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More to life than the pursuit of happiness

I was working on my BlackBerry when an e-mail from my sister-in-law's sister slipped in unnoticed last Saturday. I spotted it only when I stopped for a break a few hours later. She wrote: "Am writing to see if you can help a four-year-old girl.

"She has been falling and vomiting for the past one month or so. Her left eyeball has moved to the inner side of her eye. Her speech has become slurred and she drools. I saw the girl two weeks ago. Her condition has become worse today."

To me, those symptoms are big red flags waving right in front of my eyes. This girl almost certainly has a brain tumour. I arranged for my neurosurgeon colleague to see her that night at KK Women's and Children's Hospital. A CT scan showed a brainstem glioma - an invariably fatal condition. She has only 12 to 18 months to live.

Her parents had gone through a bad patch financially four years ago and the family almost broke up. The birth of this child brought them back together. She is a naturally cheerful, chatty and lovable kid. So, this has hit them hard.

Indeed, the doctors who know about this unfortunate girl all feel extremely sorry for her and her family. But it is not uncommon for clinicians to see these misfortunes. They are also not immune from personal hardships.

Happiness, in whatever form one sees it, becomes more elusive the harder one tries to pursue it. That's why my personal aim is much more realistic: All I ask for is calmness and contentment. These at least are partially within my control.

The neurosurgeon who saw her in KKH that night had a baby born in 1992 with Down syndrome. Over the years, they have come to terms with the condition of their mentally handicapped but good-natured and loving son. The young man represented Singapore at the Special Olympics for those with intellectual disabilities and won two gold medals in the swimming competition. He is also gainfully employed and works at the National University Hospital as a porter. He is happy to say: "My father works in a hospital and so do I."

Both parents have done all that they can do to help him develop. I think they have done a good job, and I admire them for so calmly accepting what most people would consider a setback and a lifelong burden. Their faith in the Christian God helped them not only come to terms with the situation but also to love and take pride in the achievements of their mentally challenged son.

How would I, an atheist, cope with misfortune? My emotional response would depend on how I view this situation. I could consider the glass being half full rather than half empty. For example, be grateful when a child with Down syndrome is very good-hearted and lovable, and take pleasure in his achievements whatever their form. This is what Stoic philosophy would teach us. This was eloquently phrased in Rudyard Kipling's poem, If: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same."

The way I was brought up, the pursuit of happiness was never an activity that we engaged in. That does not mean we grew up miserable. Getting injections and going for dental treatment without making a fuss or crying earned Mama's praise and that was happiness enough. Perhaps my Hakka toughness is the result of a Hokkien mother who wanted her children to grow up resilient and stoic. Helping my classmate with his studies because the teacher was going too fast in class also gave me a sense of happiness which is doubled when he does well in the exam. Yet, I am aware that the final arbiter of success is how he copes in society as an adult: what job can he do and will he do it?

In the United States Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson, with minor amendments by Benjamin Franklin, is this line:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

The above events, however, have caused me to ponder whether it is wise for us to consider the pursuit of happiness an inalienable right. The four-year-old girl's fate still weighs heavy on my mind and serves as another example to myself that it is simply not easy to be happy.

I am by nature a restless person and feel the need to be gainfully occupied even on my own time, whether exercising or learning something new, like the characteristics of the cathedral we toured. Perhaps, that is a genetic trait. In the long poem If by Kipling, the part most frequently quoted by my father is: "If you can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds' worth of distance run."

My need to fill the unforgiving minute must have been expressed in some unconscious behaviour which led one acquaintance to say: "Ling, you don't seem to be able to enjoy yourself." This was during a cruise down the Rhine that I took last December. (Most of my fellow passengers were elderly white Americans. At 60, I was the third-youngest of the group; a couple on honeymoon were younger than me.)

I had no reply to this comment. How do I make an American, who has probably imbibed "it is the unalienable right of every man to pursue happiness" from the time she was in first grade, see life from my point of view. I grew up with the concept that I am a member of my family and my society and I owe a duty to both. The pursuit of happiness ranks behind my duty to Singapore and our society, even my filial duties come before the right to pursue happiness.

Socially, I tend to avoid parties and big gatherings. But with the mobile phone, it is impossible to escape greetings by SMS or WhatsApp. I never initiate such greetings, but on receiving one, my standard answer is "the same to you and your family". When I needed to thank friends for presents they've sent, I usually write: "Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy and peaceful new year."

I use the same response for Chinese New Year as well because "gong xi fa cai" is to wish the person to gain great wealth and I don't think wealth on its own brings one happiness.

But to some people, wealth is the most important thing in their life, and they are forever endeavouring to accumulate more wealth. Whenever they gain more, it is never enough, and they then plan or plot to gain even more. It is an endless pursuit in self-gratification with no meaningful purpose in life.

Happiness, in whatever form one sees it, becomes more elusive the harder one tries to pursue it. That's why my personal aim is much more realistic: All I ask for is calmness and contentment. These at least are partially within my control.

I don't believe pursuing happiness is an effective way to achieve happiness. By behaving well, and by helping our fellow humans negotiate the obstacles that are part of life are more effective ways to become happy. Doing so will make the people around us happy as well. There is nothing profound in this, but sometimes simple solutions can achieve what complex thought cannot.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'More to life than the pursuit of happiness'. Print Edition | Subscribe