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I must be the happiest girl in the world. =)
I remember learning that you can’t help the face you’re born with, but you earn the face you have when you die.
I saw so many people with neutral or frowning expressions, and how their habitual grimaces had been carved into their wrinkles. I saw people whose crow’s feet and laugh lines spoke of lots of smiles instead.
Some people frowned a lot but were generally happy, like my dad. Some people smiled a lot but were generally happy, like my mom. And then there were people who were very good at talking themselves into sadness or anger or frustration, even though life was great, and there were people who were good at talking themselves into happiness, even though life occasionally took a curve.
I remember reading a story in Reader’s Digest about the difference between a pessimist and an optimist. Here is that story retold by Peter Robinson, excerpted from How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life:
Over lunch today I asked Ed Meese about one of Reagan's favorite jokes. "The pony joke?" Meese replied. "Sure I remember it. If I heard him tell it once, I heard him tell it a thousand times."
The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities -- one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist -- their parents took them to a psychiatrist.
First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. "What's the matter?" the psychiatrist asked, baffled. "Don't you want to play with any of the toys?" "Yes," the little boy bawled, "but if I did I'd only break them."
Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. "What do you think you're doing?" the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. "With all this manure," the little boy replied, beaming, "there must be a pony in here somewhere!"
How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, Peter Robinson
I read books about happiness, too. Some books talked about set points and circumstances, showing how both lottery winners and accident victims tend to return to their previous level of happiness even after significant events. Watching people, I learned that happiness is more about what’s in your head than what’s outside it.
Hugs: Growing up, I remember giving and receiving more hugs than either of my sisters did. My eldest sister was a little aloof. My middle sister was unpredictably angry or sweet. I was mostly affectionate. Even today, I still give my parents spontaneous hugs whenever I see them, and I hug people a lot.
In high school, I came across a book on neurochemistry that suggested that hugs were associated with higher oxytocin levels and lower cortisol: more bonding, happiness, and trust, and less stress. Over time, hugs and other forms of affection could increase the number of your cortisol receptors, helping you bounce back from stress faster. It tickled me to think that there could be geeky explanations for not just happiness, but the ability to be happy and resilient.
Splash Mountain: Perhaps that was why I was generally easy-going as a child. If we changed our mind about something, I might be temporarily disappointed (if at all), but I recovered quickly. I remember my dad and I once lined up for the Splash Mountain attraction at Disneyworld Orlando. We spent what felt like two hours in line while my sisters and my mom wandered around outside. When we got near the front of the line, they announced that the ride was closed due to mechanical troubles, and they couldn’t say when it would reopen. My dad was concerned about the rest of the family, who had been waiting for us, and he suggested that we leave. I was fine with that, so we went. Shortly after we left the line, the ride started back up again. I shrugged and laughed. We eventually lined up again because my dad said that if he didn’t do that, he knew he’d hear about it for years and years. I remember it well because of that – realizing that I wouldn’t have blamed him for being impatient or carried it along like a grudge, and that perhaps this was an odd thing…
This is not to say that my childhood was entirely amiable. I found that I was generally happier when I had more choice and more solitude, and got stressed out when I had neither. For example, when a drive south to attend a wedding turned into an extended road trip with no clear end, I felt trapped and upset. But in general, I was good at letting stress go.
I remember watching how my mom’s menopausal stress combined with my sister’s teenage angst to result in fireworks in the house. Stuck in the patterns of anger and frustration, they dredged up past grievances. They survived, and have since then become closer. I remember realizing that it did no good to hang on to old hurts. Much better to let go, to be like a pond of water rippling back to serenity after disruption.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull: My mom had a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull on her bookshelf. I remember not quite understanding it, but reading it and rereading it nonetheless. Looking back, I think I understand it better now. I remember thinking about the deliberate experiments of flight, the joy of learning, and the challenge and delight of sharing that with others. Then I thought about journeys, and perfect speed, and how most people think of happiness as something to be pursued—but what if it just is, if someone could just be happy? And I did.
More to come…