Happiness for me has been some strange, elusive pursuit my whole life.

It flits to me like a butterfly. If by serendipity it deems me worthy to be graced by its splendor, I embrace it. Once it flies away again, I am lost, drowning in the dark.

Two weeks ago, I was pondering this fickle nature of happiness when I got hit by a car. Even before the incident, my day had felt ruined. I had received an internship earlier that week at Philadelphia Magazine, and, despite the position being everything I had dreamed of, I was miserable. I was failing at my job — or so it seemed to me — unable to write because I couldn’t complete the simple transcription work assigned me. 

Bemoaning my ineptitude to my friend, I was crossing the intersection of 38th and Market streets when a car, trying to make a left on a red light, struck me and knocked me to the pavement. Even now, as I close my eyes, I am still mesmerized by the flash of white and that split second of opportunity which, in hindsight, feels like forever. I can still hear my friend’s screams and the crack of skull against concrete as I hit the ground with such force that my head bounced up. 

And suddenly, while I sat there on the road, blood pouring out of my mouth, uncertain if my brain was bleeding or my life was ending, all my previous anxieties seemed so small. And the only question that occurred to me, somewhat hazily because I couldn’t think, was, “Why had I not been happy with what I had before?”

In case it isn’t clear, the story ends well. I fractured my right cheek bone and knocked loose all my front teeth, but the damage was reparable. Nevertheless, due to my concussion, I had to sit a week out and thus had a lot of time to think.

I returned to the question of happiness. What was happiness, that it could be so formless and yet so all-consuming at the same time? What was it that it could surprise you at your oddest moments and escape you despite your best efforts? That it could control you yet still make you believe that you controlled it?

Like most people, I always believed happiness was a fleeting emotion. And, like most people, I believed that though we cannot create happiness, we can still somehow tame the slippery creature. 

We place our faith in these external things — achievements, material possessions, social validations — hoping that if we grasp them, we can hold happiness itself. Then we begin to confuse happiness with excelling and start to believe that happiness should be easy too.

It only dawned on me, the night my father came and sat by my bedside, that maybe we have all been thinking of happiness wrong. My father told me that he and my mother, though their names would all but die on the lips of everyone save those who loved them most, had lived the best lives they possibly could. That they had been happy.

And I, sobbing, realized then that happiness is more than some fleeting emotion. It is a choice we make to allow that fleeting sensation to come. It is a choice we make to release negativity and dissatisfaction. 

It's not some vague choice, like when people say, “Choose to be happy.” I mean a concrete decision that we make at every turn we are in danger of falling. That when we gravitate towards what we do not have and all the wrongs done to us, we decide instead to appreciate all we do have and the contentment of being able to do what we do.

The formal definition of happiness may be that emotion of pleasure we have, but happiness in practice starts with the actions we take to ensure that feeling of pleasure can come. Happiness isn’t easy for most, but, barring those with mental illness, it’s something we can all work to have. Not the kind of external work that leads to emptiness, but the internal, psychological crossroads we must always be maneuvering. 

And when we make that decision, when we get happy, we’ll be struck — by how happiness has been hiding in our shadow all along.

AMY CHAN is a College senior from Augusta, Ga., studying classics. Her email address is chanamy@sas.upenn.edu. “Chances Are” usually appears every other Thursday.

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