The post would actually be titled "Re-conditioning myself in pursuit of happiness" until I made a recent discovery that happiness is a choice, not a pursuit.
The perception of happiness
People do all sorts of things to pursue what they perceive as 'happiness'. In the Singaporean society, 'happiness' generally (I repeat, generally) means earning enough money so that they never have to worry about having to cope with the rising standards of living. When I was younger, 'happiness' means the freedom to do whatever I want. Money, I thought was secondary. I was insistent that freedom does not neccessarily have to come with money. Back then, even as a kid in school, I was already the odd one out. My peers were very concerned about getting straight As in order 'succeed' and 'be happy'. Nobody told us that academic success is not equivalent true happiness and success. On the contrary, we kept getting drilled about the importance of being part of an academic elite in order to survive in Singapore (at least, in my experience).
I was determined to be happy. I have already disappointed my parents when I didn't do well for my O levels, and I sought the middle-ground, entering a polytechnic to study IT when what I really wanted to do was to go to a design school. I dropped out in the middle of my course after realising that I will never be able to graduate as long as data structures gave me a headache, resulting in more disappointment from my family. That resulted in me feeling even more that I should make it up to them. This pattern continued throughout my twenties as I tried hard to seek 'a good job' as defined by society. If I could not be the lawyer they wanted, perhaps I could at the very least try to climb the ladder as a designer.
I spent my twenties caught in between trying to be happy and trying to make it up to my parents. Or you can see it as trying to be myself and be weird, or trying to be 'normal' like everyone else. I swung between the two as there was never a period I could be happy without feeling guilty, or trying to be normal without driving myself crazy.
I thought I left it all behind when I made a big step to be self-employed, mistakenly thinking that being self-employed would mean freedom. I stopped caring whether that would please my family or not, it was something that I really wanted and needed to do.
In a conditioned state of fear
What I didn't realise was, the conditioning that existed in my mind/psyche was far deeper that I have thought to be. As I progressed further into my business, my worries about the future grew. What if I stopped getting business? What if I don't make use if the opportunities presented to me now? What if I didn't save enough to buy a house? What if I can't pay rent? What if my parents get old and they need money from me? What if one of them fall sick? What if I fall sick?
I was setting myself up for failure. Even before anything started to happen, I was already 'preparing' myself for all the negativity that can happen to me. And I assure you, whoever that is reading this, that probably 90% of us have the same fears going through their minds all the time.
That is why many of us stay in jobs we don't love. It is better to be unhappy than to be poor, a lot of them think. As a friend once remarked, she would rather cry in a mercedes than in a public bus.
And that is why, even myself, as much as I try to pursue happiness consciously, the conditioning of my mind has weighed me down very much, subconsciously. Most of us are brought up to seek stability and security, even if I seem to be a 'free-er' spirit that most of my peers, I cannot help but think about the house that I should buy, the money I should be earning, the 'success' I should be chasing. This affected the way I ran my business as I subconsciously sought stability (lots of cashflow! ;p). I made awful decisions accepting projects that I shouldn't, or working when I should have rested. I took my work too seriously, because I was very afraid to lose my 'freedom', and my work suffered as a result as I over-analyzed everything since I was afraid to produce work that was mediocre. I lost my love for my work.
Consciously or subconsciously, I was falling back into my old pattern of swinging between trying to be myself and trying to be normal. I was still trying to seek the middle-ground by not having 'a proper job' and still being able to make my family proud of me. I was still trying to make the invisible 'deadlines' that we seem to have – by 30 you should have established a career, by 35 if you haven't, you should be totally ashamed of yourself.
Why should we place all these deadlines on ourselves? Why are we conditioned to pursue things that society deem acceptable? Why do we make our children and youth feel so guilty when they try to be different? We do we shake our heads at people who want to have a change of career in their mid-thirties? And why can't old people find love?
Why do we accept these 'rules' as part of reality?
Why am I taking life so seriously? If you believe in one life-time and that you either make it or not with one chance, perhaps you have enough reason to be serious about life. Me? I believe in multiple-incarnations (this is going to be another post) and I find it hard to reconcile within myself when I am weighed down by the supposed practicalities of life. This is how conditioned my mind has become. Fear of failure.
I have found a great divide between my beliefs and the conditioning of my mind. And that has been creating a lot of noise in my consciousness. No wonder I never could quieten my mind. It seemed to be always anxious, always analyzing, always debating. It doesn't have to be this way if I simply have faith. I was very afraid to waste time, to make wrong decisions, to experience pain when things go wrong. Yet the other part of me is constantly trying to remind me that I should be doing what I love, I should choose what makes me happy over what makes me stable. I gradually realised that my unhappiness was caused by the inability to make peace within myself.
Considering that I don't believe in hell, one-lifetime, judgement (as you know it) or punishment after life, what is there to be afraid of? I don't even believe in 'right' or 'wrong'. I find it really amusing that I am in constant anxiety about my life even though I hold such strong spiritual beliefs. Okay, at least it is amusing to me now.
There was a mildly controversial comment made by Joi Ito at Echelon 2010, apparently saying that he does not hire MBAs because he would need to untrain them. Similar to the sentiment that some startups find difficulty in hiring Singaporean talent because of their apparent inability to be flexible (am not trying to criticise, I am just stating true feedback). That is sort of what I am consciously doing to myself now. Reconditioning my mind to incorporate what I believe in and not what people has conditioned me to believe in, which will probably be a long but necessary process.
Digressing a little. the Singaporean Government often states that many of our local talent go overseas, never to come back. And they are trying so hard to make Singapore a creative hub. I find it hugely ironic. Perhaps it is time for them to take a long hard look at our system. Or maybe some courageous soul can attempt to improve the system. Only if our bureaucracy would allow these courageous, idealistic souls to make a difference. Many times, they want us to make an effort, but they don't allow the effort to be made (Once bonded / Once bonded, reloaded).
Finding inner-peace to be happy
So, I realise I have been going about pursuing happiness the wrong way. I thought that by gaining or acquiring something, happiness follows. Usually it is only transient. Especially if you tie happiness to achievements or possessions. Your human nature will always want you to achieve something bigger in order to experience the same level of 'happiness'. For me, I came to the epiphany, that true constant happiness comes to me when I achieve a state of inner-peace – being at peace with who I am, what I am doing, what I have, etc. When you're truly happy, you don't need external events to provide that source to you. You see happiness in everything. Whether is it that the grass is green instead of yellow, or that I am looking at a 24in lcd screen, or that I get to eat dumplings. Knowing myself (sorry I cannot help that cynical side), I wouldn't say I will remain in this state consistently, but I will strive to.
I think that is the most important in life. The effort and process, and the non-attachment to results. Enjoy the journey anyway, whether it is long, tiring or painful. You can choose to be happy in spite of anything and everything. Similarly, you can be unhappy even if you seem to have everything but you cannot be at peace.