Happy Holidays is a common utterance during this time of year, a wish that prompted me to consider the topic of happiness. Although I don’t typically struggle with contentment, I have certainly experienced periods of dark discontent and unhappy bitterness, and I know others who endure that struggle often. I have avoided writing about this topic because it is hard and made more difficult by the uniqueness of every single person’s life experiences, none of which I wish to minimize. But I’m somewhat baffled by the amount of unhappiness I hear from the media and in conversations.
Because the human brain is hard-wired for joy, it is not an emotion that requires teaching. Regardless, we human beings are a complex mixtures of traits, and because we are all “wired” differently, some traits are more dominant in us than in others—like the tendency to see a glass as half-empty rather than half-full. While we don’t learn to be happy, we must be taught optimism.
It’s easy to get pessimistic when we realize that humans are easily broken. We’re broken by life’s trials and tribulations, undone by love, fragmented by bullies or conditions that shoot holes in our confidence, or traumatized by loss—whether a consequence of death, divorce, or some other life-altering trauma. Face it, life doesn’t consider our feelings when it decides to take us down a road rutted with potholes. Rather than hiding the evidence of just how imperfect, flawed, and "not good enough" we believe we are, each of us should look for a way to cope with traumatic events in a positive way, learn from negative experiences, take the best from them, and convince ourselves that these experiences make each person unique and precious.
So, let’s agree that life isn’t fair. If it were, the smartest among us would be the wealthiest, most popular, and most successful. The trick is to take control of those circumstances that we can and to let go of those over which we have no power. Not only is playing the victim detrimental to our health, we also have to stop looking for happiness outside of ourselves or depending on others to create our happiness. Although buying something for ourselves, eating a favorite comfort food, drinking alcohol, or getting a make-over may produce happiness in the short term, they are behaviors with serious consequences if those behaviors grow into addictions. Furthermore, a craving for acceptance from outside ourselves causes us to hide from opportunities, and a need for approval from others creates anxiety and depression.
When we search for happiness through the approval of others, we commit a fundamental error because happiness does not come from outside ourselves. Rather, happiness comes from inner strength and self-confidence; it comes when we learn that emotional fulfillment derives from more than physical desire or physical appearance or physical pleasure. When we hold our head high, our perspective improves because we can see more. Until we can bend the fabric of space and time and reality to get what we want, we have to learn to accept that when bad things happen, we can choose whether to allow them to cause hurt. By controlling our attitudes about what happens, we become the masters of change rather than allowing it to enslave us. In that exercise, we find the good and choose joy!
Furthermore, when we accept who we are and work to address our flaws, we grow as individuals. Recognizing and naming what we love about ourselves makes us happier to be in our own skin. Even at its darkest moments, life is full of possibility. The trick is to remember that failure/mistake making is the fuel of learning and that trying to be perfect is our enemy since perfection is an ideal, not reality. To expect perfection from oneself or from life is not only unfair and unreasonable but impossible.
Since this topic is one with such depth that psychologists have written books about it, I am only touching on the subject of finding rays of light in the darkness. In that search, I do know the stress relieving power of a good belly laugh. We couldn’t survive without humor, without laughter. There is something about humans that makes us want to laugh when logically we should cry—sometimes we employ humor to avoid freaking other people out with our misery. And we all can likely relate to Woody Allen’s quip: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—ant it’s all over much too soon.” Acting as an elixir against disaster, such wise cracks protect us when our worlds are falling apart. That’s why we tell jokes at a eulogy or about a serious medical condition; laughter can restore both normalcy and hope in the face of tragedy. Pain leeches the color from life, but laughter is a healing song; we laugh when we don’t want to hurt. So, that’s my wish for you in 2021—that you will find much about which to laugh!
At the risk of oversimplifying, life can be considered difficult or easy; it all depends on our perspective; after all, so much of life is how we approach it. And when life gets shitty—because it always will—simply call to mind that famous pony joke. Just the thought of its punchline brings a wry smile to my face: “There must be a pony in here somewhere!”