Some people believe I am too happy. This has nothing to do with my very ordinary life, which is not perfect or enviable or full of unique and miraculous things. Nor does it reflect my last couple of weeks where I've had a miserable cold, been working too much, and fighting with my husband. My flaw is that I am happy nonetheless. It sounds ridiculous at first, like saying the sky is too blue, the falling snow too magical. Is it possible one can be too happy?
I am rarely accused directly, for the underlying implications would be rude to say out loud: being too happy suggests I am overly naïve, unwilling to see life realistically, or too stupid to get it. I continuously grapple with two diametrically opposed messages about happiness. Our make-believe culture – fictionalized life in movies, tv, ads, music, Disney World – portrays glossy smiles and silently suggests perpetual happiness is ideal but unattainable. “Real” culture -- in the news, talk and reality shows, documentaries, meaningful films -- typically describes unhappiness, highlighting pain, suffering, violence, injustice, bitterness, or struggle. Mindless movies end happy and sappy; award winners showcase the shadows, sorrows, and trials of life.
The message is Happiness = Escape, Denial, and Fantasy. Unhappiness = Reality and Awareness. Only the shallow or ill informed could possibly stay happy. Eyes wide open see the troubled Truth. If you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention, the bumper sticker admonishes.
I get more confused because those “real” stories often end with personal transformation, which I do value. I am told over and over again that suffering inspires growth. Happiness is an opiate, dulling our senses, while sorrow transforms. Hitting rock bottom leads to self-discovery. Images of disaster victims or dying soldiers awaken our otherwise dormant compassion. A crisis renews our troubled relationships. Very few of us have ever read German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, but his edict is everywhere: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
Ironically science suggests that’s not really true. Happiness (feeling good about our life overall) and positivity (feeling good about the current moment) actually makes us stronger, or at least they’re linked to better health, relationships, creativity, and even work outcomes. Those who identify themselves as happy, optimistic, hopeful, or content seem to have lower incidence or severity of cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, diabetes, hypertension, colds, and upper-respiratory infections. When we eat or have sex we release the brain chemical dopamine, which activates feelings of pleasure; principles of evolution suggest pursuit of that joy perpetuates our species. Research shows positivity – collaborating, asking meaningful questions, exploring opportunities -- dramatically improves team performance. Psychologists say engaging with people and activities most important to us and using our personal strengths to serve a larger end – all life-enhancing acts -- makes us deeply happy.
Current research echoes what spiritual voices have sung for ages: problems and pain may sound an alarm, but we truly evolve through joy, love, beauty, peace, creativity, compassion … happiness. We transform when we begin to rise from rock bottom. We grow through forgiveness, not the original injury. Acts of compassion, not more acts of violence, unravel injustice. We are born to be happy, whether biochemical impulse or spiritual seed. As we age and acquire a more varied and complex life, being happy becomes a personal choice, offered over and over again with each experience, nurtured by commitment and habit.
Scientists, physicians, and sages from every tradition offer the same advice. Every day, every moment, explicitly, and with purpose … Be mindful. Be kind. Be grateful. Spend time with those most precious, do work you love, and savor life’s pleasures. Forgive and let go. Take gentle care of yourself.
I’ve had some wild runs the last few years – death, serious illnesses, crashed relationships, shaky finances, loss, rapid-fire change … a good time to test the theory and look for the joy. More accurately, I’ve clung to joy like a blind woman stranded at sea who hopes she’s grabbing a raft and not a shark. Every day, every moment, I try to find a joy groove, like steering my tires along cleared tracks in the snow. Sometimes it’s easy – the traffic jam’s not moving anyway, so I put on some great music. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable – when everyone’s criticizing a political injustice that I, too, abhor, it’s embarrassing to express compassion for all sides. Sometimes finding the positive is just plain annoying, and I’d rather rant and rave after a tough day. Sometimes that joy groove runs alongside pain in equal measure; sitting bedside with my nephew in the hospital I forced myself to prompt the esoteric conversations we both love, acting as if he wasn’t sick at all, even while I silently feared for his life. And occasionally I must steer a gut-wrenching turn in the road, ending relationships, leaving jobs, and changing beliefs when I’m faced with the uncomfortable truth that they no longer serve me. Choosing happiness can be surprisingly hard, but every day I still choose to do it.
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson suggests a tipping-point – if we conjure at least three positive thoughts or emotions to every episode of negativity, we spark a cascade of greater positivity and, more importantly, better actual results. In our relationships, our work, our perceptions, and our day-to-day experiences. When I find the joy groove I seem to step into the next moment, the next day, the next experience wiser, more energized … and happier.
Truth is I prefer “happier.” Maybe I am naïve or unrealistic or just plain stupid. Even so, I’ve decided there’s no such thing as too happy.