How to be Happy (in China) and Other Life Lessons

“You’re having too much fun in China”

“I thought you hated China”

“When are you applying for residency?”

It took dozens of trips and double dozens of self-help books, but I think I’m getting the hang of it. My first few trips overseas were miserable. I complained about the food, the lack of sleep, the 12 hour factory days and complete disconnect from America. The continuous pause and set back of my personal goals. I was angry. I was sad. But, eventually, I accepted. China paused real life. It was 10–14 days of work, and I had to grind through it.

Bullshit.

I wasn’t accepting anything. I was ignorant, succumbing to laziness and making excuses. I neglected my core values and ignored several aspects of my life that give it meaning. I chose the easy way out, because adulting was hard.

After a glorious 3 month hiatus from China this summer, I redefined what success means to me. I became more self-aware, creating new core values that I could follow and improve upon every day. Defining core values was really hard. I learned “happy” is not a core value. Happiness is what you get when you succeed in fulfilling more intrinsic values. I don’t set goals anymore. I set paths. “Don’t eat dumplings in China” is a bad value. It’s stressful. And dumplings start causing anxiety. “Follow a healthier lifestyle.” Now that’s doable. It’s process oriented, open ended, and has continuous room for growth.

I’ve spent the past 32 out of 60 days in China. Rather than going through the mindless motions of work, work, sleep and dream about work, I started to become more mindful. I started making choices that align with my values.

In the past 60 days, I found a China Crossfit gym. I’ve made local friends. I found a place that serves salads that don’t make me sick. I’ve been to Disneyland and The Great Wall of China. I think it’s working.

We may not control the events in our lives, but we are 100% responsible for how we choose to react to them. Take responsibility for your life, and your emotional health will improve. I don’t get to decide how often I travel, but I do get to choose my reaction to the situation. Be constantly mindful of your actions and ground them to your core values.

Expect a struggle. Learn the difference between pleasure and happiness. The dumpling provides immediate pleasure, but happiness is stepping off the scale after you’ve made weight for your first weightlifting competition. Take 100% responsibility for your life. Choose what you are willing to suffer for. Then don’t complain about it. You’re choosing to suffer for a greater, deeper meaning. You’re not entitled to constant happiness. And guess what? You’re not alone either. We all have problems. So react to your problems in a way that keeps you moving in the right direction.

Life is really just a giant problem set. Anyone who’s taken differential equations at Carnegie Mellon feels this pain. Problem 1a. Derive the equation. Problem 1b. You solved 1a? Great! Derive it again.

Turns out happiness can be derived from solving problems. Feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction flood our minds when we figure out the answer. But it’s not really the answer we’re most proud of. It’s the journey. Fall in love with the journey and watch your motivation to solve problems skyrocket. Shoot for continuous improvement and infinite growth.

  • On business trips, appreciate the discussions and meetings and tests and trials. It keeps you efficient and productive.
  • On fitness, appreciate the grueling workouts and low calorie diets and sore muscles. It keeps you humble and hungry.
  • On relationships, appreciate the sacrifices and vulnerability and heavy conversations. It keeps you intimate and connected. I’m still working on this one. Such is the paradox of life.. Solving one problem often leads to the start of another. I’m great at diving head first into a technical problem. I’m absolutely petrified of emotional intimacy. But we’re getting there. I’m still working on “opening up” to others, whatever that means. That’s a story for another time :)

TL;DR- Choose what to give a fuck about and get after it.