It was a simple question, posed to me by a woman in a bar recently. It’s something I’ve occasionally thought about in the what’s-the-meaning-of-life way. I’m in my 30s, an age when you’re unquestionably an adult, but still young enough that more of your working-age life is ahead of you than behind. It’s an age when, if you’re single and/or childless, you can hear your biological clock ticking.
But mostly, it’s an age when you have lived enough that you can make an informed decision about what parts of your life you can see yourself maintaining for another decade or four, and which ones you want to change, assuming you have the freedom to do so.
The year that’s ending has been described in Internet memes and on television as a negative one, mainly because of celebrity deaths (David Bowie, Prince) and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. (Some people also throw in a mention of Syria.) A confirmation bias is setting in as people compile more reasons to dislike the artificial construct of time that began on Jan. 1, 2016 and will end in a week.
But celebrity deaths and awful politicians were not invented this year, and they won’t disappear next year. And despite all the doom and gloom, the world continues to improve statistically, with fewer people in poverty, less disease, less war and more technological development.
Personally, I look at happiness in terms of my daily life. I could, like others I see on Facebook, focus on my crises of the moment. On the minor inconveniences and frustrations that I have to deal with regularly. But the truth is I have it pretty good right now.
I have no disabilities. I have no allergies, no addictions, and I take no medication. I don’t even have to deal with menstruation. I’m (slightly) more intelligent than average, I have no difficulty reading, and I don’t wear eyeglasses. I have no obvious physical deformities and my hairline, while receding slightly, is still there. I have no mental illnesses, have never suffered from severe depression, OCD or PTSD. I’ve never had cancer, never undergone major surgery in a hospital, or even broken a bone.
I have a home, in a safe neighbourhood of a safe city, with enough space to store my things, and an insurance policy to replace them if they get stolen or destroyed. I have working plumbing, enough heat, plenty of sunlight, no infestations and easy access to public transit. I live in a co-op, and get along with my neighbours.
I have a job that I enjoy, even though it’s in an industry facing some very tough times. It’s a unionized job, with a generous salary and benefits. I make enough money that I don’t have to work full time, and can spend some of each week pursuing other activities that interest me (such as this blog). I occasionally get freelance work that also pays me well. I look forward to going to work, rather than treating it as an obligation that I must battle through to get money. I’m appreciated by my bosses, I get along with my coworkers, and I don’t have to deal with unpredictable members of the public.
I have money, thanks mainly to that job. I have no long-term debts. I maximize my RRSP contribution every year. I don’t have to worry about whether my next paycheque will be deposited fast enough that my rent cheque won’t bounce. I never have to stress about what I can afford or take cash out of an ATM $20 at a time. I have a yearly meeting with a financial advisor and don’t have to pay bank fees because I have enough money that they can pay themselves on some of the interest it generates. If I lose my job in the next few months (which is a real possibility), I don’t immediately enter a financial crisis and can take some time to figure out my next move.
I have no dependents. I don’t have to spend hours a day, hours a week or even hours a month caring for parents, siblings or children who are unable to care for themselves. I don’t have to financially support anyone, and no one needs me to live.
I have a family that I get along with. I’m in their guest bedroom typing this as we prepare for holiday celebrations. I spent the first two decades of my life with free room and board, and if I ever need a place to stay their home is always open to me. My mother even does my taxes every year.
I have an education. I’m bilingual, and can consume the culture that seeps across the border from the United States and that is created in Toronto or Montreal. I can read, I can type, and I can understand computers, math and logic.
I’m a heterosexual white man. I never have to worry about a police officer being nervous around me, and the fear I deal with when I see someone walking toward me on the street at night is that he might ask me for change, not that he will rape me. I’m not expected to act as a spokesperson or role model for my race or gender. I have no foreign accent, and don’t have to worry that my name sounds too ethnic for a job application to be taken seriously. There is no army of online trolls looking to expose my private information because of opinions I have voiced on Twitter. There are no naked photos of me on the Internet I’m powerless to get rid of (at least that I know about).
I’m relatively well liked. I have no criminal record or other mistakes of my past that cause me public shame today. The embarrassments of my youth aren’t all over the Internet and I don’t have to continually answer for them. No politician has had to disavow me. No employer has had to terminate me to avoid a PR nightmare. The first line of my Wikipedia bio, should I ever become famous enough to warrant one, would probably be positive or at least neutral.
I live in a city that I love, where the world’s cuisine can be reached in half an hour or phoned in for delivery. I have access to more entertainment, whether it’s television, radio, books, movies, sports, theatre or music, than I could possibly consume.
I live in a democratic country that protects my freedoms, offers free health care and has a social safety net. I don’t have to worry if a bomb will fall on my home, if the police will arrest me for no reason or even if the water is safe to drink.
I live in a world where, despite everything, those who want to help each other vastly outnumber those who want to hurt each other.
Compared to all that, my worries are laughably trivial. I’m overweight, single, have poor fashion sense and I’m a mediocre cook at best.
In short, I’m privileged. Very privileged. Enough to feel guilty about it. Enough that, if several of those privileges were to disappear (and some probably will), I’d still be more privileged than the vast majority of people in the world.
But does that make me happy? Is one happy by default? Can you just be happy because of the lack of stress?
It’s not as simple as that. Human emotions are complicated, and whether it’s fair or not we adjust to our situations, exaggerating trivial frustrations when our lives are objectively good, and exaggerating trivial victories when they are objectively horrible. Happiness is not a fashion magazine quiz, where if you answer yes enough times you’ll be told at the end that you’re happy.
But it helps to take stock of life once in a while, to compare your situation to possible alternatives. And reflecting on myself, I realize that the greatest privilege I have at the moment, the most precious thing in my possession that much of the world lacks for reasons that are not their fault, is that I have the choice. I can choose to be happy without feeling like I’m deluding myself.
And so I do. That’s the gift I will be giving myself this year. And I choose to spread that happiness, at least a little bit, because making other people happy makes me happy, whether it’s giving a friend a thoughtful gift or making someone laugh or fixing someone’s problem or using my money to provide a warm meal to a person in need that I’ll never meet. (If you want to do the same, the Gazette Christmas Fund and Old Brewery Mission are the recipients of my happiness-sharing this year and would gladly accept yours as well.)
So, in short, yes, I’m happy. Very happy. Not inspiring-Instagram-photo-at-the-start-of-every-day happy, just happy. Happy with the privileges I have, and hopeful that I can help more people reach this privileged status and see the world from this low-stress hilltop. And I hope during this holiday season that all those who have a similar privilege will exercise it and be happy, too. Life is better if you do, regardless of how many privileges you have.
Merry Christmas, everyone. And have a happy 2017.