“Happiness is where you are and what you want to be. If you look you’re sure to find the rainbow of your dreams.” So goes the song I learned by rote in grade school. I do not recall being taught what the song was about as it was quite straightforward. Happiness is not just something you experience after you achieve something. Happiness is in the here and now and is at the same time, in what you can become. Along the way, however, we get distracted by the daily grind to a point where we fail to realize that what we have been looking for is already staring us in the face.
Such was the case of Hector, the young psychiatrist in the best-selling book Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord. While he has established a successful practice as evidenced by the number of patients who came to see him, Hector “felt dissatisfied because he could see perfectly well that he couldn’t make people happy.” This dissatisfaction continued to snowball until even his patients noticed it themselves prompting one of them to suggest that he find time to travel. And so it was that Hector, after getting the go ahead from his girlfriend Clara, set off on a journey around the world to “try to understand what made people happy or unhappy. That way, he told himself, if there was a secret to happiness, he’d be sure to find it.” Hector’s journey takes him to China, France, Africa and the United States. Along the way, through the people he meets and reconnects with, he discovers not just 1 but 23 realizations about what happiness is. And these realizations which Hector refers to as lessons did not only translate to his getting better at helping his patients to be happier. More importantly, “since his trip, he loved his job even more, and he loved Clara more, too.” I invite the reader to dive into the book to discover the context of these 23 lessons.
Having said that, I must say that among the 23 discoveries made by Hector, the lesson that resonated the most with me was lesson no. 20. To wit: “Happiness is a certain way of looking at things.” Hector chanced upon this discovery as he reflected that “among my patients are people with no money or health problems, who have close-knit families, interesting and useful jobs, but who are quite unhappy: they are fearful about the future, dissatisfied with themselves, they see only the bad side of their situation. There was one determinant of happiness missing from your list just now: people’s way of looking at things. In short, people whose glass is always half full are clearly happier than those whose glass is always half-empty.”
After attending a mindfulness seminar at the Ateneo Bulatao Center recently, I couldn’t agree more with Hector’s insight. In the seminar, we were taught to be curious about the “storyboard” that emerges every time we experience something. This “storyboard” is comprised by our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, urges and interesting, our thoughts about our thoughts. In the process, we realized that by catching our kneejerk reactions to what happens to us, we can discover alternative optimal responses to our reality. We can choose a certain way of looking at things. And when we do, 5 other lessons uncovered by Hector are not that hard to come by. To wit: lessons 8 (“Happiness is being with the people you love”), 13 (“Happiness is feeling useful to others”), 15 (“Happiness comes when you feel truly alive”), 16 (“Happiness is knowing when to celebrate”) and 17 (“Happiness is caring about the happiness of those you love.”)
It is serendipitous that I was reading this book as I was traveling for the first time to the United States. After visiting Chicago, Boston and New York for the first time, I now have a better appreciation and even greater respect for people who deliberately plan to travel. Indeed, traveling has a way of helping us become better human beings. How you see things now need not be the only definitive way to see things later. As Mark Twain would put it: “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
This is for my wife Elaine, my travel buddy.