The crucial question: “How are you?”

The most common greeting policy requires us to ask the other person or people how they are doing, even if the answer won’t make much of a difference in the course of the conversation. It’s just courtesy, good manners, and I’m all for it. On the other hand, since we’re all aware that the question is merely a social formality, we usually feel compelled to answer in the most concise and general way possible.

“I’m fine, thanks”
“I’m great, how about you?”
“Could be better, but I can’t complain”

It is probably for the best, since most of the times people asking you how you’re doing aren’t really looking for a truthful and thorough psychophysical reportage of your person. However, the habit of answering we these prepared short sentences can trick us into never asking ourselves how we’re actually doing, or even worse, into believing that we’re really doing just fine, great, awesome, a-okay, top of the world!

During the last few months I’ve met people whose eyes shined with an intense happy energy, people with the brilho nos olhos, as they say in Brasil, the sparkle in the eyes. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be around these people because their smile is contagious and they can make everything brighter just by being in the room.

They are very different from one another, doing different things in different parts of the world, but what they all have in common, for what I’ve noticed, is the importance they give to this simple and super-used question:

“How are you?”

When they’re asked the question, they answer truthfully, without making a big deal out of it, but with the awareness that what they’re saying is in fact how they feel. This doesn’t mean that spiritually or psychologically speaking they’re much ahead of everyone else, they just value the importance of the question as one of the first steps to a better self-knowledge. More than once I’ve asked someone how he or she was, as good manners require, and the answer simply was:

“I don’t know”

What kind of answer is that? How can you not know how you are? There’s a whole catalog of states of being from which to choose! It goes from “couldn’t be better” to “not very well”, just give me an answer and fulfill your part of the social protocol already!

But it doesn’t work like this, as they probably spend some time every day asking themselves the same question and trying to give a name to what they’re feeling in that moment. I find it very difficult to do so and even more difficult to give myself an answer. It is probably because we haven’t learnt to listen to ourselves, we’re so busy asking questions and giving answers to the world that we don’t have the time to give a better look inside, so we fill the blank spaces of our consciousness with ready-made statements.

I am no expert on self-knowledge and I know even less about how to achieve emotional intelligence, but I do know a general rule that I think might be applied in this field just as everywhere else. It’s a basic concept for the ones who don’t know where to start, just like me.

A professor once made this example to me and the rest of the class: let’s say that two students, one very good in math and the other barely managing not to fail, both receive a B on their last test, it is obvious that their reactions will be quite different. The A-student will probably be disappointed or angry at himself for the mistakes he made, while is classmate will be enthusiast for not failing the class.

It’s a very common example about relativity, but the point the professor made was this: before giving an evaluation to anything, we should be sure to understand the scale that defines what is good and what isn’t.

So before answering that we’re good, or not good, we should ask ourselves what “feeling good” means for us.

“Is your job satisfying?”

What does it mean for you to have a satisfying job? Is it about money? Is it about responsibility? Is it about the social effect of what you do?

“How’s it going in the university?”

What does it mean to go well in university? Getting straight As? Making experiences? Learning useful stuff?

I know, it all sounds so obvious that I feel a bit stupid writing about it, but I do believe that it is better for it to be written down, rather than be given for granted, because, like it or not, if we don’t answer these questions to ourselves, someone else or something else is going to answer for us and we won’t even realize it. What I mean is that the voice that makes us say “I’m good”, even when we are not feeling good at all, that same voice will probably tell us that a good job is the one in which you get the most money or that being a good student means passing perfectly every exam independently from what you actually learnt.

As I said, I am no expert, but I know that being happy is another thing, it comes from different things and most importantly, there is no way we can find it if we don’t start looking inside, ask ourselves a couple of questions and try with all our heart to find the answers. It is not easy, of course, but neither there is a magic wand or trick that can solve our own existential riddle for us.

The bright side, though, is that happiness is contagious and that sparkle in the eyes of some very exceptional people can easily be reflected in our own, as long as we listen and try to be honest first of all with ourselves.