A big topic of discussion the past few weeks has been the relationship between happiness and stress. As you probably remember if you had an Intro to Psych or Social Psych class, any life event causes stress, even if it's not a negative event. Moving, weddings, grad school, promotions - these are related to a kind of good stress called eustress - and the negative stuff (death, taxes, failure, divorce) is called distress.
There is a lot of uncertainty and distress in the world right now. Many nations are in economic turmoil; even people who never had to make difficult financial decisions just 3 or 4 years ago are now forced to sell prized possessions, declare bankruptcy, fork over their homes at massive losses, or even lose them to foreclosure. Everyone is learning how to get by with less. So, now more than ever, the person sitting next to you right now could be going through some kind of distress.
Which automatically means that person is unhappier, right?
I know many positive, open-minded people who have overcome great difficulties or are saddled with great burdens. Some them have dealt with cancer, physical or mental abuse, financial ruin, job loss, death, crime, homelessness - the worst things most of us can imagine. Yet many of those people are still happy. And, most of the time, you would never know what they were battling.
It's not because they have more money, or better friends, or are more successful. It's because, as a wise friend of mine said just the other day, happiness is a choice. It isn't because people have less to handle that they're happier; it's because they know how to handle what they have.
I didn't used to believe this was possible, or even true. At one point my constant load of distress and eustress rendered me perennially bitter. (This wasn't even my natural tendency; I called myself a reformed optimist.) Here's how the descent began: after almost 30 years of relative ease, I faced a few large disasters, some of them from the list above. I had always been somewhat sheltered; protected. The series of hardships were unlike anything I'd ever had to handle.
So I handled it poorly.
From then on, every time something happened to me, I subconsciously added it to the mental "list." The list sounded like this in my head: This (insert bad thing here) happened - oh! and THIS happened - OMG! and yesterday THAT happened, TOO! After a few months of this, no matter what the next "thing" was - from the tiniest (a thread pulled on my jacket) to the greatest (my dog broke his leg in the middle of a hurricane) - it began to feel like proof that nothing but bad ever happened to me anymore. I would often think or say, only me. This kind of shit would only happen to me. Or sometimes, I would say or think just my luck! or, If one more bad thing happens, I am going to freaking flip out!!!
The downward spiral continued - once that habit was developed, then I even became resistant to new solutions to my problems because my immediate response (or close to it) would be: if it isn't going to instantly fix something or fix everything, why bother?
People would tell me be more positive - and that's great advice - but for me, it was bullshit from the mouths of people who had it way better, easier. I spent my time waiting - for the next disaster, to exhale, who knows. It just pissed me off even more. I would tell them, I'm not bitter. I'm just stressed because I have so much to deal with.
The truth? I had so much to deal with because I was bitter.
And then things began to get better. But things didn't get better because I had more money or better friends or became a faster athlete; as a matter of fact, I lost a few friends, I was forced into a lower-paying job, and I spent a year or more getting slower, or not racing at all. No, things got better because I took a few steps toward fixing them, and even though my few steps didn't fix everything, and they didn't fix things quickly, they got me headed in the right direction.
More recently, I was in a situation where I had to give up a lot of my personal belongings. I had to get rid of clothing, furniture, and keepsakes that had been part of my life for years. But, instead of coming out of the experience feeling bare, robbed, broke, or sad - I felt free. There is something freeing about learning to live with less. I ride a 5-year-old bargain bike and buy used accessories and gear; I bargain hunt and cut coupons when I grocery shop. I still occasionally get jealous of the fancy stuff, but I usually feel grateful to have anything at all.
My friend is right; happiness is a choice. I'm not telling you this because it sounds nice or because I have it so easy that I can say it; I'm telling you this because I've been on both sides of the equation.
I don't think I have to tell you which side I chose.