Today, I’m happy. I have traveled a long and uneven road to get here. Sometimes the road was muddy. Sometimes the road was unclear. Sometimes the road went over mountains. Sometimes the road went through deserts. And sometimes the road seemed to go nowhere. But I committed to staying on the road to happiness. I made a decision to be happy.
There was a time, long ago, when I was not so happy. Everyone else seemed to have what I wanted. They had nice houses, nice jobs, they were in relationships, they had kids that did well, they went on vacations, and they were surrounded by wonderful gifts. I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Why were they getting what they wanted and I wasn’t?
I sometimes wished that they would suffer so that I would be happy. I once believed that I would be happy if other people would suffer. Looking back, it is clear to me now that I was not making very good choices.
I didn’t commit to anything. I was renting rooms. I was bouncing from job to job. I was afraid of relationships. I was afraid of a great many things, really, and all of those things that I was afraid of, I discovered were a part of being happy.
A stable place to live is required for happiness. A sense of industry is a requirement for happiness. A sense of belonging is required for a sense of happiness. These are some of our needs, and when they’re satisfied we can start to think about happiness and what it means.
Happiness is not something we must wait for. If we want happiness, we can have it now. The threshold for happiness is very low, and that is by design. We are not built to continually want something to be happy. We are built to be able to be happy with what we have. I guess you could say that happiness is sort of fungible. Unhappiness can be replaced with happiness.
If we want to be happy, we must be proactive. Other people can’t make us happy. Other things can’t make us happy. They can give us reasons to be happy, sure. But they don’t jump out at us or pursue trying to make us happy. Even if they did, we can still make a decision not to be happy.
I know someone who is surrounded by wonderful gifts. He is loaded with wealth. He has everything that he could ever want because he can buy it. But he still makes a decision to be unhappy most days. He drinks. He smokes cannabis. He drives fast cars. But he lives in a constant state of war in his mind. A feeling is a hot potato for him and he takes libations to dispossess himself of unwanted feelings. I know this because I have talked to him. He’s kind of there, but not really.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve met some very poor, but very happy people. Somehow, they make do with what they have. They find a reason to be happy. They find little victories every day. They find little gifts every day. They find a reason to keep living. I started out like that.
I was once miserable every day. I was renting rooms, living alone, living on so little, maybe I was ascetic, not sure. But I know what I was like at my bottom. And then I found that all of that was making me really tired. I was not conserving energy by saving money or earning enough money. I was not taking care of myself very well, either. I was swimming in negative thinking every day.
Then I noticed how tired I was, so I started to commit to things. I got a job and started to work again. I started to fish around for a relationship and eventually, I found someone to marry. I can remember worrying that it wasn’t going to work out. But I told myself, “if she shows up, I’ll show up”.
Then someone or something whispered in my ear, “gratitude”. Someone told me to write a list of ten things I’m grateful for, every day. I spent a lot of time procrastinating on writing that list. But then I started to write that list every day. I limited the list to ten things so that I’d only put the most important things to be grateful for, on one very short list. A list short enough that I can see it all in one spot, without scrolling, that day, every day.
I also started to write a morning page every day. A morning page is where I write everything that is on my mind in a word processor to fill one page. I just sort of dump everything that will fit into one page. Most of the stuff I like to think about is pretty boring to other people, so I write what’s on my mind first thing in the morning. I use this exercise to lay out my thinking before me. I can read it and go, “Oh, that’s sick. I think I’ll change that.” Or I might notice an improvement in my thinking and say to myself, “I’ll do more of that.”
But that gratitude list…
I noticed each day as I wrote that list, that I had something to be happy for, something to be grateful for. Through the years of writing that list, I began to notice that the effects of writing the gratitude list were cumulative and progressive. I began to make a habit of gratitude. And I began to notice that I was prospering. I was committing to gratitude.
I have become fond of saying that 1 milligram of gratitude can derail an entire day of negative thinking. It’s a useful analogy because our culture has been conditioned to believe that happiness is “out there”. We are conditioned to believe that we can find happiness in a new cell phone, shampoo that gives us control over our hair, clothes that flatter us, a new car, a second house, 1,000 shares of Amazon, solar panels, the pretty girl on the cover of Vogue, the handsome man on the movie screen, the high life, the high political office, and on and on and on. But we could have one or all of those things and we could still make a decision NOT to be happy.
And if we can make a decision not to be happy even when we’re surrounded by fabulous gifts, then we can make a decision to be happy even when there are no gifts in sight. So I started making a decision to be happy long before I was surrounded by the gifts in my life today.
I started deciding to be happy when I was living in someone’s basement back in 2008. I had just been fired from a job. The economy was starting to tank fast in California, so I moved to Utah with my wife and whatever I could carry in my car with us. The rest of my possessions were in storage. It was hot that day when we arrived, and my wife and I settled into a bed that night in the basement of a relative she knew.
We lay in bed together, and she wanted the fan on. I didn’t want the fan on for it disturbed the hair on my arms. But she was my wife and I brought her here from Vietnam, so I deferred, but I was not happy. I could not be happy for the fact that I was not out on the street with my wife or that I had a place to sleep that night with her. I didn’t notice that she was still with me. But I knew that I had to get some sleep that night in that basement. With the fan on.
So I started to work on finding gratitude in my mind, to take notice of all things that I was grateful for at that moment. That I had a place to stay. That I had her with me. That I had a meal that night. That I was alive. That I had my health. That I had a running car. Sometimes I repeated myself. But I kept going until I fell asleep. That was long before I started writing a gratitude list, but I can honestly say that on that night, I used gratitude to fall asleep. I did not have to drink, smoke pot, have sex, or do anything else to find my way to sleep. I just used gratitude.
A few months later, I was talking with a good friend who told me to try writing a gratitude list. I started, with hesitation. It felt contrived, fake, and forced. But I kept at it, every day, writing that list. Then it became a habit. That little list carried me through every day since then, on good days and bad days. It didn’t matter. That list was in my mind, setting a floor for me all day, every day.
I don’t believe in good or bad days, for that makes the day personal like the day is out to get me. So I just notice that some days are more challenging than others. And as I wrote that list in the morning, I began to notice that at any time in the day, I could take stock of my surroundings and find something to be grateful for. I found respite from a difficult day just by taking 1 mg of gratitude.
You see, I don’t look at some gift in my life and say, “That makes me happy.” No. I look at the gifts in my life and say, “I’m happy about that gift in my life.” I make a decision to be happy about the gifts in my life every day. On difficult days, I make that decision sometimes every hour, every minute, if that’s what it takes. This isn't to say that I ignore the difficulty in my life or in the lives of others. This is to say that at any moment, any time, without notice, I can fall back on anything in my immediate surroundings and remind myself that there is always something to be grateful for. I literally decide to be happy every day.
When there is drama, I remind myself that there will still be something to be grateful for after the drama passes. In this way, gratitude imbues me with resilience. My wife may get angry from time to time, but I know that’s not about me. When I see her being unhappy, I zoom out and notice the room she’s in, and that she’s not making a choice to be happy. I’ve seen her, surrounded by abundance, making a choice not to be happy. She reminds me that I can make a choice to be happy or not to be.
I am fond of reminding my kids, usually around bedtime, that “It’s not your job to make me happy. It is never your job to make me happy and it never will be. I will make my own happiness and share that happiness with you.” I never want to give anyone that kind of power over me, or that kind of responsibility for me. Do what you need to do, I will still find my own happiness. And if you like, I can share my happiness with you. I am proactive about my happiness.
I have tried other ways and found them wanting. I have noticed that no matter what is around me, I am the final arbiter of my happiness. I get to choose when to be happy. I get to choose what to be happy about. I get to choose to be happy. And I take complete responsibility for my happiness. I have made a decision to be happy now.