The Privilege of Choice (The Pursuit of Happiness, Pt. 1)

(Pre-context: I am a twenty-something, college educated, middle-class, White American and that is my inevitable frame of reference, here and there. For better or worse.)

I had a realization today. I am unhappy sometimes, discontent and endlessly pursuing satisfaction. I was jogging down the street in my little town in Colombia with a perfect breeze at my back, wearing my brand new Nikes that I bought in America, waving at all my friendly townspeople, but internally, I was making a long to-do list of things that I had to accomplish before I would be satisfied and could relax.

I made eye contact with a family on the back of a moto: a neatly dressed mama on the back, a clinging toddler in the middle, and a content-looking, fresh-faced young father on the front. My first thought was, “beautiful family,” but my second thought was, “I’m so glad that’s not my life.” For me, the epitome of unhappiness right now would be tied down to a premature family, stuck in a small town. (I know that’s the dream for some; I’m writing from a very restless heart.)

But I think this young dad is probably content: he has everything he needs and everything that is important to him close by, under his capable protection. The sun is shining and it’s almost Carnaval season. What more could one want to be happy?

Colombia is ranked the world’s third happiest nation, chock-full of evidently happy people. (I’ll be posting pictures of Carnaval in February, if you need proof.) But here I am, surrounded by the world’s happiest people, and I’m just okay. Don’t get me wrong, I’m integrated and working hard and enjoying my service. But I still feel the ever-present need to do more, to be better, to aim higher.

And I’m not alone in this: According to a 2013 survey, only one in three Americans is very happy. In fact, we rank 105 in the world, down there with grumpy Putin at 122.

So what gives?

Here’s what I think. I think that based on my nationality, age, gender, and socioeconomic status, based on my culture, I am designed to focus on improvement, achievement and independence.

BASED ON MY CULTURE, I BELIEVE THAT I AM THE ONE IN CONTROL OF MY HAPPINESS. I think that my decisions are my own, that my future is in my hands, and my satisfaction depends on my choices and attitudes. Let me break that down:

As a young person, I believe that my future is in my hands, which is why I’m freaking out about grad school applications.

As an American woman, I believe that my decisions are my own, which is why I stress about career and life choices, as well as about sunscreen.

As an American, I believe that my satisfaction depends on my choices and attitudes, not on someone else’s. If I’m not enjoying my life, I have to get up and fix it. It’s my problem (and joy) to be in charge of my life. My country fights wars to protect that very pursuit of happiness.

Also as an American citizen, I also have an underlying belief that a) I can do anything, and b) I have to work for it. (Thanks, forefathers.)

As a White person, I believe that I’ll be able to achieve my dreams, because I don’t face discrimination or systemic barriers to overcoming my obstacles. (I did nothing to deserve or earn that privilege.)

As a middle-class person, I’m optimistic about my finances, even in the face of major debt, because I think I’ll make it out ahead, even if the middle class is the new poor.

All these cultural elements put a lot of pressure on me to create my own success and find my own happiness. If I’m unhappy, it’s my job to fix it.

Now, this blog post could go on to talk about how this is a tragedy and mourn the downfall of our society and the death of happiness at the hands of the American Dream fallacy, but I have one more point to make.


It is a downright privilege to be happy OR unhappy me. And here’s why:

As an American woman, I have full rights to my independence. My parents can’t sell me as a child bride, a man can’t control my rights and assets, my employers can’t reject me for being a female. I can be independently happy or unhappy.

As a young, educated middle-class person, I can look at life with the rosy glasses that come with youthful energy and the safety net that having a little savings account and a degree afford. I can be optimistically happy or unhappy. 

As a White American, I’m statistically charted to have life easier than my fellows. As unjust as this is–and as much as this MUST CHANGE–it means I don’t face possible discrimination and inequality in every area of my life, from education to neighborhood crime to access to healthcare to racial profiling. (It also means my unhappiness is even less justified.) I can be advantageously happy or unhappy. 

So am I still unhappy? Well, yeah. I’m not content.

But now I recognize that it is a privilege. I was born into a culture that teaches me to strive to self-improve and achieve goals. I have all the advantages and opportunities I need to make myself happy and, hopefully, make the world a better place. I have everything I need to become happier, and my unhappiness is my own responsibility.

I am privileged to be unhappy if I choose to be.

As I finished my jog through town and headed home to tackle that to-do list, I realized that my frustrations were the result of a culturally-ingrained pursuit of happiness that I can choose to view as a liberty and privilege. And I will pursue happily.

(Tune in next time to Part 2, what Colombians teach me about happiness. Subtitled: get over yourself, spoiled, rich American, so you can enjoy yourself.)


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