Make happiness a conscious choice

Arthur John Elsley 2A long day with my mother, combined legal with work, meant that I haven’t had a chance to read today’s news or think about its import.  For me, time with my mother needs to be calculated in dog years.  She is so relentlessly miserable — about everything — that every hour with her feels like seven, or maybe eight, hours of unpleasant work.  I often need to rest for a couple of hours — really rest, as nap or unwind by talking to a cheerful friend — before I got my energy back.  I’m not depressed; just drained.

So rather than write about politics here, I want to write about something else:  Happiness is a conscious decision and a decision, moreover, that all of us fortunate enough to enjoy the bounty and security of the First World should affirmatively make.

The reality is that, no matter how wonderful things are, none of us are happy 100% of the time.  Even in the midst of a joyful activity, you might be hungry or you might have an unpleasant thought (an exam, a bill, a blister) intrude on your mind.  It’s easy enough to push those thoughts aside when your dominant, manifest emotion is happiness, but it gets less easy when you’re not having the time of your life, but are simply living your life.

Lately, as you know, I’ve been struggling a bit with happiness because the news of the world is so grim.  Indeed, sometimes when I read about those poor Yazidi women, or the Christians slaughtered across Africa or the Middle East, or the Jews living under a perpetual rain of rocket fire from Gaza, I not only feel sadness and despair, I also feel guilty being happy.

That guilt, I think, is wrong.  Think about this:  Survey after shows that Israelis are among the happiest people in the world.  They understand that maintaining joy in the face of Evil’s efforts to extinguish life and joy is one of their most important weapons in the existential war they daily fight.  Of course, this happiness cannot be taken to foolish extremes.  If your home is hit by a rocket, or you’re a Yazidi sex slave, or you’re a civilian in what’s left of Syria, or you’re being marched to a crucifixion, happiness would be abnormal, unless you’re either a saint or a madman.  For some people, happiness truly is impossible.

Outside of those horrors, though, and within the parameters of an ordinary life (whether it’s ordinary by California standards or New York standards or Calcutta standards or Tel Aviv standards), we owe it to ourselves, to our society, and to our Creator to explore our unique capacity for joy and it’s more subdued companion, happiness.  The sin, then, isn’t being happy in the face of the sorrows of the world; it’s being selfishly happy, so that one fails to work to work to save the ISIS sex slaves, or the African Christians, or the Israelis in the line of fire.  Unselfish happiness seems to me to be the state that God (and I assume there is a God) viewed as the closest we will get to Heaven on earth.

After I’ve been with my miserable Mom I’m always terribly sad, not for me, but for her.  She’s desperately afraid of dying, but hates every moment of living.  She is in a Hell of her own making, unable to see the blessings around her.

I’m certainly given to whining and despair . . . but to give myself credit, I do fight it (sometimes with varying degrees of success).  I count my blessings every day, and if it’s a bad day, I count those blessings throughout the day.  My blessings are many:

Democrat efforts notwithstanding, I live in what is still the greatest country in the world; despite Democrat depredations in California, I live in an exquisitely beautiful county, surrounded by delightful, if politically misguided, people; my neighborhood is almost cartoonishly congenial; my home is attractive and comfortable; my kids have solid values and are sweet, loving, kind people; my dogs and I love each other as only humans and dogs can do; my mother is still alive; my sister is my best friend; and my life, even though it has things in it I wish would change; is on balance a blessing all around — and I make sure I know it.

I so wish that I could get my Mom to count her blessings but she is resolute in her determination to see only the darkness in her life.

Yes, I’m sounding ridiculously preachy and Pollyannaish, but this is important to me, after seeing the misery Mom inflicts on herself:  We need to remind ourselves that, outside of the extremes of misery, we all have the capacity to recognize the good things in our life and take pleasure from them as much as possible.  And we can do this while retaining our awareness and empathy, so that our happiness can be capped by the sense that what we do matters and that our presence on this earth makes a difference to the most vulnerable and damaged among us.