‘Choose happiness’? Gimme a break …

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

Many of us have heard it from well-meaning friends or loved ones: “Choose happiness.”

I’ve often bristled at this platitude. Why? Because some suffering is such that “choosing” to be happy is not an option. Hearing someone blithely contend it’s a choice feels almost like an accusation, as if it’s a defect one is too lazy to address.

I assume it’s possible for some lucky folk to will themselves into a state of happiness. Good on them. It’s our responsibility to take care of ourselves physically, mentally, financially, etc., and to figure out how to extricate ourselves from whatever circumstances are causing our unhappiness. But for me and I suspect many others, this isn’t always possible.

And that’s okay, because it’s okay to be sad.

My best friend introduced me to the concept of “sitting with sadness,” meaning allowing oneself to feel it is a necessary part of healing, rather than pushing it down and pretending it’s not there. I’ve found this helpful, if exhausting. The trick is knowing how and when to pull yourself up and out.

Some of my sadness is caused by events over which I have no control. It ebbs and flows, flaring up after periods of peace and contentment. My task is to keep working to prolong and enrich those sweet spots in between the bouts of chaos. Looking back over the last decade this pattern is clear. Thankfully, it’s also clear that the happy bits have expanded, and the traumas have declined.

The big difference for me has been in how I have learned to respond — or not respond — to these eruptions. Some of what ails me, and I suspect a lot of other people, are issues that aren’t necessarily solvable; they’re out of my hands entirely. I’ve learned to accept this best I can, to wish only well, and to be kind. It doesn’t always work out that way, but I’m trying.

This isn’t me “choosing” to be happy, it’s me choosing to utilize learned coping mechanisms that have proven effective … most of the time. As I said, some things are just too much, and despair is the only available option. But I know now after years of flailing that my bouts of gloom are temporary, and for that I’m grateful.

Speaking of gratitude, it’s one of the universal tenets for dealing with adversity, and I am, yes, grateful to have finally taken to heart after hearing it for years from therapists, friends, and maudlin Instagram memes. (Don’t underestimate the power of silly memes, by the way; some of these daily affirmations have helped me deal with the absurdity of life.) Lists help me, as does just taking time to be still and recall my blessings. If you’re lucky like me, you’ll have a nice long list.

Another widely touted tool for overcoming emotional adversity is exercise, stuff like running, walking, or even sex. Moving our bodies and breathing in some fresh oxygen always improves our disposition, and raising our heart rate and releasing those unique endorphins with another consenting adult is pretty fun too.

Being social and engaging with the world around you are other totems of the “happiness is a choice” brigade. I’ve always had an extrovert’s heart, so this one is relatively non-applicable. But, the combination of a loving romantic relationship, giant affordable TVs, streaming video, and the realization that pajamas are so, so comfortable have — by choice — conspired to limit my social life as the years have stacked up. I’m not complaining. They’re so soft now too, those pajamas.

Doing for others — cooking for your family, volunteering, giving to charity, or even just taking in your neighbor’s trash bins — can also ease sadness. I’ve found making art and playing music also help me cope. Even writing this column has done wonders for the melancholy I felt before I started. It’s a real thing.

You may have noticed I’ve been using the word “sadness” and not “depression.” To me, depression is a long-term problem, and overcoming it requires more than an ad hoc array of healthy habits and rituals. I’m writing about life’s inevitable speed bumps, not its roadblocks.

The older I get the more I know myself, and the easier it is for me to access the rudimentary implements of my coping toolbox. That is not to say I’m wiser; if anything I’m just more aware of my limitations. This includes both what I’ll put up with, and what I know I don’t know. I have learned to shut my mouth when appropriate, which is to say most of the time, though some of you reading this column may doubt this claim.

A quick Google of, “Is happiness a choice?” mostly takes the air out of my argument. Many headlines confirm that yes, it is. About a quarter disagree. Are these simply distinctions between optimists and pessimists? I don’t think so. Whether by DNA, circumstance, the moon, or the daily to and fro of our unique physiology, in my experience there are times when it’s simply not possible to be happy. Again, I am always hopeful that for me and others it is but a temporary obstruction. Regardless, there’s no shame in admitting defeat when life kicks you in the teeth, only in not recognizing when it’s time to get back up and do something about it.

So for now I’ll sit with my sadness. I know it’s not forever. I have many blessings, not the least of which being able to work through my feelings in my work. I hope someone reading this feels a little better in knowing they’re not alone, that it’s okay to be sad.


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