In search of happiness
Now that Christmas is over, the greeting on everyone’s lips has shifted to “Happy New Year!” We are in the season that is often described as the happiest time of the year, starting when we begin wishing one another a Merry Christmas. It is also the season when families traditionally make an extraordinary effort to come together, with some members traveling home from overseas for the chance to assert family togetherness. Indeed, for most of us, having a “Merry Christmas” means feeling the joy of the company of our families, asserting our filial bonds of love especially for those families whose members are physically apart for the rest of the year. It’s the time when social media is replete with family portraits with members dressed in the festive colors of the season; chances are, you’ve had such a family picture taken at the dinner table or against your home’s festive adornments. And before “snail mail” was supplanted by e-mail, instant messaging, and social media, those family photos would be on the Christmas cards or annual Christmas letters we would send to friends far and wide.
All this shows that happiness is inextricably linked with family. For a young child, and maybe for many of us not so young, happiness could come from receiving many Christmas presents and deriving joy, no matter how fleeting, from the material objects that these gifts are. But as one matures, it becomes less the object and more the gesture — and one’s relationship with the giver making the gesture — that gives a more profound joy than the gift itself can give. It also takes more maturity to understand the truth in the saying “It is better to give than to receive” — something I admittedly wasn’t too convinced about when I first heard it as a youngster myself.
Still, the way “Happy New Year” is commonly stated alternatively as “Prosperous New Year” suggests to me that people widely take happiness to be equivalent to (material) prosperity. The three Ps of possessions, power, and pleasure are often said to be masquerading as sources of happiness. But these are illusory and transitory, and it doesn’t take much for a mature individual to recognize that money and material possessions ultimately cannot buy true happiness. As psychologists have long pointed out, it is our relationships—with other people, and with our God—that ultimately determine how happy or unhappy we are.
Happiness is not about what we have; it is about how we relate with those around us, most especially our family. In the workplace, one cannot find happiness where there is someone s/he has a troubled relationship with, be it a superior or a peer; many have given up what could be an otherwise coveted job because of it. When we encounter a person who seems constantly troubled or miserable, or makes life miserable for others around, chances are that person’s unhappiness is rooted in a problematic relationship, probably within his/her own family. For countless families torn apart by failed marriages or members gone astray due to drugs, emotional stress, parent-child conflicts, sibling rivalry, or bad social influences, true happiness can indeed be elusive.
When asked when I am happiest, my unequivocal answer has always been: when I’m in the company of my family, especially our grandchildren. All too often, we find ourselves immersed in our work as if that is what life is all about, to the neglect of a healthier family life. Indeed, many of us find fulfillment in our work, as we should, especially if it ultimately helps many others uplift their own lives, and is not just a way to earn an income and boost our material wealth. But what drove the point home to me that in the end, our happiness lies in our relationships, especially in our own families, was a quote popularized by former American senator Paul Tsongas: “No one at his/her deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”
I am writing this on the Feast of the Holy Family in the Catholic Christian calendar. As I do, I’m reminded that in life, our relationships normally start and end in our own families. Here’s hoping that our families would find even greater happiness in 2022 and beyond!
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