THE LIFELONG CRUSADE FOR (LASTING) HAPPINESS: A PERSONAL REFLECTION
From: Mental Health For Millennials Vol.3 On Happiness. Published by Book Hub Publishing. Galway, Ireland. (2019).
“Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C. S. Lewis
The Wake-up Call
My search for happiness, indeed lasting happiness, came from the pain of loss. To be more precise, the loss of my dad, which was the first real loss that was close to my heart. To understand my loss, let me rewind to the moment my dad and I first met. His first words on seeing me were, “Out of 365 days, you chose my birthday to arrive?” This is how our deep bond started and lasted throughout our time together. Despite the fact, that he was an older dad (he was 46 when I was born), we always “got” each other. It was as if we had a secret language that only we could understand. I was the second youngest in the family and he was the eldest. Yet, he listened to everything I said and more importantly, didn’t say.
Whilst the older kids were jostling for position in our highly competitive family, I quietly went about the business of survival. I was tinier than everyone else and quieter…which was my way of not drawing attention to myself. But slowly through my father’s loving care and nurturing, I began to find my place in our family unit. He praised any little successes I had, usually in sport, and asked my opinion on issues close to his heart. I was important to him and he let me know that in a million little (and big) ways. I remember when he would buy a new car, how he would shout up the stairs, “Wee Giselle, come and see my car,” then we would drive up and down the road and he would say, “If you like it, I will buy it.” It was only years later that I discovered that the question was redundant as he’d already bought it. But that small effort made me feel ten-feet tall. That’s the kind of man my father was.
So many memories and so much love, laughter and special moments. But there were tears too. In his prime, as a result of being knocked down by a speeding car (I was 13), Dad spiraled into heavy depression coupled with suicidal thoughts. This was like a hand- grenade being thrown into the family and indeed exacerbated by the backdrop of “the troubles” in Belfast. My larger-than-life hero was gone, and all of a sudden, I realized that he needed me more than I needed him. That recognition shook me. My rock had crumbled. It felt a bit like I was a trapeze artist without a safety net.
Although my father (and our family) recovered over time, the light of his bright spirit had dimmed. We never really got our father back in the same way. This was the first moment I realized that happiness can be taken overnight. I felt blind-sided at the time. From then on, I started building fortresses of self-protection and safety. I felt it was I contra mundum—a moment of defiance. That’s when I made the mistake of thinking that I was somehow in control. I became driven and ambitious in all facets of my life, clutching at career, drinking, smoking, and sport—all mere band aids to cover the gaping wound of this growing sense of vulnerability.
It wasn’t until my late thirties, as I sat by my dying dad’s bedside, that the reality of my futile attempts to control everything really hit me. In the wee hours of that morning, I wept uncontrollably, totally ill-equipped for that moment. My coping mechanisms fell apart and it was beyond painful. This was a major turning point in my life. It made me start to question everything, especially my life purpose.
A Divine Calling
Dad had achieved so much in his life, but he couldn’t take any of it with him. So, what was it all for? In the end, it is his spirit that lives on in our hearts. I figured, if I could grapple with my own spirit and see where the journey took me, maybe all of this would make more sense. At the time, I was working in the corporate world and under a lot of pressure to excel. I was too busy to stop and take care of my spiritual life. I was the job (and the financial rewards and kudos it afforded me). There was too much external noise for me to stop and actually listen to myself. Malidroma Patrice Some′ warns, “The sound of the external world is muting the sound of the internal world.” This was certainly the case for me.
It took another five years before I was brave enough to jump off the hamster wheel and begin my real journey of re-engaging with my life. Luckily, it didn’t take another major loss—just time to find the right people and the right opportunities. I remember my former professor saying to our class of eager young students, “If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” He wasn’t wrong! The next five years saw me upscaling in multiple fields as I identified things like my “lifeboat” and “exit plan.” That’s when I started working for myself. Almost immediately, I knew I was heading in the right direction. But as if test my resilience, life kept pitching me those curve balls. A brush with skin cancer absolutely shook my world. Again, I found myself taken aback after being lulled into that same false sense of artificial control, believing I was somehow in charge when none of us are. I’m almost embarrassed today thinking of how utterly baffled I was: How could someone so healthy get ill? And then, the inevitable ego prompt, as if I were the only person in the world who was suffering, “Why me?”
Hmmmm… well, why not me? As Bessel van der Kolk (2015) warned, “The body keeps the score.” Trauma has a way of manifesting in the body. That is not to say that people don’t get sick for other reasons. Genetics and epigenetics play a huge role in our biological fates, as it were. Certain factors are not in anyone’s control, including how environmental pollutants effect individuals. The hubris in my thinking that my healthy habits meant I’d never get ill when people get much worse cancers and die—people who do everything right—was a disconnect I suddenly became glaringly aware of.
Regular use of sunblock during extended periods of sun exposure can prevent skin cancer from developing. There is a variety of skin cancers as well. Basal cell carcinoma is not like melanoma; it will never become internalized. That’s much easier to treat. Unfortunately, if surface melanoma isn’t caught early, it will spread internally. And once melanoma becomes internal, it doesn’t respond well to traditional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. Being systemic, there’s no way to cut it all out either. That’s why internal melanoma has such poor prognoses. And, why I was absolutely terrified by what was happening to me.
Having lived through the loss of my dad, and after growing up during the height of the troubles, I thought I had resiliency down-pat. But I was still buying in to the idea that I was in control. I was confounded, to be honest: How could loss keep stealing my happiness? C. S. Lewis had a point about not letting your happiness depend on something you could lose, since we all lose something eventually. It made me wonder…maybe my “tool kit” was missing something, but what?
Point of No Return
What was missing from my arsenal was a spiritual hammer. It took a retreat in splendid isolation to come to this place of inner knowing, and indeed, to coming home to myself and my life’s purpose. This new tool would be the key to finding lasting happiness, joy and resilience in an ever-changing world. Pico Iyer’s quote is rather apropos, “My sense is, wherever you are, and whatever your religious orientation or lack of it, just go to silence whether it’s taking a walk or going into a retreat house is like going into a hospital for the soul” (Iyer 2016). My understanding of myself was truly taking shape. Socrates believed that only people with self-knowledge could find true happiness (Connolly 2007). I tend to agree.
For me, finding true happiness came from furthering my spiritual life. Early Celts called it, “thin places.” A thin place is where the supernatural world comes together with the natural world at its narrowest point, with only a thin veil dividing them. It is where we give ourselves time to hear God’s whispers and gentle reassurances. I liken it, to the feeling of being wrapped in warm towels fresh out of the dryer. Over the years God tried hard to capture my attention, but it was only in the quiet solitude that He got a chance to touch my life. I was expecting some grand gesture, but my experiences were far more gentle and subtle. I just knew I was home. Even when loss would come knocking again, as it surely would, I knew I was equipped with the appropriate power tool to journey through it.
Pause for Thought
Have you had the experience of a spiritual journey? And if not, what do you think it would look like for you? It’s a question worth asking yourself, but you’ll only hear the answer when you turn down the white noise of the modern world. I believe the quality of our life is a function of the quality of the questions we ask. The answers we give may create a change in our perspective, which in turn affect our behaviours.
Professor David Murray suggests there are seven kinds of happiness, depicted in the chart below (Murray 2017). As the years tick by, my main journey is toward a discovery of my own spirituality. That’s where I find true happiness and peace. It is my hope that sharing my journey, as well as some of the tools I forged while on it, will help the reader on their personal journey. When you look at Murray’s chart below, what is your most important slice of the pie?
William James, a philosopher and psychologist at the turn of the 19th century, outlined four main ingredients for a happy life (Pursuit of Happiness 2018):
Happiness Requires Choice – it is entirely up to us whether to view life positively or negatively
Happiness Requires Active Risk-Taking – this involves taking bold risks and acting on possibilities that come from the “heart’s centre,” or, the real-self within
Happiness Involves “As-if” Thinking – free-will means acting “as if” we are free to choose
Happiness Often Comes After a “Crisis of Meaning” – sometimes people have reported a renewal of the spirit after going through loss of meaning or deep depression
When Happiness isn’t a Choice
It would be remiss of me not to mention that, for some people, choice is not always an option. I am not a psychiatrist, but I acknowledge that there may be chemical imbalances in the brain that may require medical intervention. In a 2019 article by Nancy Schimelpfening, she cites nine main causes of depression. One of these is brain chemistry imbalance, where the neurotransmitters (involved in mood regulation) may need help communicating—this ultimately leads to clinical or major depression. My crisis points were a reaction to life events in which I had choice on how to regain my stability and sense of peace. That’s generally referred to as “situational” depression.
Situational depression is temporary because it’s based on moments of hardship that will pass in time. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Postpartum, Bipolar disorder (also known as Manic Depression)—none of these diagnoses are based on life-loss or difficult situations. It’s a slippery slope to think that people with clinical forms of depression can just decide to be happy—it’s simply not true. That’s where compassion must come into play.
Altruism: A Step in the Right Direction?
In chapter 4 of my recent book, Another Zero, in addressing the subject of happiness I look at the work of top researchers like Professor Jennifer Aaker at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Aaker points to altruism as the key to happiness. Pointing to the effect of the helper’s high, she says, “Generally, we find that it is more effective to get out of our own heads and orient ourselves to others” (Marrinan 2018).
Millennials, who have attracted poor publicity in the press, are, according to Cleary, branded as “a generation of entitled narcissists.” Yet, Millennials are actually one of the most altruistic generations to date (Cleary 2017). Certainly, from the examples of my nephews and nieces, and indeed, clients who fall into the Millennial age bracket, I have seen a multitude of positive examples. I’ve never been a great believer in labelling a whole generation of individual people. Each of us is unique. That validation of the individual’s value is part of postmodernism: We’re all products of a myriad of factors including culture, family influence, life experience, conditioning, and more. There is no “one size fits all” answer for any given generation, any ethnic group, any religion, any culture, or any sexual orientation.
The happiest memories I have had on my life’s path, have had everything to do with sharing with others. When I think of the spirit of altruism, I am not necessarily thinking of tangible gifts, although these can also be appreciated. I am talking about giving my time to others. Time is the most special gift anyone can give and in this age of technological distractions, it is easy to miss those who most desperately need to be heard. Think about this carefully. How many times have you met a friend or relation and had your mobile turned on and placed on the table? How can we truly engage with the people we care about when we are listening for the next notification from email or social media or both? The simple answer is, we can’t.
Lasting Happiness: The Holy Grail
So, is happiness attainable? When I think of fleeting happiness, I imagine a rolling cloud formation in a Connemara sky allowing the sun to peep through momentarily, then disappear only to cast shadows over the landscape below. This sort of happiness tends to come from material things. It is when we lose something really important, like our health, or someone we love, perhaps even the loss of a job and our financial freedom with it, that we must reach into our proverbial tool kit and find our resiliency. Winston Churchill felt the only way to walk through hell is to keep going. How we choose to get through life’s difficulties may vary, but no matter who we are or what coping strategies we use, we must all get through it if we wish to come out on the other side.
After years of struggling to find happiness, it suddenly dawned on me one day that my happiness was inextricably linked to external things and in order to have lasting happiness, I would need to change that. My journey into the thin place showed me the link between inner peace, resilience and happiness. Change may be inevitable but losing our happiness doesn’t have to be.
Here are some parting thoughts on increasing both resilience and happiness:
If you have a spiritual yearning, go on your own journey of self- discovery before you get desperate enough to look for it during a crisis. Take time out each day to go to a quiet place and reflect. Listen to your inner most yearnings and “as- ifs.” I often say, “Meeting the challenges of being still, allows the inner storm or calm to bubble to the surface, thereby, enabling dynamic transformation.”
Make real face to face connections with those you love and give your time to listen with the heart. Listen to the base line – what’s not being said.
Examine your life and see how altruistic you really are. Real happiness can be found in the act of reaching out to others.
Examine your belief systems. According to Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, University of California, “Truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness, while unhappy individuals construe experiences in ways that seem to reinforce unhappiness.”
Value people more than things. When you lose the former, you don’t want to live with regrets.
Continually re-examine your values and purpose in life. Remember, life is a journey not a destination.
Give yourself time to grieve when you experience loss but know that eventually, this too will pass. The sun will find a way to peep through again. Grief and loss will only steal your happiness, if you let it.
Inner peace = resilience= lasting happiness (or pretty damn close!)
Cleary, B. “Millennials are entitled, narcissistic and lazy -but it’s not their fault” Daily Mail (London), January 9, 2017. Accessed 29 August 2019. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4093670/Millennials-entitled- narcissistic-lazy-s-not-fault-Expert-claims-child-wins-prize-social-media-left-Gen- Y-unable-deal-real-world.html
Connolly, Michelle. “On Happiness – Socrates.” Happiness Strategies. September 8 2007.
Greenberg, Susan H. “Jennifer Aaker: How to Make Yourself Happy.” Insights – Graduate School of Stanford Business. July 11, 2014. Accessed January 5, 2019. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/jennifer-aaker-how-make-yourself-happy Iyer, Pico. “Pico Iyer Chooses Stillness” Interview by Nathan Scolaro. Dumb Feather
Magazine. February 22, 2016. Accessed July 17, 2018.
William James. The Pursuit of Happiness. “History of Happiness: Bringing the Science of
Happiness to Life.” Accessed July 27, 2018. https://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/william-james/# Lyubormirsky, Sonja. “Why Are Some People Happier Than Others?” (Home Page) Accessed
August 2018. http://sonjalyubomirsky.com
Marrinan, Giselle. Another Zero-Bring Back the Joy into Your Life. 2018. Ireland: Book Hub
Murray, David. “Seven Kinds of Happiness.” HeadHeartHand. September 17, 2017. Accessed
June 2018. http://headhearthand.org/?s=7+kinds+of+happiness
Schimelpfening Nancy. “Causes and Risk Factors of Depression.” Very Well Mind.
August 10, 2019. Accessed August 15, 2019. https://www.verywellmind.com/common-causes-of-depression-1066772
Van Der Kolk, B. The Body Keeps the Score – Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of
Trauma. 2015. UK: Penguin.
*Volume 3 of Mental Health for Millennials (On Happiness) was edited by Dr. Rebecca Housel. Series Editors are Dr. Phil Noone and Dr. Niall MacGiolla Bhuí