Lessons on Happiness (part 2)

26 Jul


One of the main things that was eye-opening to me as I encountered people from different countries was just how astoundingly, disgustingly expensive higher education is in the US.  I had no idea that it is not normal in other parts of the world to expect to spend the next 20 to 30 years paying off your undergraduate education.  And on top of just basic education costs, I think that thanks to television and movies, we are sold this idea that it is our right as young Americans to go away to school and have the typical college experience of communal living, keg parties, and campus life.  I can say with all honesty (and shame) that if my parents had told me that I had to live at home while I went to college, I would have thought my life was over (and probably thrown a temper tantrum).  I know that not everyone would have reacted the same way and I know a few people who lived at home while they went to school, but an overwhelming majority of the people I know who came from the same background as me had the privilege of living on campus; and don’t think many of us ever truly reflected on how economically privileged we truly were, even compared to many people within our own country.

Once I left school, I really started to miss that feeling of learning and I started to seek it out any way I could.  Whether it be learning a new language (with a teacher, on your own, or socially), joining a creative writing circle, a book club, or exchanging skills with friends, it’s possible to continue to educate and better yourself.  I think it’s important to continue to educate yourself within your chosen career- especially if it’s something you are passionate about.  But there is, also, something so pure about learning something not so it will eventually beef up your resume or help you earn more money.  Learning just as a gift to yourself is a wonderful experience.

I also think it’s so important to place value on what you can learn from the other people you come across in your life.  There are so many different view points out there and it’s important to really listen to what other people have to say and truly participate in an exchange of ideas.  I am an admittedly opinionated person, but one of my on-going “self-projects” has always been to remind myself to take a step back and truly listen to where others are coming from.  Other people have so much to offer and if two people are truly able to debate a topic while still respecting each other at the same time, it’s possible that they may be able to see something from a perspective that had never occurred to them, whether it eventually changes their opinion or not.  We need to value each other and celebrate the differences of experience we are all coming from.


According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta on whatever radio station I happened to have on in the car the other morning, American restaurant portions are double what we should be eating.  (And according to Wikipedia, Dr. Gupta is a neurosurgeon who also happens to be a television personality and author, so, I mean, you gotta trust him, no?).  Whenever my Spanish friends and students would visit the States, I would ask them what they thought.  Most of their answers were the same across the board.  They’d first gush something along the lines of, “Americans are so nice! Everyone is smiling and so helpful.  I was nervous speaking English, but they were all very patient!  It was nothing like our trip to London!” (Sorry, Brits.  I’m sure you’ve heard it before anyway.)  And without fail, among the list of observations about big cars, tipping in restaurants, and people trying to practice their Spanish with them, there is always the comment, “But the plates of food are so big!  And the people are so fat!  It’s probably because of all the McDonalds and the mayonesa on all the salads.”

I’ve always felt a tinge of defensiveness for the States at the “people are so fat!” comment, because every time I come home to the States, when I look around me in Boston and New York, which is where the majority of these people are visiting, I don’t quite see what they see.  And I’ve had to correct the occasional adult who honestly thought that the majority Americans ate multiple meals a day at McDonald’s.  But, it is hard to argue with statistics, I suppose, and according to the CDC, more than one-third of US adults (35.7%) are obese.

I think that there are a lot of people in this area of the States that are focused on health and I think that’s a wonderful thing.  I think it’s great how much emphasis is placed on sports in schools and I think it’s an incredible thing for young girls that they are taught to value themselves as athletes.  So, after my years of grade school soccer and high school field hockey, I had a really good foundation.  During my time in Spain, I think I learned more about molding my lifestyle in order to fully support this idea of health.

When I first moved to Spain, take-out food and microwave dinners were almost non-existent.  Barcelona has become a little more Americanized over the years, but even though both things are slightly more available, there is still a stigma against them.  Spaniards are very proud of their food and diet.  I will truly miss the experience of buying food; of taking my shopping bag, going to the market, and jumping from stall to stall to stock up on freshly cut meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.  This may sound strange, but after planning a meal, carefully choosing all my ingredients while chatting with the people selling it, and putting it together myself, you almost feel like you have more of a relationship with your food.  You’re not just opening up a take-out box or peeling back the plastic before popping it in the microwave- and then taking down the number of calories so you don’t exceed your amount for the day.

One thing that is unquestionably better in the States, however, is our attitude toward smoking.  I smoked socially in college, but my habit became out of control once I moved to Spain.  It was inescapable there.  Up until two years ago, you could smoke in bars and restaurants in Barcelona.  Socializing under a cloud of smoke was just par for the course.  And it wasn’t that long ago that there were people smoking in offices, museums, and on the metro.  I smoked my last ever cigarette two and a half years ago and looking back, I can’t even remember why I started.  I do have to admit, I enjoyed it when it was in my life.  Nothing compares to a cigarette after a big meal or with a cup of coffee or as a little reward for cleaning one room of the house before moving onto the next.  But, like everyone always says, I just feel so much better now!  I enjoy sports so much more.  I feel less nervous.  And I don’t have that guilt in the back of my mind that I will truly regret later in life what I am doing to my body now.  I think one of the best things about the States is the ever-present social pressure.  If we see someone cutting in line, littering in the street, or trying to take advantage of us or someone else, we have no problem speaking up and letting them know that it is just not okay.  And it’s the same with smoking.  People outside the States, even my British friends, have a hard time believing me on this, but there was more than one time when I would be standing on the street or outside of a bar in the States smoking when someone would stop and say “You know, that’s so bad for you.  And it’s bad for everyone else around you, too.”  For whatever reason, Americans feel it is their social responsibility to impart knowledge (no matter how obvious) on their fellow citizens.  And, speaking as a recovering smoker, in this case I think it’s a really good thing.  You might be able to push your guilt to the back of your own mind, but when you have a fellow American in your face reminding you of the obvious, it’s much more difficult to ignore.  (Even as a smoker, it took everything in my power to hold back from lecturing a Spanish mother pushing her infant in a stroller with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, which is something that is not at all unusual.  How is that okay?)

My relationship with food has certainly changed, as has my desire to reincorporate sports into my life on a more consistent basis.  Not just going to the gym for a few hours, but incorporate it into my social life, as well.  And cut out the driving when I could be walking; which shouldn’t be too hard having sold my car six years ago.  As I said earlier, I believe that so much of happiness is dependent on your day to day choices and it’s clear that is true with health, as well.


The other day I was talking to my friend Erin about some of my doubts about moving home.  Trying to make me feel better, she said, “Well, it’s not too bad, Linds.  This summer I took an entire two weeks off work!”  When she saw my face, she immedietly laughed and realized that probably didn’t make me feel too much better.  (Love you, Erin).  Many European countries have an entire month off in the summer.  Some companies don’t even let you work in August if you want to.  And there are a plethora of bank holidays.  From September to December, there is usually a puente almost once a month in Spain.  Puente literally means bridge, but in this case it is when a working day falls in the middle of two public holidays.  That day is usually also taken as a holiday.  There’s a tendency to move public holidays to Monday, as well; in which case, a puente is more or less referring to a long weekend.  I know what some of you are thinking- maybe this is part of the reason for Spain’s economic problems.  But it happens in other European countries, as well.  And it’s not like our stingy system of vacations has made us any more recession-proof.

In the States, I don’t really feel that balance is valued that much.  There is such a focus on working, making money, status, and image, that people are always expected to be connected and available.  I have a good friend who works for a company, which will go unnamed, that does not offer any set limit of vacation days.  When I first heard that, I thought it was great, because that meant you could take as much time of as you wanted without question!  Until it was explained to me that it sometimes manages to have the opposite effect, because you are judged by everyone else in the office as to whether the break you are taking is necessary or that perhaps you aren’t as much of a hard worker as everyone else.

I believe that balance is extremely important.  Americans are constantly on the go.  In Spain, it’s considered very strange, and kind of unhealthy, to walk down the street drinking or eating something.  In the States, take-out and microwave/frozen/from-a-box dinners are so popular, because people are left with no time or are too exhausted when they arrive home to cook a proper meal.  But more so than how unhealthy it is, which we’ve already talked about, meals in Spain are looked at as a time to be with family and friends.  From the occasional extended family meal in the middle of the week and large family lunches at the weekend, families spend a lot of time together.

I know that Americans want to work less and feel less guilty about wanting to make time for other things.  I hear my friends and family talk about it all the time.  And I understand the situation is different as many people nowadays feel grateful to be one of the lucky ones with a job.  But I really hope that balance will one day be more valued.


And now onto the most important lesson that I learned during my time abroad: Family is, by far, the most important thing our lives.  It was really difficult being away from my family these past six years.  Going home once a year for two to three weeks at a time is just not enough.  Things are easier with Facebook and Skype.  But it’s not the same as being a part of each other’s everyday lives.

This lesson was hammered home while living in a culture like Spain.  Over the years I was invited to many Sunday family meals.  It was incredible to see that it is not unusual for cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents to all come together once a week to share a few hours of homemade cooking and wine- lots of wine.  Food can be an expression of love and these gatherings did not solely happen on major holidays.  It’s obviously easier in a country like Spain, where people don’t move quite so far away from each other.  Many extended families I know live in the same neighbourhood in Barelona.  Many grandparents live with one of their children and their families.  One of my teenage students lived in the same apartment building as her father’s four brothers and their families!  (She told me it could get a little annoying, because she couldn’t escape from her younger cousins, but still).  And when I would work in the countryside of Italy every summer, I would see that it is not unusual for entire extended families to buy a huge house together and separate each floor into a separate apartment for different generations of the family.  (I think most Americans would agree with me that that might be a little much.)

Now, this difference doesn’t mean that these families don’t have their fair share of disagreements or problems.  Speaking to many of my friends, the same struggles still exist.  Your family are the closest people to you.  They know your whole history and they know you better than anyone.  Seeing all the joy these families shared made me start to realize that two to three weeks a year just wasn’t enough for me to spend with my own.  I was missing out on so much.  I thought about raising my children in Spain and possibly missing out on sharing that part of my life with my two sisters.  We wouldn’t be together for pregnancies and births and my children would only be able to play with their cousins during short yearly trips to my home.  My sisters and I spent two weeks every summer on Cape Cod with our cousins when we were growing up and they were the most perfect, idyllic parts of my childhood.  I want that for my children; and to be able to share that with my sisters.

Walking the streets of Barcelona, I would see grandparents taking care of new babies or bringing their grandchildren home from school.  And as I was invited into the homes of my students, I saw how much a part of the children’s lives their grandparents were.  I want my Mom to be there when I raise my children.  I soon realized that while I had learned so many lessons and gained so much from the expansion of my world, I wasn’t fully embracing one of the greatest gifts we have in this life.  I learned so many lessons about happiness and what I need to do in order to own my life and make it what I want.  But the greatest lesson of all was that nothing can bring you joy like your family.  Nothing can give you more purpose.  It is a gift that should not be squandered.  And for this reason, I know that I have made the right decision in deciding to move home.


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