On Finding Happiness: Worry, Mindset, and Stuff

There is a verse in the Bible—and I know I’ve lost you from that but walk with me, okay?—that implores us to consider the lilies and how they grow. They don’t labor or spin. They just are. And then in an interesting metaphor, that passage goes on to say even Solomon in all his splendor—and boy did that dude have a LOT of splendor—was not nearly as splendor-filled as lilies. 


You can see where I’m going, right?


Ha.


There is a lot of pain in this world. There is a LOT of it. You know it, I know it. You have it, I have it. Part of what makes us alive, part of what makes us living, breathing things is that we inevitably have some pain. That we have some challenges. What sets us apart from each other—well, apart from generational wealth, participants in varying systems of just and unjust governments, and luck—is the mindset with which we approach these problems. If this is getting to the part where it sounds like a cliché, just walk with me, please. I once heard the famous therapist, Lori Gottlieb, say something so profound. And then when I read her book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone—and everyone should read this PHENOMENAL BOOK—I read the expanded version. In essence, the point her therapist through her made was everyone is going to have to feel pain. Life happens. You lose your job. You get a divorce. You hate your job. You hate your spouse. You can’t have kids. You can’t find a spouse. You run out of money. And these are the ones that are technically fixable, never mind the life-shattering, life-altering pains. There are then little pains on top of the main, heavy pains. So that will happen. But you actually don’t have to suffer. While you cannot really choose the pain, you can most definitely choose the suffering. 



Here is the kicker though. Even though suffering is part of life, you don’t have to go out looking for it.  Pain happens when you go through the aforementioned crappy things. In essence, something HAPPENS to you. But suffering? That one we sometimes do to ourselves.  You go through a breakup and then go on your ex’s social media to look through their posts of their new partner. You don’t need to do that. That’s creating suffering. You’re down on your luck in life and then you spend the entire time [again on social media] going through people whose lives are seemingly better than yours and then comparing; asking why them and not you. You are choosing suffering.  So ask yourself, besides the inevitable pain that comes your way, how are you creating suffering? How have you—in the words of John Ames in Gilead— been going  around looking to have your faith unsettled?



It turns out that even with pain, crazy as it sounds, we can get through it? We can focus on the light. I've always marveled at how God created us to weather things. It defies logic some of the pain people have survived. I think about some things people have gone through and I wonder how did you survive that? How did you go on living? How did the sun get to rise again for you? How?



Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, was born in 1905 and became interested in psychology when he was just a boy. He started to communicate with Freud when he was just in high school, and of course went on to study medicine and lecture on the intersection of psychology and philosophy, or what he called logotherapy, in other words, meaning. Frankl would later go on to lose his entire family in Auschwitz and be sent to a death camp all during World War II. I can’t possibly imagine anything worse than that. After he survived the unimaginable, he extrapolated from it to posit his theory on the meaning of life. And he related that theory not just to catastrophe like the horrors of concentration camps but also to mundane struggles. He wrote in his book, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” It is that choice I’m hoping to convince you about today. Frankl would later remarry, have a child, publish extensively and speak around the world until he died at 92. 


There is not a single person to whom this does not apply. There is a space between stimulus and response, Frankl argues. In that space is our power to choose our response. And in that response lies our growth and our freedom. Gottlieb presents it as reacting versus responding is exactly equal to reflexive versus chose. 


Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”


There is a lot out there about happiness; seeking it, getting it, inhabiting it. But the truth is that happiness as a goal itself is a recipe for disaster. Joy is a much better goal. Joy as an enduring, inane, and fundamental part of who we are. So that happiness is then a byproduct of this; of living your life. On the Atlantic Podcast episode, How to Build a Happy Life: Identify What You Enjoy, Gotlieb and Brooks examine happiness as having several ingredients—two main ingredients to be precise: enjoyment and connection with people. You have to find the joy—choose the joy—in everything you do, even the mundane. And yes, you have to connect with others.


The latter is somewhat intuitive. The former—enjoying things is challenging. It has to come from a place of satisfaction. And I don’t know—quite yet—how to convince you to be satisfied. You have to come at it yourself. It can’t mean avoiding bad things altogether. It can’t even mean not feeling the bad things. But it can mean making the bad things purposeful. I once heard, might be from Gotlieb again, that feelings are neutral by themselves. They are a compass of some sort, directing you on where to go. And yet, you must feel them. If you don’t feel the pain, you can’t feel the joy. If you numb yourself so that you never feel [the pain] then you also don’t feel the joy and that’s terrifying. You can’t mute the pain and feel joy. If you mute one, then you mute all. Tim Keller talked about this in a profound way in a message on anxiety. If your solution to anxiety or your mode of denouncing it is to just not feel so that you can show your peace, your steeliness in the face of calamity, then you don’t have the fruit of the spirit. Because the fruit of the spirit is singular despite listing numerous things. It’s fruit. If you don’t make room for both the joy and the suffering, then you won’t see the beauty in life. 



So instead use the negative feeling. Welcome it. Listen to the information it gives.  If I’m anxious (as I often find myself), I ask, what’s causing this anxiety? If I’m angry, perhaps it’s time time to ask what boundaries I need to set. Or for sadness, examine what is and isn’t working. What can I change?



Know though that If you’re going to enjoy life, you kind of have to take it all. It’s not a choose what you want buffet. I also don’t think tragedies need to happen to cause us to feel gratitude. But I know it always gives me perspective and when my anger and sadness have subsided, it can stir gratitude in me. But you also can’t get through life without suffering. Remember though, don't go looking for it. 



So, how do you fine happiness, you ask. Find joy. Connect with people. Feel the feels. But remember that your response is up to you. Find meaning. Put yourself out there despite the risk of pain. So what if you feel pain? The happiest people allow themselves to be sad. They are engaged in life. If you want to protect yourself from pain, you miss out on life. So find meaning. None of these have to be grand, by the way. It’s a daily choice.


But what isn’t?


Love, and happiness,


I

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