Sometimes, the craziest encounters happen when you least expect it. For instance, on a plane to New York, where I was accidentally moved to another seat and found myself sitting next to Michael Christopher, an emeritus professor from California. On the other hand, who truly believes in coincidences?

After one of the stewardesses had unintentionally ´dubbed` us with mineral water soon after the take-off, we somehow got into a conversation with each other. Well, who can (and should) actually sleep while the person in front seems to be literally sawing down the Brazilian Rainforest?

As things turned out soon, Michael actually represented everything we in our western societies tend to strive for: a well-off, married father of a family, whose children were currently studying in Paris, who was relatively fit for his age and could look back at a successful career. Even though this man seemed to have everything you could ever wish for, he didn´t want to seem truly happy to me at all; and during our conversation, this presentiment proved to be right. Very often I could hear regrets and the sentence “If I was young again, I would do it differently.” Even though I thought I had heard the answer already between the lines, I couldn´t resist the temptation and asked why. Why do you sometimes tend to do things, that you clearly don´t want to do, and, ironically, why can´t you stop doing so? Why, for instance, do some people choose a highly prestigious job just to please others while simultaneously giving their inner voice, strongly urging them to do something totally different, a merciless brush-off? Why do you sometimes tend to marry too early (and the wrong person), before you actually know (and have learned to love) who you truly are? Why do you have to stick around people you do not feel comfortable with, just because you feel the social pressure to do so? Strange though, as we do not need to do any of those things. However, everyone has somehow surely caught him-/herself doing exactly that or something similar.

Michael´s answer to the question of why was both simple and shockingly complex: Fear. Mostly the fear of losing something society values highly: money, status, a good reputation. Ironically, he did not mention the fear of losing, for instance, his physical or mental health once – something that is undoubtedly even more precious than anything in the world and may not always benefit from the aforementioned priorities. We both wondered how the fear of losing something like money or status – something you actually cannot `own´ at all – could especially prevent so many people from becoming who they truly want to be – who they should be? It seems rather trivial to adjust to society´s expectations when it comes to dress code, for instance. However, to choose your life path in accordance with the expectations of others does not just sound rather unhealthy, it is actually akin to neglecting your own uniqueness – and to `unfreedom´.

We both realized that we are indeed living in a relatively `free´ society. Actually, you are allowed – as long as you do not totally neglect the freedom of others or the legal aspects – to do anything you want with your given `capabilities´ or `talents´: to choose your job, to wear the clothes you like, to marry the partner you prefer, to connect with the people you feel comfortable with, etc. Surely, you may have to face the (often unexpected) consequences of your free choices, but let us cherish that we are all born relatively free to decide what we want to do with our individual `gifts´. However, how often are we tempted to make decisions, though often unconsciously, we would never want to make freely? Michael´s decision to live a life others expected him to, for instance? How is it possible to be unfree at all in a society that is considered to be so free?

What actually is happiness? What is freedom?

The question for the ´vita beata`, the happy life, is probably one of the most discussed questions that not only ancient philosophers such as Seneca worried about. (1) Who actually can provide a universal answer to a question that de facto cannot be answered at all? There is no correct answer from the get-go. Or maybe there is?

We could not be any more unique. Hence, things we usually name when being asked what represents happiness vary. Nobody can actually deny that they include aspects such as a safe home, health, a few good friends – maybe or a good career. All those elements surely play an important role – although every human tends to weight them differently and, for most, the financial aspect or social status is undeniably rated too high. Something that will not always come to one´s mind immediately, but must inherently be considered as crucial, is freedom. Let us say, for instance, the freedom to be who you truly are – as long as you do not totally restrict the freedom of others. This specific idea of freedom means that it is up to you to choose between the available options considering your individual `talents´ – let us admit that not everyone is able and meant to eventually become Einstein, Lionel Messi, or Mozart. The Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, currently teaching at Harvard University, even goes so far as to argue that you should measure human development predominantly using the freedom a person has to choose the life she/he wants – and, by the way, Sen is so right! (2)

Are we truly free?

Even though many consider themselves to be free as the abovementioned freedom was granted, they actually are not when going in for a closer look. On one hand, life sometimes just sidesteps you. You cannot blame someone who is sitting in a wheelchair because of an accident for not becoming the new Usain Bolt – maybe he just should not have become in the first place? The same applies to a father who has to work and take care of his three children because his wife unexpectedly died of cancer. On the other hand, the interesting and likewise incredibly sad thing is that many do not know who they are or, even worse, cannot work up the courage to become who they truly are. It is strange to admit, that in a society that has fought against tyranny or any sort of slavery in a physical sense for centuries – and in many parts of the world in whatever way still fights it – is now facing other forms of `slavery´ again: being enslaved by myriad possibilities because we do not know which to choose, for instance, or being enslaved by society´s expectations to `just fit in´ – in whatever context. Where could you be considered unfree, or even `enslaved´?

As chance brings it about, I actually meet `Michael´ daily – in whatever form. Sometimes, as a bus driver in India who married too early (and, at least according to him, the wrong person) just because society expected him to do so. Sometimes, as a German MBA student who always wants to be better than the rest and totally forgets to focus on his project instead of the projects of others. Sometimes, as a lawyer in New York who always feels the pressure to fit in. Not wearing skinny skirts or deliberately choosing convenient shoes in certain law firms, for instance, could be interpreted as a sure sign of going through a tough time. Unfreedom can often be disguised by rather irrational social expectations.

How many perhaps passively submit to similar rather irrational expectations of society even when it comes to irrefutably personal issues such as the question of what you want to do with the rest of your life? There is absolutely nothing wrong with respecting other´s opinions, but it just cannot be rational to sort of `condemn´ yourself to be someone you are not. Isn´t it, somehow, similar to neglecting yourself? Perhaps, because you permanently doubt yourself as Michael did and later on find yourself caught up? Who actually needs to prove, who you are, what you can do, or how far you could go just because society wants you to do so? Surely nobody, who is truly aware of her/his value or loves her-/himself. Maybe we are often not too concerned with questions such as who we actually are or how to love ourselves in the first place?

Reflecting on this, how ironic the social-topping-philosophy of your society tends to be once more: to jump higher, to throw farther, run faster than the rest. However, just imagine for one second, what if we are all running in the wrong direction and, ironically, do not even realize it? Even worse, what if you realize it, but cannot work up the courage to stop it, work up the courage to `break the wheel´?

Having arrived in New York, the last thing I said to Michael, who always wanted to become a football coach, was: “You are retired now. What are you waiting for? You already know who you are. If you really want to do something, set a goal and go for it.”

Be bold, because “[so] some people live as if they were never going to die and then later die without ever actually having lived.” [3]


[1] In his work de vita beata, Seneca leads a fictional discussion with his brother in which he comes to the conclusion that in the end, only a virtuous life will make you happy. He is convinced that a human being must above all live according to his nature as a prerequisite for this.
[2] Sen, Amartya K. (1999), Development as Freedom , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[3] Dalai Lama.