I have not always been a happy person. In fact, I spent the majority of my life being unhappy. I became embittered at a very young age as a result of being bullied and sexually assaulted. By fifth grade, I was convinced everyone was out to get me, that the world was out to get me. I was a victim: defensive, critical, sour, and depressed. My darkness followed me through high school, and college, too. It was with me when I started working, and when I was promoted to management, and became responsible for others’ morale and performance.
To my surprise – at the time – we had an inordinate amount of performance issues on my team.
The Universe, in Its wisdom, conspired to fix me; and my salvation came as the man I now call my husband. Even in the throes of my mid-20s misery, he saw past what I can only imagine appeared as certifiable insanity, and chose to love and marry me. He stood by me through multiple episodes of Major Depression, suffering my moods and frustrations with the patience of a saint.
But I was still a victim. Even when my depression lifted, I was unhappy.
It took a family tragedy for me to finally turn myself around, and even then, the change was not immediate. In fact, I became an even greater burden upon my husband at a time when he desperately needed my support and cooperation. It’s only in the past five years that I’ve become a more positive, healthy, and productive person. But I can say that I am now overwhelmingly happy. I love my life, and I am at peace with myself.
And this is what it took:
Gratitude – If I start my day thinking of reasons to be grateful, (I’m alive and well; the taste of coffee; the company of my cats; the sun shining…), my mind will continue to see blessings throughout the rest of the day. A few minutes of practiced gratitude shapes my outlook to one of abundance. I become more aware of all that is good around me, and I then become grateful for those things…and so on, and so on.
Acceptance – There will be things in our lives we can’t feel gratitude for; for example, the illness, injury, or loss of a loved one. Much of our difficulty with these situations and events stems from our powerlessness to change them. At a basic level, we all want the world to conform to our expectations, and when it doesn’t, the desire to deny or escape reality can result in greater suffering. But, when we choose to accept our circumstances as they are, to experience pain as it arises – feelings of grief, anger, anxiety, confusion – in the end, we can know we will be okay. Pain subsides. We don’t have to like how we feel, we just need to be able to tolerate it. That is to say, when we stop wishing things were different, we make peace with reality.
Assume Positive Intent – While I don’t always succeed on this point, if something a person says or does strikes me as hurtful, I try to assume that the hurt is unintentional, and that the other person is not even aware they’ve offended. This is perhaps the most challenging of my new approaches to apply consistently, but it certainly provides consistent rewards: I have virtually no interpersonal conflict in my life.
It’s Not About You – This one goes hand-in-hand with positive intent. Part of this revolves around acceptance that there will be people who do and say hurtful things in order to hurt. The other part is willingness to believe that their actions have nothing to do with us. Perhaps they had an exceptionally bad day, or were acting out of confusion, fear, or their own pain. When we choose not to take another person’s behavior personally, we free ourselves from it.
Be Curious – This is something of an extension on the point above. When I am able to avoid reacting to another person’s behavior, I’ve found that I make room to be curious about what is going on with them. What might they be dealing with right now? What battle might they be fighting? When I can be curious in this way, I am kinder. And more often than not, that kindness is reciprocated, along with an apology, and gratitude.
What’s your secret to “happy”?