Mental Notes with Hilary Valdez: Finding the source of our happiness

Mental Notes with Hilary Valdez: Finding the source of our happiness

by Hilary Valdez
Stripes Japan

Remember when you were a kid, with no money in your pockets? What made you happy back then?

When I was in elementary school my happiest times were eating cookies and milk while reading comic books. My needs were met— I was content. This was happiness to me.

But, growing up in New York City and getting beat up by bigger kids had an effect on my mood and emotions. PB&J sandwiches and cartoons or going out to eat massive torpedo sandwiches and Royal Crown Colas with my friends were where I’d turn for happiness. I knew that right around the corner enlightenment was sure to follow. 

When I reached junior high school, my happiness began to shift. As a chubby kid, my height almost matched my waist and I was being bullied. My happiness shifted to eating chocolate cupcakes in the school cafeteria. During gym, I broke my wrist.

My father evaluated my sour face and body language. He said, “Don’t sell yourself short. Like yourself. Believe that there is a possibility for happiness in your life.” My mother chimed in supportively smiling, signing my cast, “Despite your grief, anger, self-doubts; modify your point of view.”

Feeling uncomfortable and in pain, I knew then it was up to me to change. It was the small things in life that would lead to my happiness.

In high school, I discovered pizza and happiness slowly returned, Then one day in the kitchen, while eating a sandwich and reading for English, I found an interesting bit of information: “The secret to happiness is contentment. Happiness is a state of well-being that includes living a good life with a sense of meaning and contentment.” My father entered the kitchen and saw what I was reading and said: “The universal human tendency is to strive for happiness. Don’t plunder the present by feeling sad. And, quit eating sugar if you want those pimples to go away.” I slowly put the sandwich down; I was still chubby, but I wasn’t being bullied. My only sadness then was not being allowed to have long hair because my father insisted I wear a crew-cut. He even made it a point to personally drag me to the barber shop.

But in high school, I had friends who were happy and was in the marching band. I enjoyed playing music with other kids who were chubby, short, skinny, wore thick glasses and were pimple-faced. My self-esteem and confidence were rising along with having friends that helped me during tough times: I felt appreciated. I began changing and concluded that happiness in my life depended on the quality of my thoughts.

According to psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow, happy people or self-actualizing people have a sense of gratitude, awe, and wonder about life. During Marine Corps boot camp, the drill instructors yelled at me, forced me to exercise, called me names, and shouted “Where did you get that fat TV Butt?” I was scared out of my wits; I wasn’t happy. My father was gentle, never yelled at me or hit me. We only argued over my hair. The Marine Corps haircut made me unhappy. However, it’s been said, that happy people have a sense of humor that is “life-affirming” along with a philosophical sense of humor. I tried remembering that while under 10 feet of water, holding my breath, during abandon ship drills.

During my tour of duty in the Corps, I was forced to look at my genetic makeup and its effect on my body and happiness. I looked at my neighbors, friends, the marital status of other Marines. My friendly, muscular drill instructors told me to lose weight – immediately. I didn’t need a million dollar pay day. I was fit: for the first time in my life. At some point happiness levels off. The Corps made me realize that I have one day: today. Be happy in it. We all have a set point of happiness or well-being and sometimes we have to reset it.


Hilary Valdez is a retiree living in Japan. He is an experienced Mental Health professional and Resiliency Trainer. Valdez is a former Marine and has worked with the military most of his career and most recently worked at Camp Zama as a Master Resiliency Trainer. Valdez now has a private practice and publishes books on social and psychological issues. His books are available on Amazon and for Kindle. Learn more about Valdez and contact him at or at

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