a taste of happiness

Boragó is a restaurant in Santiago, Chile inspired by the region’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, whose chef is famous for integrating endemic plants of the diverse country into their ever-changing menu. The ingredients are carefully curated from far and wide – coastlines, mountain tops, and orchards – which are crafted into inimitable dishes such as duck aged in beeswax or “cheese” made from vegetables inoculated with mold spores. The restaurant’s own website unassumingly states, “one day we can cut a wild fruit that grows three weeks a year at 3,500 meters and the next, unique mushrooms from a forest.” Although I consider myself a foodie, the idea of taking such painstaking measures in the name of gastronomy seems superfluous, if not ludicrous. And yet, the creation of a once-in-a-lifetime meal for a relatively small population of diners to devour in a few short hours or even minutes is nothing less than artistic, notwithstanding the significant cost. After all, isn’t that the quintessential exemplification of our humanness? Even as we continue to evolve and enjoy the luxuries of our species’ innovations, there is still a sacredness in the animalistic desire to shed blood, sweat, and tears for that fleeting moment of sensorial pleasure. Dare I even call that the recipe for true happiness? 

Recently, I was listening to podcast produced by The Atlantic entitled How to Build a Happy Life, and the host posed a question: when is the last time you remember being really happy? I was surprised by my own dis-ease, both literal and emotional, when I attempted to answer genuinely. Shouldn’t it be automatic? Can’t we all recollect at least one blissful, connected experience from recent memory? I sense that I am not alone in grasping for an honest response – one that is not just about a superficial indulgence, but rather genuine contentment. Maybe the better inquiry is: when was the emotion of happiness cleverly disguised by the more dominant flavor of struggle, garnished with a sprig of suffering? There is so much to be disheartened and downright angry about in this world. Whether we feel loss or disconnection in the wake of the pandemic, sadness of watching a war unfold on another continent, or simply the daily struggle of life’s circumstances, we are reminded at both the macro and the micro level just how transitory and difficult it is to experience authentic happiness.

But what is this notion of happiness, really? Often we delude ourselves into thinking we will realize it upon the achievement of certain socially-defined measures of success: a professional title, the balance in a bank account, an image of the perfect relationship…yet we still feel empty and even depleted upon attaining those accomplishments, particularly in the realization that they do not empower us to control life’s harshest conditions. The Atlantic’s podcast fittingly reinforced my food metaphor in its explanation of happiness as a compilation of three key macronutrients: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. Paradoxically, these experiences frequently manifest through our most painful moments. Despite the cognitive dissonance that arises in this confession, after much deliberation, I recalled that the last time I remember feeling really happy was the evening following the service in celebration of my mother’s sacred life; I was snowed-in, dancing and singing karaoke with my family and two of my dearest friends. I will never forget my aunt and uncle donning sunglasses, passionately belting out Prince’s Purple Rain. Mom’s crossing to The Other Side, as I choose to interpret death, was and continues to be the most tragic event of my life and one that I have not yet fully integrated. Nevertheless, that night I felt blissfully at home (which I believe she orchestrated magnificently). While I cannot compare foraging for rare ingredients in search of gastronomic accolades to the loss of the most significant person in my life, that experience does allow me to relate on some level to Boragó’s suffering in the name of something extraordinary. Undoubtably, the act of overcoming challenges, whether self-imposed or not, generates a feeling of great satisfaction, if not an even greater sense of priorities and purpose. 

Could it be that that the quest for happiness inherently requires that we traverse the mucky terrain of discomfort for that scarce fruit or fungi? Is everything that we expend so much energy bypassing, denying, and resisting the secret ingredient of life’s most fulfilling entree – the sustenance for our souls? I once heard it explained that every decision we make, whether conscious or subconscious, is driven by a motivation to feel a certain way: namely, happy. Ironically, in the process of seeking happiness, we expend so much effort avoiding feeling bad that all we do is numb ourselves to feeling altogether, which is the ultimate state of separation and isolation. American novelist David Foster Wallace famously delivered a speech entitled “This is Water” to Kenyon College graduates in 2005, and the most impactful of his quotes for me was the following: “How [will you] keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone – day in and day out?” Prior to hearing that message, I was weary of the notion of opening my heart, dare I risk the intensity of emotion that might swallow me whole. And when I did take a small bite of happiness, my guilt stepped in to remind me of my reservation for grief, party of one. How can my despair coexist with my joy as I walk down the street on a beautiful day, loving every plant, animal, and stranger that passes by? And then it dawned on me that without the challenge, life is flavorless. Just like health is not the absence of disease, joy is not the absence of pain; that is actually the true definition of death. In order to taste happiness, we must incorporate one essential ingredient – the collective struggle.

Mom – I know you hated mushrooms, but I’ll take one more order for the table. 

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