I really don’t share the gloom and doom that I see so much in the news and my social media feeds. Yes, I know it’s there. I know that there are people out there suffering the sufferable. I know that for many people, 2020 was a lousy year. I saw so much focus on the negative in the news and among the people I follow on social media. I saw how people glommed onto negative news and how unattractive good news was. Yet, throughout the year, I kept a positive outlook, pandemic notwithstanding.
There are some who may say that I’m a privileged white boy who never really knew how bad life can be for others. There might even be some truth to that narrative. I am white. I am middle-aged. But I’m blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. I have nystagmus, a brain disorder that makes me “look at you funny”. I’m kind of not normal. I don’t have a college degree so I missed out on many of the jobs that I could easily have had with a degree. I’ve made mistakes that I could spend a lifetime regretting, but I don’t anymore. I tried that and found it wanting. I could be baleful and spiteful about my disabilities, and everything that didn’t go right in my life, and I’ve done that. So, so tiring.
I have so far managed to stay out of harm's way with the pandemic. I will keep doing what I’m doing. I know of two people who caught COVID. I don’t know of anyone at work who got it. Work? I still have a job. I work from home. I have a home office decked out with three monitors, a current computer and a fast internet connection. Somehow, life just goes on, it just works.
I could say that I’m lucky. Yeah, I’m pretty damn lucky, even with a disability that isn’t entirely obvious to other people. I’ve learned not to judge others for I have no idea what struggles they must endure, just like most people can’t see my own struggles. Throughout the last year, I’ve had a keen focus on the good in my life. I notice the bad, the problems, even persistent issues that defy my solutions, but in general, I focus on what I already have and find gratitude in it.
I wasn’t always like this. I was once a bitter and scornful person. I wasn’t thankful. I wasn’t grateful, I could get a great gift and still find something to be unhappy about in the same day. I could say, “This is really nice, but I’m blind in one eye. Do you have something for that?”
I’ve tried self-medication. I’ve tried isolation. I’ve tried doing it all on my own. For a long, long time, I was the male personification of Debbie Downer. People would give me good news and all I could think of was what I didn’t have. I would see other people’s happiness and wanted them to stop being happy until I was happy. I didn’t know how to make myself happy, and all that time didn’t realize that it was my responsibility to make myself happy. I waited for the world to change for me, and that didn’t happen. I was going to be unhappy for a long time waiting for the world to change.
There are a lot of naysayers in the world. They will tell you that therapy doesn’t work. They will say things like, “There’s no empirical evidence that people benefit from 12-step programs.” They will tell you that the world is a really shitty place. They will tell you that there is nothing you can do about evil, for they believe that there is nothing that can be done about evil except to contain it. I’ve met some real downers, even worse than me. And when I met them, I saw myself in them. I knew I had to change.
I did all those things. I worked on myself. I did the therapy, the writing, the group stuff, the 12-steps, and on and on and on. This stuff never stops. We live in a pretty sick society that has real difficulty taking care of the people who are less fortunate. it’s easy to get sucked up into that muck machine and bale about all the bad stuff in it. That’s addictive. There is little use in reading, memorizing, and regurgitating all the bad news we read during the day to someone else. We call that, “commiserating”. I have done much of that stuff and after years of experimentation, I have concluded that the antidote for all that negativity is gratitude.
I am grateful that I get another year, even with one eye and one ear. I don’t mind it really, I’ll be OK. I know that I’ll be OK because I’ve worn a path where the grass will not grow, between me and gratitude. I know that one milligram of gratitude can prevent an hour or two of grousing about what I didn’t get for Christmas. I know that a tiny bit of gratitude can completely sideline a negative train of thought, complete with ideation about “what I’d really like to do to someone else as retaliation”. I have done this over and over again. I can see that train of negatively charged thoughts a mile away and when I do, I go to the emergency gratitude kit, I open it, and I take a dose of gratitude.
What does a dose of gratitude look like? I’m still breathing. I’m in a warm room with a blanket writing this article when it’s 18 degrees outside. I’ve had breakfast. I’m not working today. I know that my family is safe in this house with me. I notice that I have enough for today. I have a job to do on Monday. I’d rather write for a living, but I still find something to like about my job every working day. I get a hit off the dopamine my brain releases when I help others, every single time I do that. It never gets old. I just notice the little stuff, the low hanging fruit, and I find a reason to be happy for it.
Happiness seems in short supply this year and last. It’s easy to go down the negative rabbit hole. If you’re tired of being happy, read the news. Watch the news. Think about something you want but don’t have a hope of ever getting. I could “want” a McLaren 650s. I could want to go on vacation to Japan and Hawaii. I could want to live in Beverly Hills. I could get all of those things and still make a choice not to be happy. I’ve seen people surrounded by great stuff and bemoan, “Is that it?”
So I’ve made a choice to be happy. Happiness is not a passive experience. Happiness requires cognition. No matter what we’re doing, where we are, who we’re with, we still have to make a choice to be happy. I’ve seen enough stories of celebrities who had it all and still they killed themselves. They made a choice not to be happy. No one can stop that from happening unless they want to stop it.
It’s not that I’m rich or that I have everything I want, either. I’m not rich, I’m not poor. But I know what it’s like to be poor and I’ve long since realized I was poor by my own hand. I have much of what I want already. I made the decision to be happy with what I have. I make that decision every day when I walk around my humble little home. I make a decision to be satisfied with what I have because I’ve tried the other way and that is really, really tiring. I get to decide if I’m happy or sad. I get to choose how I feel.
Yes, there may be circumstances beyond my control that may lead to strong negative feelings, but even those feelings pass and I still have to shit or get off the pot. I still have to decide to find something to be happy about or unhappy about. It’s not a question of whether or not I want to make that decision. I HAVE to make the decision to be happy. No one will do that for me. You can show me how to be happy a thousand times and I still have to make that decision just do it.
So maybe we had a lousy year last year. We have a new year upon us. It’s a totally arbitrary division of time for our convenience, but it’s still a new year. I still have to find a reason to be happy. If I’m having difficulty finding that reason, I go back to the gratitude tree with the low hanging fruit. I go for stuff like, “I’m alive”. “I have enough for today.” “There is peace in the house.” “I still have a job.” If I’m feeling unhappy, I will go through a mental checklist of anything and everything I have a reason to be happy for until the unhappiness goes away. There is nothing that I can take to make that unhappiness go away. No drug, no amount of sex, money, or property will do this for me. No matter what, happiness still rests on a decision I must make to BE happy.
So when I say “Happy New Year” to anyone, all that stuff is going on in the back of my mind. I say “Happy New Year” with the hope that you too, can make that decision to be happy.