There are some things that, as adults, we can only rely on ourselves for. Nobody is going to put food into our mouths. Nobody is going to bathe us. And I’m pretty sure that next time I’m on the toilet, I can yell, “I’m finished! Wipe my butt!” until out of breath — but I’ll still end up doing that myself too. We do these things because we’re capable of doing them. It’s a given: We grow up, and we take charge of the fundamentals of our own self-care.
So why are we still depending on someone (or something) else to provide our happiness? It’s as critical to our well-being as the meals we eat and the water we drink. Yet we tend to let our personal happiness hinge almost entirely on external influences, waiting for it to happen, at the mercy of circumstance. If we get a pat on the back at work and nobody is rude or whiny or makes us angry, all is well, but if we dent the car bumper and burn dinner, forget it.
Happiness isn’t just something that happens. Sure, it’s easier to be happy on some days than others — say, when we get an unexpected rebate check in the mail ($8.22 from the cable company?! Yesss) — but true contentment has less to do with what happens to us and everything to do with how we react to it. And when we realize that we control our reactions, we realize something very freeing: We don’t have to allow anything, or anyone, to bring us down.
In life, we can’t dictate the hands we’re dealt. We sometimes get a bad deal, the short end of the stick, and it sucks. But when it comes to matters we can’t control, we have to adopt a five-word mantra: It is what it is. Maybe it isn’t the outcome we hoped for, but it’s what we got, and it’s our own responsibility to make the best of it.
We’re presented with two choices: We can accept what we’re given and move on, or we can ruminate, wallowing in our disappointment and devoting precious emotional energy to a circumstance we can’t change. I’m not promising it will be a simple task — acceptance isn’t an easy concept to master, especially if you’re a Type A person who prefers to have a tight grip on the reins at all times. Like anything else, though, it gets easier the more you do it.
To clarify, when I say that we control our responses to circumstance, I mean the routine ups and downs of everyday life: a difficult boss, a spilled cup of coffee, stepping in dog poop. I’m not saying we should keep smiles plastered on our faces in the midst of great personal loss or tragedy. Nobody can Pollyanna their way through the death of a loved one or some other horrible situation. Sadness and anger and grief are a natural part of life. But without feeling them sometimes, we wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate their absence, so there’s that.
There’s always something to be grateful for. Always. Sometimes we have to dig deep to find it, because yes, there are times when we’re mired under an overwhelming load of crappy circumstances. It doesn’t have to be something big; find the littlest thing to be glad about, even if it’s like picking one tiny pebble out of all the sand on the beach. Focus on it. Be glad it’s there despite the more unpleasant aspects that may accompany it.
Think of the things that you love to do, and do them more often. Listen to the music that lifts your spirits. Reflect on your life and appreciate what you enjoy most about it.
Why is this important? Because if you’re a happy person, you’re naturally going to be a better person. A better partner, parent, employee, friend, someone who makes a positive impact on the world around you. And the best way to be unhappy is to place your expectations of fulfillment on someone else.
Just like no one is going to come get you dressed in the morning, no one is going to shower you with buckets of long-term contentedness. That’s your responsibility, so own it.
Happiness isn’t a gift that others give us. It’s a gift we give ourselves.
Being responsible for our own happiness also means being aware of our own mental health and seeking help when we need it. For those who suffer from depression or anxiety, for example, it takes more than reflection and gratitude to pull them up from rock bottom — it isn’t as simple as an attitude adjustment.