HOW CAN WE BE HAPPY WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN?
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.
HOW IS THE ATTITUDE OF HAPPINESS A CHOICE?
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.
HOW IS THE ATTITUDE OF HAPPINESS DIFFERENT FROM POSITIVE THINKING?
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.
Copyright © 2010 by Excel At Life, LLC
Permission to reprint this article for non-commercial use is granted if it includes this entire copyright
and an active link.