The old adage “live every day as if it were your last,” can be wise words to live by (if not tinged with existential fear), but I’ve found that living every day as if it were your first is just as applicable as the former. Living every day as if it were your last has always brought an undertone of fear and desperation. Living every day as if it were your first was the one that brought wonder and hope in times where the latter was more or less absent.
Happiness is this vague, intangible concept that we’re all striving for in one way or another. Logically, we know – it’s the journey not the destination, it’s a way of living and not something to be obtained. Yet we’re constantly hungry for that something, not content until the ever elusive and undefinable happiness is held tight before us. Sometimes it feels like chasing after a river and trying to hold the current in our hands.
Chasing after being happy has never personally been a realistic or understandable goal for me. I doubt it is for a lot of people.
In my life, what with the years of depression, the anxiety, the trauma, the “oh god what if I ruin this good thing I have,” I don’t expect or even want this notion of simply being happy. It has never fit into how I live, has always felt like a game that everyone is playing and where I’m constantly falling short. And I don’t say that in any down or depressing way at all.
Instead of running after a perpetually moving goal post of being happy, I’ve always instead turned to wonder, and curiosity. Those aren’t goals so much as a way of living life, born from necessary survival mechanisms of the past. And sometimes, joy just naturally peeks through, as it tends to do.
I can’t “just be happy” – life doesn’t work that way. I can’t flash a smile and become a happy person every minute of my life. I don’t think I even want that. But I can continue to be awed by the world, by sunsets and towering buildings and budding flowers and oceans and seas; I can continue to be curious about philosophy and airplanes and history and psychology and every other thing too.
It wasn’t trying to be happy that helped me during bad times, it was maintaining a serendipitous wonder at the world. It was living life like each day was my first day – trying to see everything as new and strange and wonderful, like from a baby’s fresh eyes.
When I was 13 or 14 there was a time in my life where “it was a bleak time” doesn’t even come close to covering it. But I do remember crystal clearly one day after school: I had gotten onto the wrong bus, one that would take me to the peak of the mountain rather than down to the bus stop home, but that day I just didn’t feel like correcting my mistake and getting off.
I took the bus to the top as my classmates laughed behind, but the laughter quickly faded into the background.
The peak was a popular tourist attraction, so I treated myself like a tourist. I walked around and took photos and sat on a bench and doodled, then finally got myself a sundae and just sat there writing and indulging; I stared at the tourists happily wandering around, wondered about their lives and stories and all that had brought them to the same place and time as I was at the time.
I stared over at the city far below and was filled with an awe and wonder that mixed in the most bittersweet way with my depression at the time, and I just let myself cry. It’s a feeling I still experience periodically, and I still can’t place a word for it.
I think back to that day a lot, because I definitely wasn’t happy then, not even close. Yet, those times might’ve been when I lived life with the most desperate, hungry curiosity – almost by reflex, instinct, survival. It felt like the only way I could push myself forward and keep going; I searched up obscure art galleries and destinations in Hong Kong, I forced myself to go to each and every one of them, nearly every time alone, to completely push my own self aside leaving only the world. There was the rock music photography exhibition in the mall, the tiny art gallery with twisted sculptures too pristine for the building they sat in; there was the sun setting behind the train tracks, the corner stores with niche desserts and street food – everything.
I was anonymous and I was hurting a lot, but I continued to marvel at fishing boats and the colours of the sky and simple comfort food and obscure modern art hidden away in decrepit buildings. I didn’t count on happiness, ever. I counted on curiosity. Happiness was just the current that drifted in and out around that wonder.
To this day I stand by the importance of remaining curious, and to live with a sort of awe at the world – even, and especially, at the smaller subtle things. It isn’t quite happiness, but happiness was never something I came close to whenever I was ruminating and worrying about not being happy. It isn’t quite happiness, but I almost think it’s can bring even more joy than trying to always be happy.
Happiness was just this state that ebbed and flowed naturally as I focused on learning and admiring something new every day. Of course, I also had to take action because it wasn’t like watching sunsets cured depression. But that’s another kind of story.
I still try to find some wonder every day, even when it feels impossible. One day, I won’t be here anymore, but before that I want to live life with a child’s eyes and an adult’s brain and heart. Every minute feels like a chance, an opportunity I’m more than lucky to have.
Stay curious, live in wonder; soak every note of the music and every ray of sun, every breath. This is your first day.