Last Tuesday I went to a Cambridge Forum talk by John Leland, NY Time journalist, regarding his new book Happiness is a Choice You Make. My initial attraction was that John’s book was about his experience spending a year with members of the oldest old, those over the age of 85. As John describes it he was initially anticipating writing about a “malody of the month” but then realized that there was a different message and he needed to share it.
He challenged the audience to focus on “what is” instead of “what isn’t” and to think about learning how to train our brains to see life as amazing; that seeing ourselves as the author of our own life can lead to more satisfaction. He discussed some of the people he followed for a year sharing a lesson learned from each. From one a lesson on gratitude, from another a lesson on purpose. Lessons that John took to heart, making a conscious decision to choose happiness.
Unfortunately it wasn’t until my 40s that I too realized that happiness was something you chose not something that happened to you. I do now believe that it is something you can make. How I wish I could go back and tell my teenage self to stop waiting for someone or something to bring me happiness. Not sure if I was initially wired to see what I did not have instead of what I did or whether it was my family or society that focused me outward instead of inward.
Fortunately at a friend’s 40th birthday I had a moment of shear joy – maybe the first since childhood when we are focused inward and don’t understand the judgement of ourselves and others. Dancing on an outdoor patio on a perfect summer evening, I became lost in the beat of the music, twirling, spinning, smiling, shining. A sense of peace combined with euphoria, a lightness that I could not recall entered and seemed to fill every fiber of my being. I remember telling my friend about it the next day and she said she thought she had a photo that may have caught the moment. When she sent me the photo I nearly cried to see the joy on my face. You could see if in my eyes as well as on my lips.
Choosing happiness, meditation, mindfulness all fall into the same box for me. They all seem too simple to work. There has to be more. The more is that as simple as each of them are, the committment to them is what makes the difference. For those of us used to seeing the cup as half empty and always waiting for the other shoe to drop it’s hard to shift that focus. Meditation in an of itself may feel silly. I remember when I tried it years ago doubting that it would do anything and I proved myself correct. And if I’ve heard or seen the word mindfulness once this week, I’ve seen it a hundred times. It’s everywhere and being touted as the answer to everything.
Slowing down this year, meditating, understanding that although I can’t always choose what happens to me, I can choose the way that I react, that I can look for and see the lesson or the positive in any situation and being in the moment has increased my own level of happiness. Mindfulness for me is trying to quiet the voices in my head that are always thinking about, planning for or worrying about what’s next. Sometimes it is easier than others. But it is work and hard work for me to not be planning dinner while I’m eating a buttery mouth watering croissant let alone enjoying a hot new band when the voices in my head are worrying about getting a job and taunting me with thoughts that I may never work again, who will want to hire YOU. So I really get it.
I should have gotten up at the end of the talk after hearing one depressed and or struggling person after another come to the mike. They wanted an answer, a path, a fix. Choosing to be happy doesn’t sound substantial enough and for those with true depression it is not. But for those of us who are spending too much time wondering or worrying about the “what ifs” choosing to focus on the facts, the “what is” and finding some joy or peace there can be the answer. It’s not easy but it is simple.