Lessons on Happiness (part 1)

25 Jul

I wrote the other day that I’m grateful to be walking away from Spain with the knowledge of how to live simply.  Though, as I thought more about it, I realized more so than that, they were lessons on what I need for happiness.  I learned that happiness is something you have to constantly work to maintain.  I think Hollywood has really messed us up.  I think it’s similar to the way formulaic romantic comedies have made young girls expect to find their one true soul mate and that once they find him- cue the music- it’s heaven from here on out.  As a girl it never even occurred to me to think about what happened once it faded to black.  I remember having the same epiphany about happiness in my early twenties.  (Is that embarrassingly late to realize something like that?)  I always kind of thought that happiness was something you worked towards and that once you achieved it, it was like ascending to this special club of happy people that you could never be ejected from.  “Good job on attaining the perfect job, the gorgeous and caring husband, and the suburban house with the big yard.  Here’s your lifetime membership card.”  I had never quite realized how cyclical things are and that sometimes it really takes an effort to own your life and make it what you want.  A huge part of it is what you make of your life day to day.  But, obviously, a lot of it is the bigger things, as well.

So these are the big lessons that I learned during my time in Spain about what I need personally.  You may relate to some of them and some of them no.  But that’s okay.  We all need to create our own worlds.  I should mention, though, that while some of these lessons I found in the Spanish culture, many had to do more with my specific situation.  For example, one of the biggest lessons I learned was about materialism, which is certainly not something that doesn’t exist in Spain; especially in Barcelona which prides itself on being one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country.  (Though, it’s something that has been visibly reined in with Spain’s economic future uncertain in these days of 24.6% unemployment, bank bailouts, taxes on the rise, and more than half of Spaniards under the age of 25 without jobs.)  I guess you could say these ideas evolved during the starving, idealistic phase of my life (I’d always wanted one of those).  They changed my viewpoint quite a bit, though I’m not naïve enough to think these ideas won’t continue to evolve and change.

Materialism

I went to college at Fairfield University in Connecticut.  It is preppy central- or full of pijos for my Spanish readers.  It

Fairfiled University 2004
Fish Fest on the Point

was my first taste of Keepin’ Up with the Joneses; or I guess, Keepin’ Up with the Jessicas, in this case.  My love of designer brands really blossomed there (and has since almost completely died away, thank God).  I spent all my free time that wasn’t occupied by a full time class schedule, school work, and partying- of course- babysitting so that I could make enough money to fund the buying of things like $300 Dior sunglasses (which I broke six months later).  I just cannot imagine willfully spending that amount of money on something like that nowadays.  I would be mentally calculating how much more I would need to buy a plane ticket to somewhere I’ve really wanted to visit.

When I moved to Barcelona, I could no longer go shopping three times a week or buy a new outfit for every night out.  At the beginning, before I had established myself professionally, I could barely buy things that I really needed.  I remember rocking an embarrassingly shabby winter jacket for a really long time.  But after a few bumps in the road and a few calls home to Mom (what would we all do without our Moms?), I finally started to figure it all out.  I learned to budget and prioritize.  I learned to cook instead of ordering take-out.  I have to give a shout out to my friend Annie for teaching me the correct way to cut different vegetables.  I was really starting from square-one with the cooking.  And as time went by, that little gnawing urge to go on shopping sprees or eat out like I used to finally went away.  And when that initial feeling of disappointment over having my life change so much disappeared, I realized that I was not left with depression or longing like I had expected.  I was left with happiness, because so many other positive changes had happened at the same time.

The idea that stuff- clothes, gadgets, cars, houses- equals success and happiness does not solely exist in the States, but I think Americans have especially embraced it.    We are a culture of excess, accumulation, and clutter.  There’s a New York Times article from 2009 that has always stuck with me called The Self-Storage SelfStorage units began appearing in the ‘60s and really took off beginning in the ‘90s.  By the early ‘90s, Americans had twice the amount of possessions as they did 25 years earlier.  Today, 1 in 10 US households rent a storage unit.  They were originally created to be transitional spaces; for short term storage due to moving, marriage, divorce, or death.  But by 2007, 50% of Americans renting storage spaces were using them as extra storage in addition to their houses, despite the fact that the average US household had doubled to 2,300 square feet in the previous 50 years.  Since the recession, statistics have changed slightly as many people are renting space due to the loss of their homes.  But that 50% of Americans renting for extra space has not changed that drastically.  Why do we feel we need so much stuff?  And it is stuff, as the majority of things kept in these units are furniture, old appliances, toys, and books.

One of the most enthralling, can’t-look-away-even-though-I’m-disgusted reality programs I’ve discovered recently (though I think it’s been around for awhile now) is Hoarders.  Now, I understand that the situations for many of the people featured on Hoarders are much more complicated and that hoarding is a psychological condition.  But I’ve watched it with a few people who have commented, “I can kind of relate to not wanting to throw some of those things away- on a much smaller scale, of course.  I have a lot of trouble parting with things.”

How did this happen?  I’ve always heard from my grandparents’ generation that anyone who grew up in the Great Depression had a learned propensity to hoarding since they were afraid of once again being left with nothing.  It’s undeniably something different with my parents’ generation on, however.  America has admittedly been self-aware, with commentaries on the excess and greed of the ‘80s personified in such characters as Gordon Gekko, Sherman McCoy, and Frank Cross (from the films Wall Street, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Scrooged respectively).  Some would argue that America’s attitude is changing during the current recession.  The image of success so many struggled to maintain has crumbled to reveal a falseness, as we realize the astonishing amount of debt that has been shoved behind closed doors for many families.  My generation is realizing that the American promise of upward mobility we’ve had instilled in us since we were children will likely not be fulfilled for many of us.  I would like to think that the recent recession has taught us all a lesson and I do feel like it has made the people of my generation realize some important truths early enough for us to make different choices in our lives.  But I can’t help feeling skeptical and pessimistic that when, or if, things start to pick up again, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief, be lulled into another false sense of invincibility, and push all these lessons to the back of their minds.

I read an interesting blog article the other day, which you should all check out if you have the time, called 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About AmericaWhile I don’t necessarily agree with all that author’s viewpoints, much of it did ring true for me.  I especially loved number 10- “We Mistake Comfort for Happiness.”  Mr. Manson comments,

The United States is a country built on the exaltation of economic growth and personal ingenuity. Small businesses and constant growth are celebrated and supported above all else — above affordable health care, above respectable education, above everything. Americans believe it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself and make something of yourself, not the state’s, not your community’s, not even your friend’s or family’s in some instances.

It saddens me that individualism has been placed above community in the States.  I experienced a true sense of community with my group of expat friends in Spain, though it was on a small scale.  Our shared priorities were very clear.  We were a community of people who placed learning and experiences above all else.  We were choosing a life where we were trading in certain comforts we may have been used to in our own countries in exchange for a life of constantly meeting new people from different cultures, learning new languages, exchanging ideas with people who had had very different experiences from us, travelling, and living off the high of being outside of your comfort zone.

I’ve said it before, but within this community we honestly only had each other.  So, if someone was struggling financially or needed a place to crash for a few weeks (or even a few months) or was looking for work, the people within that community were immediately there to help you out.  And there was no sense of embarrassment asking for help, because you knew that when another person within that community needed something you would pay it forward.  I’m not saying I don’t have that in the States, because I am so incredibly grateful to all my friends and family here.  Everyone is helping me to get on my feet and the love I’ve felt has been so overwhelming.  But, there is a certain amount of urgency I feel so that I can keep my pride intact that I never really felt in Spain.  This sense of urgency is certainly not coming from any of my friends or family; it comes from the culture here and my fear that if my situation is told to someone who doesn’t know me, there will be that little bit of judgment- the uninformed judgment that I spent the last six years in Spain partying it up only to return home as an unemployed 28 year old lazily living with my Mom. (Well, and obviously the urgency also comes from seeing my savings slowly diminish).  That American need to maintain a certain image has obviously not left me, though it seems to only return when I’m in the States.

Hopefully I will find a job soon.  Hopefully that sense of urgency will be gone and I’ll be able to settle in and establish a new identity and a new community here.  And hopefully I will still be able to hold onto all the lessons I learned about materialism, even in this environment.  I am grateful, however, that even if I do decide to get the house and the car and some of the expensive gadgets, if I one day lose them all I will be okay.  I know that I don’t need possessions to define me or make me happy and that some of my happiest years so far were defined by other things.  Of course, it’s easier to think this way as a young, single woman with no children to care for.  But, I will always have the knowledge that it is possible to start a new life and I will always remember just how quickly you can adjust.  I’ve learned, for me, the things that are truly important.

Tomorrow I’ll post part 2- lessons on Education, Health, Balance, & Family

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3 Responses to “Lessons on Happiness (part 1)”

  1. Elena July 25, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

    Absolutely amazing post!!! It should be seen by everyone! Kudos to you for hitting it right on the nail with the consumerism lifestyle of many Americans, who look down upon you if you’re 28 and don’t fall into the ”Good job on attaining the perfect job, the gorgeous and caring husband, and the suburban house with the big yard. Here’s your lifetime membership card.” and also, like me without the 2 and a half spoiled kids who don’t know how to loose and don’t know the word “no”. Because as we know, everyone nowadays is being told ” you were the last winner! ” what?!!

    teens and young adults can name all the Kardashian family names and don’t know why there are 13 stripes on their own flag or the name of our Vice President.

    From one expat to the other, from one 28 year old, to another — You ARE the real winner and more rich then most, because you understand the above. Don’t ever let THINGS define who YOU are no matter in what country you will live! Don’t listen to people who tell you that you are not good enough or need a ” storage unit ” to fit in and be accepted!

    Very proud of you. ( and i don’t even know u )

    love & light

    your fan

    el

    • Lindsay July 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

      Thank you so much El! It’s so good to hear that that other people feel this way and that my words are resonating. I think we are the lucky ones to have had these experiences. xx

  2. Nathalie August 11, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    I love that picture of us! ; )

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