“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing– something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up: a place of shelter when it rains– a cup of strong hot coffee when you’re blue… a book to read when you’re alone–just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.” — Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Often we fall into the trap of believing that once we obtain that new car we’ve been wanting, that new house, the promotion at work or a significant other to spend our lives with, that we will finally be happy and satisfied. And usually we are happier—for a period of time.
The problem, though, is that there will always be a newer a car on the market or a new iPhone model that promises to be better than the one you just purchased six months ago; and, there will always be people that have nicer cars, nicer homes, and better jobs than you that make what you have seem lackluster in comparison. You’re always chasing after something that you can’t quite catch-up to. Even if you obtain the one thing that you believe will make you happy, eventually, the rush of excitement and happiness wears off and you are left feeling nearly the same way you did before.
That is what’s known as the hedonic treadmill: A theory which proposes, regardless of circumstance and things acquired, a person will always return to the same base level of happiness. There will be an initial spike in happiness or sadness but, after a period of time, the person will return to approximately the same level of happiness they were at before the event took place. Daniel Gilbert, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard, best-selling author, and seasoned TED-talker, cites a study on happiness that was conducted on a group of lottery winners and a group of paraplegics. It turns out that a year after winning the lottery and a year after losing the use of their legs the two groups were equally happy with their lives.
The point to take away is that it is not life events and objects acquired that determine our happiness. Daniel Gilbert assures us that happiness is a thing that our brains can synthesize, but we wrongly think that happiness is only a thing that can be found. Many of the things we are lead to believe will bring us long-lasting happiness often fall short of our expectations. In actuality, we create or synthesize our own happiness through our attitudes and perspectives of the world around us. One study found that “actions, thoughts, and attitudes account for 40% of an individual’s happiness” which is quite significant. Gilbert cites that “synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we want” and “it is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for.”
In their book, Life is Good, Bert and John Jacobs, the founders of the Life is Good retail company, share the story of their sister Berta who broke her neck in a skiing accident and was left paralyzed from the neck down. She was told by doctors that she may never walk again. In spite of this life-altering possibility, Berta remained relatively optimistic. She made the conscious decision to remain positive and was determined to work towards getting better.
“‘You have to look at the good things’, she says. ‘It’s OK to be sad sometimes. I’m not saying I didn’t cry a lot back then. I did. It always felt good to let it all out. But then I’d turn the page and focus my thoughts on getting better.’” What’s more, when facing one of the most potentially life-altering situations, full-body paralysis, Berta held in mind the well-being of others, at times, even above herself. She reasoned that if she were sad it would only make her whole family sad too, and that “doesn’t help anybody.”
Today, Berta is miraculously able to walk again. She reveals that she still experiences many daily challenges and setbacks as a result of her injury but explains, “I try to look at them as things that may ruin my hour, but not my day, or my week.” In part, this pragmatic positivity and optimism is a disposition but, for the most part, it is a choice that is consciously made every single day.
It begins with making small but deliberate changes to your daily lexicon. For instance, by using phrases like “get to” in place of “have to.” Think of living your life with a “yes, and” mentality, instead of a “no, but” mentality. The “yes, and” philosophy originated from improvist Del Close and states that actors should never negate the ideas brought into the improvisation by another actor. This is surprisingly applicable to life beyond the stage. Often we cannot control the situations that life or other people put in front of us. “Yes, and” allows you to accept the situation immediately for what it is, contribute to the creation or perception of it, and move forward from there. “No, but” dwells in rejection and denial and halts the possibility of growth or any kind of forward progression beyond the event. “Yes, and” is a continued state of growth and forward momentum.
Berta’s attitude towards her daily challenges exemplifies the “yes, and” mentality. Yes, she accepts the difficulty and frustration of the challenges that she still experiences to this day, and she adds her contribution, or her take on it, by acknowledging that the challenges are only moments in her day, and she moves forward from there, keeping the big picture in mind, by not allowing the challenges to ruin her entire week.
Phrases like “have to” and “no, but” are default settings in the brain, their negative connotations permeate a negative attitude into your perception of any situation. To change these hard-wired setting you must make a conscious and deliberate effort, and not just in the most difficult of situations, but every single day– waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, and stuck in traffic on the freeway on your way home from work. These are the moments when you particularly need to make a conscious effort to change your thinking because it is in these daily moments that true happiness and contentment live and die. These small but powerful adjustments in your language and internal dialogue allow you to create meaning, purpose, and gratitude in your everyday life which, if you don’t actively make the effort, can easily slip into a monotonous, unfulfilling work and personal life.
All this has to do with is simple awareness but, as David Foster Wallace says, in his famous “This is Water” speech, “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.” It is the job of a lifetime” but it is so essential to being present, happy, and fulfilled in life.
Additionally, according to Robert Waldinger, psychoanalyst and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a large part of our happiness comes from close and meaningful relationships with other people. Berta had a strong support system in her family. Not only did they help her to get better through their love, support, and companionship but, she also wanted to get better for them–they were a part of her motivation.
All of these concepts combined work toward developing a quality known as the elasticity of mind. Berta’s pragmatic positivity and resilience in the face of a deeply challenging and life-altering event embody this quality. Elasticity of mind, according to Jane Austen, is “that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carries [one] outside of [one’s self].” It is the ability to see people not as being in your way, but a part of your way. To see opportunities instead of obstacles. To find work that makes you focus not on the gravity of your own immediate situation but on the bigger picture, and on your relationships with other people. Finally, it is the ability to bend and not break.
A good life or a happy life is not defined by the absence of tragic and challenging events–quite the opposite actually. A good life is defined by what you do in the difficult moments and in the daily mundane moments–how you perceive and respond to them. How you synthesize happiness when you don’t get what you wanted. And, sometimes having experienced the difficult times makes the good times that much more good and appreciated by comparison. The good life is what you make it.
To love, to struggle, to be in love with life– in love with all life holds, joyful or sorrowful– is fulfillment. The fullness of life is open to us all. Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Tasha Harris is the Content Associate at BigSpeak Speakers Bureau. She graduated with honors and a degree in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She also holds a certificate in Publishing from the Denver Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. Contact her at TashaH@BigSpeak.com