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What do we really need to be happy?

I love traveling. I also love reading. And it seems the more I do both, the more I find my assumptions of the world knocked out from under my feet.

My friend in Seoul lives in the smallest apartment I have ever stepped foot in. She has an 8×8 square foot of space for her bed and closet, with no room for a desk or chair; a smaller kitchen with a pint size fridge and the apartment’s only sink; and a sliver of a bathroom — to shower, you have to stand inbetween the clothes washer and the toilet bowl. That’s all she needs, really. Nevermind a 3-bedroom house with a 2-car garage and a white picket fence. How big a house do we really need in order to be happy?

One of my best friends graduated with a degree in Berkeley and moved to Shanghai, where she’s currently working for a non-profit agency serving the poor. She makes $14k a year, and she’s content with that. The American dream is to spend big and retire rich. For myself, I intend to be financially independent decades before the official retirement age. But how much money do we really need to be content?

In a recent Wired magazine article, there was a throwaway factoid about how the CEO of Craigslist and his ex lived together as a couple for 5 years before they broke up. Yet today, they’re still friends, and she does PR for Craigslist. In a society where being single somehow means your life is incomplete, and breaking up is supposed to be one of the most painful experiences anybody can go through, (and this is going to be a little strange coming from a wedding photographer) do we really need to be married — or even have a special someone — in order to be fulfilled?

A Harvard research project followed a group of 268 young men for over 70 years in an attempt to answer the question of what does it mean to live a good life. These men started off rich, privileged, talented, educated, but many died destitute and miserable, their lives littered with broken relationships. Others went through years of trials and hardship, but at the end, felt that they had lived fulfilling lives and wouldn’t have changed anything if they could. What does it mean when we can run the race of life with strength and speed, but somehow end up coming in last? Or what does it mean to stumble and trip along the way, but end up finishing with pride?

My buddy RJ, aka “KoolRaul” of Supreme Soul/America’s Best Dance Crew fame, is one of the most talented and fortunate guys I know. In the less than two years since I’ve known him, his life has exploded in completely unexpected ways. He now flies all over the world dancing, teaching, spinning, selling merch, partying, giving appearances on TV and shows — and getting paid for doing what he loves. His is a life of passion and freedom. There are few who wouldn’t envy him to one degree or another. And yet he often feels that pressure from friends and family to settle down and think about raising a family. Why is it that settling down always seems to be at odds with following your passion?

As for myself, when more of my friends are buying their first house and getting married, I find myself marching to the beat of an increasingly different drummer. I have no plans on buying a house anytime in the near future — being bound to any one place for even 10 years has little appeal to me. In terms of relationships, I am so often around people who are in love that I can’t help but wonder when my turn will come. Whenever I set off on my trips, or when something big or exciting is happening in my life, a big part of me wishes there was someone with whom I could travel the world and share these wonderful experiences. I just turned 27. According to the statistical average, I should be getting married by next year. But what is this business of “should”? I can’t wait to find that special someone, and one day raise a family together with her. But should societal norms be setting the timetable?

We all want to be happy. We all want to have a fulfilling life. And so we chase after certain things, follow certain norms, make decisions based on certain philosophies, thinking they’ll lead us to what we truly seek. But the more I travel the world, the more I step outside my own cultural bubble, the stranger and more freeing life seems to be. Money, relationships, and possessions often bring happiness — but just as often, they bring grief and heartache. We grow up our whole lives thinking that XYZ is necessary for us to be happy, when suddenly, we come across a group of people who are perfectly fine without it. And so we wonder, why were we unsatisfied this whole time? Was it because we really needed XYZ? Or was it because friends/family/society told us we should have XYZ before we can be happy?

Life coach Jim Rohn is right when he says “Your personal philosophy is the greatest determining factor in how your life works out.” What philosophies are we living by? Are these assumptions preventing us from being free, or are they propelling us forward to live the kind of life we truly want?

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  • Meg - Hi there! I really enjoyed this candid post from you. Thanks for sharing.ReplyCancel

  • saphoto - fantastic post. ya dont get a house yet like me, im bounded but not forever =)ReplyCancel

  • Jeff - “Why is it that settling down always seems to be at odds with following your passion?”

    I couldn’t agree with you more, especially when you are living the life of a traveling writer/photographer/reporter/teacher/journalist or whatever…

    I guess that is the price we pay for traveling and enjoying the freedom unrestrained from a nine to five schedule.ReplyCancel

  • Elizabeth - I really like this blog. It does make people think, at school… I’m not like the people who buy happiness through clothes, handbags, and material items. I don’t have a boyfriend, my grades are average, but I am having the time of my life! I love high school, this is the most exciting year yet. I’ve never had so much confidence, and I love my friends.

    I’m truly happy, but I don’t believe standards should really define what time, or place to be happy about something. We are our own person, whatever we do will make us happy. We choose :]

    Our own personal choice, makes all the difference!ReplyCancel

  • soapie - interesting thoughts. =) reminds me of what i’ve been learning recently myself….determining where your happiness lies depends on where your treasure is- are we treasuring things of this world, or are we strangers of this world? Peter refers to us as “God’s elect, strangers of the world”. thus, if you are following God’s calling, and know full well your treasure is in Heaven..then there’s no need to worry about not meeting social norms and not having things here that will merely fade away.ReplyCancel

  • Victoria - Junshien, you are truly inspirational. Seeing your transformation encourages to not forget that I need to get on the path of searching for my passion. While searching for your passion, what did you experiment before photography?ReplyCancel

  • bella - Hey, I totally feel the same way… although i expressed it differently =)ReplyCancel

  • joooolie - Why you sneaky little~! I got redirected here from your old xanga site and didn’t even realize it until I was going to rec this post but couldn’t. LOL This was wonderfully written and insightful.ReplyCancel

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