For as long as I can remember, there are two things which I have been sure of: firstly, that life is uncertain; and secondly, that the one certainty in life is death. My acute awareness of my finitude naturally set in motion larger questions about how we measure a good life amidst this uncertainty, questions which sometimes recur for me like the oscillations of a pendulum.
I think I subconsciously set about answering these questions from a young age. As a ten-year-old, my favourite books were the My Story series. Though I now realise the stories were fictional, I felt like I was entering the minds of characters who were trying to answer those same questions of how to live.
The most poignant character was young Marie Antoinette, a fourteen-year-old girl launched into the treacherous, extravagant spectacle that was politics and royalty. She was the envy of France, but secretly aspired for a far-off dream of simple happiness. In many ways, her story led me to believe that the path to happiness was uncomplicated.
My perception of happiness developed when I reached adolescence. A selective school student born to immigrant parents, I was submerged in a world of unrealistic expectations. Academic achievement was placed on a pedestal, and it was as if achieving a certain ATAR or being accepted into a certain degree was the crowning accomplishment. Not only would I be able to prove to myself that I was more exceptional than others, but I would be proving to my parents that moving to a foreign country for me was not in vain.
This was reinforced in my past degree, in the cultures of the Business and Law Schools, except now the goal was employment at a certain company or a position in a society. I felt like people would project images of success and prestige and defend it at all costs, where certain relationships could become increasingly transactional and a tournament of status.
There was a certain level of delayed gratification as well — you would think these achievements are useful not necessarily because they make you happier in the moment, but because it sets you up for future success, often narrowly defined as financial stability, or inculcates you against misery.
Looking back, I realise that my beliefs were a result of continually internalising other people’s values and expectations of how I should define and pursue happiness. Not knowing any better, I conformed to these expectations – I aimed hopelessly to be loveable to the world around me, refusing to accept that the world’s goodness was not a contradiction, nor a threat to my own. I struggled to independently pursue meaning without the approval of others.
It was not until recently that I fully grasped that flaw in logic. I think that came through a culmination of factors: I had achieved relative success in my academic life — marks which gave me freedom to choose my degree — and in my working life, where I was made a project manager at my company. But when it was all said and done, there was no wave of relief which washed over me. As I embarked on what was sold to me as a ‘prestigious’ journey, one in which pure achievement would be rewarded, I never felt complete. Rather, I was happier when my friends and I received poor grades and we would comfort each other, share our resentment on the harsh marking criteria, and joke about how our life is now ruined and no company would ever hire us.
I soon realised that happiness was no longer a linear concept. It’s not like how you’re told — that if you can simply get through a degree and find a high-paying corporate job, happiness would soon follow after. Happiness is not a steady stream of water which naturally flows out after you put enough effort into turning the tap.
I’ve realised that a good life is driven by love. Not necessarily grand, sweeping displays of love, but in seemingly insignificant moments when I feel present and content — like when my dad celebrates wildly when we watch sport on the TV, or when my friends’ faces crinkle into laughter over the silliest things. I think that it’s the fact of having people who will provide you with unwavering support when it matters most – and with them, you never need or want more.
Unfortunately, experiencing and giving this type of love freely goes against a lot of our social norms of individualism and competition. It is hard to love something or someone, because it means that you have to surrender your ego and give yourself wholly to it. During my first year of university, I was told that it was necessary to take advantage of others to succeed in the corporate world. I was told that no person in the working world has your best interests at heart. They wouldn’t gain anything from it, and it wouldn’t be rational, so why would they? In our present-day transactional culture, seemingly dominated by cost-benefit analyses and motivated by a race to the top, giving love is not only demanding, but dangerous.
The thing we tend to forget is that love is not finite. It’s not something we can necessarily place a value on, or that should be given when we are guaranteed of its reciprocity. You don’t need to be shown love first in order to love something or someone else, which takes a degree of vulnerability and courage. It is that eternal and revolutionary force which governs the stars of our interior lives.
Indeed, a lot of modern-day motivations for activism are based around love for not just ourselves, but for others. Those who fight for social change often express how they have a deep love for nature and humanity which motivates them to fight for oppressed communities. In a way, they are showing a kind of love which is rooted in justice and righteousness, a kind which is not often shown to the people and causes they fight for.
Now, as I look back to my earliest days, remembering how Marie Antoinette gazed out of the Palace of Versailles wanting a simpler life, I understand that wealth and achievement can be someone’s sources of contentment, but they’re not mine. My source of contentment was always there, in the company of those I loved. I had just been concentrating too much on other things to realise it.