Finding small gifts of happiness in West Virginia

By JAE CHOI | March 28, 2019


Courtesy of HFHD/ CC-BY SA 4.0 

Choi volunteered with the organization Habitat for Humanity this break.

While working with Habitat for Humanity in West Virginia over spring break, Steve, one of the supervisors at the work site, told me, “That’s the great thing about volunteering — it just needs to make you happy.” It was easy for me to understand Steve’s sentiment. 

With an activity like voluntary community service, the competition, stress and anxiety characterizing college life takes a backseat to helping the local community. There is nothing to prove, just a genuine willingness to help. 

It’s a remarkably simple activity that is in equal measures satisfying and meaningful. For me, the experience of making sheds for an animal shelter, helping to renovate a house, and installing insulation and walling in a warehouse was a much-needed mental break from a rocky semester.

Steve’s statement set the tone for the rest of my week in the town of Huntington, W. Va. Although the work was physically tiring, I noticed that I was a lot happier than usual. I barely checked my e-mail, and I felt relatively free of the academic stress and anxiety about the future to which I am accustomed. 

According to Steve, the only requirement for me was that I feel happy, so I chose to prioritize my happiness each day. I focused on living in the moment, allowing my hands to do their work while leaving my mind on autopilot and making the most of my time with friends. The feelings of anxiety and incompetence that have overwhelmed me this semester were stifled by laughs shared with friends and the racket of impact drills and saws rending plywood. 

As I return from spring break and get back into my usual academic schedule, there’s a part of me that dearly wants to return to West Virginia and repeat the trip. 

Yet this same trip not only helped me to momentarily rest from life at Hopkins and to find joy in community service, but it also gave me new insights into why I tend to feel unhappy here. 

I reflected on several personal challenges, such as a tendency toward perfectionism and a general lack of care for my mental and physical limits. I also wondered whether I was unsatisfied because I was doing things that I imagined would one day lead to happiness instead of pursuing things that were in and of themselves sources of happiness. 

Was I happy during the trip because I was focusing on trying to simply enjoy life in the moment? Or was I happy because I was distracted from my own worries by focusing on other people? I still don’t quite have all the answers, but nonetheless, I learned something valuable. 

What if Steve had said, “That’s the great thing about life — it just needs to make you happy”?

Of course, one could argue that there are other requirements for navigating the vicissitudes of daily life besides being happy, such as managing time effectively and bouncing back from inevitable setbacks. In addition, the goal of becoming happy by itself may seem too intimidating, difficult or vague. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that happiness can’t become a priority or that we can’t strive to look for it on our own terms. 

There is a well-known quote attributed to John Lennon, which reads, “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Looking for happiness in daily life was something I hadn’t considered a priority for a long time. I had failed to take it seriously, to the point where I couldn’t even be sure about what made me happy anymore. Part of me had become used to ignoring my own feelings. 

What I learned was that happiness is harder to feel when we don’t actively prioritize it. Serving others is just one of many avenues through which we not only get closer to happiness but also get to share it. And so to prioritize happiness, I set a goal for myself to get outside of campus each weekend, to see friends more often, to not panic as much before exams and above all, to be more present. Life at Hopkins certainly is neither simple nor easy, but it doesn’t mean that happiness is out of reach. 

I think back on the times freshman year when I willfully ignored the voice in my head telling me that it was okay to take a break, to go to sleep early, to join a new club to make friends or to try out a hobby I’d never done before. 

There are times when I still see freshman me in the mirror. But I can only hope that my experience prioritizing happiness in West Virginia this week helped me come closer to actively rediscovering the happiness that I had ignored for a while. I can only hope that I am now coming closer to reclaiming the tiny gifts of joy within the everyday that are undoubtedly waiting to be captured. 

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