How To Be Happy: Wisdom From The Coast of Colombia

professor contreras talking on how to be happy, wisdom from the coast of colombia
Professor Contreras hosting a farewell party for his students in Santa Marta, Colombia.

Happiness is a common theme of this blog, because at the end of the day I think that’s what everyone is searching for. For this segment, I called up my friend, John David Contreras Abello (aka Professor Contreras). He currently teaches English at La Universidad de Magdalena in his native Colombia and is planning a move to the United States in January. Professor Contreras is known by everyone for his high energy and positive outlook on life. He has been featured on this blog in a number of articles including Pro Tips For Improving Your Accent In Any Foreign Language Featuring a University Professor; Life in the United States: Confessions of a Colombian Traveler; and A Spiritual Perspective: Fascinating Interview With A Christian Pastor. The following is an account of a live one-hour interview on WhatsApp. FYI, you can find Professor Contreras on Instagram at @johndcontreras.

How do you define happiness?

Happiness for me is first being thankful for what we have. Second, it’s knowing who we are. People aren’t happy because they don’t know who they are. And happiness appears when we know who we are–when we know our purpose. Also, I think happiness has to do with quality of relationships. We can all think of people who were raised in big houses and had everything, but aren’t happy. Of course, we want to live a good lifestyle, but happiness goes beyond material things. It’s more than having a car or a big house. It’s having the right environment, and by that I mean connections with friends and family. Feeling loved by those who are important. Happiness is a mixture of many factors that influence our emotions.

You and I have talked about the role of culture and happiness. You had a great time in the US, but you noted your perception that people in Santa Marta are happier. Why do you think this is?

As Colombians, we are a happy people, especially here on the coast where I live. First, it’s because of the energy we have. Of course, we have issues and stuff we don’t like, but we are an energized people. Part of it has to do with the sun. The sun here is out year-round. If you ever go to my hometown, you’re surrounded by nature. You can walk around and soak it in. People love going to the beach here. So we get that energy from each other, but we also get it from nature.

We are a people that loves to party. We know how to have a good time. It’s doesn’t have to be a big thing. We have what’s called “picó.” It’s a sound system that plays music, even if it’s just a few people sitting there. You will hear music on almost every corner. We have another something called “paseo de olla” (pot stroll), when people go by the river and cook out. So it’s part of our culture, part of who we are.

One of the things I noticed when I went to the US is that people are stressed out. People there need to chill out. Spend time with the family. Go out, laugh, and then afterwards go back to what you were doing. The problems will still be there, but you will see them from another point of view.

A lot of people have family, work, or school responsibilities that seem to take precedence over the pursuit of happiness. What would you say to these people?

Professor Contreras dining at a café in Santa Marta with friends Brenda and Laura.

I understand that people have responsibilities. As a matter of fact, I have a lot of responsibilities here at the university. Sometimes I feel like I can’t take on any new ones, and sometimes I get stressed out. But you have to think about yourself too. It’s not only about work, it’s not only about responsibilities. I saw a meme a few weeks ago, “If you die, you will be replaced at your job within a week. Your boss will not miss you.” You have to take care of yourself.  

It’s also important to budget for happiness. Make time to meet with people. Again, it doesn’t have to be this big thing. I don’t like big parties, but I always make time for friends and family. For example, I hang around every Sunday after church because we need that as people. It’s not the same being alone. People can energize and encourage each other. And people are funny. I like laughing because you release energy. You release a lot of stress. You release many negative things when you laugh.  

I know you’re somebody who’s conscious of how your life decisions impact other people. I regularly see you go out of your way to reach out to others. How have you managed to tie your happiness to that of other people?

Part of my purpose is to help people out. When I help someone, and I see that God me to bring answers to a problem or to a difficult situation that a person is going through, I feel happy, I feel great about that. So I like helping people. Sometimes I cannot deny that I get stressed out, too. I’m a Pastor, and people depend a lot on what I say. I have always taught people to put their sight on Christ. He is the one who will help you out with everything. I teach people to depend on God. And that takes some of the pressure off me.

People sometimes ask me why I laugh so much, “Why are you always laughing? Don’t you have problems?” Of course, I do. But by being angry and upset, I’m not going to solve them. People also try to find their happiness by imitating other people. Let’s say I am not a happy person, and I know someone who is. But I also have to understand something. That person’s purpose and my purpose might be very different, so I may not find happiness living their lifestyle. Purpose is always about helping others, but what that looks like for each individual is different.

How advice would you give someone reading this who wants to increase their happiness?

Find a friend. It doesn’t take many. Find someone with whom you share the same goals. Another secret to being happy is not finding a friend who thinks like you but a friend who thinks different from you. Because someone who thinks differently will make you see things you don’t see. And that change in perspective is sometimes all it takes to increase your happiness.  

What measures can that same someone take today?

Call a friend and talk for hours. . . Tell a joke to the first person you see. . . Go out to eat with someone. . . Go to the park and enjoy nature. . . Go to the gym with a friend. . . Do something for someone in need. . . You find happiness in the little things.

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