My wife recently asked me "why can't things be easy? Why can't we be happy?" She didn't mean "why can't hard things be easy, why can't sad things make us happy;" she meant "why can't we let easy things be easy, why can't we be happy for happy things?" It's a good question, and so here I am: learning to be happy.
I was not raised unhappy in any way, although, coming from a family of intellectuals, I learned to be skeptical from an early age. I also absorbed my Russian Jewish grandmother's superstition to not speak, or even think too hard, about good things that happen, lest bad luck in double measure return. I always counted these traits as "practical" and "self-protecting."
Then, life intervened. Being an adult is amazing, but it's also hard. Work is hard, owning a house is hard, marriage is hard, having a kid is hard. All of these are also wonderful. I was spending my time thinking about the hard parts, and not the wonderful parts.
Brené Brown tells us: "If we’re not practicing gratitude and allowing ourselves to know joy, we are missing out on the two things that will actually sustain us during the inevitable hard times." Those hard times: I was not sustained, not nearly as well as I should have been.
And there was my son, three-and-a-half, having joy:
What Is Joy?
In our culture, joyfulness is often thought to be the preserve of children or the perpetually-children, such as hippies or the rich kids of Instagram. Yet, as Brown tells us, this is confusing freedom from cares, or luck; and joy. The Greeks used the word makarios to mean "the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries, or a person who received some form of good fortune, such as money." In constast, chairo, or joy, was a good mood deep in the soul.
We work hard and pass up joy to get makarios, yet makarios rarely sustains us. I lurched from challenge to challenge at work and in my life, not finding joy in my days and not keeping it in my nights. No wonder my wife wanted things to change!
Fortunately, I have this joyful little guy to show me the way:
Abraham Lincoln once said "most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." Well, I have made up my mind to be joyful. And it is the most amazing way to be.
It seems like there are two pieces to being joyful:
- Be grateful
- Be joyful
Since #2 appears circular, let's start with #1.
Every place I read about joyfulness started with gratefulness. This was quite surprising — I expected religiously-focused and non-religious sources to have different perspectives. Everyone started with gratefulness.
“Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.” — Marianne Williamson
It's easy to walk through the day and not be grateful for the things we have: a beautiful house, wonderful dogs, a good commute, a nutritious meal, a comfortable desk chair, good lighting, flowers that smell nice, a spouse who put away the dishes, a toddler who can dress himself. This isn't the "eat your broccoli because people in Ethiopia are starving" kind of gratitude, it's truly asking "is this nice in my life?" and then, when the answer is "sure, it's nice, maybe not great but nice," saying "well, I'm grateful for it. I'm grateful for the lock on my door that just works and I don't need to jiggle my key or not put my key in all the way or anything like that. A working lock is nice."
Some of this is #firstworldproblems stuff, sure, but there's no reason not to appreciate the things we have. It's just hard to remember to. That's why I signed up for Gratefulness.io. Two texts a day, morning and evening, help me to remember to be grateful, and my personal log is a lovely thing to remind myself of what I have been grateful for.
This thing that Brené Brown said: "Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice." — it turns out to be true. Being grateful makes me happier. Even better, sharing my gratefulness makes it grow. Try being grateful for something someone does, or is, and then tell them that. I tell my wife how grateful I am for her, for our marriage, for our house, for many things, and she smiles so big, and the rays of her love lift me up more, and I smile too.
That smile is a lot about it. Dale Carnegie tells us that "People who smile... tend to manage, teach and sell more effectively, and to raise happier children. There’s far more information in a smile than a frown. That’s why encouragement is a much more effective teaching device than punishment."
Smiles go a long way. It's not just a saying: multiple academic studies in prestigious journals have shown a reproducible result that making people smile makes them happier. Or, in other words, back to Dale Carnegie:
Happiness doesn’t depend on outward conditions. It depends on inner conditions. It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.
So, to be joyful, one should... be joyful. Dale Carnegie's advice to the cranky is: "You don’t feel like smiling? Then what? Two things. First, force yourself to smile. If you are alone, force yourself to whistle or hum a tune or sing. Act as if you were already happy, and that will tend to make you happy." Act as if, and your mood will follow. Is that true joy? If one decides to find joy in the parts of one's life which are joyful — and gratefulness helps with that — then I don't see why not.
Take it Easy
The catch, of course, is that things are not always joyful. Many times, it's hard to see things to be grateful for. Sometimes the answer to "why can't things be easy? Why can't we be happy?" is "things are hard right now and that sucks."
One thing I didn't know is that joy helps us during the hard times too. Back to Brené Brown: "If we’re not practicing gratitude and allowing ourselves to know joy, we are missing out on the two things that will actually sustain us during the inevitable hard times."
The alternative of suppressing our joy, so that we don't have our hearts broken in the bad time — a tradition I was raised in — also doesn't help; it just nets out to less joy. Brené Brown again: "I’ve learned that playing down the exciting stuff doesn’t take the pain away when it doesn’t happen. It does, however, minimize the joy when it does happen."
In fact, per Brown, learning to numb reduces resilience during hard times. Many numbing behaviors are also maladaptive and can lead to addiction. They don't lead us out of the hard times; joy, however, may. As Dale Carnegie reminds us — and, shockingly, we do need reminding of this! — "People rarely succeed at anything unless they have fun doing it." Usually, the way out of the hard time starts with some success, no matter how little. As they always told us in High School, find the thing that gives you joy and pursue it.1
So: I choose joy. I choose gratitude. I choose to go through my life making time to find both. It's a top priority every morning and evening, and I feel it every day. Chairo, to my great good fortune, is coming to me.
And I am happy for the happy things.2 Sometimes, I even let the easy things be easy. I'm getting there.
On the one hand, this is #firstworldproblems privilege speaking here: so many people don't have the choice to do something they love. On the other hand, it's also a question of finding gratitude in the little things. Doing data entry in a sea of identical cubicles, windows half an acre away; flipping burgers over a hot stove in a cramped kitchen, shoulder-to-shoulder with the fry cook and spitting oil; lifting heavy sacks of cement in the pounding sun and dust as a laborer at a construction site — for each person, one of these is a better option than the others. You may say "I'm grateful I'm in a team (on the line in the kitchen)" or "I'm grateful I'm outdoors, in the air," or "I'm grateful I'm not sweating (indoors, in the cube farm)." Those are real things; those are real choices. Of course I'm immensely grateful for all of the privilege I have and was raised with, and I'd never compare the things I've had to go through to the daily challenges a third of Americans fight their way through; but there's joy in a dandelion in the crack of a sidewalk, or the smell of a spring rain, or a cozy blanket. And we're better off for finding that, wherever we come from. ↩
But not randomly happy for unhappy things. To quote Brené Brown once again, "Being grateful and joyful doesn’t mean that I’m happy all of the time." Being unhappy is fine, for things that are unhappy. ↩