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Stefanie Williams Headshot

My Southern Happiness and the Quality of Life

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When we were little and people asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, no five year old ever answered "happy." Tragic, right, when you think about it? Somewhere in between our answers of doctors and veterinarians and whatever else, I think at five, we all assumed happiness was part of those careers. A package deal.

At 27, I'm learning there was never a package deal. And figuring out what makes me happy has been a struggle.

I live in New York City - arguably the greatest place for someone my age to live. I am single, I bartend, and I do my writing thing. I make enough money working four days a week to live and I have a career goal. I have a good group of friends and a nice apartment and a good family and somewhere in all of that, happiness should be brewing, right? This is the city where anything and everything is possible.

So why doesn't it feel that way anymore?

What I've learned over the last year is that I am starting to believe my idea of what happiness encompassed was skewed. And the older I get, the more that idea that happiness is found on the streets of NYC is failing to live up to its hype.

Despite not being part of the 2008 class of business majors who struggled to find a job in the finance world after Lehmann, the rat race of New York City seems to have consumed my life in ways I didn't think possible for this little hippy writing chick. Amongst my peers, there is an almost silent battle of climbing different ladders. Who will get the best job, who will be promoted? Who lives in the best area of the city, who will get their first big break? Who is engaged, who will have the best wedding? Who will buy the first house and who will have the first kid? Who will be the first to that mountaintop we set out to conquer when we were five and were asked what we wanted to be? Here's a clue - it won't be me. At least not that mountaintop.

There is nothing wrong with setting goals and wanting to achieve them. However, I have just found in all those goals that seem so typical among my age bracket, few worked out for me, and I don't know if I ever necessarily set them for myself. So was I supposed to give up? Raise a white flag? Concede defeat in a rat race I never even really signed up for? In between watching my friends all move up the ranks in their respective jobs and asking me if I planned on bringing my gay best friend as a date to their weddings, I began to wonder why happiness seemed to be evading me. At first I thought maybe I had outgrown New York. But maybe the truth is, New York outgrew me and the things I want for myself.

Charleston, South Carolina was a southern escape that in many ways saved my life last year after a bad situation with a guy. I found ways to live again down there that for some reason I just couldn't find in New York. The people were nicer. The pace was slower. I felt like everyone seemed more content with their lives whether they were living in mansions or shacks on the beach. I wanted so badly to be a part of that. To bring the genuine happiness I found in writing to a warm place on an even plain, free of ladders and expectations. People seemed to just be living for the moment, not living for a future. Living for themselves, not their reputations. And this appealed to me. There were more people like me and fewer people trying to get ahead of me.

And yet my fear of leaving the supposed well of countless opportunities New York affords keeps me in my three-bedroom apartment for the moment. "You'll never get an apartment like that if you want to come back," I'm warned. "You'll have to get used to making less money," they tell me. So I stay in my little safe haven on the Upper East Side, waiting for a big break in the midst of all my New York disappointments that will fit in with the New York City life I have set roots into. And I ask myself, "what exactly am I waiting for?"

Admitting what made me happy and the prospect that it might not include New York has felt like admitting I did something wrong. Admitting defeat. And it's not. I found an alternative, a quality of life that genuinely fills my heart with the closest thing I've felt to happiness in a long time, and I'm so afraid to take it and make it my own because I have been quietly promised by all of society that something better in New York is going to give if I just keep trying. A prince on a white horse and a "real job" if I just keep trying. I am tired of trying. And I don't even know what I am trying for anymore, other than the ability to keep up with others around me who seem way more capable of living a life suitable for Park Ave and mortgage payments.

While some of the people around me fit into the race like a round peg, I can't be the only one who longs to quit, right? Who wants to seek happiness somewhere else, somewhere no five year old was taught to believe it could be found? Making ends meet in a service industry job (unless my writing career becomes my main source of income, which is strongly possible), spending weekends on the beach with a dog and a blank Word page somewhere far from the ol' boys club and the social climbers of NYC. Some might say my desire to uproot and move south is settling. Maybe they're right. But I think too many people are too afraid of what makes them truly happy because it doesn't fit in with the standard of happiness our social circles have become accustomed to.

What makes me happy... I don't know for sure just yet. But I know I felt closer to finding that answer a few thousand miles south where life felt more like living than waiting. Does that make me a bad New Yorker? Does it make me a quitter? Maybe. But I challenge every New Yorker, sitting at their desk, working for the weekend, not taking their full vacations and following the path of that successful generation before us hoping eventually it all pays off... are you really happy? And is this how you thought it would be?