Happiness Is A Choice
I’m not an old or wise man. I’m assuredly not qualified to dole out advice — particularly to people I’ve never met. I was raised in a family where one didn’t readily admit the existence of ones feelings much less talk about them. For everything I’ve learned, I’m still filled with more dysfunctions than I can count. But in my limited 33 years on this planet, I feel like I’ve learned more than my fair share about human emotion, and more than a few times through the painful prism of experience. So the post I’m writing is something that’s been germinating in the nether reaches of my brain for several years, and something that I’m only writing in the hopes that some people out there — a few in particular — might find something useful in my experience that they can apply to their own existence.
This post was brought to the surface by a couple of events. First, an acquaintance of mine revealed that he’s suffering from depression. The tone of the reveal suggested almost that diagnosing his own depression was itself a revelation — he could finally explain that maybe his life wasn’t causing depression, but rather his depression would be his response to anything that happened in life. It was time to treat the depression, rather than the supposed “causes” thereof. Second, in the span of about 5 weeks, both of my remaining grandmothers passed away. Now, both were already in their mid-nineties, so their passings were neither unexpected nor particularly [in the grand scheme of death] tragic. So, rather than the passing itself, it was my own response to it that suggested I might want to finally write this post.
Like my acquaintance, I’ve dealt with depression in my life. Sadly, I think that statement is likely true of anyone that grew up a nerd in teenage America. My story isn’t one of physical bullying — being bigger than most of the other kids, that wasn’t as common an option as it might have been for other kids. Nor was it, like many kids, due to actual shortcomings — I was smart, moderately athletic, lacked glasses, etc. Rather, it was borne of the father of most bullying — poor self-confidence and an inability to properly understand how to deal with the social rules of childhood. I didn’t learn it until later, but kids are cruel, and they’ll pick at weakness and demean others in a screwy attempt to make themselves feel worth. And I didn’t understand until much later that adults will do the exact same crap.
So I dealt with depression in the way most teenagers do: listening to Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein, thoughts of suicide, and being full of such rage that it ate away at my very soul. I vacillating between the fear that something was seriously wrong with me and the certain knowledge that everyone else was horrible and depraved. It was a miserable existence.
But I was lucky.
During those teenage years, I was involved in martial arts. Now, before my fellow nerds get too excited, I should point out that this story doesn’t end with me mercilessly pummeling a tormentor, on behalf of myself or others. But it involved two very important things: teaching and public demonstration. The school at which I studied had a policy that at brown belt, students were expected to be assistant instructors in classes for the lower ranks. At black belt, one was expected to be capable of mostly leading a class. And as much as it might be meaningless to most people to be referred to as “Mr. Warbiany” at the age of 16 by ones temporal elders, at the time and place I was at in my life, that little show of respect helped me build a bit of self-worth. The demonstration team was a group that went out to public events to put on martial arts demonstrations, and I was lucky enough to play a prominent role. As a very large individual, I played a good “fall guy” — everyone likes to see the big guy lose. But again, it helped me develop a sense of self-worth that I might not have otherwise had. Those experiences gave me a level of confidence in public speaking opportunities that helps me in my career to this day.
The second formative experience that changed my understanding of the world occurred in college. I chose to join a fraternity, and a house full of 50 college males is not exactly a bastion of sympathy and concern for others’ feelings. I fell back into a state of low confidence, and the more cruel of the brothers there [as I mentioned, these personality traits don’t always disappear with age] were more than willing to engage in the same sort of bullying behavior that schoolkids will engage in. My first year or so living in the house was torture. But at some point in there I learned to accept the normal slights and criticism inherent in fraternity life, roll with it with a smile on my face, and occasionally dish it right back rather than sulking in offense. And I learned a critical fact: the people who had previously been busting my chops stopped, because they knew I couldn’t handle it before and now I could. And the people who hadn’t busted my chops started, because they realized that I could take it in stride and wouldn’t be offended. The cruel ones had nothing to feed on, and the non-cruel ones realized that I could start having fun. But the biggest thing I learned from that experience was this:
We can define our selves not by what happens to us, but by how we respond to it.
At that point, a lot changed. A life spent in opposition to most of normal society lends itself to introspection. A newfound understanding of mastery over ones own mental state gives one the tools to apply that introspection. I’ve used the intervening years to better understand myself, my happiness, and how I can work to improve both. And it led to realization #2:
Happiness is a choice.
I realize I have a lot in life to be happy about. The advantage of growing up a nerd is that it often leads to careers that the “normals” aren’t interested in. For me, I went down the engineering path, and my particular career path makes use of the public speaking and presentation skills I picked up. I managed to meet a wonderful woman who — although she doesn’t understand me as a nerd — is social enough to ensure our children are far more socially well-adjusted than I ever was. The conscious decision to respond positively to situations I face both personally and professionally not only makes me happier, but people around me respond to it as well.
But there’s a lot in life that’s difficult as well. As I revealed not long ago, one of my sons was diagnosed with autism back in October. And as I’m not one to “talk about my feelings”, it’s gone into the well inside where such things fester. Likewise with the passing of my grandmother 5 weeks ago. I had to tell my boss and coworkers, of course, since I needed to fly to Chicago to attend the funeral. With all my dysfunctions, I found myself unable to accept peoples’ condolences, not wanting anyone to worry about me and pointing out that she was 93, had Parkinson’s, and was deteriorating, so it was expected. I’ve never understood why I must deflect someone’s polite concern in such a way. Then, to lose my other grandmother 5 weeks later, and not even be able to fly back to attend the funeral (due to cost, my own nasty cold, etc) to say goodbye and spend time letting it set in with my family. And while I am always appreciative of my job, it’s a particularly defeating kind of stress to be working closely with a customer testing and qualifying a new product, and then to find out 3 weeks before release that the product has been cancelled. Even worse when the replacement then gets delayed by 5 months. Watching your hard work be made irrelevant by forces outside your control will really take the wind out of your sails.
But as I said, how we define ourselves is not in what happens around us, but how we respond to it. I’m not much of a Kenny Chesney fan, but one song of late has somewhat seemed to fit the mood:
The first half of the song is about responding to the negative. The second half is about recognizing and enjoying the positive. Both are equally important.
Life throws curves at all of us. We deal with them. Some rely on God — I can’t as I don’t believe. Some people choose to wallow in the negative. I don’t have time for that. Only I can control my happiness, I’m not going to let it be defined by what life throws at me.
When my son was diagnosed with autism, I said that while it certainly isn’t something we wanted to hear, the very diagnosis gives us a roadmap. We know he’s going to develop differently than neurotypical children, but we can anticipate the troubles he’ll face and prepare him for them. Many parents have to deal with issues that they can’t diagnose or define. When my grandmother passed away, I looked on the bright side — it resulted in the first time that I’d be in the same room with all of my siblings at once in over 3 years. It was my first opportunity to meet two of my newly-born nieces, one who was 14 months old at the time. And while it was sad to see my grandmother go, I know that she’d been in terrible pain for a long time, and the fact that she was freed from that pain was itself a blessing. As a nonbeliever I don’t think she had some “better place” to go, but I can be consoled in the fact that she’d managed to spend 93 years on this rock; many of us won’t be so lucky. Some of what I learned simply from hearing others speak of her younger days reminded me of her not as a feebled old woman with Parkinson’s but as a young and vibrant woman with a zest for life. When my other grandmother passed, it was terrible to know that I couldn’t make it back to Chicago for a funeral, but I was lucky enough that I’d been able to see her and spend several hours with her at the previous funeral. While I couldn’t mourn her with my family, I at least got to see her before she went. Setbacks at work are no fun for anyone, but they happen. I can focus on the positive lessons learned through those setbacks — there are always lessons to be learned. I can focus on how those lessons will help us improve practices and products going forward.
Happiness is a choice. It’s a choice that resides inside you. You can’t control the world around you. Sometimes it’s going to treat you well, and sometimes it’s going to deal you a shit sandwich. If you respond negatively to the world, I honestly believe that you’re going to have trouble even enjoying your success. Dwelling on failure makes you difficult to be around and creates the self-fulfilling prophecy for failure. If you respond positively, setbacks become minor. You set yourself up to maximize profit from the positive events you encounter, and you start to focus turning crisis into opportunity rather than a pity party.
Happiness is a choice. Own your choice.