Since moving to Colombia two months ago, on most days, a staff member at my school, or one of my students’ parents will approach me, greet me with kisses on both cheeks, and ask the same series of questions:
Colleague/Parent: Hola (hi), Miss Shannon. Como estas? (How are you?)
Me: Bien. (Good) [At this point, I try to avoid the standard “y tu?” (and you?) as that invites an onslaught of Spanish that I can’t understand.]
Colleague/Parent: Are you happy?
I never really know how to respond.
Am I “happy”?
I have a good job and am trying to pursue my dreams of becoming a writer. I have amazing friends and family (even though I’m currently living on another continent from most of them, hooray for FaceTime and Skype!!!).
Surprisingly, living in Colombia has offered me a comparable if not better quality of life than I had back in Canada. I’m lucky in that I’ve never had any major health problems and have a healthy, active lifestyle filled with biking, hiking, and spending time with friends.
So, am I “happy?” I guess so…???
I’m not sure why the question makes me uncomfortable.
Maybe it’s because it’s not the cultural norm in Canada to ask anyone outright if they are happy, not even the people we are closest with, so it feels weird being expected to reveal what feels like personal information to strangers.
Maybe it’s because the North American consumer-based culture that I was brought up in has ingrained in me that happiness is an ideal to be pursued & purchased: better hair, better body, better make-up, better house, better car, better TV, better boobs, better boyfriend, etc.
Maybe it’s because I’m not sure if “being happy” is even something that I should be aspiring for.
Isn’t happiness fleeting?
I think about the people who have inspired me in my life: Athletes like Michael Jordan and Clara Hughes. Writers like Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert. My parents (shout out to my Mom who’s probably the only one who’ll even read this blog post- Hi Mom!). My amazing, beautiful, and talented friends.
These people have all struggled and overcome great adversity to achieve the things that have given their lives the most meaning, whether it’s winning championships, writing novels, building careers, moving overseas for the people they love, having children, or designing their dream cottage (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!).
If there’s any wisdom in the Barenaked Ladies song, Lovers In A Dangerous Time: “Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight/ Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight,” it seems like achieving our goals requires some kind of struggle.
And a state of struggle doesn’t necessarily equate with a state of happiness.
(Suddenly, I’m brought back to my rugby days at Queen’s University. Those Thursday night practices at West Campus in the RAIN, always in the RAIN, were miserable. Rainy October nights in Kingston, Ontario, Canada are the worst. Cold & wet. Tackling each other in the mud. I hated every minute of them. But in the end, they were worth it. They made our team stronger, as we bonded in our collective struggle. Personally, they made me tougher and more resilient in games, as I needed those miserable practices to amount to SOMETHING.)
So I’m not sure if answering, “Si. Yes. I’m happy” to concerned and caring parents and staff members necessarily means that I’m living a better or more fulfilling life.
I’m not advocating for a life of gloom and doom. In fact, I think it’s important to avoid letting myself get “stuck” in situations where the possibility for happiness is hopeless. There’s a fine line between accepting too much suffering and making a change.
At the same time, I think it’s okay not to be happy all of the time. If my rugby days taught me anything, it’s that sometimes the struggle, the pain, the fight, and the frustration, are totally worth it. These periods of potential unhappiness can result in more meaningful careers, deeper relationships, and greater life satisfaction in the long run.
But for now, when people here ask me if I’m happy, I’ll respond with “Si” (yes), or “Oui” (yes), as sometimes my terrible Spanish comes out as French.