How to be Happy When You're Sad
The Big Picture
I was going to jump into strategies for being happy within the moment, which are really important (and I will discuss in my next chapter), but then I decided this is more important. I’m going to tell you the two main reasons I manage to stay happy, most of the time, no matter what. They’re both seemingly simple yet complex ideas.
I hope you’ll read these passages a couple of times to really understand the concepts. My strategies wouldn’t help me without this foundation.
The first concept is something that must have been inside me my whole life, though it wasn’t until recently that the actualization of it jumped out at me.
When I’ve faced bad situations, after a short while of feeling despair, I’m able to recenter myself and remember something so important. I’m still here. That is not a small thing. When something dreadful happens, we don’t go away. Tomorrow will come. And we don’t know exactly what the future will bring. I want to say that again. We don’t know what the future will bring. If your loved one gets a stage 4 cancer diagnosis and it’s certain they won’t make it, you will still be here and while you may know what your future holds in the short term, there’s no way for you to know what’s in store down the line. I know that first hand.
The “I’m still here” thing kicked in for me at a previous job. I found out I wasn’t getting a promotion that was promised to me. Without the promotion I would have to look for a new job because I couldn't afford to live on the current salary. I had been barely hanging on for two years, hoping to get that step up. After I heard the news, I went to the lobby of my office building and cried. (Come on now, I never said I don’t cry!) Then I realized, in a meta sort of way, that I was figuratively standing atop of open pages in my own self-help book. I stood there and thought the words, “I’m still here and it’s still going to be tomorrow.” It hit me in a profound way. I had always lived my life knowing and understanding what those words meant, but it was more of a feeling without saying the exact words. Thinking of and saying those words made it all the more clear. Those words helped me understand that while I surely didn't want to start over, yet again, I simply had to and I would. We are all still here! So we might as well move forward rather than wallow in gloom. There’s always the possibility that the future will be brighter than the present.
I dried my eyes and went to the movies - it was $6.00 night and I saw an amazing film.
The next day I started looking for a new job.
Then, about a month later, I hadn’t found a new job yet and there was a striking turn of events in my office. I got my promotion! Now, believe me, this doesn’t mean things will, in the end, always work out to your favor. It does show, though, that we truly don’t know what’s around the corner and there’s no benefit to thinking the worst. There’s only benefit in moving forward and while you’re at it, finding moments of happiness during your journey.
The second concept is a bit more concrete, less meta, if you will.
I believe I have not crawled into a hole all these years because I never see the glass as half empty. Why, oh why, would I? And yes, I’m talking to you worriers and naysayers out there.
I know, it sounds so simple - it’s not. Remember when I talked about changing your lifestyle to stay trim, rather than being on a hamster wheel of quick weight loss programs, only to gain the weight back? Seeing the glass as half full is a lifestyle. It’s the big picture. It’s understanding that the story, your future, won’t change based on perception or fortune telling. And you won’t feel any better about a negative outcome if you spend the preceding time worrying about the possibility of a calamity.
I don’t waste my time worrying about “what ifs.”
I think about two things: mostly the possibility of a bright future and sometimes, only when a bleak future is certain and imminent, how I’ll move forward to attain a better future after an awful event occurs. Many years ago, when my young son and I lost the majority of our small family, in a two year period, it felt like they disappeared. During that period I claimed two mantras for us: “We deserve to be happy, too” and “We don’t know what’s around the corner.” For my son, I added to the second mantra “But we know it will be good.” And then I always gave him examples of great people who came into our lives and good things that happened to us.
Here’s a clarifying example of how my theory works:
Two people go for a job interview. Both of the candidates really need the job. At the end of their interviews they’re both told the decision will be made in two weeks.
Candidate one - let’s call her . . . oh, I don’t know, how ‘bout Jane - spends the waiting period enjoying her life. While she’s thinking how wonderful it will be if this job comes her way, she continues her job search in earnest, in case she doesn’t get the position she interviewed for. And during the waiting period, Jane also has fun. She might not have money if she’s currently unemployed, but that doesn’t mean she can’t spend time with friends and family, exercise, cook, go to the park or beach, whatever makes her happy.
Candidate two - let’s call him Downer John - sits in his house worrying, stressed out, thinking of the terrible situation that could very well greet him if he doesn’t get the job (remember fictitious Jane is facing the same potentially grim future). Downer John may or may not be able to look for other work options based on how this constant stress is affecting him.
Two weeks goes by and it turns out neither candidate gets the job.
Do you think for one minute that Downer John will somehow feel better about NOT getting the job he so desperately needed because he anticipated he wouldn’t? Me neither. He needed the job and didn’t get it, period. He’s not happy or relieved, he’s miserable. In fact, while the other candidate, fictitious Jane, didn’t get the job she really needed, there’s a chance that she’s more ready to move forward. Naturally, she was disappointed, even scared. But she spent the waiting period looking for a back-up plan and was relaxed. She didn’t dwell on the possible bad outcome. Jane didn’t waste those two weeks stressfully worrying, taxing her mental and physical health.
Chew on that for a while. In fact, I suggest you read it again. Perception of a future possibility is just that, perception. It’s simply not reality. If I had awfulized (that really is a word - I checked!) my future, which often did turn out badly, rather then plotting out how to move forward while enjoying my life - I can’t imagine how glum my life would have been all these years. Oh, wait, yes I can. I know lots of worriers and naysayers. Quite frankly, they never seem happy.
In the next chapter we’re on to specific strategies for moments of happiness.
I’ll meet you there.