The “Happiness” Problem

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”


Dr. Sandor Klein

Those words attributed to Albert Einstein were quoted by Dr. Sandor Klein, Vice President of the World Council for Curriculum and Instruction (WCCI), in his response to the speech of WCCI President Jessica Carter Kimmel at the 18th World Conference on Education held in Rome, Italy from July 15-20, 2018. The Conference offered enriching opportunities for one to hear inspiring presentations of educators from various fields who shared their studies related to the “Role of Education for Global Citizenship in Promoting Social, Economic and Environmental Justice.”

On my flight back home to Manila from the US three weeks later Einstein’s words kept playing in my head like a song’s refrain. Even while enjoying two weeks of vacation with family, I realized that questions kept coming to the fore in my consciousness about the ironies of the world and my experience of happiness in its midst.  I kept asking myself: WHAT IN THE WORLD IS OUR PROBLEM? And is there ever a solution to it?

The book I was reading (on “Spiritual Paths to an Ethical and Ecological Global Civilization: Reading the Signs of the Times with Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims”) seemed to echo my thoughts. It enumerated many signs of the times—e.g. ecological and financial crises, corruption in government, failure of modern religion to explain life’s real purpose and its complex ramifications to its adherents, inequality, burnout, consumerism, death of bee colonies, plastic contamination, immigration and urbanization, child labor, drug addiction, etc. It also highlighted the urgency of the need for an “interreligious transpartisan method” in which “a more basic and inclusive global spiritual consciousness, one which seeks dialogue among all religions” link dogma and practices to global human experience (Raymaker, Grudzen and Holland, 2013, p. 14).

It made me feel more grateful about the privilege I have just had of being able to contribute to this awakening of “global spiritual consciousness” at the WCCI conference in Rome where I presented my own study (based on two decades of work of The Peacemakers’ Circle Foundation, Inc.) in Interfaith/ Interreligious Dialogue (IRD). In it I highlighted the importance of integrating IRD into the curriculum as a proactive means of creating a counter cultural force to violent extremism. The positive responses to my presentation from esteemed mentors and colleagues were encouraging. Of note were the affirmations of Dr. Toh Swee-Hin, our keynote speaker, who spoke of the importance of exploring new pedagogies for developing “glocal” citizenship, and Sister Merceditas Ang of Saint Paul University in Tugegarao (northern Philippines) who has done impressive work in opening their university to students of different faiths and cultures so that it is now a veritable hub of education beyond international borders.


With Aisha Isah of Kano, Nigeria

The urgent need for integrating religious values and Interfaith/Interreligious Dialogue in peace education was apparent to me throughout the Conference.  The presentation of Aisha Isah, a young Muslim woman from Nigeria, also highlighted this fact. She spoke of the need in the Kano State for the integration of Islam into the largely Christian curriculum of the Adult Literacy Education Program (ALEP) which is facing numerous challenges due to inadequate education facilities, unqualified facilitators, inadequate funding, and unsuitable curriculum models.”

From Rome I joined my family in the US where I tried to shed off the cares of the world by playing guardian to my grandchildren’s “galaxies” in Florida’s “happiest place on Earth”–Disney World! It was an eventful and exciting two-week vacation for all of us from thereon, and I managed to actually enjoy the break from the all too familiar sense of concern (about the problems that beset our ailing human condition) that usually keep me company.

We survived a bolt of lightning that struck Blessed Days, our family’s rented home in Avon, Northern Carolina where we were to attend a niece’s wedding with other members of the Africa clan. It was also there where we celebrated the 8th and 4th birthdays of my grandchildren. Then we were off to New York where we eagerly immersed ourselves in the carnival atmosphere of summer in Manhattan and enjoyed theater nights on Broadway. It was truly a happy vacation for the eight of us despite our aching feet from the long walks, and the memory of the lightning bolt that struck our Blessed Days home in Avon!


Photo courtesy of John & Maricel Feser

So I was surprised to hear my grandkids let out a loud cheer when their mother announced (after the long drive from the airport in Manila) that we are “home now”! I imagine that, for four-year old Alonzo, this must have felt like returning “back to Earth” where he is reunited with his “yaya” (nanny) and everything dear, comfortable, and familiar to him. We are glad and grateful that our vacation together as a family was safe and happy despite the lightning scare!

Yes, it was a happy time for all of us, and happiness is certainly a measure of a good vacation.  Now we are back to “Earth,” back to the challenges of “real life” as we face it in our every day.  Truth to tell, I feel that I could use more time to prepare to face those challenges again today.  How nice it would be to be able to luxuriate in the happiness of vacation much longer!

Happiness. As I reflect on this I remember my Tibetan Buddhist friend and colleague, Reimon Sonam, who once spoke of peace as “an ecosystem.” I realize that happiness is an ecosystem, too!

The more I reflect on my “happiness experience,” the more I experience myself awakening to the realization that, like peace, it cannot be sustainable if we remain oblivious to the fact that happiness comes with something else for it to be true and lasting. It comes with listening presence and conscious awareness of our selves as being interconnected and one with others.

The great Einstein was right about how we need to understand problems in order to find the right solutions. Perhaps if we spent more time reflecting on humankind’s “problem” rather than going around in circles hitting every symptom with a hammer and wondering why we are not solving any, we could try listening to happiness and understand what it is, and what it is not?


In Disney World (dubbed the “happiest place on Earth”) people seemed happy, never mind the huge amount of US dollars spent on every single move they made—from buying drinking water in plastic bottles to buying a hamburger or a huge leg of roasted turkey meant for one person to consume (the size of which can feed an entire family in the slums of the Philippines), from stroller and wheelchair rentals to buying Disney stamped China-made raincoats and umbrellas.


While I was thrilled to ride my banshee as my avatar in Pandora, and enjoyed the expressions of awe in my grandkids’ faces as they saw real animals in Animal Kingdom, I was troubled by the wanton consumerism and the careless use and disposal of plastic cups, bottles, utensils, and bags everywhere! They all had to be disposed somewhere, but how and where? Plastics were also used in abundance in airplanes and airports in Rome and the places we visited in the US. I wonder how long happiness can be sustained in this “happiest place on earth” if plastic pollution got so huge a problem that we’d find ourselves buried in it!

Happiness was only marred by intermittent rains that prevented kids from a second ride on Aladdin’s magic carpet. This was summer in Florida, and rains were not supposed to come this early. Climate is changing, but does this worry us enough to take heed of it? Perhaps not. This was a vacation and we chose not to worry but to be happy.

It rained in Avon, North Carolina, too, and my sister’s car could not wade through the flooded road that led to Blessed Days, the house our family rented there. The thunder and lightning storm we experienced past midnight a couple of nights later was a wake-up call that scared us, but it was just a hiccup in our vacation that we were grateful to have come away from unscathed.


In Manhattan, New York it drizzled too. But despite the threat of rain, it was largely sunny and, as always, the place had the peculiar effect on me that was invigorating. It is the only place in the world I’ve visited that gives me the feeling of being amid a throng of humanity so diverse that it is a veritable microcosm of the world! I loved the experience of interviewing our Uber drivers in Manhattan–there was WeiWei from China, an Indian from Pakistan named Waheed, a Yemeni, and a Tibetan Buddhist whose colorful hand-embroidered collar got me curious about him and his origins. And I loved the sight of Asians, Indians, Africans, Latin Americans, Europeans, etc. seated together in a row across me in the subway trains, and hearing the different languages spoken around me!


Eight-year old Luna brought chuckles in a deli when she loudly exclaimed, “Asian Food!” She missed rice, I was surprised to hear her say, for she doesn’t seem to enjoy eating it at home. When asked, she replied: “But Gwama, I eat rice there every day!” Going without rice in America for two weeks made the little Filipino girl yearn for it, just like we adults did. In New York, there were different kinds of food for different races and creed, even for vegetarians like me!


Happiness was easy to come by for vacationers like us in the “melting pot” of races that is Manhattan in New York. As I reflect on my experience of it I realize that perhaps  the problem besetting our humankind today is a happiness problem. We have difficulty being happy on a daily basis, and we seem to be able to do so only with some effort to be away on “vacation” from the realities of our daily lives. Perhaps, for happiness to be sustainable, we need to develop conscious capacities for nurturing our “happiness ecosystem.” We need to develop our capacities for–

  • Childlike IMAGINATION, for believing in something out of the mundane and ordinary and making it special and magical. Waheed, our Indian Pakistani Uber driver (who has sought political asylum in the US and lived in Coney Island as an Uber driver for over two years) spoke of how thrilled he was about his “magic box”—the GPS gadget—that he raved about with relatives back home in Pakistan because it enabled him to go around and earn a living while being his own boss in this foreign land. Imagination fuels hope, and hope enlivens our journey through life by giving it some direction. This was the magic of Disney World, too, I suppose! Imagineers have a way of creating the illusion that dreams can come true!
  • AFFIRMATION OF GOODNESS, and appreciating this in ourselves and others. There is godliness everywhere, even when this might not be readily apparent. We just need to open ourselves to it and connect with our fellow human beings to find it. I experienced this goodness when talking with people. The lady guard at The Metropolitan Museum who spent hours standing by the doorwacofy to the hall of classical paintings admired my sandals saying, “They look comfortable.” I replied to her with pride, “Yes, they are,” I said, “they’re made in the Philippines!” She smiled. Similarly, my grandkids took time to listen and dance to the music of an old soldier playing a solo saxophone in Central Park and dropped some coins in his box. He must have been moved by their appreciation that he asked to shake their hands. Waheed, our Uber driver, also gave Luna a lollipop, and when I taught her to say “sukran” to him he smiled and said that I was “kind” and that he will “never forget me.”
  • CONNECTION, and seeing ourselves as part of a bigger whole. This is always a humbling experience. Knowing that we are not here by “accident” but that we are part of an awe-inspiring ongoing story of Divine Creation, of human history constantly unfolding, of our family with all its frailties and imperfections constantly bonding, breaking, and re-bonding. The visit to the Museum of Natural History, The Met, and 9/11 and Korean War Memorials, and the glimpse of Lady Liberty from the ferry to Staten Island gave me this sense of connection to great human beings in the past with their remarkable accomplishments in various fields, and the triumph of the human spirit in the midst of adversity and pain…even four-year old Alonzo enjoyed seeing the skeletons of dinosaurs, and following the story of the universe even when this made him yearn to “go back to Earth!” Earth is home, a place where he experiences security and love with his family. This is where he wants to be. This is where we all want to be too, I guess.
    • RESPONSIBLE ACTION, arising from a deep sense of care and concern for each other’s home, our home—Earth. The signs of this neglect are evident everywhere. Obesity is a sign of disrespect for oneself, plastic pollution and other forms of pollution is a sign of disrespect for our shared home. Violence, the invention of 3-D gun templates in America that allows people to make their own guns to kill others, racism, and other forms of intolerance and human rights abuse is cofdisrespect for life. Happiness cannot thrive in these dire conditions. We need to awaken in conscious awareness and bring to the fore the highest teachings and ideals of our respective religions and faith traditions to engage in responsible co-creative actions to save ourselves, and our “common home.”

So I think that perhaps the problem of our humankind is a “happiness problem.” We all want to be happy, but we do not know what happiness truly means. We mistake happiness for the momentary feelings we get when on “vacation mode” from our real everyday lives, or when we attain some measure of success in our quest for power, wealth, and fame even at the expense of the wellbeing of others.

But happiness is an ecosystem. If we do not awaken from our indifference and begin to nurture it in ourselves and with one another, the rains will eventually stop the joyrides even in “the happiest places on Earth,” the floods will ruin weddings and other happy family occasions, lightning will strike and kill in many unexpected places, fire will consume forests and communities, war memorials will disappear with the ashes of what once were safe places of human habitation, plastic bottles will choke the oceans, and drug use and abuse will numb our senses until happiness becomes an illusion in a place we call “Earth” where we can no longer find ourselves returning back home to.

If we had one hour to solve humankind’s problem, perhaps we need to make time to understand what happiness truly is and what makes us happy. Maybe then we can begin to finally find some solutions to the problem of our ailing human condition…