By Esther Mann, LCSW
I think I was always happy by nature. I look back on my childhood with fond memories. There was so much going on in my life that could have made me a very unhappy child. Yelling, I guess even some abuse going on in the home. But somehow, I was happy. I had my few friends, my bike, and for some strange reason, lots of confidence always. So it was more than OK.
Growing up and even as a young adult, I also had my share of mishaps, disappointments, and problems. But again, I always got through everything with a great attitude and remained happy.
Right now my challenges are as follows. First of all, my husband lost his job four months ago. He is looking for something to do, and being the optimist that I am, I believe he will find something. My 28-year-old daughter is single, and I’m not thrilled about that. I think she’s terrific and there is no good reason why she shouldn’t eventually meet and marry some wonderful man. My father is quite ill, and we are all busy with him. He’s not a young man, and the writing is on the wall. He has lived a long and good life and is surrounded by many loving relatives.
At my stage of life, everyone I know seems to be dealing with something. Whether it relates to health, finances, a bad marriage, problems with children or in-laws, single children, boredom, or empty-nest syndrome, most people I speak to have something to complain about.
One of the lines that I’m hearing people say over and over again is “I’m as happy as my least happy child.” Every time I hear someone utter that sentence, I want to give them a good slap and tell them to get a life. I don’t get it. What’s that about? Why would any parent want to choose to be as unhappy as their least happy child? Is this some kind of martyrdom? Is this a parent’s job? Is it helping their children—or anyone, for that matter—for them to be unhappy also?
I’m almost embarrassed to admit to anyone that I’m happy. Even though I have plenty to complain about, I’m happy. Yes, I do worry about my daughter, my father, and even my husband. And there are plenty of other random things I could occupy my mind worrying about. But I actually like myself and my life. I like my home. I like reading a good book and talking to a good friend. I like doing favors for people and playing with my grandchildren. I like shopping and socializing. I love life.
So what is going on here with all these people who feel they don’t have a right to be happy if someone in their family is not doing well? Am I the crazy one? Do I have a right to be happy despite challenges that various people in my family are experiencing? Sometimes I wonder if I’m just selfish and unable to sympathize enough with everyone else. Mind you, I care deeply, and I feel sympathetic. But I refuse to put on a grumpy face and be a part of the masses who can’t seem to enjoy life anymore.
I’m curious to hear what you think about this situation. Should I be allowed to look forward to each day despite what’s going on around me? Is it my job to be as unhappy as my most unhappy child? Am I not getting it? Am I just in denial?
Kudos to you for feeling the way that you do. I think it’s wonderful, and I wish more people could have your attitude. There has actually been much research done on the concept of happiness. It seems that everyone is born with a set point for happiness. For instance, take a person who is naturally happy, and assume for a moment that he goes through a terrible tragedy. He will naturally be miserable for a while, maybe even a few months. But ultimately he will bounce back to his natural predisposition. On the other hand, take a person who is programmed to be unhappy, and say this person wins the lottery and is abundantly thrilled for several months. Eventually, at some point, despite the fabulous turn of events, they will ultimately sink bank into their former happiness set point. That’s the way it is.
Without going into too many specifics on the subject of happiness, I will say that there are things one can do to shift one’s happiness set point and create a happier place in which to exist. But for the purpose of your letter, I will say that it’s quite obvious that you were born to be happy. It just came easily to you, and your extreme confidence, whether viewed as the chicken or the egg, also enabled you to seize life in all its glory, despite the natural setbacks that came your way.
I don’t think you have anything to be embarrassed about regarding your ability to love life—and specifically your life—despite the obvious problems that exist within your family. And you are absolutely correct. No one benefits from an unhappy mother. If anything, your ability to find joy and satisfaction in the little things in life attest to a grounded attitude. And you are modeling for everyone healthy living.
Regarding the concept of denial, it’s a tricky thing. People can call your attitude one of denial if they like, or realize that you are deciding to focus on what is good in your life. If that’s denial, then denial isn’t such a terrible thing.
Some people have to work harder than others to get their emotions up. You have been gifted in this area, and I’m sure you recognize that and are grateful. So the next time someone says to you, “I’m as happy as my least happy child,” rather than imagine slapping them, try having an encouraging conversation with them and explain that they aren’t doing anyone any favors, least of all themselves, by wasting precious time being depressed. No one benefits from sadness.
The bottom line is that I believe happiness is a good thing. It’s often contagious, it inspires kindness, and if you believe in the mind/body concept, it leads to better health. So forget about the guilt, embrace the joy, and show your family and friends that life can be fabulous despite the various challenges that all too often land at our front doors.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.