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Years before the news of ISIS in Iraq, I took my colleagues out to a restaurant for lunch to celebrate their hard work at Women for Women International Baghdad, Iraq office. I sat next to Umm Ahmed, the office cleaner, but almost didn’t recognize her at first. Instead of wearing her cleaning clothes, she had on a beautiful purple dress, a nicely pressed black shirt, and a matching purple scarf. She looked lovely as she turned to me and said, “I can’t thank you enough for today. This is the happiest day of my life.”

“Wonderful!” I said. “But let us wait for the food to arrive and hope it is really good.”

“It doesn’t matter how the food tastes,” Umm Ahmed explained. “I am just happy thatI am inside a restaurant. I have always dreamt of getting into a restaurant and today you made my dream come true. Thus it is the happiest day of my life.”

This took me by surprise. I admit going to restaurants is something that I take for granted and never think of as a source of privilege. So the awareness that going to a restaurant is something many never had access to was a humbling learning experience in and of itself. But for that act to be the happiest moment in this woman’s life was hard for me to accept. So I pushed forward, inquiring, “Truly, there must be another happier moment in your life Umm Ahmed.” And with this I asked her about her marriage and the birth of her children and she kept insisting that none were pleasant memories.

Her arranged husband to a man 20 years her senior did not bring her joy, the birth of her girls brought disappointment, and the birth of her son came at a time when there was no food to share. But when I asked about her childhood I finally saw a joyous twinkle in her eyes. She initially denied there were any happy experiences, as she faced poverty in her youth and went hungry many nights. But the spark in her eyes finally came when she talked about the days her father came home with food, as many other days he didn’t arrive home with groceries.

That childhood memory of food evoked the same happiness she exuded when she told me about her dream of dining in a restaurant. Both sources of her happiness were related to money, or that’s how she saw it when she explained to me: “At the end of the day, the reasons for all my sorrow, my fights with my husband, my daughters quarreling with their own husbands, is ultimately about money. We didn’t have it, and we still don’t have it, so it consumes all of our attention and takes away all of our joy.”

Well, one cannot deny that the lack of money and resources in general can lead to a lot of stress and stress does indeed lead to unhappiness. To deny this reality and instead tell people you are free to create the life you want is, in my opinion,insensitive to the reality millions of people live in around the world. It helps to have education, resources, and a support system—even if it’s just one person who believes in you—to walk the journey of your chosen destination. When none of these factors exist in someone’s life, it is not impossible, but it is darn hard—very hard—for that person to come out on the other side and achieve her or his dream. We simply need to acknowledge that reality even as we talk about the possibilities of hope and change in people’s lives.

Having said all of that, I still believe that money is not the source of happiness. I may have worked with the poor for 20 years but I know many people who have all the wealth in the world and they are still struggling with the same concept of happiness. In a nice restaurant in New York City, a friend recently told me, “I just got this beautiful house. I had it built and thought of every detail in it. It is beautiful in every way I can think of. But can I tell you I am happy? No. I am not happy.” For this friend, all the enjoyment that can be achieved by money, a successful career, and a wonderful family were indeed met. And yet after years of working hard to get all that he was able to attain, there was still, to his surprise, no happiness. So what is happiness then and how can we get it?

Recently I was hiking in the mountains after a year of addressing some sadness I was carrying in my heart. And in the midst of the silence of the mountain, I thought of all the beauty that Mother Earth provides us, and surrounds us always. Yet we keep on looking for heaven and peace as if it’s in another world, in a place that we cannot reach and attain until we die. But indeed we have it all right here, all the time, in front of us, in the most equalizing factor for all beings: humans and animals, poor and rich, countries and cultures, ethnicities and race. In that moment, I realized, like Umm Ahmed and my friend with the new house, I too have been looking for happiness as if it is somewhere I could not reach—something that existed outside of me, be it love from other people, resources, or whatever we each concern our minds with. But what if happiness is not something to attain from the outside? What if it is inside our hearts that are as close to us as nature is to us all. And yet we spend years thinking it is as far away as heaven is to us all?

The motto for hiking a mountain is go slowly, slowly. This way you do not exhaust yourself fast, at least in technical terms. When I was forced to walk slowly, I realized that the patient pace was forcing me to hear myself better and to be more in tune with what is around me. This made me think of my life, the lives of many other people, and how fast we go about it, valuing our doings and not valuing our “not doing.” But that very process exhausts us and makes us miss hearing our own soul’s wants and needs. Inner peace lies deep in silence, as silent as the nature around us. It’s like we run around and make noises and spend and drink and dance and do all these things to attain happiness from outside ourselves. What if it is the reverse process? What if, within that slow confrontation of the silences, we can eventually tap into what I call peace? Peace being the ultimate happiness as I see it. What if we are each individually the cake of our own happiness, fully in charge of what bring our souls joy, and that the people around us are the cream on the cake? They can sometimes make life tastier but a cream by itself is never the main ingredient of a delicious cake.

Happiness is not a mythical concept that is hard to attain. To achieve happiness,however, does entail much work. But that work is done on the soul level and not a material one. Material resources help give us the time and space to focus on what is meaningful, and a peaceful environment can do the same, but ultimately the path to peace and happiness is through the clearing up of whatever issues may have provided obstacles to being who we truly are. Addressing our own responsibility for each story is essential, as well as communicating our truth with loved ones in ways that lead to healing rather than blame. That is hard work—very, very hard work—that no one else can do for us. In the process of doing the personal work, staying in the uncomfortable moments of pain, and holding the space to those feelings without rejecting them or filling them with busy activities eventually leads us to peace within the heart. This peace is what brings me joy, personally. This peace is being fully present in the moment, wherever we may be, and fully absorbing everything around you. This peace is being in nature, the earthly heaven that is right here in front of us.This peace is in the ability to find love and joy from within and not become preoccupied with outside forces. What if happiness is as simple as silence? What if it is as beautiful and quiet and free as nature? What if our heartbeats are as peaceful as that of Mother Earth’s? What if we all can find that quite and peace regardless of our circumstances? Is it possible? It may be harder for Umm Ahmed to defy her harsh circumstances to get there and when survival is at stake it is that much harder, but even she can access that serene peace inside her heart. And if your basic needs are met and you are living in a country with no wars, you definitely can. Just take one step towards the beauty that surrounds all of us and feel that silence in your heart. And then yes, you can. Happiness is right here inside.

About Zainab Salbi

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