As a young adult navigating the inevitable ups and downs of post-college life, I’ve been thinking lately about the elusive elixir we call happiness. Despite the images we post on Instagram to showcase our glamorous lives, we millennials and Gen Zs are susceptible to periods of depression that can be described as “losing our zest for life.”
The word “zest” reminds me of fresh citrus flavor, bright color, and piquancy. I’d use it to describe those dishes on MasterChef with a sprig of parsley to finish on top of a salmon filet and carrot ginger purée. On days when I’ve lost all motivation, I feel like I’m missing a crucial finishing ingredient.
Many of my readings about happiness suggest that we become stronger when we accept and overcome the inevitable challenges of life instead of glossing over them with positivity. The more we expect to be happy and successful all the time, the unhappier we are when things go wrong out of our control. It’s exhausting to be like Alec Baldwin’s zany character in Friends, who praised everything from a “well-lit hallway” to brake lights “aglow with the light of a million fairies.” Not every moment has to be the zenith of our lives.
Years ago at a tech talk I was attended, an executive described his planning process this way: “I don’t plan beyond a year into the future, because so many changes happen during that time.” This idea was blasphemy for an overplanner like me, but I’ve come to see his message as, “Accept and adapt to things that happen out of your control.”
We humans think we can control time. We draw artificial lines at the end of every New Year’s Day and at each birthday. We constrain each day to boxes on our calendars and planners. In reality, we live moment to moment in one long unbroken chain of events, just as the earth continually orbits the sun without congratulating itself for completing each revolution.
Yet we still need measurements to organize our lives and track our progress. We want to point to each other and say, “You’ve been on Earth just as long as I have, so we are kindred spirits.” And so we measure ages, grade levels, seasons, and relationships in units of time. I’ve been alive for 24 years. I’ve been writing this blog for 4 of them. I spent four years in high school and another four in college, and watched the Summer Olympics after each graduation. It took me 18 years to officially become a grown-up, and to learn that there’s always more growing up to do.
Recently, I drove too close to another car in a parking lot while looking for a spot. Before I could apologize to the other driver, an Indian man, he rolled down his window and yelled “Go back to China!” I was partly amused, but mostly annoyed. He was definitely an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants like I am. What gave him the right to spew vitriol at me?
Sometimes our annoyance with foreigners emerges in the stress of the moment. When my friends and I visited the Palace of Versailles, a few Chinese tourists infuriated us by cutting in line after we’d been waiting for three hours already. The fact that we had Chinese roots didn’t stop us from excoriating the bad manners of Chinese people. I took great relish in thinking, I have proper manners because I’m American!
When we don’t understand foreign customs (like the reason Chinese tourists cut in line is because they’re used to surviving in a densely populated, competitive society), it’s easy to make generalizations about a whole group of people. We evolved with instincts to prefer members of our own group of race or class over others, which take conscious effort to undo. Despite years of social movements, many people are still not convinced that diversity and globalization is desirable. Even then, dynamics between countries changes constantly, creating new animosities between people.
I was caught off guard the first time a boy called me a whore. In middle school, I was at a male friend’s place while our parents hung out in the living room. I was messaging a friend on AIM when I mentioned that I was hanging out with boys.
“Wow, what a whore,” he responded.
I reeled in shock, wondering what I did to incite this sudden vitriol from a supposed friend.
I remembered this incident when I recently read a quote that said “If you’re a woman, you’ll be called a whore one day.” Before girls even become women, we learn that this is a world where many words are designed to wound women exclusively, including witch, wench, and whore.
Our voices are our identities. Our personalities shine through the way we speak, write, and sign. But with so many voices vying to be heard on the TV, radio, or Internet, achieving influence is a vicious competition to see whose voice is broadcast the widest.
Though I’m not keen on being famous, I wonder how far my voice could take me. My speaking voice is naturally quiet, so I need to train myself not to mumble. I have a visceral fear of talking on the phone because my voice, floating over airwaves without gestures or body language, feels like it’s falling into a vast void. I’m usually the first to sing myself hoarse at karaoke, despite drinking buckets of water. I envy people who have naturally audible voices.
If you work in the tech industry, you might be familiar with the popular buzzword “usability.” Although designers and engineers use this term to evaluate how easy their tools or processes are to learn and use, the strategy for achieving usability can be an abstract mystery.
Here’s the most vivid way I can describe usability in action: in the movie Temple Grandin, the titular character crawls through a claustrophobic tunnel on a ranch where cows are prodded and dipped in pesticide to eradicate ticks. She experiences firsthand the ways in which the tunnel violates cows’ natural instincts, scaring them with glints of lights and unnatural direction changes. Later, Grandin redesigns a slaughterhouse to account for their natural sense of direction, and the cows are gently guided to their deaths. They get a dignified ending, and people can enjoy high-quality beef from relaxed cows.
I didn’t become a school teacher for a couple reasons: I lose my voice quickly when I talk a lot, and I’m drained by interacting with people all day. I discovered these weaknesses as I did peer tutoring throughout elementary, middle, and high school in reading, math, and music. Looking back, it’s remarkable that my school trusted me, a sixth grader, to help third graders with their education. But I was also learning how rewarding it was to share my knowledge with others, with empathy and patience.
I learned that just because you excel at a subject doesn’t mean you can teach it. Teaching is a communication challenge in many ways- I’ve had to yell over the sound of rambunctious children banging on percussion instruments and convince cynical teenagers why they should care about a book. I take the success and failures of other people personally, even though I don’t have total control over how they perform on tests or day-to-day tasks.