By now you’d be familiar with my frequent laments about not having enough time to read the books I want to read, do the things I want to do, travel the places I want to travel – but I decided to indulge myself a little this holiday. Having won $150 worth of Kinokuniya Bookstore vouchers from an Economics film competition [link here], I shuffled my way to the bookstore and found myself (once again) at a loss as to which book to buy.
A little stack of books (populating what I call the paradoxical little corner of the bookstore – the most obscure wedge of the most crowded front area of the book shop). Hmm.
Hector and the Search for Happiness.
Temptingly short, alluringly simple, and childishly charming.
It was another one of those books I had heard of but never got around to reading. I picked it up, started thumbing through the first few chapters, nodded approvingly to myself at the casual, engaging, and somewhat endearing tone of voice, and then snapped it right up.
The novel follows the journey of Hector, a dissatisfied psychiatrist frustrated with his inability to make his patients truly happy. And so he does what everyone with a padded pocket does when they are dissatisfied with life – he embarks on a trip around the world to find out what makes people happy.
The entire book is filled with clichéd phrases; cluttered with obvious aphorisms easily found on a Thought Catalog list (I’m still not entirely sure whether I agree with The List’s increasing status as a legitimate writing form, but 21st Century trends will be 21st Century trends). But then again, it was written in 2001 so Lelord can’t be to blame, and on the contrary I think it adds to its charm. There’s something incredibly magical and endearing about the simplicity of the novel. It tugs at the little heartstrings. Hackneyed phrases are only hackneyed when presented in an unoriginal context – there was a spectacular sort of originality in the sparkling charm of the narrator’s voice. Lelord has a rather good way with simple words.
So here’s Hector’s list of happiness. (I’ve highlighted my favourites in bold.)
1. Making comparisons can spoil your happiness. 2. Happiness often comes when least expected. 3. Many people see happiness only in their future. 4. Many people think that happiness comes from having more power or more money. 5. Sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story. 6. Happiness is a long walk in beautiful unfamiliar mountains. 7. It’s a mistake to think that happiness is the goal. 8. Happiness is being with the people you love; unhappiness is being separated from them. 9. Happiness is knowing your family lacks for nothing. 10. Happiness is doing a job you love. 11. Happiness is having a home and a garden of your own. 12. It’s harder to be happy in a country run by bad people. 13. Happiness is feeling useful to others. 14. Happiness is to be loved for exactly who you are. 15. Happiness comes when you feel truly alive. 16. Happiness is knowing how to celebrate. 17. Happiness is caring about the happiness of those you love. 18.
Happiness is the freedom to love more than one woman.19. The sun and sea make everybody happy. 20. Happiness is a certain way of seeing things. 21. Rivalry poisons happiness. 22. Women care more than men about making others happy. 23. Happiness means making sure that those around you are happy. 24. Happiness not attaching too much importance to what other people think.
Despite the obvious nature of some of these statements, we seem to have forgotten how to appreciate the happiness in our lives. We’re much too enraptured in the fast-paced tumult of our world, much too preoccupied with our ambitions, duties, and pursuits, and much too methodical in our rigid schedules.
There’s merit in the spontaneity of Hector’s approach to life. Perhaps that in itself is a luxury – we have so much to do on our hands, we even have to allocate time to be happy (get such such, and such done in this amount of time, etc. before we can allow ourselves to enjoy our limited time with family and friends). We argue that we have no choice – we have to keep up with work, we have to keep afloat in this competitive world – but sometimes I wonder if we could choose an alternative path, an alternate way of seeing things.
Why think of happiness and other aspects of life as mutually exclusive?
Why think of happiness as a thing at all? Happiness is not a goal; happiness is a state of mind. Happiness is what we feel as we go through life, as we share little moments of joy with others, whether in a stressful and frenetic world, or a calm and tranquil one. It is a way of seeing things – an attitude rather than an occurrence; a lifestyle rather than an occupation.
I used to be very concerned with what other people thought – I mean, not really due to the usual adolescent causes of distress (eg. weight gain, popularity, etc, etc.) but I was concerned about what people thought of me, as a whole human being, and whether I was doing enough for them. I hinged my hopes and happiness on the emotional wellbeing of everyone else around me (albeit in a warped manner – for example I was preoccupied with whether I fulfilled my teachers and parents’ academic expectations, which clearly were not deciding factors in their emotional wellbeing, although I was utterly convinced that it was so). We tend to be concerned with what other people think, and what other people do – when we’re not looking to people for approval, we’re looking to them for comparison. We have to learn to be content with ourselves. In that way, happiness is something innate, something only we can do for ourselves. Friends, family, other little things are external triggers, switches that open the floodgates that limitless expanse of euphoria – but we have the main controls that can override these external controls.
We have to allow ourselves to be happy.
We have to believe in ourselves.
And not simply in our future selves – but in our present selves.
I have friends who resign themselves to a substandard now in hope of a better future. Granted, sometimes it’s a tradeoff. Slave hard now, and pave the way for a happier future. But this doesn’t always hold. Happiness is not only the future, happiness is about loving the present. We need to hope, we need to believe, we need to look forward to a future, yes – but in doing so we cannot neglect our present. We can’t keep struggling for a better tomorrow unless there is a tomorrow to hope for.
We have to grant our present selves the right to be happy.
I absolutely adore this book, although it doesn’t say anything I don’t already know.
I mean, we all know this. I guess the beauty of this book is its simplicity – happiness may be complex and come in many forms, but it really is that simple. Hector’s travels make for an adorable, heartwarming story.
But enough of me pottering on about the book – just go find a copy and a Saturday afternoon of pure, unhindered happiness.
After all, sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story.