Shared Stories: What Does Happiness Mean

Agustin Duran has been a Spanish-language journalist in the United States for many years.  Here he reflects on a question that we all grapple with – what is Happiness?  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Agustin Duran

I was 23 years old when I decided to abandon my mother, my father, and my siblings. I wanted to run away from my house and all those family reunions that we had almost every other weekend. My main purpose was to find happiness, improve my English, travel, and visit another country for the first time. 

I wanted to find a good job that would allow me to buy all the things that my parents couldn’t afford. But 25 years later, I am still looking for that idea of happiness that I now believe only existed in my mind.

Back in 1979 when I was 10 years old, I think I was a happy kid, but I can’t really say it because I don’t remember even thinking about it. I grew up with my mom, dad, three brothers, and three sisters in a small house outside of Mexico City. We did not have many material possessions, but my parents always made sure we had food on the table and a roof over our head. 

To be honest, at that age I didn’t care too much about everything and I didn’t know much either. My biggest concern was playing soccer on the street with my friends. My dream was to become a professional soccer player and earn enough money to buy a big house and have a lot of toys and possessions, like the beautiful people in TV commercials with big smiles on their faces who seemed to have everything.

During the first 10 years of my life, the population in Mexico grew so fast that in the decade of the 80’s, it became known as the largest populated city in the world.  During that time, most of the families had an average of five to seven children and usually the father went out to work while the mother took care of their kids. 

There weren’t many opportunities in the urban areas because society was growing rapidly. Many people went out to live in the suburbs. In many cases, they lived without having the basic services at all, but people manage to survive.

Even though the community we lived in was considered one of the low-income areas, we didn’t mind because at that time we didn’t associate having money with being happy.  It wasn’t until the 70’s, when the television became the main source of entertainment for most people, that we realized how poor we were. 

During my teenage years I always complained to myself about the conditions we lived in because I could not have what I wanted. Nevertheless, I remember my older brothers telling me that I was the lucky one in the family because I hadn’t suffered at all. By the time I was born, our house already had power, running water, and a full bathroom. 

One of the questions I disliked the most was when people would ask, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Most likely it bothered me because I didn’t know what to answer. 
I recall being next to two of my older sisters when a teacher asked the oldest one the same question.  Her response was, “A journalist.” 

My other sister gave the same answer. So, when it was my turn I also said I wanted to be a journalist even though I didn’t know what it was.  After that, every time someone asked me, I always gave the same response. 

By the time I was 20, I was already on my way to becoming a journalist, although I was still very ignorant about the injustices and inequalities that prevail in most societies. However, I believe that the busy trend of life doesn’t allow us to see the whole picture of the problem and in many ways, people remain busy trying to find their own happiness, fulfilling their material needs.

According to Socrates, the Greek philosopher, “Happiness flows not from physical or external conditions such as wealth and power, but from living a life that’s right for your soul.  If you don’t know what’s good for your soul, then you will be misled into pursuing happiness based on what’s conventional or easy.”

Right after I finished college, I came to the United States looking for a stable job that would allow me to have a better life. Ironically, I left my house, my family and friends - all those things that during my first 23 years of existence made my life easier, and I would even say happy, without even realizing it. 

I promised my family that I would go back in a couple of years speaking English, so I could get a better job and with some money in my pocket, so we would live happily ever after.  Twenty-five years later, I never went back to live there and most of my family has never come to visit me.

At the age of 30, I was already living in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to have a small business, a career, and a house of my own. By then, I asked myself if I was finally happy. My answer was NOT really. Even though I had a beautiful wife and a great son, my thoughts about my family in Mexico never left me. 

Nevertheless, it wasn’t just the need for my family in Mexico. By the time I reached 40,  I was more aware about the injustices and inequalities that exist in almost every single society, including in the richest country in the world. So it was impossible for me to pretend that one day I would find happiness when there is so much pain and suffering all around caused by Mother Nature and by us humans. 

Now I am 48 and have concluded that the idea of happiness associated with material possessions, achievements, and pleasures is very relative. I am certain those factors can provide some level of satisfaction, but regarding happiness, real happiness, I’m not sure exactly what that means. 

The best thing I can do is try to enjoy the moment I am living now, not in the future, not in the past, but today. Value every day the people and things around me and never stop living without a purpose.