One day, after the fourteenth emotional breakdown from one of my two young boys, I found myself preaching the idea of happiness being a choice. “Choose happiness! It’s a choice. You have the control!”
Yes, my boys are three and five years old so I realize that without their fully evolved ability to self-regulate, this concept is not actually applicable. But I figure, why not start the dialogue early? Are we right to assume that because it’s hard for children to put things into perspective that we as adults have mastered this skill simply because we’ve been around for longer? I’m not sure about you, but I know all too well how easy it is to get stuck in the weeds.
Those damn weeds.
It can be quite comical to witness a child stuck in these proverbial weeds. There they are arms stretched out, looking to the sky, “Why why why me?!” they seem to be lamenting. I may sound insensitive but after about a hundred of these outbursts that mainly stem from such things as the wrong colour straw or being called a poo poo face, one has to laugh at the rationale behind the emotion.
Ahhh, but when we’re in it ourselves, there isn’t much humour hovering close by. I can know that something is not that big of a deal but if I’ve been swept up by the drama already, it’s hard to stay mindful of that. I have to admit that even though intellectually I can know all the right things to do—be present, choose happiness, be positive—it’s not always innate in me to follow through. I think happiness is all around us—we just have to choose it to see it. Here are a few things I tell myself when irritation, frustration, and anger get in the way of the pure happiness that is right there for the taking.
It’s better to try things than sit around and think about it.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said this:
It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.
The first time I saw this quote, it was written on a wall behind the bar of my favorite pub. Perched on a bar stool, I stared at that quote for a while and then back to the novel I was writing, with the cursor blinking in front of me on my laptop. I realized that if this thing never saw the light of day, it didn’t matter as much as it did that I was at least doing it. I was writing a book. And after five years, several workshops, a thesis advisor, an entire degree, I placed it in the hands of my mentor, a very successful novelist. She said it wasn’t finished. I agreed. I decided to admit frankly that it simply wasn’t good enough.
I put it in a box never to be seen again.
I was sad for a little bit, and I felt bad for my characters that they had died in a way but then I felt a release. This release was from my own impatience. My new attitude reflected a sense of positivity. I had tried something that I had thought about trying since I was twelve years old. I had to realize that there were other projects in my future and that the skill of writing well may take a few thousand hours pecking away at a keyboard. The only way you fail is when you don’t try. Having too much ego about putting yourself out there is incredibly boring and will inevitably end up in unhappiness. There is alway happiness in the pursuit of passion.
Don’t compare yourself to anyone.
Every week I go to my family medical clinic and get allergy shots and every time there seems to be a hotter, younger resident floating around. Last week I met with one of the residents to take a look at my knee that’s been bothering me lately. I watched her porcelain-skinned hands move my leg gently forwards and backwards as she spoke in her sweet, soft voice. She did not have one wrinkle, nor did she have the edge of someone who’d been there, done that, seen this and cured that. I stared at her thinking, “How in the hell have you completed medical school and you’re working as a doctor in a clinic and your skin looks so damn hydrated?!” What have I been doing with my life? What did I do with my twenties? I’m a total failure.
And this is where things can go South.
For every hot body, there is another one up the road with flatter abs, tighter thighs and a perkier butt. For every woman who has kids, makes six figures and run charities, there is another who runs a country. And for every person you think has the perfect life, there is a therapy bill to prove that we are all only human and the world is sometimes a pretty crappy place.
Being competitive in sports is hot; being competitive in life is not. All it does is suck the happiness right out of the moment. So, I commented on her amazing hair and how impressive it was that (warning her to please not take offence and only as a compliment) she’s so young and successful. I walked out of there feeling really proud of her as a woman. That made me happy.
Impact people by what you do, not by what you tell people about yourself.
Have you ever been mid-story, telling what you think is a pretty incredible tale that sums up your entire existence and then someone interrupts you?
If you’ve ever read Eckhart Tolle you know how he explains that the path to happiness is through the present moment. Spiritual teachers throughout history, along with Buddhists, have suggested the same thing. Being present is a beautiful thing, although impossible for some people. We may think the only way to practice this is to meditate or stare at a flower but really, a cocktail party is the best place to start.
It sounds easy but there you are, listening to someone telling a story and your response is being concocted at the same time, just waiting for the right moment to interject and share your thoughts. “I have the most interesting thing to say right now. I have a response! It’s going to blow everyone’s mind. I must share!!!” Being so eager to share our experience, we completely miss the moment and at the same time, we cut off the oxygen to someone else’s important experience.
I have done it. I’ve done it more times than I care to admit. But when I really sit there and listen and take in what someone is saying without any thought of past and future, or personal anecdotes, my soul is nurtured.
Happiness not only lies in the present moment, it also comes from giving of ourselves.
As the late Maya Angelou said,
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Look in the mirror and be honest with yourself.
The only person in the world I can’t lie to is myself. Once we become brave enough to strip away the rationalizations and mitigation in the dialogue to ourselves, we become free. We may not like ourselves for a little while but as Marilyn Monroe once said,
“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.”
Don’t take things so damn seriously.
When I was sixteen my aunt moved in with us. My mom had just died and she was going through a nasty divorce so my dad figured we’d offer each other a source of comfort. In the end, he’s never been more right about anything.
One day, she asked me to join her in court to offer support and hold her hand. My dad sat on the other side of her. At one point, about halfway through the proceedings, as her ex was questioned on his previous employment (trying to establish that he actually made a dollar here and there), he mentioned working as an animal homicide investigator. “You know, looking into, say, the mysterious death of horse,” he’d said proudly. This was a man who had lived off my aunt for decades, sometimes drinking away her hard earned cash and living in the apartment that she had purchased while working as a nurse. But here he was establishing himself as a legitimate animal homicide investigator. It was too much for my aunt to bear and so, the giggles began to penetrate her entire body. As her shoulders pumped feverishly and her face became cherry red attempting to suffocate the laughter, my dad passed me a note. “Make her stop laughing,” he implored. But like anyone sitting next to someone laughing at a time when one should not be laughing, I joined the giggle fest. The judge was visibly annoyed but we just couldn’t stop ourselves. It was then that I realized, there can be humour found in the darkest of times.
We all have problems. Whether it be within our marriages, our friendships, our work, finances, inner demons–we can all attest to have some type of struggle. We could try and remind ourselves how lucky we are to live where we do with freedom and justice as we try to unhinge ourselves from sadness or frustration over first world issues. But the reality is, whatever the challenge, it is our reality and ours alone. So respect the emotion but don’t stay there long. At the end of this life, will that problem be what you remember? Or will the moment at which happiness was reached be the vision that sticks with us after years of getting stuck in the gutter of negative thinking, over and over? I’m hoping and I’m thinking the latter.