Note: I had started on writing a book a while back, but had not prioritized completing it for the longest time. After much deliberation and soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that now is the best time to accomplish this. I expect this book to be completed and published by the middle of next year. This is the introduction to the book:
I remember being depressed when I was 20 years old. Like many others at that age, romantic relationships formed a big part of my life experience. Upon a traumatic relationship breakdown, I went through months of feeling helpless, hopeless, and incompetent in handling myself. I wasn’t a happy person, and had no clue on how to get out of that deep hole that I was in. As a result, I wasn’t keeping up with my studies, suffered with my health, and neglected the existing relationships that I have in my life. I was merely surviving, barely scraping through the day just to live another day. It was a mess.
At this moment of writing, I am filled with an odd feeling of gratitude. Things are different now. In the past decade, I have been investing a lot into figuring out myself. More importantly, I have been learning the tools necessary for me to have a happy and joyful life. I now remember that event as the beginning of a long journey towards personal development. I’m happy to see a significant progress towards being empowered to make the necessary changes in my life, to live according to my values, to have a clearer sense of purpose, and to develop meaningful relationships and career. It has been a fulfilling journey thus far.
Being happy and fulfilled is one of the most important and sought after experiences in life. It is the foundation to the “why” in our actions. It is what gets you out of bed in the morning. It fills you with passion for experiencing life. There isn’t a reasonable person who would want to perform a routine without believing (which may be different from the outcome) that it will provide them with happiness, or at the very least, some relief. In an ideal world, every person deserves to be happy.
However, reality tells a very different story. In 2014, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that about 1 in 5 adults experienced a mental disorder in the United States during that one year duration itself.1 In Malaysia (where I am from), the figure for “mental health problems” rose from 10.7% in 1996 to a shocking 29.2% in 2015!2 That is 1 out of 3 persons in my country experiencing some kind of mental health concern, commonly depression and anxiety.
That is indeed a very worrying number.
That same concern applies to the way we work. For the most part of the urban population, we will be spending at least 1/3 of our lives doing work (measured in hours of the day or years in our lifetime). Considering how much valuable time we are investing into this portion of our lives, I’d think that it is vitally important that work is done in a way that fulfills us. But, the percentage of employed working-age adults across 155 countries who are engaged – meaning they are enthusiastic and very involved in their work – stands at only 15%3.
These numbers show that a significant amount of people in the world are living a life that is unfulfilling, unproductive, and unhappy. Why is this so?
That is the same question that I have been asking myself in the past decade. What started as an inquiry for my personal development also then grew to become a subject for academic understanding and career path.
Studying psychology as a subject matter and completing my undergraduate and postgraduate thesis in studies of happiness, sitting through hundreds of hours of therapy with individuals from all walks of life, and facilitating groups for personal development gave me insight into what people really needed in their lives to become the best versions of themselves. The crux of the matter is this: to live a fulfilling, productive, and happy life, what is needed most are skills to navigate through the seasons and challenges that we face.
As a 30-something who had gone through my 20s experiencing challenges faced by young adults for the first time, such as how to manage and grow relationships, finding a purpose in my daily actions and career, and how to regulate my emotions, I can understand how lost and alone it can feel to not receive the kind of support to know what to do in life. When I look around, it seemed like everyone knew what they were doing and what they wanted. But, hours and hours in therapy with clients tells a different story: while it may seem like things are in order, people are actually struggling with getting a grip on themselves. We are desperately looking for the support and guidance to live a fulfilling life, and for the most of us, we fail to find that holy grail.
The reality is, a one-size-fits-all approach to personal development is not possible. There is no magic advice that can be given by a guru which will immediately transform your life. This is because we each have different strengths, aspirations, past experience, and chapters of our unique lives that have yet to be told to the world. What is very possible, however, is to bring awareness of the skills that can be developed and applied in your day-to-day life so that you are able to live a life that is to the best of your abilities. As a result, you’ll find that your individual potential can be realized, and life will be more meaningful, joyful, and fulfilled. That is the purpose of this book.
The material gathered for this book comes from years of experience as a psychologist. You’ll find that the skills highlighted in the book may come from empirically-driven approaches from existential, humanistic, and cognitive-behavioral psychology. It also comes from understanding the lived experience of the many clients that I’ve seen throughout my career. Lastly, as someone who is also in your shoes, I hope that my personal experience of living through this part of life can be useful to highlight that just like you, I too go through the same challenges, and that you are not alone.
I hope that you’ll get as much value reading through this book, as much as I did writing it. Let us begin.
I had a rather profound moment whilst vacationing on a beautiful island off the coast of Terengganu recently. It was at night, and one of the staff divers was enthusiastically showing us a spot on a big rock for us to look at the stars. Indeed, the sky was really beautiful. The stars looked as if it was hanging off from the atmosphere. I laid on the rock, looking up at the canvas which forms the galaxies to which these stars come from. The gentle blowing wind and sounds of the ocean waves made me imagine what it is like for creatures from the sea to live through this everyday. It must be a peaceful experience.
“It looks good, right?” asked the diver. I replied to the affirmative.
He then exclaimed joyfully, “Of course it does. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been here for 22 years!”. There was a lightness in his steps as he then headed back to his room.
That statement made an impact on me. Sure, the view is incredible. It is peaceful. I feel very much connected to nature. To live like this for 22 years? That seems much more of a sacrifice than a reward, as I would then need to let go of the many worldly desires that I aspire to have.
At the same time, his expression of pure joy to a way of life that he has experienced for a whole 22 years, is very, very, inviting. Clearly, that is an inner experience that I too would like to experience for 22 years. But, I realized that the way to achieve that joy can also be very different. I then snapped out of my illusory trance. While island life serves his inner calling, it is a momentary leisure pit stop for me. We are different individuals meant to live out our unique and individualized purpose.
There is a convenient but tragic flaw in our logical reasoning. When we see someone having something that makes him or her happy, we assume that too, is something that we need to have in order to be happy ourselves. While this statement may be true for certain universal characteristics of being a person, such as fulfilling basic needs of food, water, shelter, and meaningful relationship(s), in most cases, our estimations of what we need to make us happy are highly inaccurate.
What makes us happy depends more on our intrinsic experience, such as living to our values and purpose. Depending truthfully on our inner compass then leads to fulfilling and meaningful actions. Unfortunately, we find observations of our external environment to be a more valid predictor to our well-being. We oftentimes confuse happiness with what the person has or does. The former is an inner state, while the latter is a way or means of reaching that state of mind. The way to being happy for one person may include amassing power, wealth, and fame. However, that may not be necessary for another person to also achieve happiness. In most cases, such worldly possessions is more of a by-product than an end goal.
The reason a deep neglect of our inner being exists is because external observation is a much more convenient tool. There is little need to inquire on our own individual existence, to explore the plethora of emotions that lies within, and to ultimately be comfortable with answering the question of “Who am I?”. Questioning oneself is akin to opening a Pandora’s box. It is an effortful and frightening process. For many, this becomes overwhelmingly frightening that mimicking the behavior, desire, and goals of others becomes an automatic response.
But, as the saying goes, nothing that is worthwhile is ever easy.
On a related note, I really enjoyed a parable that I’ve read before, of which I will loosely paraphrase here to conclude this blog post:
An explorer from a big city enters a vast jungle. In his adventure, he managed to make his way deep into the jungle. As the afternoon sun began to set in, he rests by the river to regain his strength. Coincidentally, he was met with an aboriginal man. The aboriginal was dressed in nothing but some leaves covering what is necessary.
The explorer, clearly shocked, said “Oh my, look at you! You need to be brought into civilization. Look at the kind of life you are living!”. The aboriginal replied, “What is it that is wrong with me?”
“Firstly, you need to get properly clothed, and go through some education”, said the explorer. “How will that benefit me?” asks the aboriginal.
“You get educated so that you can be smart enough to go to University”, said the explorer. “How will that benefit me?” asks the aboriginal.
“You go to University so that you’re able to get a degree and get a good job”, claimed the explorer in a proud tone. “How will that benefit me?” asks the aboriginal again.
“Well, you get a good job so that you can save enough money to retire when you’re older!” said the explorer, looking increasingly irritated. “How will that benefit me?” asks the aboriginal again, looking even more confused.
“So that you can then do whatever you want!” said the explorer in a loud tone. “Like what?” then asks the aboriginal.
“Well, you can wake up without an alarm and do nothing, go fishing, go for a walk…anything that you feel like doing for the day, really. You can enjoy life, obviously!” the explorer said in a defeated tone.
“Oh..”, the aboriginal murmured under his breath. There was a short pause as he pondered on what he had just heard. He then said, “Isn’t that what I have been doing all along?”
I have been fond of writing ever since I was a teenager. Before I had even known that there’s such a thing as a therapist (ironically, I’m one now), writing has always been my instrument to bring into awareness inner thoughts and emotions. It acts as a mirror, staring right back at me. As I write, the words that is on the screen is void of emotion and judgment. It’s matter-of-fact. If I can allow complete honesty with myself, I can see what I am really thinking and feeling. It can feel like I am ironing out the knotted mess that is my mind.
Aside from blogs that I used to have (and have now long forgotten, or have lost access to), I also used to have a notebook with me to pen my thoughts. In it contained entries as short as a few words, poems, grocery and to-do lists, random sketches of lines and circles, and whatever that could possibly be on my mind at the time of writing. That notebook became so emotionally significant to me, that the pages from the book was also cut out and used for love notes and letters that I would send to my girlfriend at the time.
I was the most creative, present, and emotionally aware during the period of time when I was consistent in writing and meditating.
Unfortunately, I no longer possess that notebook. I have since dropped the habit of regular meditation. Based on the duration between entries on this blog, I have also lost touch with writing. I am guilty of taking writing for granted. It seems to me that I only willingly approach it when I am in pain, and in need of cathartic self-awareness. Like a mistreated lover, I only showered it with attention when I needed something from it.
Why do I abandon writing in good times, when it was the one that had kept me there in the first place? I am a walking paradox. But so is going through the passage of life, which can be rather confusing and out-of-order; despite its sweetness if I’m ever so present to stop and notice. This further validates my point that I should be writing more consistently. I can benefit from taking notice.
To be really frank with myself, I haven’t been feeling my best lately. In the past couple of months or so, I’ve felt like I’ve disappointed myself in various aspects: relational, financial, physical, and emotional. The past 2-3 years have been rather draining, and it feels as if the platform that is supporting me slowly thinning down.
I haven’t been allowing these emotions to come into full awareness and to just let it breathe. Writing was one of the ways to catch these feelings, and so was meditation. I just went on with my days, denying these feelings its right to exist during times when it rightfully should. And so here I am, writing about it, staring into these words that I’ve just written. It’s like a mirror to how I look on the inside, and I can live it in its full flesh. I’m appreciating this, more so in the silence of the night.
Emotions can be rather tricky. Despite how disappointed or down I feel about myself, I know that when viewed rationally, I have accomplished a great deal of things throughout this year and have held myself together considerably well given the circumstances. But then again, these accomplishments has its time and place. And for this moment, I would like to instead allow what I’ve been denying to claim its own space.
There is a kind of relief and warmth that comes from being honest with myself. Being truthful almost feels like being naked (guess that’s why they call it the ‘naked truth’). To just feel my truth, despite the pain, is actually a rather pleasant experience. I’m glad I took the time to do this. This is the reason why I write.
I appreciate going for a late movie, followed by the calm and stillness that the night could offer me on the way back home. I decided to watch Logan, which to me was rather different than the usual explosions and attempts at witty banter that such a “genre” usually offer. Instead, I was greeted with a rather depressing tone which touched on a variety of human experiences such as love, relationships, isolation, and death.
Prior to the current setting in the movie, Professor X and Logan had lived in isolation for the past year and had gone through some very difficult experiences. This had got both of them in a rather depressed mental state. There was this scene that had struck a chord in me. It was a scene of Professor X resting in bed at a family’s home who had welcomed them for dinner and the night’s stay. Professor X, being old, frail, and at times displaying dementia-like symptoms, went into dialogue that it has been a long time since he had last felt safety, comfort, and togetherness. He strongly suggested to Logan that he too, should take some time to experience this. “This is what life is about”, Professor X said.
This scene of him lying in bed and communicating his feelings of safety and being loved was rather touching in several ways. I began reflecting on how fortunate I am to be able to fall asleep in a warm bed in my family’s home, knowing that everything will be safe and as is when I wake up the following day. As much as I may be bogged down by daily troubles or worries about the future, it is rather easy to be less mindful of the treasures that are here in the present. I dare say that a majority of the world would, in a heartbeat, be more than happy to switch life positions with me, just to experience simple pleasures that I have every single night: sleeping in a warm bed, being together with family, and knowing that everything will be safe.
Why do we suffer?
It is perhaps a great mystery that I will have no answer to for the rest of my life, on why some people are born or have to experience great difficulty or suffering in life, while some others may not. While I may comparatively feel more helpless in alleviating external suffering such as poverty, I have chanced upon meeting individuals from all walks of life sharing experiences of suffering from within. I have met strangers, acquaintances, friends, and clients, who have shared feelings of being unloved and unsafe, similar to how I have felt at certain times. Despite differing backgrounds, this is the common ground that I can share with others, and to which healing is possible.
There was one particular ex-client that had come to mind as I was reflecting on that scene in the movie. He had come to me presenting with a relationship concern, in which his ex-partner had displayed a variety of erratic behaviors stemming from feelings of deep insecurity. He had suffered in the relationship, and had since let go of it. A sturdy and independent man, he was involved in high profile dealings which may not be necessarily legal (details of which was not disclosed in session). Due to safety concerns, he had to distance himself away from family and have minimal contact with people in general. He was not able to enjoy social relationships due to his work’s demands, and will not be able to assume an identity in society.
It was clear to me as sessions progressed that he has moved on from the past relationship. It was also clear to me that he will be continuing in his life choices and has little motivation to do otherwise. It had come to a point in the consultations with him that I found myself to be of little help towards improving his well-being. Objectives have already been met in terms of his mental health. We came to a conclusion that it was time to part ways, and therapy ended.
As I reflect on my time with that client, I strongly believe that he would continue coming in for sessions had I not brought up the topic of ending therapy. We might not even talk about anything relevant towards addressing his life concerns. My feeling is that we could be just sitting there, not speaking a word, or just having tea, and he would still see the value in coming in for sessions.
Just like the scene of Professor X resting in bed, this client too derived a feeling of belonging and safety during the therapy sessions. Due to his life choices, he could not afford to feel belonged to or safe in his day to day life, and our therapeutic relationship was his way of satisfying such needs.
Love, safety, and belonging is indeed a fundamental human need. While I take the time to appreciate the scene in that movie, I also wonder if I had ended the sessions too soon. On the larger scheme of things, with the world lacking so deeply in fulfilling such needs, in what way could I help better?
I was driving back home at 3 in the morning, and I felt alone.
It wasn’t the loneliest of nights that I have felt. But it felt lonely enough to have that bruised, sinking sensation in my chest. It’s the kind of loneliness where I feel drawn into the hollowness of my emotions. It’s like looking into a bottomless pit from above, deciding if jumping in would be a good idea. How deep can it go? Will I be able to reach the bottom?
The video that I had posted about being OK with being alone must have hit some raw emotions. Surprisingly, a few viewers had personally messaged me conveying their thanks regarding the video, in what I believe was an expression of relief that they are not in this on their own.
We were born naked into this world. And once our last breath has left the body, we are also leaving this world on our own. In our most natural way of being, we are both vulnerable and alone. Since when did the opposite become true? Is it really true that being alone or vulnerable is a sign of weakness? How was the narrative reversed?
You and I were born as social beings craving for deep, meaningful relationships. Somewhere through the passage of time, we experienced unfortunate events that bent our trust in the world. We no longer believe that the world is a safe place. We begin to separate ourselves from others, dividing one another through both concrete and psychological walls. What makes this more tragic is that there exists not only a barrier between you and I, but also a barrier between our inner and outer reality.
Over time, you and I no longer behave in ways which are connected to how we actually feel. We fear the consequences of embracing our vulnerability. We feel as if we are naked in a sea of clothed people. Others are social, and others are happy, right? Even if we are not social, and even if we are not happy, we should. Everyone else is. Or at least that was what we were made to believe.
The problem with this scenario is that it breeds a society that is divided and disconnected from one another, despite it being one of the most important human needs. We have settled with “good enough”. It is good enough that others acknowledge me for my accomplishments, but not my disappointments. It is good enough that I know your strengths, but not your weaknesses. It is good enough that you and I both know each other, but not on the finer details.
Is it truly satisfying to be living in this kind of world?
There is a solution for those who would want to be in a world where they are free from these barriers. It begins with knowing what is OK. It is OK to have “negative” feelings. It is OK to be sad, to be angry, to be disappointed, and to be lonely. It is OK to admit to these feelings and to live as authentically as your life demands you to. It is OK for others to have these feelings too.
When you are OK with your own feelings, you can also begin to understand that others share these feelings too, despite how hardened or desirable they are. The popular, the wealthy, the famous, the regulars, the socials, the loners, the downtrodden: deep down, we all share similar feelings. You know this because you too once played the game of being perfect.
Suddenly, you have much more in common with others than what you had previously thought. You do not feel as divided or distant from those around you. Your approach to life could be different. You are more forgiving of your feelings and the feelings of others. You are more intentional and genuine in approaching relationships. There is more room in you for love and kindness. You can live life with more courage.
Support group members oftentimes introduce themselves while also taking ownership of the concern that they are facing. This is a call to action to those of you who want to drop your act, live genuinely, and grow deep, meaningful relationships:
My name is Alvin, and I am lonely. Do you want to be in this together?
2016 could have been a better year. Over hundreds of thousands of people are displaced from their own countries, in a desperate attempt to avoid persecution, famine, and war. To escape such horrible conditions, a lot of them ended up losing their lives, are stateless with nowhere to go, having no food, shelter, or appropriate clothing to brave the weather, and not an idea of what the next few days would be like for them. 2016 also saw the escalation of primitive rhetoric based around geographical location, race, religion, and gender, which stirred emotions of the masses and opened the floodgates to behaviors stemming from hate and ignorance, not fitting of this day and age. In 2016, many people suffered.
I am very grateful to be able to sleep on the same bed every night, safe within the four walls of my room, not needing to worry if there will be food to eat, or water to drink, or if I’ll still be alive. Despite the troubles that this part of the world is facing with the economy and rampant corruption, I am thankful that I have the ability to enjoy the next breath that I am taking, and to have the opportunities that presents itself to me at every moment. I am grateful to be living in a relatively peaceful neighborhood and country.
Despite this, suffering presents itself in many ways. From the people closest to me to strangers that I have met by coincidence, what became clear to me in the past year is that suffering is universal. Yes, they may be driving luxurious cars and live in big houses. Yes, they may be in good health and having enough rest and nutrients to be healthy. Yes, they have others around them to interact with and to go through these times together. And yes, they will still be very much alive in the foreseeable future.
But they are suffering. The unhappiness is clear from the frustration that they express. They believe that the story of their own lives are unique, that their suffering is something that no one else is experiencing. They believe that others often have it better, that what others are showing through their social media feeds, or from their brief exchange of pleasantries shows that life is great for everyone else. Everyone else but them. They feel alone in their own world of suffering.
How did we become so disconnected from others that we fail to see how others, too, are suffering? How did we become so unaware of our own blessings and instead blame or pity ourselves because of what we are lacking?
It seems that with advancement in how fast paced information could travel, and how much opportunities we have to consume new information, we started becoming greedy and impatient. Our greed and impatience caused us to consume knowledge of others in bite sizes, often wanting to only know what other people are like on the surface. We have many friends, but none that we really know. Our greed and impatience caused us to fit in as many things to do as possible, in hopes that we could gain more enjoyment, but without having the time to do the heavy and time consuming stuff, like personal reflection, developing self-awareness, and addressing our insecurities. After all, everything is at the convenience of a click of a button, right?
In 2016, we started failing in understanding both others and ourselves. We end up covering a mile wide, and not a mile deep.
Did behaving this way bring us any happiness?
On a personal level, I am hopeful. I am currently in the midst of writing a book scheduled to be published by mid-2017 (fingers crossed). In my book, How To Live A Fulfilling Life, I hope to illuminate the fact and fiction of happiness, meaning, fulfillment, and the good life. Clearly, a lot of what we are doing are not working for our own good, and a lot of what we could do in order to improve our lives have not been done enough. I’m hoping that my experience in practice, the research that I’ve been doing to write the book, and my own understanding of human life thus far, could offer a small contribution in improving the lives of all of us who are suffering.
Although I am almost half a month late, I would like to wish all of you out there a happy new year 2017, and may the year bring you bountiful opportunities to grow happiness in your daily life.
New data by the Ministry of Health, Malaysia, revealed a shocking 30% of Malaysians experiencing some kind of mental health concern, such as depression. These numbers even comes as a surprise to a mental health professional such as myself. Are you one of them? Do not suffer alone.
If you need someone to talk to, you may contact the Befrienders at 03-79568144 or 03-79568145.
Alternatively, you may drop me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Life is not meant to be lived in sorrow and anguish.