5 Things About Happiness I’ve Learned From Immigrants
As a language trainer I teach beginner, intermediate and advanced level students. One goal for my students is to be able to talk about emotions by applying given grammatical rules. As a teacher I naturally enjoy engaging in conversations with my students but recently, I’ve had a favourite conversation topic — happiness.
Why happiness, you might ask? Well, as selfish as this might sound, I’m a very curious person and I’m always eager to learn new perspectives and approaches to life and happiness. My very own idea of happiness is living a life full of great experiences, pleasure, total freedom and independence. I’ve always lived this way because I don’t know how else to do life. But like I said, lately, and maybe that’s part of becoming older, I’m rethinking my own views and perspectives on life. Almost daily I see and talk to people whose lives are so different from my own. I catch myself silently observing and wondering if what they’re doing and how they’re thinking is the smarter, better, maybe more fulfilling way to live life. I listen carefully and for once I switch sides and become the student.
…and for once I switch sides and become the student.
My students come from all over the world and I’ve had people of at least one hundred different nationalities in my classes. Most of them speak several languages, they’re of different gender, age, socioeconomic and educational background.
And what do we ALL have in common? Right! We all want to be happy!
So, what do they all have in common? — They all want to learn to communicate better in a foreign language and thus create better lives. And what do we ALL have in common? Right! We all want to be happy!
So, the question is: What makes us happy?
Here’s what my students have recently shared on happiness:
1. Finally, I live in a safe environment
Having been born in Vienna, a western European country that has been safe and quite wealthy for the past 50 years, I consider myself to be more than lucky to live here. In Vienna, you could literally take off your clothes and walk down the street at any given time in any neighbourhood, and no-one would ever consider as much as looking at you. That’s how safe Austria is in general.
My students often talk about constantly having had to worry about their own safety or their family’s safety back in their home country. They often express how good it feels to finally be able to walk down the street without the fear of being insulted, beaten, robbed, attacked or even kidnapped by gangs. Public spaces can be a real danger zone in some countries. Not only for women and children but also for men. One of my students from Nigeria told me that in Vienna he was finally able to enjoy taking long walks with his family and that he now felt at ease when being in public. He didn’t feel the need anymore to protect his family from kidnappers and gangs. He told the class that some people in his country even believed safe countries to be a myth and that he himself had never thought it possible to once live in such a place where you could move freely and without fear. Safety was the most important factor to contribute to his personal happiness.
2. This is my family
One of my recent students was a 26 year-old girl, married with two young kids. When I asked her what happiness meant to her, she told me that her little family of four meant everything to her. She went on to tell the class that she came from a very poor eastern European country, Moldova, and that she felt lucky to have married a wonderful man who has given her two beautiful children. Her husband supported her in going to school and later on to university where she managed to get a bachelor’s degree in banking and finance.
In western Europe I don’t meet many (if any) young people who want to get married and have children right away. If anything, it seems to me that having a family of your own is something that my generation (Millenials aka Gen Y) is postponing all the way into oblivion. Also, I see my generation look down on young people with kids. Even I catch myself frowning when I hear of some young hearts getting married at age 20. But truth to be told, my student’s story moved me to tears. Especially, when she said that everybody around her assumed that you could either have kids and a marriage or a solid education but that she had managed to have both at a very young age. I will never forget the pride in her eyes when she first showed me a photo of her husband and two girls, her everything. I caught myself swallowing hard for a moment. Ever since hearing her story, I have been wondering if a career and nice travels are really everything life has to offer …
3. I can go to school now
Like I said in the beginning, I grew up in a wealthy country and I pretty much enjoyed all privileges given in such circumstance. I went to school and later on to university where I got a master’s degree in linguistics and literature. And believe it or not, I didn’t pay anything because school and university in Austria are both free of charge. Yes, you heard right, there is no tuition fee!
As a teacher I am well aware that the majority of my students come from very poor countries in which people struggle to survive and where education is the last thing people can afford. One of my students came from India and was a true inspiration when speaking of education. Coming from one of the poorest corners of the country, she had many brothers and sisters and so her parents could not afford to send her to school. She barely learned how to read and write. On top, she married very young and had children of her own. When her husband received an offer to come to Austria, my student accompanied him. She was taken by surprise at how many government-funded possibilities there were for her to finish her education. And she did! She received a high school diploma and learned German while working full-time. I take my hat off to her because she was one power house of a lady! When I asked her what happiness was for her, she replied with tears in her eyes: I can go to school now and give my children a good life.
4. I can go to the disco
Some time ago I had a student from Afghanistan. He had trouble sitting still in class and was constantly chatting with his fellow classmates. He couldn’t concentrate on reading, listening and writing tasks but he loved to speak. When I rolled out my favourite topic — happiness — it looked like he was in distress. I was worried that the topic itself might trigger negative emotions since I knew that he had fled the war in Afghanistan. While handing out worksheets I told him quietly that he didn’t have to speak on the topic if it made him feel uncomfortable or anxious.
But to my surprise he was the first one to raise his hand and talk about happiness. He shared with the class that Vienna was the best city in the world because it was the city in which he first got to see a night club (or disco, like he said). I was stunned! A disco? He went on to explain that discos and night clubs were forbidden in his home country and that he hated his life back then. He wasn’t allowed to have friends, he wasn’t allowed to go out, he wasn’t allowed to meet other young people — just family. So when he first came to Vienna, he started going out and making friends with people of all nationalities — his best friend was Italian, a fact that he seemed very, very proud of. When I asked him what happiness meant to him, he said: Family, and that I can go to the disco.
5. Christmas miracles and shining eyes
Vienna has a long tradition of Christmas markets. Not only tourists enjoy the beautiful decorations and charming Christmas stands around town but so do locals. In my endless naivety I assumed that all people who come to settle in Vienna at some point visit a Christmas market. But only when I became a teacher did I realize that certain groups (especially people with less income) never seemed to go out in Vienna and enjoy the thousands of events the city offers. So, last year, I asked my classes if they wanted to spend an evening at one of our loveliest Christmas markets, the Spittelberger Weihnachtsmarkt. And to my great joy, all students were more than willing to go. We were a group of about twenty people, all aged between 25 and 70 years. When we arrived at the market, my students’ eyes began to shine. None of them had ever been to this particular Christmas market, about half of them had never been to a Christmas market ever! So you can probably imagine their excitement. They wanted to see, touch and taste everything — and that’s exactly what we did. We drank schnaps and hot orange punch and ate marzipan potatoes and chocolates. We had such a great evening, it is almost impossible to put into words…
Don’t chase happiness. It cannot be chased nor found. It is already there! Sometimes we have to open our eyes, hearts and minds and simply embrace the fact that happiness surrounds us if we are only willing to see past our privilege, desires and unhappiness.
And then I caught myself thinking about happiness. What was happiness? Wasn’t happiness giving back to people? Making them feel like they’re at home? And these people needed to feel like home! All of them! Some needed to feel safe, others wanted to educate themselves, go out and have fun, be with their family. Happiness means different things to different people. But what I’ve realized after having spent many, many hours discussing this topic in class is this: Don’t chase happiness! It cannot be chased nor found. It is already there! Sometimes we have to open our eyes and hearts and minds and simply embrace the fact that happiness surrounds us and we can let it in if we are only willing to see past our ego, petty desires and insignificant problems.
I’ve spent many, many years in the corporate world before becoming a teacher. In terms of my career, or maybe even my life, I never seemed to grasp happiness or at least content to its fullest, but on this particular day on the little Christmas market I understood what it meant: giving back and sharing. If you don’t share a good feeling, it means nothing. My students were moved by our trip to the market, I could tell from the look on their faces. It was like a little Christmas miracle to them. And my only hope was that they were feeling a little less lonely, a little less like strangers and a bit more like they were finally at home.
So, what does happiness mean to you?
To me happiness is holding my boyfriend’s hand, being surrounded by our loved ones, watching my cat sleep, travelling around the world and having a job that matters.
If you liked this article you may enjoy one of my other reads: How Making a Trip Around The World Will Change.