When I tell people about the places I’ve worked, the one consistent remark about my experiences is that they are quite different from each other. I’ve volunteered at a hospital kitchen, preparing meals for elderly patients and washing dirty dishes. I’ve interned at NASA, designing experiments, calculating data, and watching the scientists play soccer in their free time. I’ve campaigned for a mayor, visiting voters and reminding them all to remember to “Vote for Jun Choi!” with a smile and a catchphrase I can’t seem to recall. I’ve hit the pavement as a US Census enumerator in New York City, going door to door, asking people for information that no one ever seems to want to give out. I’ve interned at the HR deparment of L’Oreal, filing documents, preparing materials (i.e. photocopying thousands of sheets of paper) for meetings and trainings. I’ve seen people from very different walks of life, of very different monetary and social standings, and what I’ve learned from seeing so many different people is this: every life, rich or poor, simple or luxurious, ambitious or satisfied, has it’s own sorts of problems. If there is one thing that all humans are united in, it is in our suffering.
Happiness is not a trait of any particular lifestyle; it is something that we find in ourselves. While I’m sure the workers in the hospital kitchen would have loved to be making more money, I wouldn’t say that they were unhappy laughing as they cooked, telling jokes, and finding new ways to mess with the volunteers. And I’m sure money didn’t give my bosses at L’Oreal any feelings of contentment as they fussed over unaligned margins on inconsequential sheets of paper and grew old faster than any person should. No, money doesn’t equal happiness. Gold is gold, caviar is caviar, but neither of them are smiles. There are a million books and movies and a milion more people that could tell you this, and that’s because it’s a truth that we see everyday before our very eyes.
That’s not to say that there aren’t people with money who are happy to have it. I’m sure most millionaires drive their fancy cars and eat rare delicacies without even thinking to look back. And those people are happy: no one can say that they are not. Yet there are people who are happy to be vagrants, hungry and wandering, journeying just to see and living just to live. And these people are just as happy as millionaires.
In all things we must find a careful balance, a balance that is suited for the way we want to live. Some of us like to go out and spend a lot of money at bars and restaurants. Others like to lead a simple life, occasionally treating themselves to something nice or expensive. And there are others that don’t like to spend at all, who prefer to avoid the trappings of material things and instead live on their ideas alone. Whichever life we choose, it is important to always be transparent and honest to ourselves so that we don’t end up convincing ourselves that we want something we don’t. We must judge ourselves with utmost clarity, lest the lives we lead end up changing us in ways we did not intend.
So what is the difference between a life of simplicity and one of luxury? One is filled with footspas and fancy watches, and the other is filled with quiet nights and good books. Which sounds more appealing to you? What makes you happy? Because in the end, the answer to this question is the only thing that really matters.