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Sara Brenes-Akerman
A Likely Story

Credit: Sara Brenes-Akerman , Sara Brenes-Akerman

I have spent the better part of the last four years dreading the idea of going back home to Costa Rica permanently.

Since my first week at Penn, I was convinced that my ultimate goal was to find a way to stay.

I’d work in a big city — probably New York — and live as an adult in the U.S. for a few (and maybe many) years after graduation. This went unquestioned for the majority of my time at college — visits home felt transient. I was certain that my real life was somewhere else, far away, and I liked it that way.

My first time in New York during the fall of freshman year validated my aspirations. The city seemed even bigger than it did in the movies. It was filled with noise, people and what felt like strange possibilities. I was smitten.

New York was — and still is — not merely a city but, as the forever amazing Joan Didion put it, an “infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”

Naturally, I assumed that that’s where my life would happen. I would come of age in New York. Maybe, if things didn’t go perfectly, I’d move to some other large city — Chicago, D.C, San Francisco. In any case, not San Jose in Costa Rica. Never Costa Rica. I truly believed I could never be happy there. Returning would constitute a failure.

That’s not to say that I don’t love home. I really do. All of my family, everything that I hold dear, is there. But, it was never about that — it was about the things I was supposed to do to be successful. It had something to do with the belief that achievers go where the action is, they don’t return to developing countries.

And then senior year happened. Graduation has given weight to everything. My post-commencement plans are shifting from abstract notions to reality. The challenges of rent and living in a large, family-less city are, for the first time, tangible concerns.

I began to allow myself to wonder if I was wrong all along. Then, I came across a TED talk by Shawn Achor, a Harvard researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, that pushed me in that direction.

Achor, who gave the talk this year, claimed that we often think about what makes us happy in a faulty way. We assume “our external world is predictive of our happiness levels,” when in reality “if I know everything about your external world I can only predict 10 percent of your long-term happiness.”

His larger point is that our happiness has much more to do with how we process the world than with the world itself. Interestingly, people who are happy are significantly more productive and as a result, more likely to achieve the goals they suppose will make them happy in the first place.

So, according to Achor, we have the whole thing backwards. We believe getting x will make us happy. But often, once we get x, it only gets supplanted by a new x. If happiness is on the other side of x, we never get to it — “we’ve pushed happiness past our cognitive horizon.”

New York scares me. Feeling alone scares me. And, perhaps, feeling alone in New York scares me most of all.

Maybe my coming to terms with the idea of returning home is just one long excuse for making a safe choice. Home is comfortable and secure — the easy option.

But choosing what’s easy can be scary in its own right. If New York is too foreign, San Jose almost feels too familiar.

It’s confusing. I want to stay, but at the same time I can’t wait to leave. I hope to live here and there, prioritize my family as well as everything that is far away from them.

It’s a contradictory but honest description of what the choice feels like.

Then again, maybe I’m asking myself all the wrong questions.

Sara Brenes-Akerman is a College senior from Costa Rica. Her email address is A Likely Story appears every other Thursday.

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