I love Michael Leunig’s cartoons. This one featured on our calendar for last month. I hope it’s large enough for you to read. He’s describing seven types of ordinary happiness. It was a beautiful reminder to me, all month, that my happiness is a choice and that all sorts of things can be a reason to smile.
A lot of people seem surprised by my happiness. When you get a diagnosis of a life threatening illness and a treatment regime that includes some pretty nasty risks and side effects, it’s assumed that you’ll probably be feeling pretty crappy about it all. Someone asked my husband about how he was coping with my mood swings. His reply was, “It’s not difficult. She only swings between two moods, happy and tired.” He’s exaggerating. I’ve certainly had my moments of fear, distress, frustration and sorrow. After all, I do have cancer. But I have found it possible to be happy most of the time. I like to think of it as my ‘default setting’.
I used to think that my emotions were something beyond my control. They descended upon me from who-knew-where and I was obliged to respond accordingly. Emotions were like the weather. Unpredictable. Entirely beyond my influence. It was often other people that had to endure the onslaught of my emotional storms.
Over the last decade I’ve been lucky enough to learn some different ideas about what causes our emotions.
I’m very grateful to Dr Suzy Green for her short course on happiness through Sydney University. A friend had booked this course and found she couldn’t go so she offered me the spot. I spent a fascinating day learning about playing to my strengths, being grateful and doing something worthwhile with my life. I was already familiar with a lot of these concepts but Suzy had a way of breaking them down to practical things that we could actually do to help improve our happiness.
I’d already found a career that played to my strengths and, as a police officer, I had no difficulty with whether or not I’d done anything worthwhile. I could also look at my beautiful daughter and know that one of the most worthwhile things that any of us can do is to be the best parent we can possibly be. What really made a difference in my life was Suzy’s suggestion that a gratitude journal could help me to achieve a permanent shift in my thinking.
It turns out that doing this once a week is better than doing it every day. I think I know why. If you’re going to record seven things on Sunday then you’re attuned to focusing on gratitude all week long. I used my digital camera and then, every Sunday, I’d post seven photographs in a Facebook album called ‘I am grateful’, along with a short description. I made a commitment to do this for a whole year.
Some of my friends joined in for part of the journey but, surprisingly, nobody else stuck with it for a year. It’s a pity, because, as Suzy promised, it really did change my life. If you do something over and over, for long enough, it becomes a habit. Gratitude is now so much a part of my thinking that I can’t remember what it was like to not think this way.
When you first start keeping a gratitude journal it can feel awkward and difficult. Yes, yes, we’re all grateful for our family and our friends and whatever health we have and our homes and our stuff but then what? I found myself deeply grateful for very simple things, like access to clean drinking water and the ability to walk into a supermarket and buy such an amazing diversity of healthy food. I was grateful for my hands, for people that invented or made the things I used with with my hands, for music, for clean air, for paper clips. I found I was grateful for big things, like technology that puts me in touch with the rest of the world, a public health system, democratic government and all of nature.
Being grateful doesn’t just make you happier. It also makes you a much nicer person to be around. As a natural extension of being grateful I found myself taking the time to genuinely thank people, to pay and pass on compliments and to gently shift conversations away from complaining to talking about how fortunate we are.
The local Buddhist centre run a one day course on happiness. I was very lucky to be able to attend that before I got cancer. They teach that happiness is an emotion that arises from within us. It is not caused by external things or people. Nobody ‘makes’ us unhappy. No situation can ‘give’ us an emotion. Instead, they teach that all emotions arise from our minds. We can decide to be happy. We can decide not to be happy.
For anyone growing up with traditional Western values around emotions this is radical stuff. We’re so used to blaming other people for upsetting us. The guy that cuts us off in traffic ‘ruins’ our morning. The rude person serving us in the shop ‘gives’ us the shits. The whole of our language around marriage and love is full of making other people responsible for our emotions; ‘You made me love you’; ‘Nobody hurts me like you do’; ‘My life is nothing without you.’;’Now I am complete because I’ve found you.’
Sometimes, changing our emotional response is as simple as reinterpreting the situation. The guy that cuts us off in traffic might have a sick child in the back seat, half way through a life threatening asthma attack. Of course, even if that’s not the case you have to wonder why we’d let one small act of discourtesy have so much importance in our day. For a Buddhist, getting cut off in traffic is potentially just as annoying, but they recognise that there is no benefit in becoming angry or upset. They train their mind to stay calm and to remain peaceful. Negative emotions are just a waste of energy.
But what about something bigger than a bit of road rage? What about life threatening illness? How could that not be distressing?
The same thinking applies. Your emotions are yours to control. There is no benefit in becoming angry or distressed. There is enormous benefit in remaining calm and peaceful.
There’s now good science to back up what the Buddhists already know. Happiness is good for you. It boosts your immune system and helps you to avoid disease. Happy people live longer and, not surprisingly, have a much better quality of life than unhappy people.
So I choose to be happy.
The easiest way for me to do this is to pay attention to my thinking. When it starts to slip into a negative emotional state I respond by listing things I’m grateful for. I am grateful that I am still alive. I am grateful for my wonderful medical team. I am grateful for the side effects of my chemo because they are proof that my drugs are working. I am grateful for my family and my friends.
My favourite part of Michael Leunig’s Seven Types of Happiness cartoon is the last bit; ‘Diffuse residual happiness resulting from rhythmic domestic tasks like washing dishes.’ It’s a beautiful reminder that even the mundane can be a source of happiness. I’m grateful for the dishes, the food we ate from them, the availability of hot water and the company of my husband as we clean the dishes, ready for our next meal together. When you shift to this kind of thinking there is no such thing as a chore.
If you’re finding it hard to be positive then I’d like to recommend you keep a gratitude journal for one year. Every Sunday, keep a record of seven things you’re grateful for that week. I always try to find something different but even if you repeat yourself sometimes it doesn’t matter. I loved using photos and Facebook but there are no rules for how you keep your own record. Some people use a book, some people draw pictures or make art, some people just use a status post every Sunday.
It might feel strange and forced for a while. I really enjoy stretching it out and taking some time to be deeply grateful but it doesn’t need to take you longer than ten or fifteen minutes once a week. Given the potential for this really simple habit to make your life considerably better, don’t you think it’s worth a try? You can’t just agree with the concept and keep doing what you’ve always done. This will only work if you actually DO something.
Pick a day that works for you as a ‘grateful’ day, make a promise to be grateful for seven things on that day, every day for a year, and see what happens. Write it down. Share it or keep it to yourself.
Hopefully, like me, you’ll start to find that happiness becomes your default setting. You’ll still have the days when the tears come and the fear sneaks up on you but you’ll get better and better and shifting out of those negative emotional states and into one of peaceful contentment.
I’d love to see Sunday become ‘gratitude day’. Imagine if we all took some time out, once a week, to talk about the things we were grateful for, to thank the people that were important to us and cultivate a peaceful mind. I think the world would be a very different place.