My mom used to always wish people “health and happiness” because, she said, if you have your health, you have everything. It is true that some people have their health, but are still unhappy. In my experience, this discontent is largely a matter of choice, and I have seen individuals wallow in misery over things I could hardly believe they would allow themselves to be overpowered by.
Mind you, I did say largely a matter of choice—I do think there would be some exceptions, such as those with chemical imbalance or other mental illness. These folks often don’t have the choice, and would trade places with one of many others in an instant, for the opportunity to pursue a career, hobbies, lifestyle, etc. Many do, in fact, succeed in their chosen pursuits, and they are happy.
I should clarify that I also do not refer to those who have recently suffered a terrible loss, such as death of a family member or close friend, recently got divorced, lost a job, things like this. The turbulence these situations cause tend to be temporary, and most of the folks going through them want to be happy and do what they can for life to return to normal, or at least something as close to normal as they can get. (Note there are always exceptions and I’m not trying to cover any and every eventuality here.)
No, I refer to those who are chronically, consistently, constantly, miserable. Sometimes their fussiness is subtle, and you don’t notice it because you don’t know them well, or maybe you even brush it off because you perceive the problem to be a non-issue, and don’t fully realize how angry it makes them. They may be constant complainers, or always making pessimistic comments or are cloaked in an air of negativity. You may even have heard them say things like, “I’ll feel better when I get that raise” or “When I have a new job I’ll be happy.”
I wonder what you make of the idea that it is our personal responsibility to other people to be happy? Does that sound nonsensical? Does this or other, similar ideals demand that one be “fake,” as some of my college peers used to complain it did? We probably all knew—and continue to encounter—those who declared they wouldn’t allow others to dictate how they should feel. They won’t be told to smile, to cheer up, to pretend they are happy when they aren’t. They will be angry if they want and be “real.”
Well, there is indeed something to be said for the sovereign self, and I commend a strong, aware person who constructively takes on what life dishes out. Note the key word here: constructively. And we would be remiss if we didn’t wonder about others around these people. Don’t they deserve some consideration in this scenario? What if they don’t always want to be subject to someone else’s “reality”?
The idea that our responsibility to other people that we be happy doesn’t actually demand we be fake, but it does assert that others matter just as much as we do, and demanding the right to be gloomy disregards the well-being of others. An obvious example would be that nobody deserves to be snapped at because you slept poorly last night, woke up late and forgot your lunch. A little further below the surface might be feelings of low self-esteem—not necessarily the sort that target others to feel better (although there is that), but rather the resultant, chronic despondency that always seems to breed the downer comments, low-level lashing out or worse.
The concept that we owe it to others to be happy isn’t my own original thought—I first heard it off a talk-show personality one year when the only job I could get in a hurry was one in which I filed papers all day—all day, that’s what I did! Boring as heck, that’s for sure, so I grabbed a radio and stuck in the earphones to keep me company. Sometimes I listened to music, but also I got in what I used to call “books in discussion.” I just mean here that, of course, I’d rather be doing something else, namely reading, and one sort of book I like is non-fiction in a narrative style—especially about the brain, relationships, self-help, cooking, etc. I “discovered” a few talk shows, particularly one hosted by Dennis Prager, in which these and other topics of interest were discussed. Prager used to say that “happy people make the world a better place, unhappy people make it worse” (or something very close to that).
It may sound simplistic, but isn’t it true? Think about this: A few months back, I complimented someone at work on her pretty dress. She laughed as she thanked me, and related her funny story about how she spilled coffee (or something) on her clothes on the way to work. “It was too far to go back home, so I stopped at Fred Meyer, hoping I could find something quickly to wear. And I did!” It would have been easy for her to come to work and grumble all day, but she made the choice to try to remedy the situation a different way. It entailed using leave to cover the time she was late, but that was part of her acceptance: she dealt with it and moved on. If she’d been ill-tempered all day over it, it would have made the situation also the problem of others by proxy, and nothing convinces me this is acceptable.
In contrast, someone else I know has a boss who is sometimes rather mean to her, reprimanding her in front others, talking down at her and so on. But she chooses to do nothing about it, instead behaving this way to others with equal opportunity: to those she supervises and those she doesn’t. She can be very friendly and generous, but also quite condescending with a sharp tone and demeaning haughtiness. So, because she won’t do anything about her supervisor, whose violation of contractual obligations causes her grief, other people now have to either endure her own poor behavior toward them or make the effort to remedy it because she has made it their problem.
The reality is that we all know people just like both of the two I mention above and we often don’t think past their behavior because that’s “just the way they are.” Plus, in at least some instances, there really isn’t much we can do; they have to make their own choices. But what if that second person is us? Are we even aware we are transferring our problems to others? Do we try to justify being miserable all the time (or frequently) because those are our “authentic” emotions? Or might we consider this ideal about responsibility to others who also don’t want to be told how to feel, but have negativity pushed upon them by someone who chooses not to care about others around them, only themselves. Perhaps we can spread happiness–wouldn’t that be pretty nice, especially after the year we have all had?
There is a lot more that could be said about this topic; it’s intriguing in that it’s not a complicated concept, yet there is often so much discussion required to justify or explain it. (And I probably don’t articulate it nearly as well as Prager does.) There also are probably hundreds of scenarios that could be utilized within the parameters of the subject. This short blog is certainly not intended to cover them all, but one thing I’d like to leave you with: if you are bold enough to authentically consider this ideal, allow yourself to work through all the objections you may have, and honestly assess thoughts that might render any of them non-viable.
If you are super-duper bold, open the discussion with a friend, a bit more challenging because it takes away the ability to quash thoughts we don’t want to have and gives rise to those we might truly not have considered. Very few of us are really awesome at this; it takes work and can be difficult.
What will we choose to do?
Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll explore some
connections between health and happiness
Photos ©2021 Lisl P. Use with permission only.