Choosing to be Happy

I am a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church near my home. In the summer they frequently ask members of the congregation to lead a service when the ministers are off at conferences or taking a much needed break. Much to my surprise they asked me to speak this summer. The "theme" of the month for August was happiness or joy. What follows is the transcript of the talk ... it was about choosing to let happiness into your life instead of choosing to live in your pain and sorrow. It's lengthy ... but was well received.

If you'd rather hear and watch it on video here's a link:

When asked to give a talk at the church this summer, I was most curious about what the theme of the month would be that I would need to frame my talk. When I heard that happiness or joy was the theme I agreed to do it. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in recent years … as I get older and “life” happens. I’ve read The Happiness project by Gretchen Rubin, and the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.

Why should we strive to be happy?

According to the Dalai Lama, Happy people are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life’s daily

frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most important, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people.”

So what I want to talk about today is “Finding Happiness —it’s a matter of attitude, it’s a matter of choice.” There’s a famous quote, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, in which he states “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Whether Lincoln was really the source of this quote or not, I believe it. I have become convinced happiness in life is a matter of attitude. We have a choice about whether or not we will let happiness into our lives. We have a choice about how we deal with difficult situations in our lives … with pain – mental or physical, with sadness after loss of loved ones. Do we chose to give up? ... or do we choose to go on?

One of the heroes in my life was my mother’s Avon lady, Kathryn Stewart. Over the years, Kathryn became one of my mother’s best friends. We lived out in the country. Our front door was seldom locked and we didn’t have a doorbell. Kathryn would knock, then stick her head in the door and yell, “Yoohoo!” She and mother would have a glass of wine while they looked at the catalog. Eventually they didn’t bother with the catalog anymore.

In her later years Kathryn developed a terribly painful bone disease that left her in constant pain. And yet she stayed incredibly busy. She’d frequently take day trips with an AARP group to the Atlantic City casinos, or to a matinee in New York, or other places.

The last time I saw her, I asked her how she managed to do all that with the pain of the bone disease. She said to me, “I am in pain. Constant pain. I can choose to stay home, alone and feeling sorry for myself because I’m in pain … or I can choose to go out with friends and have a good time while I am in pain. I choose to have fun.”

Throughout my life I have often thought of Kathryn and how she dealt with a difficult situation. I have hoped that I could be like her when I found myself in a similar situation.

One thing I have learned in my life is that I don’t learn my lessons easily. I’ve said, “My higher power has to hit me up the side of the head with a 2x4” to get my attention, to get me to look at what’s really going on in my life, to make some changes.

So I want to share a story of how I came to really learn that happiness was a choice. In September 2012, one of my best friends died … within a month of the doctor’s diagnosing a bile duct cancer. She was like a sister to me, a friend of nearly 30 years. A friend who, along with the rest of her family, had been my extended family when I lived on my own in California, 3000 miles away from home. Even after I moved back East, she was always there … by phone, … in my email, … with wonderful handwritten notes and postcards from her extensive travels. And now she was gone. I was devastated. How could I be happy?

At the end of the year I was contemplating what kind of energy I wanted to bring into my life in the New Year, 2013. The loss of my friend had left me with a deep sadness. I wanted to bring happier things into my life.

In the Syracuse Herald’s column on New Year’s Resolutions in 1914, Dr Frank Crane wrote: “Determine this year to be master of self; that you will control your thoughts, regulate your passions, and guide your own deeds; that you will not let events lead you by the nose. Resolve to be happy.”

That’s what I did. I resolved that 2013 would be a “Year of Glee” … I would focus on being happy. I put together a collage of pictures of myself from my happiest times.

Now let me tell you what happened to me during that Year of Glee.

On January 9, nine days in, I slipped and fell, twisted my knee and tore the meniscus. I didn’t do it while ice skating which IS one of the true joys in my life … I was mopping the floor. The aftermath was months of intermittent searing knee pain, exacerbated by any kind of twisting motion. It was many weeks before I could even put my ice skates on again.

In June, 2 weeks prior to knee surgery, I flew to SFO and met up with a friend to do something I’d always wanted to do when I lived out there but hadn’t …. Drive from San Francisco to Seattle … along the coast with a side trip to Crater Lake. It rarely rains in California in June. It should have been glorious. It poured rain the entire drive. When we got to Crater Lake, the fog was so thick, we never even saw the lake. Ironically, we didn’t see the sun until we got to Seattle —3 days later

In August I woke up early one morning to a horrible howling noise and discovered that one of my cats had had a stroke. In a torrential downpour, the kind of rain that closes roads and snarls traffic, I put him in the car and slowly made my way to the vet. He didn’t come home with me.

On September 20, I was sitting at my desk at home grading papers when I started feeling lightheaded … by the time I found my cell phone the world was spinning out of control. I managed to call 911 and spent the next 6 days in the hospital with intense vertigo. Over the next two months I had to regain my balance and literally learn how to walk again. I taught my classes while hanging on to the podium so I didn’t fall over.

On December 10th I had an appointment with my neurosurgeon for an annual checkup on a benign meningioma that we had found about 8 years ago. Every year prior he’d said to me, it hasn’t changed, come back and see me next year. In 2013, he said, It looks like this thing has started to grow in size. I think we should take it out. On December 19th I had brain surgery to have it removed.

This was my year of glee ... wobbly knee, a soggy vacation, dizziness and a lack of balance, a dead cat, and several weeks of really bad hair.

How does this tie back to choosing to be happy. Was I gleeful throughout all of this because I had declared the Year of Glee! Certainly not. Some of you know better. There were times I was angry, sad, frustrated, down in the dumps … It wasn’t easy … but I thought of Kathryn Stewart often during the Year of Glee. I had a choice throughout all of this. I could embrace the “Oh poor me” attitude. Or, I could accept the circumstances and keep going. Every time I said to people, “so glad this is a year of glee … imagine if it wasn’t!” … I laughed, out loud. It made all of it bearable. It put it in perspective … it could have been much, much worse.

Recently I had a conversation with a dear friend whom I have known for 42 years. She took a trip to New Zealand this spring, by herself, to hike and travel about for four weeks. Halfway through, she fell and broke her collarbone. While at the hospital getting treatment she asked the doctor “Should I go home?” The doctor replied, “You have a choice. You can go home. You’ll be in pain. Or you can stay here and enjoy this beautiful place and be in pain.” She chose to stay, spending the first few days of her recuperation in her lodgings, enjoying the view of a deep aqua colored lake amidst beautiful scenery and being grateful for the kindness of strangers.

And what she said to me about this really hit home, especially since I was in process of putting this talk together. She said, "It’s not that we don’t have times of pain, or don’t feel sad, or don’t have regrets. We need to experience them. But," she said, "we can choose not to live there." We can choose not to live there. We can choose to move on.

Moving out of the pain or sadness into joy requires us to accept the circumstances of our situation and not dwell on them. We can’t change what has happened to us. But we can adapt our attitude about it. Some pain or sadness is harder to move beyond than others and requires us to reach a level of acceptance that is difficult to achieve. Somebody we love deeply is gone. Something we used to be able to do we can’t do any more …

How do we accept and move on? It’s not easy. It’s an ongoing process. A daily process. Sometimes it’s a moment by moment process.

Even today, I will open a book or a drawer and find a card or trinket from my friend who died and I still cry. I miss her. But I stay in touch with her children and we often laugh about the things we shared. Heck, I still talk to her …

I still have knee pain. I’ll never skate as well as I did before the knee injury. But I still skate and have fun doing it. In fact, on April 13, 2013 I strapped on my knee brace and skated at my 65th birthday extravaganza on ice … now an annual event known as Ben Gay on Ice, or AARPcapades. None of the skaters were under forty. There were four of us skating with heavy duty knee braces … maybe we couldn’t do all the things we used to do, but ... we were still on the ice.

And on Christmas Eve 2013, this attitude enabled me get dressed up, throw a scarf around my head, and have a friend bring me to USG. Though I wasn’t singing with the choir that evening, Mark handed me a score for the Hallelujah chorus and I sang along. Hallelujah! Hallelujah, my Year of Glee was over!

And thank heavens throughout all of that, I had friends and a community here at USG who supported me, fed me, made me laugh. Friends who didn’t let me dwell on the negative. Friends who also chose to adopt an attitude of joy. Friends like that are priceless. Friends like that are necessary.

In “The Happiness Project” the author, Gretchen Rubin, chronicles a year in which she focused on trying to figure out how to make herself happier. Ms. Rubin says she didn’t consider herself unhappy, but wanted to see if she could consciously become happier. Her process included identifying the things that brought her joy and taking concrete actions to bring more of them into her life.

She makes the point that everyone’s path to happier may be different than hers but she wrote the book because we can learn from other people’s experience. Some of the things she found worked for her that I find also work for me are:

  • do things to boost your energy

  • remember to nurture the love in your life – don’t take it for granted.

  • keep a gratitude notebook --- be thankful for the little things in life

  • make time for friends

  • laugh … laugh as often as you can, laugh out loud.

Attitude. So much depends upon our attitude. When we choose to let happiness into our lives, we can laugh even when life doesn’t happen according to our plans. Joy happens by welcoming the hiccups in those plans. By appreciating the small miracles that happen every day. By enjoying the detours … after all …the best way to make the powers above laugh, is to tell them your plans. I tell my students that the most important thing they need to do after developing a marketing plan, is to develop a backup plan.

I believe joy can be a part of our lives … Yes, we all experience pain, and sadness, but, “we can choose not to live there” …

We have a choice in the morning. When that annoying alarm clock starts beeping, we can decide how we are going to approach our day.

We can roll over, … turn it off, …utter an expletive, …kick the cats off the bed … and get up … grumbling.

Or … we can do what Amarante does in the movie “The Milagro Beanfield War” … Amarante is a man in his 90’s. He talks to angels and ghosts. At the beginning of the movie you see him wake up in the morning. He stiffly gets out of bed, … shuffles to the sink, … looks in the mirror and says, … "Thank you God ... for letting me have another day."

And what are we going to do with that day … and every day following to boost our happiness level?

How are we going to carry ourselves into a day worth living.

How are we going to challenge ourselves to feel alive?

At the end of the book Ms. Rubin suggests that

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.

And one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

Since I started writing this, I have talked to many people about this topic, spent a lot of time on Google, listened closely to the words of songs … My thoughts have expanded and have developed threads in many directions. I could tell you many more stories … but I won’t. I’ll borrow a phrase from the Al-Anon program, “Take what you liked and leave the rest.”

And I’ll leave you with words from Hoyt Axton, made famous by Three Dog Night …

Joy to the World To all the boys and girls Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea Joy to you and me

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