Flowers and Happiness

It’s the week before finals, and it still feels weird to think that my time here at Columbia is almost half over. I was wandering around campus the other morning, and decided that I’d take a few pictures of the flowers that have started (finally) blooming, despite the inconsistent weather we’ve been “enjoying” for the past couple of months.

Some pink at the edge of College Walk

In any case, it seems like a good time to reflect on this past year. I’ve made new friends, learned new things, experienced a little more of New York, and (hopefully) grown a little.

Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is this concept of “happiness”, and what it means to me. It’s something I still don’t really understand, and I don’t think I ever will. But at the same time, happiness is at least to some extent the driving force of life — things would be ever so empty without it.

A hint of blue next to Low Library

I used to think it was enough just to be traditionally “successful”: grades, awards, recognition, morality, faith, wealth. I thought that as long as I tried hard enough to be as productive and as good as I could be, happiness would come naturally.

In many ways, I was naive and selfish. That line of thought doesn’t take into account the actions and interactions with other people, nor the intricacies of our human nature as fundamentally social creatures. I hid behind my mental image of myself as an “introvert” (go Meyers-Briggs!) and stayed within my comfort zone.

A game theoretical analysis of life implies that in the long run everything will tend to this sort of comfortable and stable existence. Given a metric by which to measure happiness, the “optimal” steady state is often quantitatively better than the alternatives. Of course, life isn’t that simple. We don’t have a convenient well-defined happiness metric, just a limitless field of comparative feelings.

In economics, we consider it sufficient simply to maximize wealth. But this makes the implicit assumption that wealth can buy happiness, and I hesitate to believe that is true.

A few petals amid sticks and shubbery

Rather, it seems that wealth can only ward off unhappiness, and that with only limited effectiveness. If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t buy happiness — and that watching numbers go up in a bank account is perhaps the least fulfilling consequence of work.

Of course, I’m speaking from a position of privilege, and that undoubtedly biases my views. I’ve been blessed to have parents who didn’t let me worry (too much) about money, and who let me learn its value through personal experience. I’ve never been insolvent, largely due to the luck I’ve had in landing summer internships and jobs during the year, and perhaps partly because that I don’t enjoy traditional college vices enough to justify paying for them.

Perhaps I’m just not materialistic enough to be satisfied by an ever-increasing number of expensive things. But I don’t know if I’d want to be that kind of person, who can be so easily satisifed by a new toy or fancy clothing and the like.

A growing flower in Van Am Quad

A good friend of mine told me that I was noticeably happier this year than last, and I agree with that — existential crises aside, this year has been by far the happiest I’ve lived. So at least things are on an upward trajectory. It’s been a great experience, and I don’t think I’d change anything if I had the opportunity to go back and do it all again.

I’ve learned that my happiness is tied to my interactions with others, despite the fact that I still consider myself an introvert. It’s not that I’m incapable of being happy on my own, but rather that it comes so much more naturally and in greater magnitude when I’m with other people.

When I teach, I realize that seeing my students understand the subject and overcome their own challenges is far more rewarding than when I’d gone through the same process.

When I go to a concert, or out into the city, it’s that I’m going with my closest friends that makes the experience so enjoyable.

When I spend long hours in meetings or working on policy or trying to figure out how to best allocate money, it’s the belief that life for everyone will be better that motivates me.

A consequence of this dependency on others is that I’m all the more vulnerable when things don’t work out. And I’m not so lucky that everything goes my way (I’d argue quite the opposite, actually). But I fervently believe that the memory of happiness is worth the melancholy and bittersweet reflection — it’s what makes life worth living.

I haven’t figured out what happiness is, and I’m always uncertain about the direction I should take my life into the future. But at the end of the day, I guess that’s what makes me human.

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