I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness and what it means to be happy and how it affects those around us when we are happy. In the past couple of days, I’ve hit upon what seems like a really obvious truth: most people like happy people. I think this is because happy people – truly happy people, not hedonistic people – tend to be more outward-focused. They are happy because they are appreciating what is around them. Their perspective enables them to look around and focus on the good in life, the good in people. They are happy because they are grateful for the good things.
Gretchen Rubin talks about the happiness effect (or paradox?) in her book “The Happiness Project“:
“One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”
It’s circular brilliance and it is 100% true. For example, on a very small scale: when I am walking somewhere and make a point of smiling at people as I walk by them, often they smile back or even say hello in passing. A smile communicates friendliness and people generally respond positively to being acknowledged in a friendly way. Their acknowledgment in turn makes me feel good. And really, how much personal effort does it take just to make eye contact with someone and smile in passing?
It’s funny though, because I often find that I want people to know when I’m unhappy. Even total strangers. When I’m going through a rough time and I feel like my internal pain is just radiating out from me, I want people to see it and take note. To wonder about it. To feel sorry for me. I want to keep my eyes on the ground, pensive and melancholy, too lost in my thoughts to see what is going on around me. I don’t want to grin and bear it, because I want people to look at me and shake their heads sympathetically: “Wow, she must really be going through something right now.”
HOW RIDICULOUS IS THAT?!?!?!?!
Yes, we all go through hard times and there are times when it feels like all of our energies are spent just on getting through each minute. It doesn’t leave a lot of extra strength even to muster a smile at the world around us.
But, and I am speaking purely of myself here, I know that I am prone to get into a rut of unhappiness. To let the trauma or hardship that I am experiencing take over my life, rather than actively working through it, processing the experience, and seeking to come out better for it. I let myself exist as a wistful shell of a person, distancing myself from the world around me because the idea of trying to be happy just seems like mockery to the pain I feel.
I don’t want that anymore.
When I was 13, I resolved to live a “Carpe diem” life and engage my life with the assumption that it was going to be good. I still remember that year as one of the best years of my life to date. Then I turned 14, started high school, and it was all downhill from there. But during that year of being 13, life was good. Did I make it good because I chose to believe that it was good? Or was it easy to see it as good because it just happened to be particularly good that year? Does it matter?
My family has been watching this season of Dancing With The Stars and we’re hooked on it. Although he is not necessarily my favorite dancer, one of the competitors who has been the most inspirational to me is Charlie White, the Olympic gold medalist in ice dancing. He is always happy, often to the point of goofiness, but nevertheless, unshakeable in his positive outlook on everything. What really inspires me is that there is substance behind his happiness – it’s not just a facade but it is rooted in gratefulness for the opportunities that he has been given. Choosing to focus on the good. Choosing to be grateful.
There was one week where the theme of the dances was “the most important year of my life,” for each star. Charlie celebrated this year of winning the gold medal with his ice dancing partner Meryl Davis, and this is the dance he did:
Confession time: Pharell Williams’ song “Happy,” which was nominated for an Oscar, has not been one of my favorites. But ever since that DWTS week when Charlie White danced to it, the song has been exponentially growing on me. When I hear it on the radio, it is like an automatic reminder to choose happiness, to choose gratefulness, to look outside myself and beyond the pain of whatever I’m dealing with right now.
It reminds me of another principal from Gretchen Rubin:
“Act the way I want to feel.”
I’m going to hypothesize that the above mantra really only works if you are telling it to yourself. When someone else tells me to just make an effort to be happy, it usually has the opposite effect. But it is true that when I choose to act like a happy, friendly person, I usually feel happier and friendlier as a result, and that just makes it easier to be happier and friendlier.
When it comes down to it, my motivation for choosing happy is both selfish and altruistic: I want people to like me (selfish) and I want to make a positive impact on other people (altruistic).
I don’t know if it’s possible to claim altruism without totally negating it. Is that like the “My humility is my best quality” paradox?
Choosing to be happy is a lot like choosing to exercise. It’s rare for someone to come away from the gym saying, “Man, I regret my decision to work out today.” Unless, maybe, if you injure yourself. But that’s beside the point. The point is, it’s equally rare for someone to choose to be happy and then come away from that saying, “Yeah, my decision to be happy? Not my best choice ever.”
Happiness fuels itself. Put forth that miniscule bit of energy to smile at someone in passing, and it boosts your “happiness energy.” Each tiny choice to have a positive outlook on life builds on the choice before it, so that it becomes increasingly easier and more natural rather than draining to look at life with happiness, positivity, and gratitude.
So I choose happy. Because it is the way I want others to see me. Because it is the way I want to feel.