The Happiness Paradox: Learning To Appreciate What We've Got Right Now

by Jamie Sumner
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When I was dating my future husband before he’d slid permanently into “The One” category, he favored a certain saying, a cliché so inane it made my teeth hurt. I know you’ve heard it. It’s a phrase that issues a preemptive strike on any and every emotion: “It is what it is.” It seems innocuous enough at first, until you give it context.

Let’s say you accidentally lock your keys in the car, which means you have to call a locksmith, which makes you late for your job interview, which not only loses you the job but also 50 bucks for the lock — all of which leads your significant other to respond with, “It is what it is.” What emoji would you insert here to convey the appropriate reaction? He’s lucky I married him.

When my son was first diagnosed with special needs, I got a lot of “it is what it is” in various forms. I grew used to it, which is what the phrase is designed to do: resign you to fact “x” so you can move on to solution “y”. And then as my son grew older and won the hearts of all the nurses and teachers and physical therapists in the land with his drawn-out hugs and slowmo kisses, it didn’t seem like such a bad thing. He was the happiest kid I’d ever met. So what if he was in a wheelchair?

I first came across the “disability paradox” in a BBC interview entitled “A Point of View: Happiness and Disability” with Tom Shakespeare, a broadcaster and sociologist with achondroplasia (dwarfism). I had heard the term before — it’s hard not to in the special needs world. The basic principle goes as follows: People with disabilities tend to seem happier than their non-disabled peers. They report an equal-to or greater-than quality of life. For some strange reason, less is more really does prove true.

Yet I bucked at the term. For a long time, it seemed to fence him in, flatten him out, and turn him into something to be petted rather than someone to be admired. He isn’t happy because he’s simple and doesn’t know any better. He is a whiz at the iPad and goes through books like water. His inner world is an explosion of activity, like diving headfirst into a supernova or the matrix. His world is a technicolor dreamland I wish I could live in. Why did his satisfaction have to be a contradiction?

Then I reframed the picture and made it my own. His wasn’t the “disability paradox,” it was the “happiness paradox.” We all know the people in life who seem to have everything — the car, the house, the clothes, the kids, the life that makes you hear REM singing “Shiny Happy People” every time they walk by.

And yet, isn’t it these people who always seem to want more, who seem the most rather than least dissatisfied? It’s why the lotto winner feels like the luckiest guy in the world, for a year, before he falls right back to standard protocol and spends it all on scratch cards. It’s why fashion has seasons so we can buy more things in more colors and textures and cuts. It’s why promotions and bonuses and jobs on commission exist. We want more.

My son’s happiness paradox is this: He appreciates what he’s got — not like someone who doesn’t know any better, but instead like a man with cancer who’s been given the all clear. He’s had his perspective strengthened and stretched to encompass the right kind of priorities. He values people and conversation and music and laughter and engagement.

So, I’m left with this: What if we all did a little soul-stretching without trying to jump the chasm to somewhere better? What if we let happiness settle on us like Linus’s blanket, soft and warm and familiar? What if the answer wasn’t one more thing? Or what if that one thing was time and connection with other people? I think we could end the paradox, or reverse it. Happiness could exist without contingencies. What if the most annoying phrase in the world: “It is what it is” could be spun for good because the “is” is awesome?