MY friend asked a group of us the other day: what are the three things you need for a happy life? Each of us was given a few minutes to talk about and share about what was on our list and there were things that were fairly common among the group that consisted of Asians, Europeans, and Americans. Good health was important. Being surrounded by good people (whether family or friends) was also important. Good food came up a lot. What I shared surprised me though.
The first is meaning.
I must feel that I am involved in something worthwhile that has some significant impact in the world. In college that meant joining an organization that focused on personal development and working with the urban poor. It meant doing plays with a theater group that produced classics translated into beautiful Filipino. Even in the comedy work that I did with my band back in the day and with my improv theater group – I’ve always thought that the best laughs come from the most honest and truthful places with some hidden or obscure meaning. Today I find meaning in sharing online the benefits of improvisation through classes with our improv school, Third World Improv, and by running VIVISTOP Baguio, our maker space for kids in Baguio. Doing meaningful things gives me that extra boost when the going gets tough or difficult.
The second is a sense of wonder.
Growing up, we had a framed postcard up on our wall at home that apparently misquoted Douglas MacArthur – “Years wrinkle the skin but to give up wonder (enthusiasm in the original) wrinkles the soul.”
I understood it better as I grew older. You start feeling old when you approach the world and your life with a “been there, done that ” attitude. One can fall into a never-ending cycle of needing constant stimulation – always looking for new experiences, new relationships, new tsismis, new things to buy online – and all that ultimately leaves us unsatisfied. To look at things with a sense of wonder means to examine things with playful curiosity – even the otherwise common and mundane. Things like breathing and walking. When was the last time we noticed the air as we inhaled and how it filled our nostrils and air passages and our lungs with its life-nourishing sweetness? And the relaxing release of air as we exhaled. Wonder doesn’t always mean asking the whys and hows of things and understanding the science of the way things work. It can also mean just paying attention to how things are and observing the intricacies. Some might call it mindfulness, but I prefer wonder.
The last is gratitude.
Gail Goodwin, in the book “Finishing School” wrote:
“There are two kinds of people. One kind, you can just tell by looking at them at what point they congealed into their final selves. It might be a very nice self, but you know you can expect no more surprises from it. Whereas, the other kind keeps moving, changing… They are fluid. They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion of it keeps them young. In my opinion, they are the only people who are still alive. You must be constantly on your guard against congealing.”
My father was so impressed with this statement that he made it his personal motto in the last decade of his life. The key, I think, in moving and changing and staying fluid is gratitude. Because change is inevitable. No matter how hard we try to live a constant, happy, perfect life, something will always happen to disrupt our little pockets of contentment. There can be big disruptions – you can lose your job, a friend, a relationship, or even a loved one. But there can be little disruptions that unsettle us too – someone took your hairbrush from its usual place, Facebook changed its layout again, your favorite Milk Tea place raised their prices. You have a choice on how to respond. The first is a common way – you resist by complaining, fighting, and trying your darndest best to preserve the status quo. The other way is to try and look at things with eyes of gratitude and resist labeling things as blessings or curses. Instead of railing and complaining, let out a deep breath and say “thank you” for the new twists and just go on living as fluidly as you can.
To say “thank you” when things don’t go your way and unexpected things happen to you is to open your mind and person up to the possibilities a moment can bring.
This piece first appeared in this space in January 2021