For many years when my husband and I were first together I would ask him "When are things going to get better?" We were dealing with the usual stressors that couples face: not enough time, not enough money, and the inevitable random events such as family conflict, deaths of loved ones, illnesses and injuries. In addition, for most of our early years together I was in school and struggling with the balancing of demands of advanced education, part-time work, and a family. But I had the belief that we were working towards this perfect life that one day would emerge shining a rainbow of happiness forever over us. My husband, inclined more toward the practical, just answered my question of "When are things going to get better?," with "Another six months." That answer typically pacified me for awhile because I thought I could handle any amount of stress for six months. However, a point would occur when I once again I asked my husband "When are things going to get better?" Once again, he would answer "Another six months." This scenario occurred fairly routinely for many years.
However, fortunately during this time I had experiences that began to teach me about my expectations of life. In particular, when I was completing my internship at the Veterans Administration Medical Center I had the opportunity to work on the spinal cord injury unit. That experience forever changed my thinking. In particular, I was struck by the differences in attitude among the patients. My job was to psychologically evaluate each patient. Some of those I evaluated had a recent spinal cord injury and some were returning for follow-up visits. Every patient on that unit, however, had a life-changing injury. Never would they walk again and some couldn't use their hands or even needed assistance with breathing. Every one of them had sustained major changes and losses in their life. Some of them not only lost the physical use of their body, but they lost a girlfriend or wife who couldn't handle the situation, or a job that was part of their self-identity. Yet, what I noticed was that no matter what the losses were or the length of time since the injury, the patients could be divided into two categories: happy or miserable.
Those who were happy reported thinking such as "Yeah, this sucks, but I still have dreams. There are still things I can do. And I'm going to focus on those things." Those who were miserable made statements such as "This is so unfair. My whole life is ruined. I will never be happy." In obtaining the life histories of the patients, I saw that those who were happy had full and active lives, they had friends and jobs and were involved in activities. Whereas those who were miserable, often did nothing but stay in bed with little social contact and had more problems with bed sores and other ailments due to the inactivity. I was informed that even though spinal cord injury in itself does not reduce life expectancy, those who gave up tended to die at earlier ages from complications.
So, what I learned was that even though all of these people had a similar life-changing event occur, it wasn't the event that contributed to their happiness or misery, it was their reaction to the event that caused them to be happy or miserable. And, based on the comments they made, I noticed that those who were happy made a clear choice to be happy. They could often describe the precise moment or the words that they said to themselves.
Not long after this experience, I started to ask my husband "When are things going to get better?" But before he could answer "Another six months" I said, "Wait. I get it. This is life isn't it?" He just smiled and said "Yes." Then I think I might have slugged him saying "You could have let me in on the secret a little sooner!" Now, every once in awhile when we are particularly stressed, we just turn to one another and say "Another six months" which gives us a laugh and allows us to put things in perspective.
Since then, even though we have had much more significant stressors in our lives, I'm no longer waiting to be happy because I recognize that happiness is a choice that we make every day. Happiness is not due to the things that happen or don't happen to us. Happiness isn't due to how much money we have or the house we live in or how successful we or our children are. Happiness is present every day we choose for it to be present. Happiness is an attitude.
Yet, as I read the above I recognize that I'm simplifying a complex issue. Frequently, new psychotherapy clients tell me "I've tried that positive thinking stuff and it doesn't work." When they make this statement I agree with them "You're absolutely right. Positive thinking doesn't work." I explain to them that cognitive therapy involves realistic thinking, not positive thinking. Positive thinking doesn't work because it is not realistic and we can't believe it. The first premise of developing a coping statement or a rational challenge to inaccurate thinking is that the individual must be able to accept and believe the statement at least with an intellectual understanding. If you notice in the example above of the spinal cord injury patients they didn't say "I'm grateful to have such a challenge in my life because it's teaching me so much" but they recognized their feelings about the injury "this sucks" prior to focusing on what their life still offered.
The other aspect of choosing to be happy is that we still feel loss, grief, sadness and anger when events occur to us. Being happy does not preclude other emotions but includes them. Happiness is an overall attitude, a state of contentment or satisfaction, not a temporary emotion such as joy or elation. Therefore, we have the ability to be happy even when we experience these other emotions. In fact, through our full immersion in life and the emotions life brings, we can learn how to be happy. One of the most salient aspects I've noticed about unhappy people is that they are desperately trying to avoid negative emotions and in the process they feel miserable. Also, keep in mind that this article is addressing emotional states, it cannot be applied to clinical depression.
Therefore, happiness is a choice to feel the emotions that result from an event, to fully grieve, but also, to recognize our ability to accept what life offers us rather than remain focused on what is taken from us. Happiness is an attitude.
Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank