We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand



There is a happiness paradox nowadays. Life has gotten much better for people in terms of convenience, technology, and general standard of living, but people aren’t any happier than people from 50 years ago. This is quite a conundrum. Wouldn’t it be natural that people should be getting happier if their lives are getting better on a scale?

On average, people are living longer, healthier, with having more luxuries. Fifty years ago it was rare for a family to have two cars, but now it is a given. The average age of living is now around 80 years old, while around 50 years ago it was 60. With the internet everything is so much more convenient; 50 years ago nobody would have imagined that you could pay your bills or even order groceries online.

So if we are living longer, healthier, and more conveniently, why aren’t we living happier lives? The answer lies somewhere in human nature as well as society. As humans, it is difficult to ever be truly satisfied which may be rooted in our primal sense of “survival of the fittest.” However at the same time, society promotes the “dog eat dog” mentality which makes us to always want more and never be satisfied with what we have. If we have a car, we will want to have two. If we have two, we might want to add a third. If we have three, we might want to have a motorcycle on the side.

In Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” that he gave when he was dying of a terminal illness, he stressed the idea of working with what we have and in his most memorable quotes said: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” This quote has many meanings, one of them being that we should be satisfied with what we have, and make the best out of it.

Now I’m not saying to achieve anything in life and to lose all sorts of inspiration, but just not to become frustrated when your neighbor drives a BMW and you drive a Toyota. Materialistic goods never bring happiness or satisfaction. The feeling we get when we buy something new or expensive is a fleeting one. It is gone here for a second and gone the next.

I remember when I was 9 years old, my biggest dream in the world was to have this RC car which could drive itself even when flipped over. Flashy commercials with the RC car doing flips off stairs, driving in the dirt and water, and doing spins tempted me so badly. I wanted more than anything to get this car, and I decided that once I got it that I would be satisfied for the rest of my life. Therefore for my 10th birthday, I begged and pleaded with my mom and told her that this was the last toy that she would ever have to buy me. She shook her head and tried to talk some sense into me, but I refused to listen.

On the fateful day that I finally got the car, I was the most excited kid in the whole wide world. It was an exhilarating feeling tearing open the box and taking out my new toy. However after a few hours of playing with it, the appeal quickly wore off and I remember being shocked of how quickly I got bored by it. I then had a small epiphany as a child how material things couldn’t truly bring lasting happiness.

As elementary as this example is, I feel that it is an effective one. Even though we may look at children and say that they are foolish for wanting to have such useless toys, we could easily look at adults who buy even more expensive “toys” such as designer purses or expensive cars. Sometimes when people feel depressed they try to cure themselves with “retail therapy” by buying expensive things to make themselves feel better. However it never brings satisfaction, but rather wanting newer, better, and more trendy things.

Therefore we must learn how to stay away from material things, and be truly satisfied with the small and personal things that we have in our lives that we might often take for granted such as friendships. At times we forget how precious friends are that we often push away friends in lieu of work or even studying. Sure that extra hour at work or studying may earn us a few more bucks or even help us a little on our test the next day, but think about how much more precious that extra hour would be with our friends.

So to truly be happy in life, really count the blessings that you already have in your life. We are often distracted by what we don’t have which blinds us from what we already have in front of our eyes. The only way we truly realize how valuable something is until we lose it. For example, I always took my health for granted until I damaged my knee during a basketball game which put me in crutches for almost two months. During those two months just getting from point A to point B was a chore, and I remember looking with envy at people who had perfectly good legs who just took them for granted.

Being happy in life is not a goal or destination; it is a process. People often tell themselves that once they have that Mercedes or that 3-bedroom house with the white picket fence that they will be happy in life. And guess what? Once they get that fancy car or that big house they still feel empty which makes them constantly chase for bigger, better, and more expensive things. There is no reason why we can’t strive to be happy RIGHT NOW than later. Why make ourselves miserable in our everyday lives just to say that we will strive to be happy once we finish school or get that top-paying job?

I have many friends who often put schoolwork over their own personal happiness. They always tell me that by secluding themselves from their friends and from social events, that they will succeed and go to a top-school, where they will get a high-paying job from when they can start having “real fun.” But the sad fact is people with this type of mentality never end up being happy, because they will always have the mindset of putting work above everything else. One day they might get that high-paying job, but when they get that they will find another distraction. Working even harder to get that raise or that higher position.

I am not advocating just having fun and putting away all of life’s responsibilities. I am just stressing the fact that we must balance our lives and value our own personal happiness and well-being at the same level of school, work, and our responsibilities.

So really try to live in the present and value the things that we already have rather than we don’t have. Sure other people might be richer, taller, or better looking than us, but that shouldn’t distract us from all the other blessings we might have like our talents, passions, friends and family.  And really try to put happiness as one of the NECESSITIES in our lives, not something that are frivolous and unnecessary. And once we can learn how to focus on what we have we have than what we don’t have, we can truly be happy.

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17 thoughts on “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand”

  1. “We are often distracted by what we don’t have which blinds us from what we already have in front of our eyes.” (i couldn’t agree more) and it’s the most important things in life that get placed on the backburner (family, friends, health, spirituality…)

    it’s funny, because sometimes i feel like the world is far too near sighted and selfish when it comes to their individual well-being compared to others in society…but when it comes to their daily lives all of a sudden it switches–we lose sight of what is really important, become far-sighted, lost, and imbalanced within our goals, thoughts, and actions.

  2. Randy Pausch’s last lecture was amazing, his whole life is a great example of making the best of things, so it was good to hear you mention it.
    I agree with you Eric, that lasting happiness does not come from those “materialistic” things…it’s a great insight that seems like the illusive obvious at times (at least in my perspective).
    Maybe I slightly differ from the whole avoiding of materialistic things…but thats just me. 😉

    1. I definitely don’t think it hurts a little to indulge yourself here and there for a few materialistic things… but definitely when you let it take over your life that’s when it starts going downhill 🙂

  3. I saw this the other day, and was deeply moved by it. It’s well within the scope of your post.

    We have bigger houses but smaller families;
    More conveniences, but less time;
    We have more degrees, but less sense;
    More knowledge, but less judgment;
    More experts, but more problems;
    More medicines, but less healthiness;
    We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
    but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor.
    We build more computers to hold more information to
    produce more copies than ever but have less communication.
    We have become long on quantity,
    but short on quality.
    These are times of fast foods but slow digestion;
    Tall man but short character;
    Steep profits but shallow relationships.
    It’s a time when there is much in the window,
    but nothing in the room.

    – dalai lama

    1. Some are obvious truth, some are fallacies.

      Most things in this world are graded on a curve. A rich and powerful person of the past can live very happily because he has the most freedom compare to his peers. This should be obvious through observations.

      Human knowledge is improving, and so is human competitiveness. Competitiveness drive us to become better, yet people complain about the work they have to do. The world only advanced so rapidly because of this competitiveness.

      One has the right to “choose” his balance which gives him the greatest happiness. Some prefer a lot of leisure time, while others prefer accomplishment. But please do not distain others’ accomplishments or their playfulness because they have the freedom to choose. Ideally, societies credit or punish people accordingly, but not always (lots of luck here).

      Less time means we are productive. There are still lots of places in this world where people remain their old way of living. You can join them, at the cost of giving up other things we have.

      You can find these small towns in the U.S., Canada, Europe, or China. Really nice people. If you think this is the more important to you than other things you give up (such as travel around the world, which you probably won’t be able to do without some money), you may join them and you will live happily ever after.

      Smaller family does not mean it is worse than bigger family. Life style differences. Large family usually comes with onerous responsibilities (I came from one; I would prefer it if I don’t have to shoulder such heavy responsibilities).

      Everything takes time. Making money takes time; Spending money takes time; Having fun takes time; Having a family takes time; Communication takes time; Transportation take time. We are all aware of this. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of these do not take time and some imaginary people will improve our society for us instead?

      People having more degrees do not mean they are senseless (or less sensible).

      More knowledge, and worse health? I am seeing more % of our population age over 100 than any previous historical records. If one is knowledgeable (by today’s standard of his society), then he probably understands the importance of his health, and he would probably try to take care of himself.

      Prof. Randy Pausch’s father rode rollercoasters when he was 80 years old.

      Short on quality? Quality of life? Quality of education? Quality of comfort? Quality of information sharing? what kind of quality? Yes, the quality of our environment is deteriorating, but we are working on it as we speak.

      Tall man but short character? We got rid of slavery; we ended imperialism; we have civil rights; we help others in time of natural disasters. Ugly part of our world never completely disappeared, but it did shrink.

      I do agree with steep profits but shallow relationships, mostly. Going back to competition (especially business partners). We can still have deeper relationships though. You will usually be able to tell a true friend or a man of character in time of crisis.

      There are things in the room.

      Tibet would truly be better off to cooperate with China because China hold immense opportunities in the near future (thus bring in more opportunities to Tibet). Social stability helps economic growth, and Tibet needs this growth. Human rights are not granted in one day, and they should not be the excuse to separate Tibet from China. I wonder if Dalai Lama understood all of this and truly thinking for all Tibetans.

      On a last note. Prof. Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture is the best lecture I have heard so far. You have my respect. R.I.P.

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