Lessons

New Year Resolutions: Happy Is Easy

Peter McCarthy
Photo credit: nese on Pixabay / CCO Public Domain license
Photo credit: nese on Pixabay / CCO Public Domain license

Before academics, life coaches and writers seized happiness as a topic for professional attention, it was a pretty simple thing. We all knew what it was. In spite of the noise, that hasn't changed. Happy is easy, and of course, we know what it is without being instructed.

Insight #1

A pair of insights landed with me at about the same time, both by accident and equally unforgettable, arriving in a helpful sequence.

About ten years ago, after our first trip to London, I became curious about British history, especially the mid-17th Century when King Charles I was displaced, then beheaded by Oliver Cromwell who became Lord Protector.

Bear with me here, if history doesn't grab you. This is just part of the trail.

One reason this period fascinated me was because, since America was then a disjointed set of colonies, mostly British, it was our history too. We never learn it that way in school, but when Civil War raked Great Britain with violent, disruptive change, we were still British and would be for more than a century.

The other reason was that I found a kind of distant kinship with Charles II, the executed king's son who was invited back from France to resume the crown after Cromwell died.

Never will I face the challenges he did or enjoy the privileges he had, but we shared something. Troubled childhoods led us both, it seemed, to an unshakable strain of melancholy. Charles II's numerous mistresses and freedom to pursue his interests in science did not wash away damages suffered when he was young. The execution of his beloved father and forced exile in France, historians believe, scarred him with irreparable loss.

My melancholy streak was more ordinary in origin and in adult life, but it was always there and oddly too because things went very well for me with normal bumps and bruises along the way.

When I read stories about others troubled by periodic depression, I related to it. Sometimes, the melancholy just ran deeper, and all those injuries rose to the surface, as they must have even for a highly indulged king.

Insight #2

We can all catch ourselves going along with an established narrative, as I did, understanding a sadness that was mysterious to me but always lurking in the shadows, haunting cycles of otherwise good fortune, the other shoe always ready to drop.

But what if something bumps you on the noggin and shows you you're flat out wrong?

I got my chance to find out.

A long distance runner competing regularly in races by then, I trained with laps around Roosevelt Island, circling the lighthouse in Hells Gate and doubling back along the fenced off old City Hospital ruins. I ran early, usually before sunrise, to allow time for breakfast and a shower before work and to free me from hitting the trail at the end of an already tiring day.

Some days were wonderful, but no matter your lifestyle, you won't wake up every day, raring to go and full of optimism. 

There were the mornings when I looked out into the lingering night and watched a cold wind rattle the stop sigh on Main Street and figured I was the only crazy person in Manhattan Park. Everyone else, including my wife, was pulling covers up to their chins in warm beds.

Disciplined, I jogged off for my seven mile circuit anyway. Equally eager, I kept my eye out for tips to make my running life easier.

My Runners World subscription delivered good ideas, once a month, about avoiding injuries, saving on gear and racing faster. I remember few of them, now that my running shoes have been retired, but one changed my life, teaching me a truth that carried far beyond athletics.

When you start feeling miserable during a run, a brief hint in a tiny box suggested, smile on purpose. Studies showed that smiling would cause your muscles to relax and your breath to come more easily.

On my next run, I curled east around the lighthouse in the dark and headed into the aisle of willows that used to line the trail past Hallet's Cove, my spirits sinking as I turned into a steady wind bound to stay in my face all the way down past Goldwater Hospital.

Why not?

I smiled, and the results were startling. Over time, they became a revelation. That deliberate smile sent a soothing wave of happiness vibrating down through my muscles and bones.

Operating in reverse absurdity, I smiled but not from happiness. I became happy because I smiled, not the other way around. That was backward, a comfortable assumption rendered complete nonsense.

To Decide and Not Be Governed

Since you've read this article's title, you know where this is going.

I learned, a lucky ten years ago, that the stream of melancholy I believed ran through my life was nothing more than a habit I learned when I was young and figuring out how I fit in the world. It could be vaporized in an instant. There was no good reason to keep it.

Although I have some ideas, I've yet to hear a convincing explanation why so many of us commit to seeing the worst of things and/or to interpret what we observe in the most negative way.

Partly, at least, it's the media narrative.

The New York Times is one of the most positive and constructive mass media outlets, but it's so ridden with negativity, so completely out of balance with reality, that it might as well be retitled the New York Gloom and Doom Report. If a ferry overturns with dozens of lives lost on the other side of the world, it will make the front page. If dozens of volunteers fan out to aid the needy with food and moral support, which happens all the time, especially around the holidays, it will be ignored.

We can't get a weather report without temperatures being adjusted for a misleading "wind chill factor" or "feels like" reading. Did you ever notice that the "feels like" never gets a boost when a bright sun makes a cold day feel better? Of course not. Good news, for some reason, is assumed to be not what people want to know about.

Worse still is the universal addiction to television shows awash with murder and mayhem. Even the alleged comedies feed on degrading representations of who we are.

But just because it's in your face 24/7 doesn't mean you have to be onboard with it. We don't have to have our spirits walloped by the front page of the New York Times or have our emotions rattled by crime shows.

If you want to be happy - and don't be misled, plenty of people don't - you will have to step out of the mainstream narrative. Smile your way free. It really works.

After that discovery, I spent years in business where competition was stiff, maneuvering for advantage was constant and where you were never sure who your friends were, and I spent them mostly in relative bliss. 

Even today, I ignore the downside - Storms Coming! Homes Washed Away In Floods! - and calmly enjoy whatever nature has to offer. There is just about nothing you can't dress for and enjoy without the negative spin.

Happy is a choice. Always. We're all lucky to be here, living in the best of times, in better health, with more nutritious food available, and less crime and war than ever before.

Take the easy way out. That's my New Year Resolution. Be happy by choice.

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