What constitutes "happiness" in the immigrant experience?

When I was teaching English at an auto parts factory in North Philly, I knew a student who worked 40+ hours at the assembly line--mostly standing--and then went home, took a nap, and started his night shift at a packing plant. Did I mention he also worked weekends as a parking attendant?

In these cases, I often find myself wondering several things:

  • Is this what my student imagined he'd be doing with his life in the U.S.?
  • How long can he sustain this level of work?
  • And most importantly, is he happy?

By all appearances, he seemed tired but always in good spirits. Of course, his happiness could largely be affected by whether or not he was working so much by necessity or choice.

When I hear of students working such long hours, they seem superhuman. I wonder when they have time to think about their true wishes and dreams. What are their life goals? What would they be doing if they didn't have to work 80 hours a week? Or do they not think this way at all?

A clinical psychologist named Viktor Frankl gave me some insight into happiness versus meaning. The two do not always co-exist, nor should they. Sometimes creating meaning comes out of suffering, as the Holocaust survivor can attest to:

"This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any 'how.'"

My grandfather, who lived through imprisonment and torture during World War II and in the communist era that followed, understood the "how" well. He dwelled on the "how" of his experiences for most of my childhood, and he tried to shape it into the "why" of his existence. In the end, I think what he got out of his suffering was that in the act of constantly remembering, he was teaching future generations not to forget.

What, then, do immigrants and refugees get out of working long hours? Where does meaning fit in to the experience of living in survival mode and trying to pay bills you can barely cover?

It's easy for those of us who have never lived as immigrants or refugees to say, "well, at least it's better than before. Like, way better. They're not starving or being tortured or fleeing from their homes, so of course whatever situation they're in must be a happier one."

That belief confuses safety and happiness. One can be safe and have meaning. One could be happy and have no meaning. There are various combinations that are not necessarily synonymous.

So, back to our original question. Is my overworked student happy? Is the student who failed the citizenship test three times happy? What about the student who is 70 years old and spends all day shuttling between doctors' appointments, relying on a translator or family member for communication?

These are questions I can't answer. But, I'd like to think that immigrating to a new place isn't about finding happiness. Many of my students don't find contentment or peace, but they do find meaning in their work, sometimes even just the simple act of working. In the case of refugees, many of them have never had the chance to work before and haven't figured out what sort of meaning their lives will have yet--they haven't had the years of privilege that we've had to think about those things and test them out. Maybe they didn't have little league or chess club or theater to discover their talents. Maybe they didn't get to travel or learn to write. Maybe no one ever presented happiness or meaning as options in the first place, and so they did not stumble upon them immediately the way we do as Americans, being spoon-fed articles on our newsfeeds about the importance of being happy and mindful, or stumbling upon feel-good mantras on our Instagram feeds and seeing them proudly displayed above doorways and on classroom walls.

I think it's unfair to ask whether or not someone new to this country is happy or content or aspiring to be something meaningful. A newcomer might not have discovered avenues to explore these options yet, or they might have discovered pockets of meaning (supporting family, getting an education) but not their overarching life purpose.

I leave you with one last quote from Viktor Frankl:

"Happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself."

My students' lives may appear devoid of overall happiness the way we think of it in American terms. They may not take trips to the spa or go on cruise vacations or drink craft brews in beer gardens. They might not have time carved out for themselves, but they understand that happiness is part of a constantly re-negotiated cause-effect relationship. Happiness can't remain in place all the time, otherwise life stagnates and growth doesn't happen.

What do you think about happiness and meaning? How do they relate to one another? How does the immigrant experience affect the pursuit of each?

If you'd like to read Viktor Frankl's work, check out this great article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/