Can we decide to be happy?
A new year dawns, and with it comes the habitual assessment of the year we’ve left behind. Many of us make resolutions to right whatever we felt went wrong, to turn over the proverbial new leaf, to chart a course to improve ourselves and our lot in life.
At the heart of this resolve is the supposition that we, as thinking beings aware of our shortcomings, are or at least ought to be dissatisfied with the present, discontent with our circumstances and with ourselves. “Happiness in intelligent people,” said Ernest Hemingway, “is the rarest thing I know.”
Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t seek improvement, or work to acquire those certain things that would make our lives easier, more pleasant – in short, happier. But we might consider the sources of our discontent, and the various entities -- outside of ourselves – that benefit from it. That original sin doctrine has something to do with it, for sure, though many of us lead lives so secular in nature that we are not consciously aware of the theological burden.
But we are on intimate terms with the world of getting and spending, and there’s a lot of money to be made from unhappy people, from consumers who feel the need to replace reasonably acceptable old stuff with shiny just-out-of-the-box stuff, people encouraged to be displeased with themselves and what they possess, to crave change and novelty for their own sake.
The New Year arrives, and in the spirit of bigger, better, best, we make our various lists. Maybe it’s time to upend the process.
The quotation has varied as it traveled down the years, but Abraham Lincoln said something akin to this: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Through our study of history, of the magnificence of The Gettysburg Address to the savagery at Ford’s Theatre, through literature and movie portrayals, we carry a mental image of the revered president, gangly in body, so eloquent in speech and steadfast in resolve. How his hardscrabble childhood in that one-room log cabin in Kentucky and the devastating loss of two young sons prepared him to utter such a statement about happiness is beyond comprehension for most of us.
The Mansion of Happiness:
An Instructive Moral and Entertaining Amusement.
Children's board game first published in England in 1800.
Let’s play it out: let’s say there are two women, identical except in name. We’ll call them Agatha and Zelda. Both live in old homes that in winter are drafty as birdcages, cold air wafting in at every aperture with a right angle. They murder houseplants with regularity, and for company, each has a pampered calico cat named Mr. Spangles. Both are blessed with good health, though in conversations lately they often whisper, “Excuse me?” and let’s face it, their skin is unfortunate.
Both have jobs that entail moving papers from one side of a desk to another. Occasionally one batch of papers is more important than the last, and during their handling and assessment, the women employ some small part of their educational backgrounds. But essentially, Agatha and Zelda are bit players in a grand assembly line of printed materials.
Let’s go out on a limb and say that neither woman has seen her childhood dreams come true. Neither had expected to spend quite so much time wrapped up in bulky sweaters, or to build a career out of perpetual eyestrain and red pencil. And while the two Mr. Spangles are attractive fellows, their conversational skills are limited and they hog the remote.
So on the first of January, Agatha looks around and accurately assesses all that’s lacking. Her list of New Year’s resolutions begins precisely from that point of view and accumulates predictably, in much the same way it has for the last decade.
What if Zelda takes Lincoln’s aphorism to heart? On January 1st she breathes in and out, and acknowledges that that is a far better occurrence than not breathing in and out. The skin’s a disaster, but there are salves and cover ups; the job keeps the roof leak-free atop the chilly house. She decides, in essence, to be happy with what she has and is.
What larger, loftier goals might Zelda consider placing on her New Year’s list, if “finding an in-network dermatologist” doesn’t automatically make the cut?
Agatha, the realist, the one who sees things as they truly are: Is she more apt to genuinely improve her lot and to be ‘happier’ by the end of December? Zelda, who squints at life through rose-colored bifocals: Is she in denial, out of touch with her ‘real’ emotions if she choses to be happy?
But as a friend pointed out to me during a rough patch, an emotion is only an emotion. The weight we grant it and the influence over our actions are up to us.
A few years ago, a writer of some means looked around her distinctly privileged life and decided she ought to be, well, happier. She launched a blog and book aptly titled “The Happiness Project,” and set out and managed to become, through incremental steps designed to reach a number of well-defined goals, a (best-selling) happier person.
In her book, she offers advice on how to create your own Happiness Project by closely examining what makes you feel good or bad, and what seems out of sync in your life, and in light of that reconnaissance, crafting a list of goals that can be broken down into discreet units. Along the way she tosses out a few questionable maxims (“Happiness is other people.”), but all in all, the book offers a sensible guide on setting measurable goals aimed toward becoming “happier.”
It is, arguably, a fine occupation for the month of January, for any of us, to take stock and assess where we’d like to be at the end of this beautiful year ahead given where we are. But the thrust of “The Happiness Project,” as I understand it, as is the act of making quantifiable list upon list, is based on an assumption that happiness is not a choice, that it must be accumulated or acquired, or at very least, enhanced and improved upon, year after year.
Which puts us at odds with Abraham Lincoln, who knew a thing or two.
What if, as we settle into our easy chairs to make our resolutions this year, we stood the process on its head? What if instead of listing all that needs improvement, we start by solidly acknowledging what’s going well and, further, allowing ourselves a bit of the serenity that comes from wanting what you have, rather than striving to have all you want?
How much more joyful would our journey through the year be if we started at “happy” in the first place, and allowed ourselves to appreciate that every item we check off the list, every step forward in the coming months, is gravy.
This post appears in the January 2014 issue of The North Star Monthly. Images from the Library of Congress.