Are You Happy Or Are You Content?

Last week my friend and I went to a spontaneous happy hour in Greenwich Village. While sipping on Jake’n’Ginger and Vodka Sodas, we started philosophing about life in New York and life in general. It appears that there is always a certain type of people that is attracted to this city. I am not talking about the locals – the citizens that have been here since the day they were born or the day their families moved here. I am also not talking about the temporaries – the tourists that come here and stay for two weeks or the interns that leave after 3 months at the UN. I am moreover talking about me and her – the people who have come here to start a new life or begin a changed life.

So while frustration poured over and gave room to contemplation, my meanwhile tipsy friend exclaimed that the only two kinds of people who matter are the following: the happy people and the content people. At first I didn’t know what to make of this. “I used to know this woman in her thirties. She didn’t have a high income but got up each day with her partner to work a minimum wage job and then buy herself some pot. They lived a happy life, the two of them. They were truly content.” I raised an eye brow and wondered if I had failed to miss out on the true purpose of life by rolling my own joint and working a meager-paying job. “I myself have never felt this sense of contentness,” she went on. “I have never been satisfied with what I do and have always strived for more. From an early age on. I know what it feels like to be happy. But being content? I have no idea,“ she contemplated while taking a sip of her vodka soda mix.
“So what is better, being content or being happy?” I stupidly asked, feeling all of a sudden awkward by the fact that I had not felt both in my life time. “Nothing is better. It’s just different,” she responded. “I think I am more of a happy person then,” I spoke my thoughts out loud. “If I had been content, I wouldn’t have come here to start a new life and begin adventures unheard of.” She smiled knowingly and said she thought the same. But the fact that one can never be content and happy at the same time still makes me feel at unease. Who is to say never, especially in a life time defined by so many different factors we cannot control?

So I like to revise the kinds of people from above. She calls them content and happy. I call them the people who strive and the people who do not. The people who strive are seeking a wider purpose in life. They know that the earth is not refined to a small village in Germany, a mediocre town in the States or field work in China. They know that only when they travel and experience life elsewhere, they will be able to still the innate fear of being left out on life and the beauty this world offers. The people who do not strive do not know what to do with the riches the world bears. They live their lives from day to day and are satisfied to have married a good man or woman, to have nursed a child or two, and to call a job their purpose. They might have a passion or a hobby, but they would not give up their comfortable life style in order to pursue it or to make their dream come true. They have a great life to offer from the outside, it might have everything the strivers were raised to believe in. But essentially how they make sense of the world and their life in general is hidden to someone like me and most likely will always remain a distanced truth of make-believe.

To me, it is a mystery of how you can be happy without having ventured out and had your entire life turned upside down. How you can appreciate what you have every day without having lost it for an extended period of time. It makes no sense to me to be on the steady path of studying, career, or marriage if you have not seen what else is out there. I guess I have always had this innate fear of missing out on too much had I stayed in the spot I was ten years ago. Or five years ago. I never pictured myself in a traditional job, such as a veterinary, a nurse, or a teacher, unlike many of my hometown friends.

Being raised bilingual and bicultural has opened up an entirely new universe to me in the sense of citizenship and traveling without the barrier of language so many other Germans and Americans have rubbed upon. It is impossible to redefine the mind to something smaller than it started out with, and that is very true when it comes to how my life has revolved. I sometimes really wonder if the people who have stayed in the same profession, the same town, or the same mindset for way too long do not feel that they are missing out on anything? And if yes, why are they not breaking out? Because ever since I set foot in this world by myself, ever since I boarded a plane on my own, I have had no desire to return to what I have called a safe haven. A shelter from the real life. And definitely a lot less enriching than my world has now turned out to be.

Back to the happy and content people: I believe my friend has it slightly wrong. The content people can be happy in the moment and the happy people can feel satisfied with their achievements once in a while. I guess her overall thought was that over the long run you cannot have both. Maybe a truly wise man or woman can have it both. But for now I am content with not being content. I am happy being a striver and striving for new goals to achieve every single day. Or week. Or month. Sometimes even years. However, I know that life is precious. And that it can become a burden if your freedom is restricted by what others want you to make out of it. So make sure that everything you do, you truly do for you.

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