I tweeted the other day that the biggest problem in my life right now was being denied a second serving of lunch at my school cafeteria. After almost two years in South Korea, how did I get to the point where having seconds was such an earth-shattering, tweet-worthy moment, and did my seemingly inane complaint make me ungrateful?
Not in the slightest. In fact, I’d say I am happier now than I’ve ever been before.
But this is not a story about happiness. This is a story of upheaval, investment, progress and gratitude.
Part 1: Upheaval
About a year ago I took the decision to renew my teaching contract in my tiny Korean town until April 2020. When I first moved here in 2018, I was driven primarily by money, and that was certainly the case when I renewed my contract, too. There were other mitigating factors, however, like my school (which is great, besides the stingy lunch staff) and all the teaching resources that I’d be able to re-use in my second year here. Staying in South Korea would also allow me to travel more and tick off some bucket list experiences, all of which I’m extremely grateful for. But, between making that decision and getting to where I am now, I still had to grapple with the areas where I felt deficient and where I had to improve. That took effort, and there were definitely times in that first year when things felt in disarray. That upheaval period is the first step on the long journey, and perhaps the most disconcerting one. If you've decided to make a life abroad then you'll need to understand that your life will be thrown into turmoil. How you handle this stage will inevitably set the tone for the rest of your time in your new surroundings.
Part 2: Investment
The money and travel will come and go, but my time living abroad has given me infinitely more than either of those things can measure. Along the way, I’ve come to realise that there is a huge investment that comes with making a life somewhere else. It seems quite obvious now, but compared to the first few months of struggling to adapt – that upheaval period – I’m infinitely more comfortable living here because I’ve made a conscious decision to invest time into things like learning language, learning culture, and building bonds with students and colleagues. Part of this is due to sheer immersion, but the point remains. I’ve seen people flounder and I’ve seen people soar. The former are usually reticent to fully throw themselves into the deep end. There’s nothing wrong with not taking to a culture or a place, but it’s vital to understand that investing time into assimilation will ease your path to adapting here. Once you've grappled with that upheaval stage, you need to make a decision on just how much you choose to invest of yourself into your new life.
Part 3: Progress
It's hackneyed but true: A lot can change in a year. All that investment and the experiences along the way have fundamentally altered my outlook of life abroad. Living in a town of no more than 50,000 people, far removed from the commotion of the city has left me with far fewer distractions and as such, lots more time to ponder and reflect on what I want for the future. It’s forced me to slow down and be thoughtful and deliberate about the work I produce. The long game is something I’ve had to become comfortable with. There are no quick fixes out here, only the daily grind. And it’s through this constant grind that I’ve come to realise progress.
If you’re familiar with Tony Robbins then you’ll know that this is a tenet which he punts quite heavily. The fleeting sensation that comes with accomplishment usually isn’t enough to sustain a true feeling of happiness. Instead, it’s the micro-wins that spur you on along the way.
Progress simply means that you’re one step in a better place than you were yesterday. It’s the cumulative sum of many little efforts that gets you to where you want to be. For me, it meant finding my voice. It meant realizing that some problems simply aren’t worth stressing over.
Part 4: Gratitude
Life is far from perfect. I’m more than two hours from the nearest major city. I have to travel 5 hours to get to the capital. My town is lifeless (at least after 8pm). But it’s because of these things that I am happy, not in spite of them. When I realise that these are the extent of my problems (yes, the lunch lady denying me a second helping leaves me fuming), then I start to appreciate the magnitude of others’ problems.
Matt D’Avella talks a bit about how practising gratitude daily can help you shift focus from looking to the future for the next hit of happiness, to feeling it in the moment.
The gratitude aspect is something I grapple with daily, mainly because I’m still deeply pragmatic and obsessively sceptical about most things. About life, about love, about people. And yet the past 20 months have shown me that it’s possible to adopt an attitude of gratitude while still allowing myself to vent and rant about the speedbumps that come with daily life as a foreigner in this crazy country.
Hindsight is 20-20 vision when it comes to this sort of thing, and seeing where I was a year and a half ago compared to where I am now, gives me pause to appreciate the headway that I’ve made so far. As much as I’m far from perfect too, making incremental progress day-by-day keeps me grounded and grateful for the life I’ve come to carve out for myself, here in South Korea.
I will continue to get livid when the lunch lady refuses to serve me seconds because that’s my reminder of the gratitude for the general state of contentment at this point in time. As for you? You should embrace the moments, both the good and the bad, because they’re all part of the journey to progress.
At the start of this article I made it clear that this was not a story about happiness. Instead, I hope I’ve shown you how happiness is simply a by-product of upheaval, investment, progress and gratitude.
The question then shouldn’t be what are you doing to ensure you’re happy, but rather, what are you doing to progress, and how is that fostering gratitude?