Once upon a time, I was a little kid in a very big family in Afghanistan.  I used to spend most of my time in my imagination. I did not have a doll to play with, but I used to take a stick and design hands and feet with strings and imagine that stick as my doll. I was very happy during my playtime.

However, as I grew up, the meaning of happiness gradually changed in my life. For example, a few of my school classmates had refrigerators at home, and each of them brought a bottle of frozen water to drink from every day. I always imagined that if my family had a refrigerator, then I would be the luckiest and happiest child. I imagined our future refrigerator every day in school.

Time flew by and I was studying very hard. I believed I would be the happiest girl if I became the top student. Every year my grades got better. I became the top student with better grades than anyone else in the class. I believed that if I was a smart student, I would get a good job in the future.  I would have a salary to buy a refrigerator for my family. Everything was planned in my imaginary world, and everything I imagined was joyful.

When I began the 9th grade, I still thought being the top student would make me the happiest girl in the world. However, the time came when I faced an arranged marriage, and a real nightmare interrupted my imaginary world.

My new situation entirely changed my idea of happiness. An arranged marriage was never been part of what I dreamed, never something I imagined would bring me happiness. The situation was a true nightmare. During that period, I thought I would be the happiest girl if I stayed independent and avoided this marriage.

It took many years to succeed and to overcome that nightmare, but I finally got my independence. Eventually, I became independent enough to travel abroad and to get an education in Bangladesh. My freedom allowed me to see myself in a new light and to learn who I really am as a human being. I could develop my inner world, my goals and future, and pay attention to my feelings in each moment. My independence has helped me not only to know myself but also to understand others.

As I have grown up, the meaning of happiness has changed. At this stage, I believe happiness is life itself. Life is a gift and a chance to see who we are. Every one of us is allowed to choose what makes us happy inwardly. During my childhood, I chose imagination as my route to happiness. Today I understand that happiness is not an object to be touched. No refrigerator can make me the happiest girl.

In The Mind of the Leader, Rasmus Hougaard says that true happiness does not come from external sources. True happiness involves living a meaningful, purposeful, and positive life. He notes that human beings generally make two mistakes about happiness.  First, they believe happiness comes from the outside. And secondly, they mistake pleasure for happiness.

Today I believe that only I can decide for myself what happiness is in life and what makes me truly happy. Even if I have everything in the world–money, a fancy house, and more–none of that will make me happy unless I am happy on the inside.

Please help Shagufa raise funds to pursue her education and help end child marriage in developing countries. Donate here: ShagufaGoFundMe