By Osmund Agbo
For someone whom grace had located at every defining moment in this chequered journey of life, you would expect to see a face ever beaming with smile and a heart brim-full with gratitude. But that was not the case with yours truly, especially in the early part of 2013. And yes, I remember that time clearly in my head since it was the same year my family and I relocated to Houston, the city we love. It was also the year we purchased our first home. I had completed my professional training, gotten married to the love of my life and our union blessed with two beautiful and healthy kids. At that point, you could say that life had me set on a positive trajectory, yet I woke up every morning looking like a lugubrious character and struggled to cut loose from the tight fetters of melancholy.
Looking back, it felt as though there was an inverse relationship between foul mood and the manifestation of God’s grace. In fact, the more one moved up the ladder of material success, the more happiness seemed to prove more elusive. It was akin to chasing shadows. I lived in a funk sometimes for weeks on end, which left my wife visibly worried and pushed her to her wits’ end. In many occasions, she tried to interrogate what might have been the issues without luck because factually, there was none. “What do you really want?”, she would ask repeatedly. I wish I knew but truth was I too had no idea.
It’s been almost ten years after and things for sure have gotten a lot better. A big lesson learnt however, was coming to terms with the fact that the pursuit of happiness is a personal journey that one has to be willing to commit to. Of course, life will always be a rich assortment of curve balls, contentment, elation and despair, but many are like me back in those days, plagued with persistent negative emotions and stuck in the “blahs.” In truth, it takes practice to cultivate ongoing happiness and getting to that destination might involve having to reset baselines and temper expectations.
Every so often we strive to be perfect and get frustrated for falling short. Do we even realize that perfection doesn’t exist and neither does a perfect life? We have to accept imperfection as part of life and embrace the beauty and grace in our blemishes. Carol Dweck, in the book “Mindset” explains that the most successful and happy people have what she calls a growth mindset. Which is to say that those individuals unlike the rest of us, see failures and challenges as an opportunity for self-improvement and a catalyst for growth. They seize on the lesson that comes with every experience, good or bad.
“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop.”
To the extent that it’s hard to match a happy face with an empty stomach, the statement credited to the owner of that eponymous fashion brand is partially true. It will however, be so wrong to assume that one can buy his or her way into happiness, simply in the manner that mademoiselle had suggested. Or better still, why are the happiest people not found among the rich and famous? Why do many Hollywood A-listers and the glitterati struggle daily with depression, addiction, drug and alcohol and quite a few end tragically in suicide? Most definitely, happiness has to involve other things that money can’t buy.
Make no mistake, money is essential to happiness and no one in his right mind would dispute that. In fact, a study done out of Princeton University in 2010 found a positive correlation between wealth and happiness but only to a point of annual earnings of about $75,000. It showed that people feel worse when their income is lower than that but when earnings exceed that, happiness does not increase. For starters, $75,000 was the amount deemed to cover basic human needs such as food, clothing and shelter. The inability to afford those would inexorably lead to stress and discontent.
What that study seemed to suggest is that once the basic necessities are met, other problems of life that may show up will not be the type that one can solve by simply spending your way out of it. Of course, the amount mentioned may vary from country to country and culture to culture, but the result should be no different.
In truth, it turns out there is not a single bullet action that could guarantee a happy life from what is currently known. There are however, series of time-tested actions and patterns of behavior, a combination of which has consistently been shown to help live a more fulfilled and happier life.
Work takes up a lot of our day, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we do every minute of the day. Striking a balance in life will reduce stress and give one other outlet to self-express and have fun. It’s very important to engage in activities and pursue interests beyond our job.
It turns out that spending reasonably on experiences such as travel, dining, vacation or anything’s else we love is a good investment, especially when shared with those we love. Such behavior sustains happiness much more than the joy of having a luxury automobile packed in your garage. In order words, happiness connected to material possessions fades, but experiences help us define our purpose and passions in life.
At every point in life, always have a dream and pursue it. Without a future to look towards, looking back on the past alone could be boring and sometimes depressing. No matter how little, always practice giving to others. Psychologists says it enhances a loving and generous self-image which makes us happy. This may sound counter-intuitive but times and times again it has proven to be true. Besides, by gifting others (it doesn’t have to be money. It could be providing a service), you are also buying the experience of someone’s happiness and gratitude.
No matter how well we curate our public image and pretend to be living our best life, there is no joy to be found living above one’s income and struggling with a mountain of debt. It pays to be you and be real.
There was a little story about a village teacher, loved by so many and respected by all. In one of his teachings, he started off by asking his students what they thought about life. One said life is a struggle, another thought life was fun while the third guy argued that life is a journey. By the time he got to the last person, he heard as many answers as there were students in the class.
After they were all done, the teacher turned around and said:
“I ask one question and you all gave different answers. If life were to be just one thing, chances are that all of you would have given the same answer. But it’s not. Life therefore is what you make it out to be. If you think life is a struggle, then it is a struggle. If you think life is a celebration, then have fun with it.”
One may not have participated in that teacher’s class but my new life draws heavily from his lesson. My glass is never half empty, it stays half full. Always. For happiness is indeed a choice we all have to make, individually.
Oh! and wifey? She giggles from ear to ear these days,just like a kid in a candy store. It turns out that happiness too is infectious.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]