We all know people who are mostly happy. They are usually in a good mood. And we all know people who are mostly unhappy, angry and/or bitter. They are usually in a bad mood. Of course, nobody is happy or sad all the time. Happy people cry and sad people laugh. I’m talking about one’s general attitude toward life, positive or negative, optimist or pessimist. You get the idea.
I’m an optimist. I’m not sure how I ended up this way. I think genetics played a role, dropping me onto the earth with a sunny disposition. And nothing horrible happened to me in childhood to cause me to lose that disposition either. But I think my optimism is in part born out of necessity. And I don’t think it’s effortlessly maintained. More on that later. For now, I’d like to ask, how does one turn a pessimist into an optimist?
A couple caveats. First, I’m assuming optimism is preferable to pessimism, which may not be true. In an earlier blog entry, I talked about how Abe Lincoln’s depression might have been an asset. And I can see how being a negative person could be an advantage. If you are always dissatisfied, perhaps that gives you a perfectionist’s zeal or a determination to change the world. Conversely, a contented person might have less incentive to take risks. And optimists can behave as modern Candides, acting annoyingly chipper even as the bus we’re all on plummets down the mountainside.
Second, I’m also assuming people can make the switch, which may not be true either. You don’t tell a guy in a wheelchair, “You can walk! Just try harder.” To some extent I think people are hardwired to have positive or negative attitudes. The techniques that follow might help fight a chemical imbalance but I’m not taking on mental illness here. The idea is to help grumpy people nudge themselves toward happiness.
But let’s make those assumptions and say optimism is usually preferable to pessimism and most people can be “converted” to optimism. Speaking of conversion, I’d say people can be converted in either direction and just as it is easier to destroy than it is to create, so is it easier to fall into depression from a happy state than it is to recapture happiness from a depressed state.
The path from happiness to depression seems just as natural to me as the law of entropy. I have been dealing with chronic illness for my whole life, it’s become especially chronic over the past two years, in the midst of this my father died a year ago, and other sh*t happens until I wonder how I could fail to be depressed. The answer is, I couldn’t. Sometimes I do feel down. As I grow older I feel as though life is hell-bent on squashing me like a bug. One setback, one loss, one heartbreak at a time, life will crack away at me until I am broken. Then it might give me a flash of hope just to tease me (“Look Will, over here, a pretty flower!”) before knocking me in the back of the head with a two-by-four. Life hurts and hope dies hard.
So really the question is larger than just, “How can we help people switch from depressed to happy?” The question is also, “How can we help happy people stay happy?” I don’t write this as some sanctimonious, patronizing, yahoo optimist who thinks he can lead the poor bedraggled pessimists to the Promised Land. No, I write it as an optimist who has had my ass repeatedly kicked by life and who fights a daily battle to remain an optimist, and maybe others can learn from my struggle.
It doesn’t happen very often but when I do collapse under a dark avalanche of depression, even as my suffering heart feels the crush of the snow and cold, it’s like there’s a little guy in the back of my mind and I can hear him with his shovel, digging me out. I know if I can just outlast the immediate pain, he will be that much closer. And when I am so distraught and so tired that I can’t sleep, I eventually do get to sleep, and by morning, that little guy with the shovel has dug me out. And I start to feel good about the world again. I feel grateful to be alive.
That little guy with a shovel is the regulator of my conscious mind. When I’m feeling down, he diligently shovels away at the problem until I return to my normal, happy state. Most of the time, he just works his spade for a few seconds and I’m back to normal. In my darkest hours, it might take him a few days. When he’s done, it doesn’t mean the sadness has been eradicated but it means I have survived and my happy conscious mind is back in business.
But who is that little guy with the shovel? Where did he come from? Why am I grateful? How did I survive?
An Associated Press article not too long ago discussed the latest in happiness research. For many years, researchers have believed there was no lasting way to help negative people become positive people. The latest research suggests otherwise. First, they say, finding happiness is a process. It is like staying physically fit. You can’t go to the gym once and expect to arrive home physically fit. You work out on a regular basis and you slowly get into shape. The researchers suggested a technique: before you go to sleep each night, think about three good things that happened to you that day. According to their studies, this helped people feel happier over time.
I read about a similar technique in an unlikely place, a January 2, 2007, Sports Illustrated column written by Peter King. For weeks, King had been keeping his readers updated on his penpal, Sgt. Mike McGuire, who was serving in Iraq. Another reader wrote to King:
I am a veteran and your writing touched me in a profound way. You could have been talking about anyone of us who have been in that situation. Please tell Sgt. McGuire the only thing that helped me with the bad dreams is for the last half hour before I go to bed I
focus on all the good things in my life. That can get me three or four good hours. [Corey McArthur of Queens, N.Y.]
My technique is similar to McArthur’s. I pray to God every night and have since I was a kid. Well, I don’t pray to God per se. “God” is a stand-in for God, the gods, Fate or The Vast and Unknown Universe. I’m an agnostic. My prayer is a prayer of gratefulness, a daily reminder that I am a lucky human being. I am thankful for my family, my friends, the free society I was so lucky to grow up in, the opportunities I have had in life, and what health I still have. I am thankful for my present, my past, my life as it is and has been.
At worst, my prayer is a meditative exercise that helps me put my worries behind me and get to sleep. But I think it’s much more than that. I think every time I say that prayer I’m recharging my Little Shoveler Guy. I think attitude is about gratitude.
How could I be thankful for my health? My health is terrible. Well, it could be so much worse. I got sick a couple weeks ago and was reminded just how close I am to the brink. It was just a head cold, usually not a big deal. But I don’t have a lot of room for error here. It killed my energy level. I was on the verge of not being able to function independently anymore. I almost had to go into the hospital. But I’ve pulled out of it and I’m back to “normal” now. It was a brush not with death but with significant decline and it reminded me how lucky I’ve been to maintain a fairly healthy equilibrium for the past year and a half. I’m very thankful because this wait for transplant is like being at a Club Med compared to my 1997-98 wait for my double-lung transplant.
Taking my health out of it, I have a lot to be thankful for. I was born into a loving upper middle class home. There was always food on the table. I always had a warm bed at night. My family emphasized the importance of an education. In most ways, I led an idyllic childhood. Among my peers I could count myself lucky. But toward my peers I could also feel envy. Why do I have this sickness and they don’t?
To see how truly lucky I was I had to widen my circle beyond my peers to include all humankind, throughout both history and today’s world. I have enjoyed a more comfortable life than most people who have ever lived. Not even Charlemagne or Alexander the Great got to enjoy a hot shower every day. (Don’t tell me you think they wouldn’t want one either.) More seriously, I would have a hard time selling my sob story to the people who worked in those 19th century New England textile mills. My coal miner ancestors would tell me to stop being a whiny candyass. But those are just hard lives compared to the suffering that happened in Rwanda and is happening in the Sudan. Closer to home, there’s the suffering of the American parents who have lost their soldier children in Iraq. Then there’s the suffering of the Iraqi people. The world is full of misery. It would be myopic folly for me to think I’ve got it worse than everybody else. The truth is my quality of life has been better than most everybody else’s.
I always joke I would hate to be the guy at the end of the line of comparative suffering. He looks to his left for comfort and nobody’s there. But that guy at the end of the line is probably a happy person. Why? Because he has to be. God help you if you are at the end of that line and you are depressed. Then you are really sunk. I think I learned early in my life that being happy made my illness more bearable. Happiness is a survival strategy.
We should not look at history’s great sufferers as if they are museum pieces. No, we want to get down in the dirt with their real selves and embrace their human struggle. If they survived their dire straits, we can survive ours. My favorite survival story is that of Ernest Shackleton and his Endurance expedition. He was one tough Englishman. Even those who did not survive can inspire, people like Anne Frank or Sophie Scholl or Lance Sijan. This makes me think of that line in the movie “Predator” where Schwarzenegger as Dutch sees the Predator’s green blood dripping off a leaf and says, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.” Survivors expose suffering as a vulnerable beast.
That’s why I like to read history. History is a story of survival. World War Two is millions of such stories — it would be hard to pack more incredible survival stories into six years. And what I’ve learned is that people don’t survive because they are heroic. They survive because they have no choice. They want to live. Sometimes that makes them behave heroically. This in no way cheapens survival in my mind. We are still talking about suffering’s counterpoint, the triumph of the human spirit.
Getting back to my Little Shoveler Guy, have I accounted for him? My genes can only do so much. I think of my genes as the station bell that gets him awake, alert and ready for shoveling. By itself I don’t believe that’s enough. What carries him forward in campaign after campaign? He owes a lot to my childhood, during which he grew strong. My family provided the meat in the form of a loving home life and learning perspective provided the potatoes. I learned about the suffering of others, compared it to my own, and felt lucky. I was inspired by the strength of others to find strength within myself. Life had not battered me around too much by the time I turned eighteen. The Little Shoveler Guy had not faced many serious challenges, but in the coming years that would change. He is a hardened warrior now.
I still look to history and survivors for strength. I lost my father but I still have the rest of my family and friends. I don’t have a wife or kids and that saddens me. My health puts me farther down the line of comparative suffering and that discourages me. Nevertheless, I feel happy and hopeful. It would be easy to wallow in self-pity under the weight of the snow but my Little Shoveler Guy won’t let that happen. I have known despair and I have defeated it with optimism and humor. I love my life. No doubt my optimism stems from many sources but I think my nightly prayer plays a huge role. I give my Little Shoveler Guy a five-course dinner of gratefulness every night.
So if you’re a pessimist by nature try to look at your life from a wider perspective — and give daily prayer a try. Call it a daily meditation. Call it whatever you want. Before you fall asleep at night, list everything you are thankful for. Or list three good things that happened to you that day. Do this for three months and see how you feel. It’s not a trick. It’s exercise for your very out of shape Little Shoveler Guy.