“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” – Abraham Lincoln
If you’re anything like me, whenever you’ve heard or read this quotation, you’ve done some sort of eye roll, “yeah, whatevs Abe,” followed by some deeper pondering of the veracity of such a bold statement. Can I really choose to be happy? I thought I was choosing to be happy, it’s just that…well, I’m not, so what gives?
I’ve taken happy pills, I’ve danced happy dances and the truth is that at the end of most days, I’m just not all that happy. The truth is that at the end of most days, I’m lonely, unfulfilled and kinda bummed.
And then I went to the desert.
No, I didn’t go on some spiritual quest, searching for happiness in a silent retreat and becoming one with nature. I went on a three-day camping trip with my son, his entire third grade class, their parents and teachers, and oddly, it is there, in a moment of exhaustion (and sickness) that I found – and chose - happiness.
Just before leaving on this chaotic, exhausting, death-defying (and exhilarating) trip, my boyfriend of almost two years and I broke up. We’ve broken up before and it’s been excruciatingly painful. Like, can’t-get-out-of-bed kind of painful. Like, can-barely-get-through-a-day kind of painful.
But this time I was on the camping trip of a lifetime with my 8-year old and didn’t quite have the luxury for that kind of pain. So, as I sat in the desert, sick as a dog with a cold that came on strong the first day of our trip, in the hot sun surrounded by friends while our children were off on one last rock scramble before we departed, as I stared at the one small shadow being cast from a crack on a large boulder next to me, it occurred to me that this time it could be different. This time I could actually choose not to be destroyed by our breakup. This time I could actually choose to be OK. More than OK, I could choose to be happy. Because, for the prior two days, I had actually already been doing so.
An old Landmark Education exercise asks you to choose whether you like chocolate or vanilla. I like vanilla. Why? Because I do. Chocolate or vanilla, choose. Vanilla. Why? Because. Happiness or misery, choose. Happiness. Why? Because.
After about a minute or two sitting with this realization and staring at the rock, I noticed something beginning to happen. Habit started creeping back in. I’ve never chosen happiness; I’ve always chosen something else – not sadness, but yearning to be precise. So about a minute after choosing happiness and fulfillment, I noticed a slight leaning toward yearning. But this time I had consciousness in the whole affair, so I asked myself again – what do you choose? How do you really feel in this moment? And the answer surprised me. I actually felt fine. Not sad, not yearning, not desperate or any of the things I generally feel. I felt fine; happy, even.