s easy to burn out when always fighting to get somewhere, not to mention dull when looking back to find only a speeding path carved efficiently through the mountain. Wouldn’t one rather hike up and around said mountain, take a breath and a soak up that majestic view, and then head for the next mountain?

Looking at travel, I’ve found I far prefer easing into life in a foreign place rather than how many temples I’ve seen, destinations I’ve tramped dirt on, and, generally speaking, expensive outings that promise to be “the time of your life”. Talking to C, he wisely said that my time in Australia was excellent because of the people I met, and he’s not wrong. Though I hardly went on any trips in my time there, it’s not a coincidence it was the happiest period of my life to date. The curiosity of getting to know a new friend, the sampling of unlabelled food, learning the difference between when the sun is warm and comforting against your face and when it’s slyly frying your skin crimson: these are things you don’t get when you’ve booked a tour to see three museums, one palace, and two shows in a day. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of touring. Sure it can be exciting, but it’s also difficult to find time for a breather let alone to process what you’ve experienced. Nomadic Matt wrote an excellent article on this very subject, taking your time with a place and with its people instead of being on a relay race across the globe. After all, do you know a novel from its summary, history from one book, a person from one encounter? Each, like travel, requires more involvement than a one-off, and I’d bet my money that happiness (at least in my case) also needs a tortoise pace.

Well, maybe I do have a far too relaxed outlook on life, and maybe it’s unrealistic to want to write my life like it’s a book, but another part of me never wants to stop feeling the glee of adventure, of having that awesome life I can look back on and think: yeah, I’m happy with this track I’ve tread. Alternatively, maybe my need to deprecate a relaxed lifestyle is my anxiety about committing to one. Maybe seeking to complicate it is like my discussion with BB: the anxiety of having happiness itself. Who knows?

Perhaps I’ll contemplate it while lighting up some incense and meditating on my bright pink yoga mat. Or while doing the tim-tam-slam with a hot malt Milo. Or while having a marathon of Band of Brothers this week with some new friends.

All I know is that there’s only so much productivity, ambition, and go-get-em-ness that I can handle before Happiness rolls its eyes at me, sits me down, cracks open some beers, puts on Lord of the Rings and force feeds me fried chicken. You have to find your own happiness, and I suppose all I can do is surrender to mine.

Feel free to leave any thoughts on happiness you have, things you dis/agree with that I brought up. I’m curious how your happiness boats navigate the waters of life!


15 thoughts on “On Happiness, Carpe Diem, and Brains That Sabotage

  1. Another very interesting read, Marta. One I will go back to when I can. There’s a lot here, but I’ll keep it short … after all we’ve never met and you must have only the vaguest idea of who I am.

    That said, you struck a major chord in what’s left in the existential partition of my life. Thirty years ago or so I adapted Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to try to explain where I’d been, why I went there, and where I was headed. Basically I said that I chose neither road and made my way through the yellow wood at a necessarily slower pace, stopping places and seeing things that not many others have. Fair warning: I would NOT recommend this to anyone else … and yet it seems you have and are following a path that reminds me in some measures of my journey, EXCEPT your early awareness and choices are well beyond where I was at your age. So well done and stay observant, looking at the details and the big picture when you have the time.

    BTW, the juxtaposition of “Juss Oat Ferrarip” is hard to miss. Wondering if one led to another … and which one came first?

    Next time you ask for feedback, don’t forget to footnote it with an “EFT” (except for Tom).

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    1. Haha I can promise you that’s a footnote I will never use! That’s sounds like a very powerful adaptation – and one that must have been quite the journey in writing. Perhaps it’s too personal to ask as a comment response but why wouldn’t you recommend the yellow wood, to use your metaphor? I’ve been wondering if it’s naive to try and follow such a bohemian lifestyle of late, and if those social constraints aren’t really there for a reason (though I doubt I could bring myself to fit inside them even if I knew I should).

      As for Juss Oat Ferrarip….glad you appreciated them in tandem ^ ^ as for which came first….chicken and the egg situation, my friend. Although I might prefer to think of it as a breakfast mashup of fried chicken with scrambled egg in one delicious symbol of eternity.

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      1. I thought chicken and egg might be your answer, but didn’t want to assume it.

        In trying to keep my comment short (nearly impossible for me), I think my warning should have been clearer. Venturing into the yellow wood has many rewards and many risks. It’s working out a path through what can seriously tangled undergrowth that is precarious. Sometimes just making it to the next clearing can be such a challenge that you lose focus and any sense of direction you might have had. And even that’s not necessarily all bad, of course, but you could find yourself faced with what might seem to be a Hobson’s choice. Should it ever come to that, I know you will be smarter than I was and realize there’s (almost) always more than two choices.

        Besides you have the best GPS ever, the equivalent of which I never had, a wonderfully wise and loving mother.

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      2. Indeed I can’t thank her enough for all she’s done for me.

        And I definitely feel you on the getting lost and losing direction part….does tend to happen. Maybe not as much as it used to but I think it’s inevitable in the trailblazing any person does on their life. Thanks for sharing! Glad to know that, challenge or not, it’s possible to do your own thing and survive

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  2. Not so wise…still learning. But this book made me do as much digging around inside myself as you are doing. Two of the things that were clearest to me as I travelled is that it is the people and the moments that made the journey for me. Connecting is what counts. Over time the sights become indistinguishable. They rate as 3 minute churches and 10 minute churches, 20 minute palaces and 1/2 hour castles. That just feels so wrong. Eventually I would stop “touring” and just sit and do nothing by a river, chat with people, be silly with them and step back to take in what was happening around me. Seen from the distance of the years, most memories become blurred…without a journal or photos/slides much would fade into shadowy shapes…EXCEPT for certain people and incredible moments that remain as sharply focused that it is as if I could turn around and be back there and then…I can hear the voices and the laughter and feel the sun or the rain. Those times stand out. You reach a point where you feel you do not need to keep moving from place to place…you can create your happiness with what you have available in your life right then and there. The point is not to just be passing through…but to experience the passage. Too many hurry their way through thinking it is a constant race to outdo others. Always looking over their shoulder to see who is going to overtake them. I have learned that I need a slower pace to savour my time with friends. I love just BEING with them…being together to hug and laugh and talk. I love taking the time to paint just because I have an image in my head that begs to become real. I love watching my squirrels and birds feeding. I wouldn’t have these things if I’d kept constantly going…either in travels or workload.
    As you said…”putting in the hard work when and where it’s needed, follow-through”…everything after that is your own time to do with as you wish. Squander it in bed all day reading, watching movies, doing games or puzzles, shopping, meeting with friends…the freedom of choice to do whatever makes you happiest at the time…whatever suits the mood. Some people never find happiness because they don’t know how to treat themselves . Read treat both ways. The key is to listen to your inner desires and if you need quiet time, indulge in that…if you need to party go for it. But stay in tune with your needs. Do things at your own pace and follow your heart.

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    1. Hear hear to that – and I can definitely say that you’re to blame for this travel bug and the positive attitude to boot ;P thanks for all the wise upbringing ♥

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      1. It’s so easy to blame it all on your mother.
        Personally, Marta, I found I learned a LOT from you. You are an old soul born with so much patience and wisdom that you became a Teacher for me. I appreciate it. I guess we’ve taught each other. That is good. Sharing with others so everyone ends up a little further along and better because of it.

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  3. Oh my, I feel like a very old auntie saying, you are growing up so quickly! It took me decades to stop the chase and enjoy the journey. Perhaps if I had landed sooner in this part of the world where I now live, where I was meant to be, I would have learned earlier. No matter. I am enjoying the feeling of just feeling. Sounds like you are, too. Miss you!

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    1. Miss you too : ) and hey, so long as you get there eventually, that’s what counts, right? I’m so happy you’ve found your town – I couldn’t imagine you living anywhere else.

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    2. I’m glad you found the path you were meant to be on. Part of the problem is trying to live up to the expectations others have of us, which we assume to be our burden to carry. It is very liberating to put those aside and live true to ourselves.

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  4. This strikes so many chords with me it’s a veritable symphony. I’m so glad we’re on this journey together ❤ It really is the small things that make life memorable, whether we're simply wandering through a town, following the green lights, or kicking back in a cafe. I can't wait to see you next week so we can do just that 🙂 As the less eloquent Quentin Tarantino put it in Pulp Fiction, “‎That's when you know you've found somebody really special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably share silence.”

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