What’s the secret of a happy life? *UPDATED*

[Here’s the link to the Watcher’s Council forum where other Council members have tackled this question.]

The question for this week’s Watcher’s Council forum is “What’s the secret of a happy life?”  I’ve talked about that before here, but I’ve never sat down and turned it into an entire post.  This time, I did.  Since you’re at my blog, you can get a preview of coming attractions.  Tonight, I’m publishing my philosophy about a happy life.  Tomorrow, I’ll add the link to the Watcher’s Council forum, and you can see what my friends have to say on the subject.


When I was growing up, my parents were not happy people.  I always thought “small wonder.”  Daddy went from Berlin ghetto; to orphanage; to aliyah to Palestine (which to him, was exile from his beloved German homeland); to five years with the RAF in the Mediterranean theater during WWII; to the Israeli War of Independence; to immigration to a strange land he never fully understood and in which he never really made a living.

My mother went from a childhood of ridiculous wealth in Europe; to near-poverty in Tel Aviv, where her unhappily married parents had a rancorous divorce; to 3 1/2 years in a Japanese concentration camp; to the Israeli War of Independence; to immigration to a strange land she never fully understood, all the while married to a man who couldn’t support her in the style to which she’d become accustomed as a 10-year-old — or indeed, to any style that was greater than a scrabbling working class economic existence, even as my parents aspired to a rarefied, upper-class European lifestyle.

In our house, happiness wasn’t what was on the table.  Instead, we dined on depression, despair, and economic envy.

For all that, I still had a pretty happy childhood.  I was loved, fed, and sheltered.  Those are the basics.  I quickly came to terms with the fact that I would always march to the beat of my own drummer, so I found happiness in eccentric pursuits such as books, antiques, and anglophilia.  I always had a “best” (and sometimes “only”) friend, and that was quite good enough.

I’ve had very happy intervals in my life.  I loved living in England (Margaret Thatcher’s England), where I discovered that the acid-tongued bookworm was actually a party animal who loved to dance all night and, when not dancing, to spend the night talking with friends.  My friends drank, and I got a contact high, no alcohol required.

I was happy at law school.  I never fully understood what the heck I was doing with the whole legal thing (and indeed, didn’t for years after graduation), but I loved my fellow classmates.  Just being around them made me happy . . . and sometimes they’d go dancing with me.

Adult life came along:  work, single nights out with groups of friends or uncomfortable dates, more work, more uncomfortable dates.  The occasional unrequited love.  (Sigh.)

Eventually I met the man I determined to marry, and my life took a turn I had never imagined.  Suddenly, I found myself living in the quintessential suburban home with one husband, two children, two dogs, and with responsibility for an increasingly difficult mother.  This was not how it was supposed to be.  I somehow imagined myself dancing through life, not folding laundry, driving carpools, cooking inedible dinners, nagging children, cleaning the house, etc.

I should be unhappy, right?  And indeed, there are days when I am fed up to here and beyond.  But I’ve decided that being unhappy with the lack of pleasures in my life is cruel not only to my family, but to me.  So I work hard, really hard, at defining myself as a happy person.

First, I routinely count my blessings (what some people call gratitude).  Maybe I’m not dancing and going to parties and dating the charming men who seem to live only in romance novels, but I’ve got it pretty darn good.

I live in a beautiful part of the world, in one of the nicest neighborhoods imaginable, in a lovely, comfortable house.  I have two children who, while they can be excessively teenager-y, are also loving, moral, decent human beings, with whom I have a great relationship about 90% of the time (which, as I see it, is pretty darn good odds for a parent/teenager relationship).

My mother may be increasingly unhinged, but she always remembers that she loves me.  And I have two of the best dogs in the whole world.  They don’t do tricks, but they live by my rules and think that I am the sun, the moon, and the stars combined.  What an abundance of blessings.

But counting one’s blessings isn’t enough.  That’s just a balancing act:  for every bad thing (or irritating or frustrating) thing, I’ve got two good things.

My newest goal is to turn just about everything in my life into a blessing or, at least, a positive.  I stumbled across this idea when I was talking to my mother back last week when she was still compos mentis.  (She seems to have slipped a few cogs in the past few days.)

She was, as always, complaining.  She complained about the high quality home in which she lives, she complained about the nurses who work hard to keep her healthy, she complained about the aides who wash her and dress her, she complained about the other residents who still manage to like her, she complained about the weather, she complained about her pain, she complained about being old, she complained about imminent death, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I was exhausted just listening to her.  I finally said, “Look, Mom.  You cannot change your circumstances.  You’re no longer able to live on your own, you won’t get younger, and you’ll suffer joint pain.  Those are givens.  What you have to do is change your attitude.”

Wow!  Did I just say something that profound?  Yes, yes I did!  If you cannot change your circumstances (and assuming your circumstances aren’t a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, Siberia, or North Korea), you have to change your attitude.

Changing ones attitude doesn’t mean bouncing around giggling, “Oooh, there are dead rats in my basement.  Isn’t that just wonderful?”  No.  It means thinking deeply about the lessons you are learning or the benefits you are getting from things that you’d normally find less than thrilling.

Traffic tickets?  Expensive and humiliating, but also, perhaps, the universe sending you a reminder that you’re tootling around in a two-ton death machine and really ought to be more careful.  Taking that lesson the right way may mean that I don’t kill or maim someone in the coming weeks or years.

Irritating teenagers?  Well, I may be middle-aged, but patience and forbearance are still virtues, and I apparently still need to work on them.  My children are my classroom, not my prison wardens.

Dirty laundry?  Perhaps I can find a way to make things less boring and more fun.  And indeed I did.  After years of trying to make my shirts look like the ones on the shelf at the GAP, I have found a new way, one that somehow satisfies me at a visceral level.  It seems that, while I’d been folding them the right way for the GAP all those years, I’d been folding them the wrong way for me.

That dishwasher?  I challenge myself daily to see how fast I can go.  It turns out I like the same “beat the clock” game that toddlers do.  (Except for my toddlers.  My kids never wanted to play beat the clock.  They wanted to play “there’s no way in Hell you can make me do that task, ever.”  I hated their game, but I’m enjoying mine.)

So, what’s the secret of a happy life?  Telling yourself you’re going to be happy.  Looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.  Counting your blessings.  Trying new approaches to old chores.  Reminding yourself that no one else but you can make you happy.

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  • mdgarnett

    Your post reminded me of Viktor Frankl – even in a concentration camp you can choose your attitude:
    “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 
    ― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

  • Davidg1218

    And,  Mr. Bookworm?? From what I have read he seems to be polar opposite!

  • biancaneve

    Good post.
    I think having challenges in your life is an important part of being happy.  I don’t mean overwhelming challenges that weigh you down, but challenges that stretch you and cause you to grow. 
    I highly recommend Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.  Happiness really is a choice.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Strangely enough, I just read and wrote something just like this.
    You should get into Japanese visual novels. They’re much better than Western romance novels, if I may say so myself. And you need to get over your husband’s objections and control of your kid’s mind washing programs. You need to manually control that. They’re not going to be under your wing forever, so you need to inculcate a “taste” in them for anime or Japanese entertainment or a similar kind, that they will pursue when they no longer have to obey Mr. or Mrs. Bookworm. Or Marinites. Or Californians.
    The only reason you still need to “work” on them is because all the stuff we use to control children, like teaching them how to shoot guns at six years old, isn’t something you want to confront people over and push it through. So that extra work is actually from several years of avoiding the solution. So essentially it is all mostly self inflicted. And it’s not because your kids hate that stuff already, if I recall. But if you don’t expose them, and keep letting your husband’s rules get in the way, you won’t be able effect the goal you’re looking to affect. If he’s the one earning the bacon, then you’re the one that should be controlling the household, including What Goes On in the house. That’s the traditional share trade between partners.
    I used to dislike personal confrontations too. It drained my energies. Well, look at me now. Even if the entire world hates me, I can still say that I’ll continue with my own goals and beliefs. That doesn’t require people to change their outlook on life. That requires people to change their “life” and the “me” part of life.

  • JohnC

    Something I heard a long time ago-
    A man needs three things to be happy:
    Something to do, Someone to love, and Something to look forward to.
    I’ve never been certain who wrote it. 
    A search turns up several possible sources.
    By the way, “Irritating teenagers” made me think of this video:
    “If you’re only 20 something, stop saying you’re old”

  • Caped Crusader

    Probably more to say later but for the present I’ll leave you with this advice on how to deal with life. I got a great deal of help from it 40 years ago when I was facing what I believed to be certain death from cancer, and it’s what life is all about at those times of severe stress and challenge, Never give up and never give in, and remember tough times never last but tough people do. It’s called Making the Best of a Bad Situation.

  • DL Sly

    The secret to a happy life?  Easier said than done:
    It’s not having what you want, but wanting what you already have.

  • Navy Bob

    Something I learned several years ago at the Landmark Forum.  Yes I know the Forum has it’s detractors but I got a lot out of that very long weekend.  Anyway one of the principles they talked about was “Something happens, we make it mean something.”   A lot of wisdom in those seven words.