One time, I was having an argument with the speaker standing in front of a crowded assembly. The argument was taking place in my head rather than out loud as I didn’t quite have the energy to actually engage in a discussion right then. I thought that perhaps it would be an even better idea to present it to you to see what your thoughts would be.
The speaker was making a case for happiness and I certainly can’t argue with that. He reminded us that wisdom requires that we be happy. He shared research that happy people get the job done better than unhappy ones and noted that the last decade and a half of research in “positive psychology” has led to many fascinating outcomes supporting this.
He argued that people try too hard to get to the next goal and then the next, thinking mistakenly that when they only reach their goal they will be happy. This is not true, he admonished: Happiness comes from the process of living your life, not from getting to a goal.
I couldn’t argue with any of that.
Then he said that happiness is a choice. Some people choose to be unhappy.
And that is where I part company.
I could immediately think of two classes of people who are unhappy but not by choice: People who have serious troubles in their lives and people who are stuck in a cage of unhappiness that they don’t know how to get out of.
In fact, I completely believe that these two categories cover every single person who is unhappy and that there is no one left who simply chooses to be unhappy. I don’t think anyone chooses unhappiness.
Let’s take a look at each category.
If your spouse or child is very sick, the question is not: How can you be happy? Happiness under that circumstance is not only absurd, but abnormal. A healthy person should worry. Making light of a severe situation is pure escapism.
As a matter of fact, there is proof that coping by escapism, while helpful at the time, can lead to serious mental illness: Children who are abused at early ages often do cope by daydreaming of far off places and events. They take themselves out of the unbearable situation through the greatest gift that children are given which is fantasy.
However, when they get older, this does not serve them well; if they continue to do it, they may very well acquire the diagnosis of schizophrenia whose hallmark is living in an alternate reality.
Worrying in the case of financial adversity, medical problems, or relationship challenges serves a purpose:
Stress is a motivator to take action.
So, provided the worry is directed toward solving a problem, as unpleasant as the worrying is, it can lead to its own demise.
That is, thinking, “Why did they do that? What could I have done differently? Why do these things always happen to me?” and so forth, if they are real, honest questions, can lead to answers.
Certainly, they can propel one to search for answers, possibly by inquiring of friends how they would cope in a similar situation, or possibly just by placing the question in one’s mind before going to sleep in the hopes that the answer will form during the night.
Another way to think of it is that we have the stress hormone, cortisol, for a reason: It is meant to propel us into action. The action is directed at addressing the problem.
If everything that God created is good, then stress, too, is good. It’s a matter of using it as a springboard for growth.
A great example of this is that studies show that a mild amount of stress when taking a test is usually helpful to keep the student focused and well-paced. Being too relaxed would be counterproductive.
The first category of unhappy people I have been talking about includes people whose lives include sickness, death, disability, physical and emotional pain, moving, divorce, the lack of a happy family life, losing a job, other financial disasters, being bullied at school, struggling academically, war, and unsafe neighborhoods.
It is not helpful to choose to be happy in these situations when a better option would be to harness the stress and worry to figure out how to improve the situations if possible.
The second category of unhappy people does not include such difficult and trying situations as those I just listed, but for whatever reason, the person is stuck in a place where they only know how to complain.
This does not mean that they like to complain! Sure, it looks like that, but looks can be deceiving.
People who don’t like their co-workers or can’t seem to get along with their in-laws, or don’t know how to respond to their adult child, or got gypped in a home-improvement job and seem to only be able to complain about it would fall into this category.
In truth, these people are searching for solutions. What looks to you like complaining is really their request for help.
I know, I know. Now you’re going to tell me that you do offer solutions and these people turn them down! To you, that’s proof that they don’t want the solutions; they choose unhappiness. Let’s dissect this situation and you’ll see why my initial take on this holds.
Suppose you’re a woman and you were unhappy with the outcome of a wash and set. Or you’re either a man or a woman and you were unhappy with the answer given to you about a problem at work. You sought out responses from friends and others you respect but their answers don’t quite hit the nail on the head.
Does that mean that you prefer to be unhappy or does it rather mean that you simply haven’t found the best answer yet?
Can you see how it is possible for an unhappy person, even one who has been offered many answers to cope with a situation, simply hasn’t found a suitable answer so far?
When, you wonder, should the unhappy person draw the line and say that the best answer hasn’t been found and then be happy with whatever the situation is?
Personally, I would never cut short a person’s search for an answer.
It is the searchers of this world who have invented all these crazy billion-dollar aps for the phone and computer. It is the searchers of this world who are scientists and artists struggling to find a way to express the gnawing thoughts that they can’t quite put into words or equations. It is the searchers of this world who are looking precisely for the happiness that eludes them.
So how do you choose happiness when it eludes you?
Here are some suggestions to make the search successful:
First, take your search for happiness on new paths.
Speak to different categories of people. Instead of friends, check in with enemies.
Instead of peers, ask someone smarter or more experienced in a particular area.
Try out different ways to cope with the situation. Instead of stuffing it and then complaining later, be assertive up front.
Instead of doing it yourself, delegate it. Read different kinds of books; go to new places; take un-thought-of courses.
Second, when you are in a situation that makes you miserable, ask yourself if there is anything good about it.
For example, Fred snapped at JoAnne. Later, he brought her roses and sheepishly handed them to her. JoAnne didn’t graciously accept the gift. Instead, she said, “No, this just won’t do. I’m tired of being snapped at and then you try to apologize. You’ve got to get over your way of treating me.”
Fred was miserable and felt stuck. He had done everything, hadn’t he? But suddenly he saw clearly that JoAnne was right and the real solution was to get help. The “bad” situation of having JoAnne’s reject his flowers was really quite good. He started therapy to take a close look at himself.
Third, if you know someone who is a whiner and complainer, don’t offer them advice.
The shoe has to fit; they must come up with different answers for themselves. You also don’t have to listen to the litany of complaints.
Suggest instead that they think about their situation in new ways so as to come up with constructive solutions on their own. Send them back to suggestion #1 on this list.