I know it’s a bit early to be talking about resolutions. We haven’t even gotten through the season to be jolly; the much anticipated making ourselves crazy season when we over shop, over do, and over eat while trying to replicate a Norman Rockwell illustration. It never seems to be the happy time we want it to be.
When it’s all over, we collectively sigh in relief and nurture the idea that we can make the next year better. I’m a firm believer in resolutions. I’m not talking about the I want to lose ten pounds and go to the gym everyday kind of resolutions that are a recipe for failure (Sorry. I couldn’t resist!) I prefer something closer to thinking about doing things differently, if not better.
David Brooks wrote a great column this week titled Life Lessons from Lives Long-Lived. He asked people over 70 to send him what he called Life Reports—what they felt they’d done well or poorly in their own lives. From this self-selected group, he concluded that happy people are those who think of their lives in chapters. They were people who reflected on their lives as phases, seeing time in divisible sections so they could more easily stop, assess, and change. Those that were unhappy were more likely to see life as an unbroken stream, resulting in little control.
Optimism is built into the idea that you can partition your life into manageable phases and improve them as you go. As children, we operate that way. School organizes us naturally into chapters. With each phase of school we grow physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Our brains develop and expand. We are in a state of becoming. We are expectant. We are encouraged to believe in possibility as reality.
Fast forward on life’s trajectory. If we aren’t careful, we only see what isn’t happening for us as the operating factor. We get stuck in what we can’t do, what isn’t possible rather than what is. We often think it’s too late for some things. Obstacles and heartache are givens. Life is really hard. We get walloped and barely recover before we are hit again.
Yet as a culture, we expect happiness. Our goal is to find what that is for us and hold on to it. Self-help books fly off the shelves to teach us how to find it and, more importantly, to recognize it. The Happiness Project is a bestseller. It was preceded by the Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness, his handbook for living.
When reading the Dalai Lama book, I was struck at how his core premise seemed out of whack with the way most of us have been raised. He says that one’s main obligation is to make oneself happy first because when you’re happy, it spills over to other people. I think as a society we balk at that because it sounds self-centered. But think about it. What could be truer?
Brooks agrees but asks the question. We are told to live for others. What if we modify that by doing what makes you feel okay even if it might not be right for others? He wonders if that is selfish or hard-earned realism.
Had I responded to Brooks, I would count myself among those who were happy— at this point in time. The unpredictability of life makes happiness precarious. We define it as we go. I guess the point is to try to be vigilant in guarding the part of yourself where your happiness lives.
A friend said to me the other day that some people aren’t meant to be happy. She may be right, though I prefer to think not. There are some people who have suffered so deeply, the idea of being happy is a cruel joke.
This is a big topic, requiring a long conversation. What are your thoughts?