A couple of weekends ago, I visited with a girlfriend I hardly get to see because of the distance. I haven’t seen her in ages and it’s really because (1) I don’t drive, and (2), getting her to the city or getting me to Long Island can be quite the journey.
She asked me a question which was simple yet a tad complicated to answer: How do I manage to stay happy?
Happiness, for me, is a continuing journey. I think that as we get older, we have to seek or find that “happy place” we can retreat to when we feel ourselves being buried by the day-to-day hassles of our toil. I have not always been as positive or happy as I am now. Even now, I still find myself succumbing to moments of sadness or those blah times when life overtakes me. But I know better now to stand up or wiggle free of the weight of negativity, and not let myself slide deeper into that abyss of sadness. I deal with it in a way that works for me.
One thing I’ve learned is that you have to consciously seek to be happy, or you will find yourself sinking or wallowing in the opposite. Happiness is not automatic. How many times have you heard it said, “Happiness is a choice.” I’m still not quite comfortable with that whole concept because I think what people label as “happiness” is relative to what they consider it to be. As we get older, the word takes on a bigger meaning but we start defining it in simpler terms.
Each person defines happiness a different way, and I think much of the frustration or sadness about life in general is brought about by how difficult or unreachable that definition of “happy” is. When people ask me for advice, I come back with a simple question: What is it that will make you happy? Without worrying about everyone else around you, the other people depending on you for their own happiness, just thinking about YOU and YOU alone — what would make you happy?
I had asked myself that question many times — and I found my answer. But the answer to my question is personal to me. That question is answered a million different ways by the millions of other people out there. You would answer that question your way.
I still ask myself that question when faced with a dilemma where I have to make a choice. We have been wired to think of “what’s good for the majority”, or “whats good for all.” But when that answer clashes with “what’s good for us” or “what’s good for me”, there arises a frustration that leads to sadness and discontent. It leads to sacrifice — mostly on our part. And sacrifice, no matter how noble, always hurts.
There’s nothing wrong with sacrificing or doing what’s best for others. But it is more difficult to swallow when we ourselves, are, in general, not happy. It all starts with ourselves. So you need to find your happy place and go there when everything else seems to be crumbling down.
Memorialize “happy” in words. I read somewhere not too long ago, that a gratitude journal is precisely for these times when we feel at our lowest. We need to remind ourselves that there were things that made us feel grateful, and collectively, these are the things that contribute to our happiness. That worked for me for a while and I just don’t know where my gratitude journal is right now, but that is a good idea that might work for those who do journaling or blogging or some form of record keeping. I haven’t posted in ages, but I used to have a “Five Things to be happy about” list here– simple things that make me feel grateful at any given point in time.
When you have something tangible which may be anything from a scrap of paper with a list, or a tome with a lifetime’s entry worth of “Happy”, you might find that it’s more than just memories tucked in there. There are feelings that will come rushing back that just might lift your spirits up.
Find that picture that will never fail to make you smile. I have pictures that remind me of a million emotions that, wrapped together, bring a smile to my face. I love taking selfies with my boy, and even before the age of smart phones and all, I trained myself to take photos with my point and shoot camera facing us, at arms’ length. People used to wonder how I could do that and come up with perfect framing– I simply say, “Practice.” Of all the thousands of selfies I’ve taken, I have a favorite one when he was probably 4 or 5. I love that photograph because he was still small enough to sit on my lap, rest his head on my chest, and he smiled this happy smile that proclaims to everyone around “This is my girl.” (He will probably cringe now at almost 13 if he reads I wrote that.). I have a copy of that picture in a frame on my desk, some place I can always see it. And when I see that picture, I find myself in my happy place.
Create a happy space in your mind you can retreat to just by closing your eyes. Remember how, as a kid, you would imagine a world where you were the princess or the super hero? Or how you had such fun vacations with the family? A special trip with friends perhaps? Or a time and place where you get a tight embrace, where there was so much laughter you found yourself shaking uncontrollably until you had to take a deep breath before you started tearing up? I have my favorite happy moments I loop in a repeating video in my mind, and I go there when I feel like things are going grey.
It might just be a snapshot of a particular moment when you saw someone break out in a smile, or the repeated loop of laughter in the air.. Think of it like your favorite TV show or your favorite movie. Pick a scene or a few strung together in a clip in your mind and pull that out when you feel the moody blues pulling you down.
Label it consciously as a “Happy thought” and pull it from your deepest of memories when the mood hits you.
Acknowledge when the sad thoughts are creeping up behind you, wallow for a MINUTE, then let it go. I used to think that people who say “Don’t sweat the small stuff” probably didn’t have any big stuff to worry about. But it’s true. We have to pick our battles — and learn to let go of the ones we are wont to lose, or the ones we have absolutely no control over. I am not always successful in doing so but with so many things going on in my life — transitions and big decisions being made — I can either choose to let the collective sigh weigh me down, or take one big sigh and then let go.
I have learned to stop the tears before the swell in my heart becomes too big for me to hold back. I know to take a deep breath, close my eyes for one moment — but not too long that the feelings overpower me and the tears start flowing. Sadness can be exhausting. It is a fact of life we must live with, but nobody said it was a weight we needed to carry on our shoulders 24/7.
I, personally, tuck it in my heart, and try to count the happy times, or go and retreat to my happy place. I hear laughter, I see smiles, I see funny faces. I remember a touch, a hug or a kiss. I always hear it in my mind, in a loop, when the boy just utters it from out of the blue – “I wuv you, mama.” And he will give me the look if I fail to acknowledge it, or repeat it until I do.
Even now as I write, that thought brings me to my happy place.
We have to consciously find what it is that will make us happy. It’s not automatic. It’s not a default setting. We have to place ourselves there, whether it’s via color, make up, clothes, a picture, a memory.
True, there are many things that make life dark and sad. But there are just as many — if not more — reasons for us to be happy. We just need to acknowledge it. Holding the “happy” in our hearts and in our minds will help keep us afloat when the waves of life tower above us and threaten to drown us.
One last thing. When I was younger and being driven from San Juan just before Greenhills to my gradeschool in Pasig, it meant traversing Ortigas Avenue all the way across EDSA. For as along as I remember until I hit 13 and had to transfer to the high school in Quezon City, this was a daily morning ritual. I don’t know when I consciously started it, but as the traffic light turned green and the car crossed to the other side of the highway, I made it a point to look southward towards Mandaluyong and Makati and smile.. I held that smile until I got off the car after another 10 minutes. It was a frivolous exercise to try and thwart the wrinkles (vain me, I know), but I think that was the start of me physically willing myself to start the day with a bright thought.
I do that now as the bus emerges from the tunnel and I see the light again. Time to smile, Dinna — it’s the start of a new day.