My toddler recently learned the word cracker. Whenever he feels hungry (or even when he doesn’t), he proudly demands for one. The genuine enthusiasm that he displays upon receiving a relatively bland cracker (which I’ve tried just to be sure) is something that baffles me. Firmly gripping the cracker, he celebrates as if he’s just been handed a winning lottery ticket. I am almost embarrassed that I envy my child, but how can such a trivial thing unlock so much unfettered joy?! More selfishly, I think that I must have once possessed this magical ability to appreciate the little things in life, which makes me wonder when I lost it.
My efforts to regain this gift has led me to research the field of positive psychology and to comb through assortment of questionable pop-sci books on happiness. Based on their pseudo-scientific recommendations, I’ve tried series of gratitude exercises. I’ve tried getting off the so-called “hedonic treadmill” by dismissing material accumulation and external validation as sustainable sources of happiness. I’ve even tried practicing the Japanese art of wabi sabi, the appreciation of transience and imperfections that surround us. Thus far, none of the prescribed exercises has brought me as much joy as a cracker would for my toddler.
At almost age 2, he has seemingly mastered the science of happiness and does not care for expensive things nor desire something just because others believe it to be worthy. As I reflect on my own life and search for my metaphorical cracker, I am painfully aware of where it all went wrong: Growing up was the trap that it was always advertised to be. It was growing up that taught me to care about what others thought about me and that – somehow – accumulation of wealth and title would help me be more happy.
In a desperate attempt to remedy the toxic side effects of growing up, I recently turned down a tantalizing job offer from abroad. My reason for declining the offer was – in part – me telling myself that I should be grateful of the things that I already have here; that I already possess the basic components necessary for me to live a happy and purposeful life. I wanted to believe that happiness was in getting out of the rat race and abandoning the never-ending chase for the mirage fromage. Following the perceived wisdom of my toddler, I made a decision that I thought would cement my newfound appreciation for my imperfect circumstance.
If we are being completely honest though, since turning down the offer, I haven’t felt quite right and I’m second-guessing my decision as a daily ritual. I am now worried that I will end up as a cautionary tale, the idiot who gave up on career advancement, based on the alleged wisdom of a toddler and pseudo-science. For all the books written on the subject, happiness really is an imperfect science. Luckily, my son doesn’t know anything about that… yet.
Mark Kawakami, assistant professor at the Faculty of Law