November 25, 2020

Happiness Is a Serious Problem

Happiness is a serious problem for many people, especially in our current COVID-19 environment. You only need to look as far as Facebook and other forms of social media to confirm this. Happiness is even more of a challenge for parents who have a disabled child. They have additional obstacles to overcome and worries to address that other parents do not typically have.

The problem of happiness is certainly not confined to the disabled population. While I will use examples and make references to some of these families, my intention for these blogs is to reach everyone who wishes to lead a happier life.

How do we define happiness? Happiness is certainly more than fun, and different than joy. J. D. Salinger, the author of Catcher in the Rye, once described happiness and joy like this: “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” See Happiness vs. Joy.

For our purposes, I will look to the opposite of happiness, that is—unhappiness. We all seek to avoid unhappiness or at least reduce the existence of it in our lives. To the extent that we succeed, we are happier. Let us work with that.

I had a client (I will call her Grace) who came to me for a consultation about her son who was severely disabled. Her husband had multiple sclerosis and Grace had been battling breast cancer for many years when I met her. She was struggling to balance her job responsibilities with the needs of her husband and son.

There was something about Grace. During our session, I noticed that she had a peaceful countenance. It was in direct opposition to what one would have expected given her circumstances. At the end of our session, I asked her a question I had never asked a client before. “How are you able to maintain such a positive attitude in the face of such adversity?”

She replied that while she would not have asked for the challenges she was given; she would not change a thing apart from taking away her son’s suffering if she could. I was taken off-guard. She would not change a thing? How was that possible?

It was not until many years later that I better understood what Grace was telling me. My brother, Scott, had Down syndrome. He also had developed Alzheimer’s disease and after suffering a grand mal seizure, wound up in the hospital and then a nursing home. I spent a significant part of that last year advocating for Scott. Early on I made the decision to change my perspective and learn what life was asking of me as I navigated through a broken system that unintentionally inflicted suffering and injustices upon Scott and tortured my soul.

As I look back, I can say, as did Grace, that I would not have changed a thing. If I had a magic wand, would I have removed Scott’s suffering? Of course. I learned so much about so many things—faith, love, pain and suffering, and more. (See The Gift) I am closer than ever to my remaining brother and sister. I am wiser than before and more empathetic. And I am most of all, grateful for the experience.

Gratefulness is essential to happiness. If you are not grateful, I do not think that you can really be happy. If you take everything you have for granted, how can you be happy that you have it? If you can only see the things that you do not have and aren’t grateful for, what you do have? Are you truly happy?

I am not naturally grateful for all the things I have. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking how wonderful it is that I’ve been blessed with another day on this earth, that I have a roof over my head and that the heat or air conditioner is working. If you are one of the people who do wake up and go through your day with gratitude, I truly envy you. There are certainly people who have been blessed with such a nature. What a gift!

Most of us need to work at cultivating a grateful nature. My wife and I have placed a large “gratitude jar” in our living room. When we are grateful about something, we write it down on a piece of paper, date it and put it in the jar. Then, the first week in January, we spend a few evenings reading the slips of paper from the previous year to see what we were grateful for. It is amazing how often it turns out to be a small thing—something that someone did for us or that we were able to do for someone else.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was famously arrested and executed for participating in a plot to kill Hitler, wrote the following from prison:

“In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”

If Bonhoeffer was able to find gratitude in a prison cell waiting to be executed, surely we can express gratitude for the people and things with which we have been blessed.

Craig’s Takeaways:

If you cannot change your circumstance, change your perspective.

Learn to be grateful if you want to be happy!

Coming up:

Unhappiness is easy. Happiness takes work.

Can parents of a disabled child be happy?

Can we be happy despite suffering?

Happiness is a by-product

And more…

Feel free to share these blogs on happiness with your friends. After all, happier friends will make you happier as well!