I have had happiness on the brain lately. First, it was that discussion of happy songs with my kids. Then Thursday was the International Day of Happiness. I have also been testing out a new app called Happify, which teaches you to be happier through scientifically proven exercises. Also, I just finished researching and writing an article on meditation, which many claim is a key to happiness.
Because I’ve been so busy studying happiness, and because it’s relevant, I’m re-posting this piece from my archives. BTW, 4 years later, my son is the same. Ask him how he’s doing and 9 times out of 10 he’ll say, “Great!” Read this and tell me: do you think a sunny attitude is innate, learned, or a combination of both?
Adventures of a Recovering Pessimist
Did anyone see that Michael J. Fox special a while back, “Adventures of an Incurable Optimist?” If not, you should. (Watch a preview here; buy the whole show for $2.99 on iTunes.) I am fascinated by stuff like that. I get sucked into articles that promise “7 Secrets to a Happier Life” and “What the Happiest People on Earth Know that You Don’t.”
It’s not that I’m UN-happy. It’s just that I really do believe that some people are naturally optimistic and some people aren’t. My 3yo son, Miles, is naturally happy. It’s just the way he is. Even if he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, spills his juice, and sobs into his Goldfish because I won’t let him watch 12 straight hours of Little Einsteins, he gets over it pretty quickly and is soon happily playing with his cars. He doesn’t dwell, doesn’t hold grudges.
I, on the other hand, am always wary, always worrying, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I like to think I’m realistic, grounded, practical. But maybe I’m just a grump.
My husband and I have arguments all the time that stem from our different views of “negative” and “positive.” He leans towards Miles in terms of temperament. So if I start to go on and on about how our windows are leaking, we have ants in the kitchen, and there are 5 baskets of unfolded laundry that need attention, he gets annoyed. “Enough with the negativity!” he’ll moan.
See, that’s where we’re different. I don’t see that stuff as negative — even though it’s certainly not positive. It’s just reality. And we’ve got to deal with it whether we like it or not. I don’t see how ignoring the less pleasant parts of life helps any. It certainly doesn’t make them go away.
Nevertheless, I have been making a concerted effort to be a happier person. Partly, it’s because I don’t want my kids drawing frowny faces on me in all their pictures. Partly, it’s because they ask me several times a week, “Are you happy, Mama?” and I want to be able to answer truthfully. And partly, it’s because if someone with a degenerative disease like Michael J. Fox can be happy most of the time, then so can I, dammit!
So here are some of my happiness “secrets” I’ve discovered:
Think less, do more. I’m a writer, a thinker, a ruminator. I spend a lot of time in my head imagining what MIGHT happen, what I SHOULD be doing, and what other people COULD think of me. A recipe for misery, right? But now that I’ve got 2 kids, a leaky house, and endless loads of laundry to occupy me, I have less time to dwell on the (imaginary) negatives.
Be in the moment. Now, I hate this statement so much that I wrote an entire blog post about it. But guess what? It’s true. You enjoy life more if you focus on doing what you’re doing, not what you already did or should’ve done, or what you will do or should probably do. [NOTE: This is what meditation is all about. I learned years after I first wrote this.]
Be kind to yourself. Again, it’s a cliché. People say it, but what does it really mean? For me, it means allowing myself to nap on the couch with the baby if I feel like it, instead of running around straightening up the house or checking e-mail. Allowing myself to pop in a movie on a rainy afternoon instead of forcing everybody to do some enriching activity. Ordering takeout sometimes — even on a Monday! — rather than making a meal from scratch that half the family won’t even eat.
You know that saying, “Laugh and the world laughs with you”? (That’s a saying, right? Or is it an REM song?) Anyway, I’m finding that to be true. When I’m happier, people are nicer to me. People hold doors for me, help me with my bags, give me extra coupons. Just the other day I got a free drink at Baja Fresh. (Also on the list of secrets to happiness: nachos.)
P.S. I’m not happy at all that “The Michael J. Fox Show” got cancelled. I really liked it. The episode where he and his wife try to make couples friends and the daughter enters a beauty pageant to horrify her mother was hilarious. You can watch full episodes online here.