Like most people, I yearn for happiness and actively pursue it. But not knowing how to truly be happy has been the bane of my existence.
Whenever something good happens, I am never able to fully bask in it, to savor the sweetness and relish the moment for all it’s worth. The visceral elation it evokes is almost instantly dampened by the sobering realization that all good things must come to an end. Reunions with friends and family during winter break were bittersweet, overshadowed by thoughts of my imminent departure. Experiencing my first-ever snowfall in New York City wasn’t quite as euphoric as I’d expected, my attention already drifting from the snowflakes dancing in the wind and the freshly blanketed Christmas trees to the murky puddles that splashed against my sneakers as I struggled to navigate my way through Times Square.
Every time something good happens, I become afflicted with an insatiable longing for more and the attendant, unsettling fear that I will never encounter the likes of it again. Greedy attempts to recreate these experiences crumble under the weight of the expectations they beget, predisposed to failure by the very intentionality driving them. Revisiting the same Disneyland that my five-year-old self had emphatically declared as the happiest place on earth was one such instance. The teacup ride was not as thrilling as I had remembered, shopping for princess costumes in the souvenir store no longer held the same appeal and my brother, who begrudgingly tagged along after much badgering, was not too enthusiastic about posing for a photo with Olaf. Nothing can ever live up to the original. And sometimes, the disappointment can be so crippling that even the happy memories are left indelibly blemished.
But perhaps the biggest culprit of my unhappiness is the fact that my happiness is contingent largely on extrinsic factors.
Back in high school, especially, I was madly obsessed with getting good grades and winning competitions. I fed off transient bursts of satisfaction that arose from those achievements, and when one fizzled out, I simply reached for the next goal to sustain my addiction. No matter how many accomplishments I added to my ever-growing pile, I was always anxious and insecure, fearful that happiness would elude me forever once I exhausted my wits and talents.
At some point, I got sick and tired of running on this prison of a hamster wheel, of endlessly chasing after this feeling called “happiness” that seemed increasingly nebulous and unattainable. It was the promise of academic freedom, intellectual stimulation, fun extracurriculars and lifelong friendships that college held that kept me going. Enamored by this promise, I beguiled myself into believing that college acceptances were the panacea for the dissatisfaction and distress in my life, that happiness would magically befall me once I sauntered through the gates of college. When the arrival of the coveted acceptance letter was besmirched by the solemn realities of the pandemic, I found solace in the belief that happiness was within arm’s reach; I just had to wait a little longer.
Yet now that I am finally here, it still feels like something is missing, though I can’t quite pinpoint what it is. As always, I could set my sights on the next prize—a prestigious summer program, research publication, medical school. My ambitious peers seem to be striving towards their own trophies and enjoying the hustle anyway, so why not jump on the bandwagon? But I know all too well that dissatisfaction, my old friend, will return to haunt me as soon as the new dopamine rush subsides.
So recently, I hopped off this dreaded wheel. It seems unbecoming, deplorable even, of a Duke student—a student who should be making full use of the plethora of opportunities and resources at her disposal to make the world a better place or realize some sort of lofty ideal. But ceaseless aspiration risks devolving into chronic dissatisfaction if it becomes all-consuming. It’s not that I’ve given up on striving towards something better. I’m just starting to realize that life is more beautiful when I choose to focus on being content with things just the way they are.
I’m also realizing and slowly coming to terms with the fact that nothing around me ever stays the same. The state of external affairs that my present happiness depends on is already slipping through my fingers like fine sand, just as yesterday’s did and tomorrow’s will, no matter how tightly I try to clasp them. The only happiness that can last is the kind that derives from within, the kind that wraps me in a gentle embrace when I am all alone and keeps me moored even when the ground is shifting wildly beneath my feet.
I have yet to find that happiness. But I’m getting there.
Valerie Tan is a Pratt first-year. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.
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