I’ve been following Arthur Brooks “How to Build a Life” at The Atlantic since its inception early last month. Touted as “tools you need to construct a life that feels whole and meaningful”, his column explores the science behind well-being in an effort to provide new solutions to our ordinary challenges. And in a world that currently feels far from ordinary, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the handful of columns thus far. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to happiness as of late – probably because COVID-19 has prevented me from engaging in the activities that make me the happiest. Like millions of others, I’m experiencing the psychological impacts of having my world turned upside down. I am still grieving the loss of our domestic and international travel plans. Each day presents a new challenge associated with working from home and coordinating home learning activities for my children who are unable to fully comprehend the unprecedented nature of the current events. And I am feeling all of the emotions associated with PCSing in a couple of months except they’re super-sized because of the pandemic. But despite all of the turmoil, unknowns, and general anxiety, I’d still classify myself as happy.
Am I wrong to do so?
It seems impossible to read an observation on social media without at least one person pointing out why that observation is invalid. If someone expresses gratitude for the opportunity to slow down, another person is quick to point out that hundreds of thousands of people have died and even more have lost their jobs. If there is a comment about the mortality rate of the virus, there will likely be a reply about the longterm impact on mental health and vice-versa. People are scared. And with very few things in this world being black and white – I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that living through a pandemic is any different. Psychologists are telling us that whatever we happen to be feeling is valid and that there’s a wide array of “right” ways to feel about life right now. If that’s the case, why does feeling somewhat happy feel so…icky?
While I have my moments of negativity, I’m considered a positive person by most. To be honest, I have to be. If I weren’t, I don’t think I’d be able to weather life. My positive attitude is survival – my life would be a lot more difficult if I focused on the drawbacks associated with the not-so-pleasant aspects of military life. For all the jokes floating around the military community about the general population now understanding what it’s like to have the government cancel plans, there is no denying that a lot of what is happening right now sucks. There isn’t a better word. It sucks that kids aren’t in school. It sucks that normal summer activities are being canceled. And it 100% sucks that people are dying and facing economic uncertainty. But I have to focus on the positive. I have to choose to be happy. I went through a considerable dark period during 7th grade and subjected myself to thoughts and ideas that terrify me now both as a mother of a preteen and as an adult who treasures her life. I need to maintain emotional positivity and work to find joy and contentment amidst the chaos because if I don’t, I will go to the black hole that I’ve worked hard to avoid for the past 20 years.
The idea of whether happiness is a mindset is open for discussion. But I do believe that my happiness is my personal responsibility. It is not my husband’s responsibility, my kids’, or anyone else’s to make me happy. In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Sonja Lyubomirsky explains her finding that long-term happiness is based on 50% genetics, 40% thoughts and actions, and 10% external circumstances. She argues that it is within that 40% that we have the power to control our happiness – at least to a certain point.
Happiness is a place between too much and too little.Finnish Proverb
Happiness looks different for everybody. What makes me happy may be the source of anxiety for someone else so it seems silly to wax poetic about something as individualistic as happiness. But I do believe there are a few concepts associated with happiness that are universal – belief that comparison is the thief of joy, expressional of gratitude, and a sense of purpose. Obviously more factors play into my happiness but without any of those three, my efforts seem futile. Focusing on the little joys and celebrating successes – no matter how small – seem to be what is helping me through this pandemic. So if you see me smiling and in a good mood, please don’t think that I am dismissing the horrors that surround us. I am surviving the best way I know how – by choosing to be happy.