“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” — Helen Keller
I first came across this quote shortly after the success of my first solo exhibition in early 2013, and I instantly resonated with it.
At the time I had just committed two months of my life solely to making this first solo exhibition happen. And it was more than just an exhibition — it was the expression and manifestation of my artist dream, a dream I had as a child, and had forgotten about since I was 8 years old.
Before this first solo exhibition project I had spent much of my life, like many others, believing that happiness is something we strive towards, and something we would naturally have when we’ve attained the most important things in life — a cushy job (usually accompanied by a big pay cheque), a compatible partner (who we will marry and start a family with), a nice home, a nice car, and a retirement fund to ensure we remain happy throughout our golden years.
Now, there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with chasing after these things in life, or chasing after happiness, for that matter. I think there’s really no “right” or “wrong” way to live your life, because we are free to choose how we want to spend this lifetime that we’ve got, and nobody has the right to tell you otherwise.
But then as we get older, as we check items off that list of must-haves-in-order-to-be-happy, it seems that happiness remains just as elusive as before we even made that checklist.
Having the cushy job with the fat pay cheque becomes monotonous and meaningless over time, and climbing the career ladder is often accompanied by having to work harder and longer hours.
We’d meet someone amazing, fall madly in love, have that romantic wedding and the magical honeymoon, and wake up one day years later wondering why this person is no longer who they once were, and “Where has the love gone?”
We’d slave and save for years to build that nice house, to buy that nice car, to earn that nice promotion… and still feel empty inside.
Then we finally retire and have more time to start living the life we want, only to discover we’re too tired, too frail, and too scared.
Where (and what) is happiness then, if it’s not something that comes with attaining the important things we’re supposed to want and have?
It seems then that if we’re constantly seeking outside of ourselves to find happiness, we will never get there. Because true happiness is something that only we can create for ourselves, and this largely comes from pursuing a purpose that is meaningful and worthwhile, something that truly matters to us, that is unique and specific to each person.
And many people won’t choose this because it is one of the most difficult, challenging, confusing and painstaking journeys, and we typically don’t associate happiness with any one of those adjectives.
When I started preparing for my first solo exhibition in mid-December 2012, I had no idea it was going to be the most difficult five-week project I had ever embarked on. (I did 90% of the work in five weeks, but I often say “two months” because the actual exhibition date was two months after I started working on this project.)
I set myself the goal of completing 30 new paintings in acrylic on canvas, which was a near-impossible feat considering I had no formal art training, and since I was discouraged from my artist dream at the age of 8, I hadn’t really made much art in 21 years.
And because I didn’t have any works in my portfolio to convince a gallery to represent me for a solo show, I also knew this would be a self-run exhibition, which meant I had to figure out how to organise the entire event — from finding a venue, to raising money for the costs, to inviting guests, to handling the logistics, to asking people to assist me — all with no prior experience in managing and organising events.
In a nutshell, every single day for those five weeks of my project timeframe required an endless number of steps outside my comfort zone, both in creating the 30 new paintings, and handling the various aspects of managing an event.
And even though this solo exhibition was the expression of my lifelong artist dream, and even though I believed making art was my true passion… to be very honest, there were so very few moments of happiness in those five weeks.
Instead I found myself on an endless rollercoaster of creative blocks, fear, self-doubt, worry, resignation, and the temptation to quit was always just around the bend. (I honestly would not have made it if I didn’t work with a life coach during those five weeks, or have a community of like-minded others who were also working on projects to manifest something that truly mattered to them.)
Then finally the evening of the opening reception arrived, and after rushing the last-minute preparations and not getting any sleep the night before, I found myself standing before everyone who had turned up for this event, saying my Thank You’s, and feeling so embarrassed because I don’t like being the centre of attention in front of an audience.
And then, in the midst of the worry, excitement, and performance anxiety, there was a moment when I looked around the space at my paintings on the walls, at the 70 faces smiling at me… and suddenly it dawned on me that none of these paintings had existed just two months before, and everyone wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t invited them, and I had not only managed to make my first solo exhibition happen, I also made my lifelong, once-forgotten, childhood artist dream come true.
That two-month road to the opening reception was certainly far from overflowing with happy feelings. But that moment of realising I had achieved what I previously thought had been impossible and too late for me — step by step, day by day, fighting those fears, self-doubt, resignation, the never-ending desire to quit, the constant questioning if this was even going to be worth it, the worry that the exhibition would be a flop and a total waste of time… to finally hanging those 30 new paintings on the walls, and being surrounded by familiar and unfamiliar faces congratulating me for what I had done, I suddenly understood that the high at the end of the ride could only come about because I had willed myself to stay on that hell of a rollercoaster for the past two months.
And I didn’t do it because someone else told me that’s how I’m supposed to live, or that’s the key to finding happiness, or because I was trying to prove something or gain approval and recognition.
I did it simply because it was my dream, and I knew I would regret not having given it a shot, and I decided that I didn’t want to wait anymore to turn it into my reality.
So days after the exhibition, when I came across Helen Keller’s quote, I understood what she meant: “[true happiness] is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”
When I was younger, I used to think a “worthy purpose” meant having to do something that makes a huge difference in the world, like ending world hunger, engaging in world peace efforts, environmental conservation, starting schools for the less-privileged… mostly humanitarian stuff.
I think many others may have a similar misconception, and perhaps this is why people contribute extensively to humanitarian projects and charities, without truly understanding what they are really doing it for, or simply because it’s a “good” and “right” thing to do.
From my first solo exhibition and fulfilling my childhood artist dream, I realised that a worthy purpose doesn’t need to be world-changing, but it is definitely a cause you devote yourself to that will make all the difference in your world.
What is it that truly matters to you? What are you truly passionate about? What kind of life do you want to live, such that you can look back at the end of your days and declare to yourself with certainty: “I did good, and I have no regrets”?
And whichever path you choose, there’s no such thing as an “easy” or “easier” path. Whether it’s the conventional route of a stable cushy job you don’t quite love or going on the adventure of creating a career you’re most passionate about, they both come with their respective challenges, obstacles, and consequences for making that choice.
Ultimately the decision lies with you and you alone. But I hope you choose what you decide is a meaningful and worthy purpose for you.
And I hope you stay on that rollercoaster long enough, to finally get a glimpse of what true happiness is.