I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Do you learn happiness?

Allison and Lexie, March 2011
When I look at this picture of the beautiful smiling Lexie, it reminds me that she seems to be a naturally happy person. She doesn't fuss very often, loves to smile and laugh, and makes everyone around her smile, too. Not all babies are like that, I remember. I am now at the age that when I visit family, like I did last month, there are babies and little kids everywhere, usually two generations removed from me. I notice the difference in temperament between all of us, and I wonder whether some of us are born with a contentment gene.

I saw a movie yesterday that triggered this question in my mind: Another Year, a British film made last year that follows the life of a couple and their friends and family through four seasons. It's not a movie that could have been made in this country, as the plot is nonexistent; it just portrays the people and their relationships to one another. There were long moments without a sound track where we just watched the play of emotions across their faces. One of the characters, Mary, is a middle-aged co-worker who kept imagining that her life would take off and be different if only some imagined event (a new car, a new man) could transport her there. Her lack of self-awareness as to how much of her unhappiness is of her own making is something I recognize, both in my own life and in the lives of those around me.

Perhaps it has something to do with having been thrown into the crucible of family last month, but I couldn't help but think about how differently my relatives approach life. I guess this is to be expected, but we rarely have such an opportunity for reflection. And how much of what I see is real, and how much of it is my own projection onto my family? I cannot get outside of my own head, my own family dynamics, to see things as they might appear to outside observers. All I can do is examine how I feel and contemplate the inner workings of my own mind.

I think I was a happy baby and am a naturally happy person. But if something occurs in my life that causes me pain (either mental or physical), that event becomes the center of my existence for either a shorter or longer period, and everything else going on fades into the background. I suppose this is normal, but it amazes me how often I change my internal focus from one thing to another. Most of the time it is outside of what I think I can control, but sometimes I wonder. Watching Lexie or watching Mary (in the movie) in their differing approaches to life, I wonder if there is something I'm missing that would be obvious if I could only gain a different vantage point.

When my son was little, I read him stories from Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. I especially liked the character of Eeyore, a sad donkey who always sees the world through the eyes of a confirmed pessimist. It always made me smile when I encountered his character, because it seemed that nothing could ever happen in Eeyore's life that wouldn't be terrible, and it wasn't the event, but the observer, who determined the outcome. Reading those stories gave me perspective enough to realize I might be able to change my life by changing my viewpoint, and that nothing outside of me would change until I changed my attitude.

This is one of the reasons I love to read well-written novels and memoirs, because reading gives me a different perspective through which to view the world, my own life, and the lives of those around me. When I think back to my twenties, I remember being transported and fundamentally changed by some of the books I read at that time. Going back and re-reading some of them was like reading them for the first time, because I was different, changed by the earlier reading of the story, and no longer either as receptive or innocent as the young girl who was my former self.

Happiness may not be a learned behavior as much as a choice one makes. Just as I bring my mind back again and again to one point in meditation, perhaps the trick to happiness is to choose it over and over.

24 comments:

Teresa Evangeline said...

You've posed some valuable questions. I find I have never had much in common with my birth family. I was a born questioner, but I think I'm realizing, more than ever, what is required. Your last phrase says it all. It is making the choice for happiness over and over again until it becomes our very nature. I'm still practicing... :)

Grandmother said...

I believe the choice for happiness is ours to make or not. Our ability to choose our response to any situation is a fundamental freedom.

Gigi said...

I, too, believe that you have to choose happiness over and over. Yes, I've dealt with some harsh realities in my life - things that I could have let soured me. I've also had heartbreak. But when I step back and look at the big picture - I see what I have and am grateful. I see the things I've overcome and am still standing. And that makes me choose to be happy. Have a wonderful week, my friend.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. We always have choices. I try to reach for the best and the happiest every morning when I awaken each morning and to sustain that throughout the day by finding thing sin my environment to appreciate.
Trish

Linda Myers said...

I like the quote "Happiness is the byproduct of rightful living." I used to chase happiness, but no matter how well things were going I always had the "what if" in mind. These days I try to live a balanced life and find that, generally speaking, I'm content.

Nancy said...

This is a very soulful and insightful post. I do think we choose whether or not we are happy by what we focus on in daily life. We also realize the dark times are there for a reason, and we need to give them our attention, just as you say you do. In that way we honor the good times, I think. Great post.

gigihawaii said...

I tend to be melancholy; I guess it is my set point, whatever that means. I don't know why that is. Was I born that way? My mother used to say I cried over every little thing as a kid. I must admit I weep very easily even now...

Donna B said...

GREAT post. You always make me think when I read your wonderful posts...

Happiness to me has always been I aspire to be and claim to be, because most of the time I feel happy. I would rather hope for happiness than to be rich; because for me, to be happy is being rich. Happy and healthy and I am good.

As I became older, another goal came into my sights in wanting to become fully enlightened. I really strive for this, but continue to analyze, how I chose to move with my husband for a better job, to secure our future, yet be further from my family... who add consider heaps of happiness to my life...

Is this time, "our golden years", time for me? Us, with visits and trips to see them mixed in? Is this time the creative time I used to dream about?

I totally agree. Happiness is a choice.

Thank you Jan...I really enjoyed this....

Retired English Teacher said...

As always, you have posted an insightful and through provoking entry.

I'm still thinking about all you have had to say. I also have thought about this topic a great deal in the past year. I believe that much of our temperament is determined by my factors outside our control: genetics, bio-physical makeup, environment, early social interaction etc. I also think that temperament influences our response to things in our life.

Buz said...

I like your conclusion. Every moment brings a myriad of choices, even if we have convinced ourselves that we have none, even if we are imprisoned by circumstances. Every moment you can choose in which directions to take your thoughts, if not also your actions. We have to remember that we always have choices.

CrazyCris said...

"I might be able to change my life by changing my viewpoint, and that nothing outside of me would change until I changed my attitude."

Words of wisdom!

Who was it that said "happyness is a state of mind"? I think we definitely influence how we feel by how we look at things. Staying positive is very important!

Funny, a children's book that kind of illustrates this idea just popped into my head: The Secret Garden! 3 excellent examples of how changing the way you look at life will let you change the way you live and learn to be happy. :o)

Friko said...

Isn't happiness something that comes when you are not thinking of it, not striving for it?

The kind of feeling that is called happiness is very rare, if it exists at all; happiness for me is being in the moment, a sunny day, holding hands with a loved one, a memory, a drink of water when I'm thirsty, anything that provokes contentment.

The sort of thing that babies feel when they are well cared for, well-fed, sit in a dry nappy and are held in a loving embrace.

Arkansas Patti said...

Goodness you put on your thinking cap today. I'll try to do the same. I do believe for most people, happiness is a choice but for some, they seem to go through life just delighted with what comes their way or they adjust with little effort. Lexie looks like she may have that happy gene.
I don't know if it is heriditary. I am an annoyingly upbeat person and I had an Eeyore brother. We both had the same parents and environments. Lots of food for thought here.

Whitney Lee said...

I think you're right, happiness is a choice. I think it's also a matter of perspective. I am of the belief that it's difficult to be happy-or to appreciate that state-unless you've been at the other end of the spectrum. Kind of like you can't know dark without light, up without down, hot without cold, etc.

I also think that to be happy you must be a bit of a realist. Not so much the worrywart, like Piglet, or the pessimist, like Eeyore, but more like Pooh Bear: even though sometimes rain will fall or friends will get stuck in rabbit holes or Heffalumps will appear, a pot of honey shared with a friend at the end of the day can make it all right again.

Red said...

I always look forward to your Sunday post. Thanks for a good read.
I think most people have a pretty accurate view of themselves. If they get too far off reality, you know the definition.
One word that I kept thinking of when I read your post was reflection. When I reflect on my past I sometimes wonder how much color I put in it.

#1Nana said...

I lost interest in the writing I was working on and took a break to get caught up on blog reading, and your post gave me more food for thought. I was rambling on some of the same themes. I especially connected with the idea of the impact that reading can have and how we experience that reading can change over time. Perception...lots to think about.

When I think of AA Milne I hear my mother's voice in my head. I read Milne to my daughter and now to the grandchildren. I hope they will hear my voice when I'm gone.

Robert the Skeptic said...

This is such a difficult question; last friday we went to the memorial service for a friend, a young woman with a 15 y/o daughter, who committed suicide. Everyone who knew her seemed perplexed; she had so much going for her, she had completed a book, she was going back to school, separated from a bad marriage... why did she feel she had so little to live for?

I once went to a counselor for depression. The counselor's advice to me essentially boiled down to "don't worry, be happy". That was a wasted $35. I never went back.

Paul C said...

You ask a most pertinent question. Our first grand child is only months old and she is receiving a very good start to her life. Smiles come often thanks to a very secure and nurturing relationship with parents. Is not this imprinting going to help her through later development?

Kimberly said...

I agree with you, it is definitely a choice. It was when I chose to be happy that I got results.

Rita said...

A thoughtful post. I agree that happiness is a choice and it is also in your perspective. Some people cannot ever seem to maintain any joy in their lives--period. They almost seem to enjoy being miserable or just aren't comfortable with anything else. I always feel badly for them, but eventually learned not to waste too much time trying to cheer them up or getting them to see the brighter side--hehe! Maybe we are just born with different temperaments? I've always wondered about that. :):)

Star said...

Yes, you can choose to be happy or sad. It is hardly the circumstances which dictate the state of mind. My eldest son suffers with depression, but he wasn't always like that. He was a very happy child. So what happened to him? Did he choose suddenly to be depressed, I wonder. To him the glass is always half empty whereas to my other two sons, it is always half full.
I choose to be happy.

gayle said...

I think we can choose to be happy but I also believe that some people have a very hard time being happy for what ever reason. I think there are times in our lives when it's hard to be happy.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Children are naturally happy if all is right in their world..if they are loved , warm, have a clean diaper and a full belly they are content and smiling. It is when we become adults that we seek more and become unhappy.
You have to allow yourself to be happy...some people really need to work at it:(

TechnoBabe said...

Happiness was a learned way of life for me. Not that I knew I was choosing unhappiness, it was just what I knew and was exposed to growing up. Learning to choose happiness was also necessary to learn that that choice did not mean hiding from trials in life. I have had to learn ways to deal with difficulties and maintain my joy in life. Very thought provoking post, DJan. Nice job as always speaking of your own experience.