“Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear”
-Indigo Girls, Closer to Fine
I have friends in my life who think I have lived a charmed life. I have fooled them all. My life has not been perfect. I have stuff. We all do. I have suffered my share of pain, both physical and emotional. I have suffered loss. I have things that I have experienced that will never be written about in this blog. But I am immensely happy. I have joy. Even when things in life kind of suck I have usually managed to smile and laugh. When given the choice between being happy and being miserable, I almost always choose happiness.
I realize that happiness is not always a choice. Some people suffer from very real depression and can’t always “choose” their way out of it. But for a lot of us, a lot of the time, it is an option. Even if you’ve gone through stuff, really bad stuff, you have the ability to be happy. Being happy doesn’t mean everything is perfect. It means that you focus on the good. You acknowledge the bad, but you see the good. I guarantee that there is always some good to absorb.
I don’t claim to be an expert on how to achieve happiness. I just know what has worked for me. For some people, happiness comes easy. Some people are born with happy dispositions. But even if you weren’t, you aren’t a victim of genetics. You have been blessed with free will. And with that you can make the conscious effort to choose yourself happy. This is what has worked for me:
- Music. I am happier when music is in my life every day. I have used music to help mend a broken heart. Music has helped me exorcise some demons and purge anger. Music has given me hope and inspiration when I’ve gone through tough times. I know what songs I need to hear when I’m feeling hopeless, what songs I need to hear when I’m pissed. Music can validate your feelings, it can soothe your soul. Music, for me, can tap into the deepest recesses of my mind and tease out some form of healing or relief or joy.
- Nature. Get outside. Being outside makes me feel connected with the largest, most nourishing and sustaining thing we all have in common. The earth, the world, mother nature. It is really an amazing thing. We probably all take it for granted at times. Notice all the amazing things going on in nature. It’s really a bunch of tiny miracles happening all the time. Every new growth, every creature, every sunset is pretty awe inspiring. Even if you can’t physically go outside, pay attention. Take it in as you’re driving. Look out the window. There is likely something pretty cool happening. Even the rain can be refreshing. I sometimes actually look forward to a rainy day. It’s a chance to cozy up inside, read a good book or watch a movie in the afternoon. Seeing the beauty in nature is a spiritual connection for me. It makes me feel connected to something bigger than myself.
- Laugh. Find things or people that make you laugh. My family always makes me laugh. My friends crack me up. Surround yourself with funny people or with animals or whatever it is that works for you. Maybe it’s watching funny cat videos on YouTube. Maybe it’s a comedian or funny writer who does it for you. Whatever puts a smile on your face is good, but if it makes you laugh out loud then go to it when you’re struggling. This will help you with an important tool for when things are really tough (see next)
- Learn to laugh when things really suck. Maybe it’s a sick sense of humor. Call it what you want, but laughing in the midst of shit is a crucial coping technique. Remember the scene from Steele Magnolias when Sally Field is breaking down after her daughter’s funeral and Olympia Dukakis tries to get her to hit Shirley MacLaine? They all dissolved into laughter. This is a thing. It really helps. It doesn’t take away the pain or the fear, but it sure as hell helps you get through it. My brother was the master at this. It’s something we’ve always done in my family. My sister and brother and I once spent a few minutes making fun of his XRays, making crude and inappropriate jokes. We were scared to death of the news we were waiting to hear, but we were cracking up at the same time.
- Abolish the negative. We all have negative thoughts. You have to learn to recognize them when they pop into your head and then kick them out like an annoying guest who won’t leave. You let them in the door, but you can also decide it’s time for them to leave. You may have to do it over and over but eventually they’ll stop ringing your doorbell. Same with negative people. Some people seem to thrive on negativity. They talk about their problems constantly. They aren’t interested in solving their problems, they just want to wallow. And they usually want to bring you down with them. (That’s the whole “darkness being insatiable” thing). These people also seem to create drama around them. There’s always something, some issue, some injustice. You can choose to not partake. You can distance yourself. You can cut them out of your life. You know the difference between a friend who needs a shoulder and a friend who sucks the life out of everyone. I will be there endlessly for a friend in need. I’m not heartless. But I have little patience for people who choose to be victims. Which leads me to…
- Don’t be a victim. Sure, stuff’s happened to you. Join the club. Everyone has their shit. Deal with it, process it, talk about it. But give yourself a limit. Sometimes talking about a problem crosses the line into harping and wallowing. If you find yourself splashing around in your problems, bathing in them endlessly, then you’ve crossed the line from healthy venting into letting your problems define you. I’ve done it. Most of us have done it at some point. But if you are continuously allowing this to happen then you’re playing the victim. You can choose to be a fighter who pulls themselves out of it or you can choose to be a helpless victim. One of my favorite songs is “The Best of You” by The Foo Fighters. “Were you born to resist or be abused? Is someone getting the best of you?”. This song has helped me pull my head out of my own ass many times.
- See the good in other people. I have always believed that pretty much everyone is good. (There are exceptions of course). But most people are inherently good. They don’t always act like it. I don’t. And you don’t either. But we’re all pretty decent people. When I don’t act like the kind of person I want to be or should be, I count on my friends and family and people I care about to forgive me and take into context the whole person- not just a moment of stupidity or selfishness. I try to do the same for other people. If you can believe that most people are good, you will be able to have more patience. Give others a little space or a little grace. It’s the ultimate act of kindness to withhold judgement and assume the best of people. And it will make you happier too.
- Learn from the bad. Take all the stuff that’s happened to you. Try to examine that bad experience, or feeling or pain… whatever. What did it do for you? You already know what it did to you. But what did it teach you? Did it teach you that you are a survivor, stronger than you knew? Did it make you learn a valuable lesson? Did it make you treat people better or value your relationships more? Did it make you more resilient? If you’re not sure, do some soul searching and maybe you can find a take-away. Maybe you can see something good that came of something bad. And if you can’t, then try to find the other things in your life that are blessings. Finding the good in the bad can help you move on emotionally from something painful. It can take you from victim to survivor.
- Trust your instincts. We spend so much time worrying. Fretting over things. Trust yourself. You have been this amazing gift that’s subtle and intangible but if you tap into it, you can free yourself a little. And I don’t mean leaving everything to happenstance. I mean actively listening to yourself. That little voice in your head or that feeling in your gut, whatever it is for you, stop ignoring it. I know that when I follow that inner compass things tend to fall into place. Years ago, I returned to Atlanta after a visit to my hometown. I drove for four hours choking back tears. I felt an overwhelming desire to move back to my hometown. I had no idea why. Joe and I had just started dating and I was so happy in my relationship with him, but I needed to move home. I nervously told him that evening. I couldn’t explain why I wanted to move and I felt foolish as I told him how I felt. He told me without hesitation that he would move with me. Just like that. We made plans and moved a few months later. A year later we got engaged and then found out days later that my brother had stage four cancer. I am convinced that is the reason I needed to move back. I will forever be grateful to Joe for agreeing to move with me. To my instincts for telling me to do it. And to myself for listening and taking a leap of faith. It meant that I lived within minutes of my family. It meant that I got to spend a lot of precious time with my brother during the last years of his life. It meant that I was established in a job with a wonderful boss who let me take time off or come into work late if I’d spent the night at the hospital. For all of those things, I am eternally grateful.
- Make connections. This is the ultimate thing that we all seek. We crave it. It’s a primal urge from the moment we’re born. We need to connect with others. We need to have relationships with people. We want to understand and to be understood. We want to feel intimacy. We want to talk and laugh. In order to experience these things, we need other people in our lives. If you find yourself constantly in protective mode, not letting people in, you’ll miss out on one of the most fulfilling parts of life. You don’t need hundreds of friends. A few can do the trick. You have to be able to put yourself out there for this to happen. And sometimes that’s not so easy. We’ve all been hurt, we’ve all lost trust at some point. But isolating yourself and refusing to connect with other people makes you a victim of your hurt. A lonely victim. Even if it’s uncomfortable for you, find someone to connect with. Coworkers, family, neighbors, random people waiting in line with you. There are hundreds of opportunities to connect with other people. The more you do it, the better you will feel. There is no substitute for human connection.
That’s it. That’s my formula. It has served me well. It is not a prescription, maybe other stuff works for you. I truly hope that you have found your formula. I truly hope you’ve found ways to be happy. I hope that you experience more joy than pain. I hope you have more good than bad. Nothing would make me happier.
“I love all of you, hurt by the cold.
So hard and lonely too,
When you don’t know yourself.
Imagine me, taught by tragedy,
Release is peace,
I heard a little girl
And what she said was something beautiful
To give your love no matter what,
Is what she said.”
-Red Hot Chili Peppers, My Friends
*Thank you to the incredible Samara for her post “21 Things I Irrationally Love” for the inspiration!