This is a two-part blogpost series from roommates, Amy and Kristie. We’re currently both third-year undergrad students at UC Berkeley—both heavily involved with the student tech and entrepreneurship scenes on campus and beyond.
In 2018, we met as randomly assigned roommates at a tech & business summer camp for high schoolers. We’ve been roommates ever since. In the past three years, we’ve each grown and developed a lot, both individually and together. Here are our individual musings on topics that we’ve explored in depth together and want to share with our broader audiences.
Here’s to M&TSI, Berkeley, and beyond.
Part 2 — Q: How do you define joy and happiness for yourself, and how are you pursuing that?
I think we all tend to get too caught up in our own lives: à la if-I-don’t-ship-this-by-Friday-my-world-will-collapse. I know I’m definitely guilty. Modern life moves fast and it’s way too easy to lose myself in the notifications & deadlines.
Productivity and output, by definition, are both externally measured. When we define ourselves by our output, we let ourselves be defined by others. The reality of it is that others won’t always see or know the internal struggles we might be facing: the identity struggles, the family trauma, the depression, the relationship problems, the grief.
Honestly, too many young ambitious folks, myself included, are caught in this perpetual cycle of trying to “do better” in their career and be more successful and make more money and have a more prestigious resume and make bigger impact… It’s always more more more more more. I understand that it’s exciting and I know a lot of hard work goes into achieving those goals, but sometimes it feels too narrow-minded.
Not to say that financial security and professional growth is wholly unimportant—that’s not true at all. But what I think is wholly important is keeping a finger on your own pulse, knowing the source of your motivations, and knowing yourself well enough to know when it’s time to enforce your boundaries.
My point is to not deprive ourselves of our happiness in chase of some externally-defined measure of “success” or of what joy is supposed to look like.
My friend Carmen published a really profound essay that I keep finding myself coming back to over and over again: “We were made from cosmic dust, and to it we will return.” And if our lives are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, why not stop and smell the roses for a little longer? Why not live earnestly, indulge in the sights and sounds and feelings, give back as much as you can, and optimize for joy?
Despite what my ego says, my problems are not any more important than anyone else’s; why do I act like they are? My therapist reminds me that we each have our own individual differences but all share the same human experience. We all walk on this small pale blue dot of a planet as guests.
So recently, when I practice gratitude, I’ve been finding myself circling back to the short-livedness and insignificance of our lives. There is so much more out there in the world to be grateful for and to find joy in.
Not to say we should all just abandon all discipline and become hedonists. But between the longer-term career and financial planning, and the perpetual wild-goose chase for maximum productivity, we forget to balance between our short-lived pleasure and longer-lasting, sustainable joy and compassion for others. I think what we all need is better balance.
I think that’s why I’ve found personal solace in the outdoors and in physical activity: it helps me reset my brain, zoom out of my myopia, and regain perspective. So when I do go about my life, I’m more aware and more grateful of every little part of it: for my youth, for myself, for loved ones, for strangers, for weather, for nature, for food, for financial security.
… and compassion
But aside from just doing things that I like and being grateful for it all, real sustainable joy is two-fold:
“The more we turn away from our self-regard to wipe the tears from the eyes of another, the more—incredibly—we are able to bear, to heal, and to transcend our own suffering. This was their true secret to joy.” — The Book of Joy, from the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Tutu [my notes]
Across multiple religions, cultures, and general kindergarten playground rules, the human species tends to converge on one idea: compassion and gratitude are the two most important pillars of joy. That’s why we find some form of the Golden Rule, “treat others as you wish to be treated”, at the core of nearly every religion and culture.
It makes a lot of sense: by caring about and bringing joy to others, we engender more deep-seated meaning and joy to our lives. And caring about others inherently requires us to practice gratitude, regularly, to consistently maintain a healthy ego and sense of well-being in our own lives.
For a fun fact, my legal name is actually Kexin, 可欣 in Chinese, meaning “able to be happy.” My dad has always wanted me to prioritize happiness in my life, finding that thing that I wake up looking forward to every morning. He has not found that thing in his life, and sometimes I fear that I will also never find that thing that makes work not feel like work. Before we talk about define and pursue happiness, can happiness even be found?
When was the last time that you felt happy? The last time I felt a wave of joy was last night, when I was watching a TV show that makes me reminisent theater - acting and dancing under the spotlight and bringing the joy of the musical to the audience. A happy moment before that was when I finally figured out how yield farming works on the same night. If we keep tracing back, we might realize that when we felt happy, we were never actively looking for happiness. I don’t think about “I do this therefore I will be happy“ - but rather happiness sort of just comes to us when we cruise through our lives, following our curiosity, our heart, and sometimes our gut.
I started figure skating in freshman year by chance, and it has become such an important part of my life. It’s strange, because I am not good at skating. I was a total beginner, and 2 years later, I still can’t do any crazy moves that the advanced skaters attempts at the rink. Nobody compliments me for skating; in fact, most people don’t even know that I skate. But unlike other things, I didn’t need any outside validation for skating. I am just proud of myself for dabbling something brand new — whenever I make a minuscule improvement, I am very, very happy. Skating brings a pure kind of joy that I misses in other parts of my life. Got a high GPA? Well, it could be higher. Have a good internship? Well, there are better ones. For career things, I always put myself in this invisible competition with those around me. I often wanted to “get this one more thing,” hoping it will make me happier, but even when I won the competition, I know I still lost to myself.
Recently a friend inspired me to think about happiness as the absence rather than the presence of things. Taoism and Buddhism both preaches similar theories about finding happiness through letting the unhappy things go. In a way, we are all born without worries and anxieties, but those feelings latch onto us throughout the course of our lives. Let’s think about unhappy things as splinters. We avoid them because they’d hurt, and after a while, we sometimes even forget that those deeply rooted splinters are our sources of unhappiness. But those splinters are still silently and implicitly affecting us - our intuition wants to protect us from the pain, so we strive to earn bandages that covers for the wound, extra protections that cushions for the root of unhappiness. The gaining of things seems to be making is happier, but those bandages are temporary. When the pressure is inevitably on the splinter again, we are back to discomfort. So perhaps, happiness is not about finding the right thing, but rather about letting certain things go.
One of my source of unhappiness is the fear of not being seen or loved. I cover for it by making lots of friends, winning awards, and earning compliments. I know that I try very hard to get layers of bandages to wrap around that splinter that’s deep under my skin. I could also try to remove that splinter, but that requires not only to touch where it causes pain but continuously rubbing and digging into what I want to avoid. It’s hard.
It takes a lot of reconciliation with ourselves to resolve or remove the splinter. I am struggling with this myself, and I wish I have more wisdom to offer. Though, in my personal experience, there is one thing that I found especially helpful along the way — the practice of appreciation. Kristie and I used to be accountability partners on this: before bed, we would tell each other what is someone and something that we appreciate, and what is something that we are proud about ourselves for. This might sound cheesy, but it forced me to zoom in on the good things around me and celebrate something about myself. We all had rough days when we feel like we are bad at everything and the world is against us, but forcing yourself to appreciate what you’ve got really helps you find happiness.
So what do you appreciate today? I hope that brings you joy and peace.