New York City, NY

How Talking to a Homeless Person Taught Me the True Meaning of Happiness

Jordan Gross

The smallest things have the largest return

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I’ve had a rough couple of days.

The most meaningful relationship I have ever been in came to a screeching halt. The unexpectedness combined with the beliefs about myself circulating through my mind have made it difficult for a guy who writes about, studies, and teaches happiness — to be just that — happy.

I’ve been exercising. I’ve been talking to people. I’ve been journaling, deep breathing, staying busy (whatever that means), and doing all of the necessary fixes that I would tell others to do in my situation. But this does not mean that I don’t still have thoughts. This does not mean that I don’t still have thoughts about her. This does not mean I am not hurt. This does not mean I am all of a sudden happy again.

I’ve broken out my puffy jacket from my closet. It’s finally starting to feel like winter here in New York City, which means it’s time for me to start drinking more hot tea. Just before walking into Starbucks, I saw a homeless man on the corner holding a cardboard sign. Not an unusual sight in the city, but what was unusual was his warm greeting. “Good morning.” He looked at me and grinned.

I got to the front of the line and ordered my absurdly priced tea. I decided to pay in cash so that I’d have some change for the man waiting outside. I walked out the door, and I handed him a dollar bill. Clearly grateful, he thanked me and told me to have a blessed day.

I began to cross the street, but for some reason — I can’t explain why; it was just one of those feelings — I stopped in the middle of the road, almost got hit by a car, and then returned to the homeless man.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” I didn’t even wait for him to answer. “What is the happiest part of your day?”

“Maaaaan, I don’t even know if I can answer that. I haven’t had a happy day in a loooooong time.”

I was crushed. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Kevin.” He said, and we shook hands.

Kevin had long dreadlocks, and he was wearing a beanie. He was smoking a cigarette, and he carried recyclables with him to try to make a few extra bucks from picking up loose cans.

“Kevin, I’m sorry to hear that, but can you try to think of the last day you were happy? What happened?”

“You know what man? I think it’s days where I get to help people, ya know? Because that’s who I really am. I know it doesn’t seem like it because of my situation, but I’m really a good person, and I really believe that when I get to show that I’m a good person and people see the real me and don’t judge me or nothing, then that’s when I feel the most happy.”

And just like that, from the unlikeliest of sources, I had a newfound understanding of how to become happier.

1. “It’s days where I get to help people, ya know?”

Kevin was sincere in his yearning to help other people, even though he doesn’t always get the chance. It was truly eye-opening for me to hear from somebody who seemingly has nothing that giving means everything.

Something I have neglected in my grieving process has been my ultimate desire to help other people. I have never been a venter because I rarely put myself in situations to be hurt, but venting has felt good. But what venting has also done is disallow me the opportunity to be the problem-solver for others I normally am. Helping Kevin, even when it was just a worthless dollar to me, reframed how I would better navigate my path back to happiness.

2. “Because that’s who I really am.”

Kevin is happiest when he simply gets to be himself. He isn’t often afforded this opportunity, but he mentioned that when he can be him, and others can see who he really is, like me in our conversation for instance, then he is able to feel happy and maintain the hope that things will turn out for the better.

I have received a lot of advice. A whole lot of advice. Because it’s rare that I am ever upset. It’s rare that I am ever not happy. I’ve gotten a lot of “screw her” and “never talk to her again”, but that has honestly made me feel worse, and now I know why. Because that is not me. I cannot do that. I will not do that. I will never be that person. Because the second I stop being me is the second I lose sight of what truly makes me happy.

3. “And don’t judge me or nothing.”

Kevin faces judgment all day long. People scold him. People ignore him. People laugh at him. People call the cops on him. People make up stories about him that most often do not have a happy beginning, middle, or end. But Kevin doesn’t want to be judged. Kevin doesn’t want to be judged by you, by me, and certainly not by himself. So please stop.

I must stop judging myself for what I could have done differently. I must stop judging myself for what I believe I did wrong. Judgment does not make anyone better off. The less I can judge and the more I can just be, the happier I know I will become.

Bringing It All Together

“My happiness is about the little things man.”

This phrase from Kevin just about summed up our entire conversation. Focusing on the little things often has the greatest return. Out of all the friends and family members I have spoken to over the last few days, Kevin was the person who made me realize what I needed to do to get back on track.

Happiness is a current state. It comes and goes and goes and comes. The goal may be to maximize the amount of time that we are in this state throughout our days and lives, but to say that it is always where we want to be would be doing all the other emotions a disservice.

If I were happy all the time, I would never have talked to Kevin. And if I never would have talked to Kevin, then I never would have understood the fundamental truths that helping people, being myself, and relinquishing judgment are the key ingredients to redefining my happiness.

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