The price of happiness

Photo by Josh Willink from Pexels


The way we focus on the good or bad side of an event determines whether we feel happy and optimistic versus bad and pessimistic. The habit of focusing on the good and the common things we have with others, rather than the bad side or our differences, determines our social relationships. The way we see ourselves, whether positive or negative, determines our self-esteem and happiness.

Attention is what makes us different as humans. But look at what we’re doing with our attention.

We often think we can multitask. We eat while scrolling the mobile, we cook while watching Youtube, and we get groceries while calling our friends. The development of technology allows us to do many things and to be in many places at the same time. As a result, our attention has never been so fragmented.

In the famous Chinese novel called “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, a hero called General Guan Yu got an arrow in his arm during a battle. One of the most famous physicians of the time told him, “There was poison on the arrowhead and it already seeped into your bone. The only way to save your arm is to cut open it and shave out the poison in your bone.”

Utagawa Kuniyoshi

And without anesthesia and pain killer, Guan Yu let the physician shave the bone while he kept playing chess with a friend, chatting with the man, and drinking hot wine as though nothing happened. Probably you can imagine how excruciatingly painful it would be to let someone cut your arm without anesthesia, let alone wait for him to shave out the bone.

The story wants to praise the extraordinary bravery of Guan Yu. But, the fact was that Guan Yu had to play chess to divert his attention away from his cutting arm as a way to ease the anguish.

This story shows us that, even with pain so excruciating, when Guan Yu didn’t pay attention to it, he could not feel it fully. So in the same way, can we fully experience and enjoy the sweetness of life’s happy moments if we don’t pay enough attention? You see, to pain so excruciating that without paying attention to it, Guan Yu could not fully feel it? So can we fully enjoy the joy and sweetness of life’s happy moments if we don’t pay attention?

Our brain’s limited processing capacity

When we travel to a beautiful country, instead of seeing the beautiful scenery with our own eyes, we only care about taking pictures and posting them on social media. When we eat delicious food, instead of focusing all our senses to smell it, see it, and taste it, we are busy playing with our phones or talking to others.

In fact, the human brain has a limit on how much information it can process. You may not realize it, but at any given moment our brain is receiving an enormous amount of information. Where you are sitting now, you can receive information from sight (color, shape, movement), hearing (sound), touching (the feeling of clothing in contact with the skin), and smelling. The human body alone sends 11 million bits of information per second to the brain for processing but the conscious mind can process only 50 bits per second. And this is not to count the information that comes from our own minds (e.g., feelings or thoughts).

Therefore, our brain was born with a mechanism called selective attention. Selective attention acts as a gatekeeper. It allows only a limited amount of information to enter our cognitive field for your brain to process and analyze in the next steps. This gatekeeper ensures that the brain only receives enough information within its processing capacity.

So remember that in every moment, our experience is always a trade-off.

Just like the way you spend money. If your monthly salary is fixed and you decide to spend it on clothes and shoes, then you won’t have much money left for other things like saving, or investing. At any given moment, if we give our attention to one thing, we will have to sacrifice other things.

Remember that attention also has its opportunity costs.

You know it’s not safe to use your phone while driving. If you used a large part of your mental capacity to process information from the call, the rest will not be enough to handle unexpected situations on the road.

When you travel, if you devote much of your attention to taking pictures, seeing if you already look good on Instagram, what you are losing is the experience you may not always have. It can be the wonderful smell of a small roadside coffee shop. The strange faces and smiles of the locals. Houses with the walls painted in every color you’ve ever seen. You can be standing on a beautiful bridge taking pictures, but sometimes you don’t even notice the structure, the shape of the bridge, or you don’t touch the little stone attached to it. Every little detail is something you can’t have when you go back home. And you have to pay a lot of money to have these experiences.

How long has it been since you sat down to eat a hot soup? I mean literally only eat. Your mind does not wander around thinking about work or life.

Don’t exchange immediate experiences with the images and thoughts that are swirling around in your head.

What you are not aware of is the wonderful smell of the dish, the feeling of touching a hot bowl of soup when it’s cold outside. And you have to pay to have all of these experiences, not just something to chew and swallow. And to fully experience the textures, the colors, the flavors, the sensations of what we call life, you have to immerse yourself in everything you do, rather than doing it half-heartedly.

Happiness costs nothing

But in fact, you don’t have to wait to eat an expensive meal or go on a trip. One of the most important things I’ve learned from Buddhist philosophy is that ordinary, simple moments can also become wonderful moments, as long as we put our whole mind to them.

Chade Meng Tan, the engineer behind Google’s popular mindfulness program, Search Inside Yourself, wrote in the book of the same name.

“Once, when I was quite young, my father took the family to an expensive Chinese restaurant and ordered some of the signature dishes. During the meal, I caught myself giving the experience my full attention, partly because the meal was indeed very tasty, partly because it was so expensive, and partly because I considered it a fairly rare experience. It wasn’t every day that we splurged on food. Because of all that, I found myself deep in mindfulness during the meal. And then it occurred to me, why did I have to be this mindful only during expensive meals? What if I pretended that every meal was rare and expensive, and gave it as much attention as I could? I call it the Expensive Food Meditation. I have been practicing it at most meals ever since, which is kind of ironic since I eat most of my meals at Google, and food at Google is free.”

So, we don’t have to pay to play with our kids, talk to our parents, take a walk in the sun, see a baby’s bright eyes in the park, or smell the wildflowers on the road. But that doesn’t mean these moments aren’t precious.

There will also be a day when our parents are no longer in this world, there will be a time when our children grow up and fly away. And then one day, we will no longer have enough strength to walk alone on our feet, there will be a time when we will no longer be awake enough to distinguish between day and night, to be outside and smell the scent of the wildflowers.

There is something I learn from life, from meditation, that is to cherish the very ordinary things. Seemingly simple everyday experiences, like walking under trees, I focus all my attention on them, because I know that one day I will no longer be able to walk under the sun. I think by that time when I lie in bed, I will really miss those moments.

And then, for the first time in my life, I lifted my face to look at the big tree beside the street, to marvel at its strange beauty. It’s still there, all those years. And every day I still walk past this tree. It’s just that I was always in a hurry and never had the patience to look at it. Even once. I have looked at it from afar, from many sides. I’ve seen its colors change from winter to summer. But I never stopped to look up. To see a green, a green I have never seen. The color green made my heart suddenly warm and calm. A strange feeling of peace suddenly filled my mind. And I don’t have to pay anything for this peace and happiness.

Don’t steal the happiness of the ones you love

When I got married, my parents looked at me and said, Time flies so fast, it seems like a day since you were still in the cradle. Now you got married.

Time passes, and now, I have two kids. And I can fully feel the nostalgia in my parents’ simple remark. When you have children and see them grow up, you’ll realize how quickly time flies.

One of the greatest human mistakes is not appreciating the value of each moment. You can waste wealth, and money, but please, please, don’t waste time.

I’ve heard so many parents wishing that they had spent more time with their kids when they were still young. But I don’t wish that.

If I could turn back time, I would rather be fully present when I was with my daughter when she was little. Because in fact, I spent a lot of time with her. Every week, I took time to take her to the drawing class, dancing, swimming, and music class, then we went to the library, and to the park. I spent a lot of time with my daughter. But my mind wasn’t really with her all those times. When we were on the road, we just went as fast as we could to reach the destination. When I went to the library, I just sit there to work or to read books, leaving my daughter to play alone with a bunch of books or toys. There were so many times when she asked: “Mom, can you play with me?” I just say “You can play alone, mummy is working”. I still remember one time she said: I don’t need you to buy toys, I just need you to play with me. But I always said, wait for me, wait for me. And so she kept playing alone and waited.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

At the time, I just thought I was doing the right thing. I must work hard and make the most of my time. But I didn’t know that the price I was paying was my daughter’s childhood. I didn’t know that what I was sacrificing were the moments I could spend talking, playing, and laughing with my daughter so that in her childhood memories, there was a piece of the mother’s image. I didn’t realize what I had to trade-off.

The child who played alone is now 10 years old and has her own interests and concerns. And she no longer comes to ask her mother to play with her. When I approached her and asked if she wanted me to play with her. She said. In the past I wanted you to play with me, and you always said, wait for me, wait for me. Now that I am used to it, I just want to play alone. And I felt my heart twist.

Everything that is lost can be regained, even if it is trust or reputation. But time is something that we can never regain. I don’t wish to spend more time with my daughter. For the fact that I did. I was with her. But my mind was not there. What I wish is that I had devoted all my attention to playing with her, listening to her talking, smiling, looking at her face, and remembering her innocent smile forever. If only I had been more attentive, I would have heard my daughter’s voice: Mum, I can’t wait any longer, I have to grow up.

I’m sharing my story so that you understand that if you don’t cherish the seemingly simple moments with your loved ones, what you’re losing is not only your own experience. You are also stealing precious time from the person you love. So, is it worth it? Is it worth trading the time you play with your child, and drinking tea with your parents for things you think are efficient and enjoyable?

Sometimes when I was calling my parents, I took the opportunity to look at something I haven’t finished on the computer. They noticed that I wasn’t focused, so they asked me what I was busy with. And suddenly, I realized that how many more times can I receive their phone call? There will come a day when all these moments are just memories. There will come a time when I want to hear their voice telling me to work less, to take care of my health, but I can’t hear it anymore. So I turned off the computer. That way, later on, I won’t have to look back with regret and say “if only, if only…”.




Founder of Mindfulness meditation coach.

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Thu Trang Lê

Thu Trang Lê

Founder of Mindfulness meditation coach.

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