By Lori F. I think if you asked a hundred random people to tell you what they really want out of life, the vast majority of them would say they want happiness. It’s a hot topic these days, generating a lot of research, a lot of books and articles, a lot of opinions. Google can produce nearly 100 million links on the secret to happiness in a third of a second.
Happiness: A Choice
Contrary to many loud messages from popular culture, and despite what our instincts might tell us, happiness isn’t dependent on what’s happening to us, but on how we interpret what’s happening to us. We can’t control or even predict outside circumstances, but we can learn to influence our interpretation of experiences.
We all know people who are very fortunate, but who are dissatisfied because they focus on something they don’t yet have. You can probably bring someone to mind. I think of spoiled and petulant Veruca Salt touring Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. And we all know someone who is happy even when going through trials or setbacks. Here I picture the poor and ragged bird woman in the film Mary Poppins, selling crumbs, surrounded by birds on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Both of these film clips are cliches, of course, but we know people like this.
A scripture I love says, “And because [we] are redeemed from the fall [we] have become free forever, knowing good from evil, to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon.” One of the things I learn from that verse is that we aren’t at the mercy of circumstance. We can and should act. We can choose happiness, and not passively allow ourselves to be acted upon by our situation.
Setbacks to Happiness
In Roger Rosenblatt’s book of maxims about life he includes the following:
“A long and happy life lasts 5 minutes. One would think that this rule would go without stating, but many people actually believe that a long life of uninterrupted happiness is a real possibility. And they act on this belief! They change families, careers, the structure of their faces, countries, everything, for no more substantial reason than they recall five minutes of uninterrupted happiness in the past, and now they wish to re-create the moment in perpetuity. They even convince themselves that the five-minute period they recall was really five years and giddily substitute the exception (bliss) for the rule (confusion, doubt, misery, fear, confusion, and confusion). Happiness is wonderful, but if you have had more than five consecutive minutes of it, it means that you weren’t thinking.” (Rules for Aging)
Expecting that life should be a bed of roses in every direction sets us up for vast disappointment. A similar point was made by Gordon B. Hinckley when he quoted a journalist on the topic as follows:
“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he’s been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old time rail journey… delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.” (A Conversation with Single Adults)
Finding a Balance
It may sound like I’m contradicting myself. First, I say that happiness isn’t dependent on circumstances, and that we can choose to be happy. And then I summon quotes declaring that happiness is rare and fleeting, and we shouldn’t expect more. The fact is that both these ideas are important to understand, and they fit together in a weird way. We need to act, and not be acted upon–we can choose. We can choose to face any situation with hope, with gratitude, and with a growth mindset, to say, I can learn from this situation, I can find a way to contribute, to bless someone’s life. Second, our chances of happiness increase to the extent that we make peace with the way things really are–that beautiful vistas are occasional and that bursts of speed thrill precisely because they’re bursts. Constant speed feels like standing still, as in air travel. We’re happier as we understand the natural rhythm of things. I feel another scripture coming on, with soundtrack: to everything (turn, turn turn) there is a season….
The last idea I want to explore begins with an image of an old fashioned balance scale. It is made of two dishes, each suspended by chains from a cross bar. An object is placed in one side, and standard weights are placed in the other, to determine how much it weighs. I’ll label one dish “the good news” and one dish “the bad news”. Some people think that if there’s anything in the bad news dish, they can’t be happy, and they do a lot of hand-wringing. In fact, we have a much greater chance of being happy if we will focus on the contents of the good news dish. We can even take it upon ourselves to search through our experiences for things that can fit in that dish–recruiting is encouraged. I believe that a primary reason that God so often urges us to be grateful is that the process of looking for, focusing on and acknowledging blessings brings us happiness.
There is one thing in the good news dish for all of us that is the best news of all time, and that is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In terms of its power to save us from disaster and bring us joy it is so large, so massive, that there is nothing that could be placed in the other dish capable of shifting it in the least. It is the definition of Good News, the essence of the gospel.
Every effort we make to better understand and accept partnership with Jesus Christ helps us toward genuine happiness. The choice is ours.