I have learned from experience that happiness is an acquired skill. There is always something to complain about, even in the best of times. Happiness is not an objective reality so much as a subjective decision. Chronic complainers miss the boat.
Many people are addicted to suffering and have a mental habit of pointing out the worst in people or situations. Not only are they robbing themselves of joy, but their failure to appreciate all the goodness that life has to offer actually diminishes all that good. Both our blessing and our condemnation have power. Thinking that something is bad has the power to make it so in our experience.
Children are one of the greatest lessons in happiness, constantly challenging us to enjoy the moment, as the next one will not be the same. There is no sense saying about a small child, "Well, I'll enjoy watching her at the beach splashing around in the waves, but I'll do it later, next year or the next year." Next year, she will not splash around in the same way. Two years old gives way to three and then four. And before you know it there is a teenager standing in front of you who won't even want to go to the beach with you. You'll wonder where all the years went, but they will be gone. No more watching her finger paint. She doesn't finger paint anymore.
I have lived large parts of my life in wonderful circumstances that I utterly failed to appreciate. Reasons to be happy were everywhere, but somehow I didn't connect with them.
It was as though I was eating but couldn't taste the food. Finally, I've learned to celebrate the good while it's happening. I feel gratitude and praise today for what are sometimes such simple pleasures. I have learned that happiness is not determined by circumstances. Happiness is not what happens when everything goes the way you think it should go; happiness is what happens when you decide to be happy.
There was a time a few years ago when several members of my family died in quick succession. It seemed as though all we did was go to funerals, gathering together to cry. Then, several years later, Hilary, the oldest of my late sister's daughters, got married. Finally, we were gathering not to grieve but to celebrate, and the gratitude everyone felt was palpable. Every living member of Hilary's family came to the wedding, from many places around the world, and all of us knew why. We would have loved her and celebrated her marriage even if her mother and her grandfather and her uncle had not recently died. But everyone knew that the circumstances of the last few years made this wedding, this mitzvah, even more important. The event was so infinitely sweet because it contrasted dramatically with the bitterness of the previous few years.
So those who have learned to be happy are often those who have suffered most. When simple pleasures have been taken away, such as someone's loving smile or encouraging word, then the next time such pleasures come around--and the do--we lift our cup of life to them. We sing God's praises in a way we had never done in the days when we took so much for granted.
Gratitude is essential to happiness. Developing a grateful attitude--knowing that every time we arrive somewhere safely, we have something to be happy about; every time our children rush up to us and smile, we have something to be happy about; every time we get out of bed and can take a deep breath and go out for a walk, we have something to be happy about--that is the essence of a happy existence. Happiness is a muscle we must use, or it will wither away.
Whatever we focus on is bound to expand. Where we see the negative, we call forth more negative. And where we see the positive, we call forth more positive. Having loved and lost, I now love more passionately. Having won and lost, I now win more soberly. Having tasted the bitter, I now savor the sweet.
Several years ago, a friend of mine lived with me during the final five months of her life. Not completely understanding the effects of her illness, I kept saying, "Michelle, you must eat. You're getting too thin! Eat!" And after she died, I read in her journal about how "Marianne takes it for granted that if you eat, you gain weight; if you want to go out somewhere, you can; and if you want to live past this year, it's a reasonable proposition." She was someone who had so little to be happy about, but she taught me so much about happiness. During those months, right after the birth of my daughter, I would come home to find my dying friend with my baby snuggled next to her. There was a smile of bliss on both of their faces that I will remember all my days.