These last few weeks my daughter has been waiting on some important news. She’s applied for a job as a college fellow at the university she’ll be attending next year. The job involves living in one of the residential colleges and providing advice and support to resident students. If she gets it, she and her partner will effectively have free accommodation on campus. This will make life at university much easier for her.
She was happy with the interview and was told she would hear something ‘early next week’. By Thursday of the following week she still hadn’t received a call. Meanwhile, the start of the university year is looming and she’s mindful that all of the good, cheaper apartments off campus are being snapped up. She’s stressed. It’s understandable.
She calls on Thursday afternoon to be told that they were initially interviewing for just one college but have now been asked by the university to fill all of the colleges with fellows. It seems everyone else forgot to advertise. The woman coordinating the panel now has a much bigger job on her hands and won’t be able to give my daughter an answer until ‘early next week’, but she lets her know that she was ‘impressive’, so things look positive. My daughter is stressed. Her partner has his honours year this year, they don’t know if they’ll need a car and the time for organising a move is diminishing. I can hear her grind her teeth from across the room.
‘Early next week’ comes and goes and by Thursday my daughter is about to combust. I want to find a way to reduce her stress, to help her enjoy today and to accept that nothing she can do, including all this worry, will have any impact at all on the outcome. I resist the temptation to give her unsolicited advice about stress management. I listen. We go shopping. We go to the movies.
I remember that at her age I would have been so much worse than she is. By now I probably would have sabotaged any chance I had at the position by phoning the woman and telling her that if she can’t be bothered ringing me she shouldn’t promise to do so.
I also remember that my daughter has had a lot more going on in her life this last year, including dealing with the fact that her mother has cancer. Looking at her reaction in context, she’s amazing. The stressed behaviour reminds me of me but the patience and the grace with which she speaks to this woman when she does finally get in touch, that’s all her.
Closer to the present day I remember that I spent the whole week after surgery feeling great. This is traditionally a horror week for anyone with cancer as you wait for pathology results. I honestly only had a couple of moments when fear stuck it’s head out of a dark and nasty hole. I simply looked away. I took a deep breath. I remembered to look around me and to anchor myself in the present, to be grateful for everything and to be happy. I’ve come a long way.
If you had told me when I was my daughter’s age that happiness was a choice I would have argued with you. I would have defended my seething anxiety with a list of things that were causing my lack of happiness. You would have retreated. Not because you were wrong but because I was so aggressively argumentative that it was a waste of your time trying to cheer me up.
Arguing was something of a family sport in our home, and I was well into my adult life before a kind friend pointed out to me that nobody really appreciated my portable soap box and my authoritative tone. Kindness is more important than being right. Being argumentative makes you unpleasant company. There are times when it’s a great skill and I’ve used it to good effect in a number of professional situations, but I still remember after making a speech at someone’s farewell, a junior staff member turned to me and said, “I’ve always thought you were really hard and intimidating but there’s a nice person in there.” Ouch.
My first marriage ended, essentially, because my husband didn’t make me happy and I didn’t make him happy. Both of us now recognise the dysfunction inherent in that statement. We are both happy now, but not because we divorced. We choose to be happy. I am grateful that we have also chosen to remain friends.
The reason all of this becomes relevant right now is that I know there are people that think I’m just this positive by nature. I’m not. It took a lot of work to get here.
A woman at the gym this week told me that she wished she could be as positive as I am. She called me ‘inspirational’. I thanked her and told her that there was no reason she couldn’t be this positive. It’s certainly not as simple as just making a decision but nothing changes without that first step. I know a lot of people think that their personality is set. I hear them say ‘I’m just anxious by nature’ or ‘I’ve always been a stress head’ as if there’s nothing they can do to change that. I used to sound like this.
My occupation left me very angry. Wait, I should rewrite that. When I was a police officer I was often angry, and I still feel angry sometimes about the things I saw. Child protection work in particular, and policing in general, can be a strong source of anger. There are so many things you can’t change, so much injustice, so much tragedy. It’s sometimes overwhelming. Learning to be happy in spite of it is not a simple thing.
I’m also fairly political by nature. I’m interested in what’s going on in the world, particularly regarding climate change, the rights of women, the safety of children, the protection of wildlife and a whole range of other issues. If I’m not careful, I can easily slip into anger about any one of these issues.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being angry. It’s just personally destructive if you can’t do anything with it. Being angry with cancer has been part of how I’ve dealt with it. ‘Fuck You Cancer!’ is not a Buddhist matra, but it has been part of my strategy for keeping my thinking where I want it to be. Anger can be an excellent antidote to misery. My rage has been specific, isolated, targeted and occasional.
But happiness is my default setting. I really am happy most of the time.
It’s my observation that there are some things we can’t do very much about. They include our height, our underlying body shape, the colour of our eyes and our genetic propensity for inherited diseases. The things we can do something about include our weight, our level of fitness, the quality of our diet and our happiness. Change in any of these areas will require a strategy and some effort. Our success is entirely determined by our own choices.
The good news is that if someone as intense, argumentative and stressed as I was can do it, then you can too.
If you are one of those naturally happy people then thank you. You’re a source of joy in the world, a pleasure to be around and a cherished friend to those that know you. Your example is a lesson to the rest of us.
If you’re not naturally happy then know that happiness really IS a choice. But it’s not just a choice. It’s also some hard work. The starting point for me included some very enlightening books.
Books: There’s so many including lots of recent ones on the art of happiness and positive psychology. Go online or to your local bookshop and have a look. Find something that appeals to you and start reading.
Two of my favourites were ‘Learned Optimism’ and a brilliant book by the guy that helped develop cognitive behavioural therapy. I wish I could remember the title. There’s lots of books on CBT and many of them a lot simpler than his, but I particularly enjoyed his list of dysfunctional thinking styles. Here’s the link to ‘Learned Optimism’. The same author has recently had another book on happiness become a best seller. I must remember to get hold of it.
I also found Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence really helpful. His journey began with wondering why a high IQ didn’t guarantee you a successful life. Here’s a description:
I also remember that M Scott Peck’s book, ‘The Road Less Travelled’ had a huge impact on me in my 20’s. It seems that each generation has a ‘self help’ book that becomes popular and I’m not sure this one has aged well, but at the time it helped me to identify a propensity for blaming anything I didn’t like about myself on other people or on external circumstances. Helpful.
I’m a reader, so books are always a good starting point for me. You might also like:
Courses: Over the years I’ve done short courses on stress management, meditation, mindfulness, dealing with anxiety, assertiveness (friends will laugh but this course actually helped me to express myself in less aggressive ways), Myers Briggs personality type (great for developing a tolerance to difference and an understanding of other people), and happiness.
Look for a local Buddhist centre as a good starting point. They usually have very good, low cost short courses. Buddhism has a lot to teach us about having a happy life, even if you don’t buy into reincarnation and karma.
Online: Apart from a couple of great Facebook pages, this hasn’t really been part of my strategy so far but it could be in the future. You can now get online courses, aps for your phone and a whole range of resources on positive psychology and happiness. There’s even cognitive behavioural therapy aps to help you with your automatic negative thoughts.
You’ll almost certainly find, as I did, that change is not as simple as just reading and understanding something. I found that I sometimes needed to go over the same material several times before it ‘took’.
There’s a world of difference between understanding something and having that understanding lead to a change in behaviour. If you doubt this then consider that most smokers and most drinkers know it will damage their health but they continue with the behaviour. Most of us now have an understanding of what healthy eating looks like but I know very few people that consistently eat to those guidelines. If you’ve ever worked to change a bad habit you’ll know that the process usually includes a cycle of making a commitment, starting strong, trailing off and then recognising you haven’t stuck to the plan. At the end of that cycle you can decide to give up, or to go back to making a commitment and to going around the cycle again.
Try to think of it as an upward spiral rather than going around in circles. This is what change looks like for most of us. You are not failing.
I’m still working on being a better human. I will be until the day I die. I’m happy with my progress but there will always be room for improvement. The rewards are worth the effort. My life is so much better now than it was in my twenties, and I like to think that my own work has also meant that my daughter started further ahead than I did. Yes, she still gets stressed but happiness is her default setting too. She worries that I see the worst version of her because it’s me she comes to when she’s upset or angry. My response is that if this is her worst version she’s a remarkably evolved person.
More than three weeks after her interview my daughter finally got back in touch with the woman that had failed so many times to call or email her. She got the job. Listening to her on the phone I was impressed by her calm, and her compassion towards this woman who had suddenly found herself lumped with a much larger job and no clear budget for it. The woman apologised and acknowledged how stressful the process must have been for my daughter. At the end of the phone call, all signs of my daughter’s stress had evaporated and she was celebrating her new job.
I know at her age I would not have been so diplomatic. I know at my age I have become someone who would have no trouble dealing with a similar situation without becoming a puddle of nerves. Change is possible. The rewards are worth the effort.
POST SCRIPT: Since I wrote this post I’ve read “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Walker. It’s completely changed by thinking on the subject of ‘negative emotions’ and how to have a happy life. Short version; my daughter’s ability to make room for all of her emotions is very healthy.