In this special edition of Magic Monday, we look at what really makes us happy. Is it our circumstances or our attitudes? 2020 has pushed us all to the brink in one way or another, but we believe we can always find joy.
For the past five years, Madhavaram, or “Ram,” as he’s best known around our Seattle office, has graciously and generously led in the celebration of Diwali, a holiday originating in India which is comparable in significance to Christmas and observed by millions worldwide each year.
Typically, we celebrate after hours, enjoying quality time together around the shared kitchen space with mountains of mouth-watering Indian food and delectable sweets.
This year, however, the global pandemic required certain traditions to take a different shape. Instead of meeting at the office, we met over a Microsoft Teams connection, preparing a recipe together in our respective kitchens at home while enjoying traditional Indian sweets delivered through the mail. And yet, on the darkest night of the month (literally – it was a new moon), we had an abundance of light and laughter.
Happiness as a Constant
Happiness is a quality some find elusive, or perhaps a better word is “fragile,” especially during the metaphorical dumpster fire that is the year 2020. Murphy and his troublesome law seem to be working overtime, it seems. It feels like something is always waiting around the corner to turn what could have been a good day into an awful day.
American Buddhist nun Gen Kelsang Nyema challenges this perception in her 2014 Talk at TEDxGreenville, where first, she asked her listeners if they were having a good day or a bad day. Then, after a brief silence, she asked, “Why am I having a good day? Or why am I having a bad day?”
For most people, she describes having a good or a bad day is often dependent upon a list of external conditions: an insensitive remark, oblivious or straight up rude drivers, your morning coffee order was made wrong or took too long, subsequently making you late for work, bad weather conditions. Or on the positive side: good weather conditions, a coffee order made perfectly and in good time, considerate drivers, a well-placed compliment.
“We need to stop outsourcing our happiness,” she urges, stating it is not necessarily our circumstances that make us happy or unhappy but instead how we respond determines our level of happiness.
Would you be surprised to learn, for example, our words control 40 percent of our happiness, our genetics determine 50 percent, and somehow, our circumstances determine only 10 percent? Kyle Buchanan, founder of Memorize Academy, observes in his video on happiness because we tend to get used to our circumstances over time, they don’t play as large a role in our overall happiness as we might think.
What does that mean for us? What does true and abiding happiness look like, and how can we go about achieving it? Is it all about keeping gratitude journals and thinking pleasant thoughts about people, or is there more to it? Is it possible to turn a negative circumstance into a creative solution?
To help answer these questions, let’s first take a look at how negativity affects us physically.
The Physical Effects of Emotions
When we, as humans, are confronted with some perceived threat in our environment, our bodies go through a series of near-instantaneous reactions fueled by a naturally-occurring steroid hormone called “cortisol” — informally known as “the stress hormone.” This hormone kicks our fight or flight response into high gear, but cortisol does much more than signal stress. It is involved in several bodily functions such as blood pressure regulation, glucose metabolism, and insulin release, to name a few.
In our modern age, the struggle is that our body recognizes a variety of encounters as a possible threat, including things like verbal or perceived personal attacks and anxiety, which release cortisol. These “threats” cause our heart rate to speed up, our cheeks to become flushed, and our thinking to become muddled as the body fights for control of the situation.
When you look at the graphic, you’ll notice the zones go from Fear to Learning to Growth. Let’s look at each of these zones more closely.
We can reasonably intuit that the first step in our hunt for true happiness is overcoming fear. A simple way to combat this fear when you start to feel your heart rate spike and your face warm due to cortisol release from stress employ a simple trick called ‘box breathing’ utilized and endorsed by the U.S. Navy SEALS to bring your body’s natural response under your control.
Once we can learn to control our bodies’ automatic responses to mental and emotional threats, we can enter the “Learning” zone. This space is an ongoing mindset where we discover the key to turning negative circumstances into creative solutions has a lot to do with perspective.
When you hear iconic names like Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs and Mahatma Gandhi, it’s normal to immediately associate them with their incredible successes and influence in life. What’s probably less likely is immediately associating these names with their combined histories of sexual abuse, personal and social humiliation, as well as racial and social discrimination – situations anyone would easily describe as far from “happy.” Instead of dwelling in the darkness, these negative circumstances fueled each of them down their paths toward fighting for child security, pioneering technological revolution, and driving political, religious and social liberation.
While each of us may not readily identify ourselves with such cultural icons, their examples can help us cultivate a mindset that doesn’t freeze or flee when coming up against a seemingly insurmountable object or circumstance but learns to work with it.
Some of the key behaviors in the “Growth” zone are “appreciate your health and those around you,” “seek ways to help others by offering your skills,” and “find creative ways to adapt.” Let’s go back to my example about our office Diwali celebration – we could have easily assumed that we were out of options by not being able to celebrate together in person this year. But, that’s not what happened. With some out-of-the-box thinking and collaboration, we took a negative circumstance and transformed it into a creative solution, sharing in a unique and beautiful experience.
While we can’t always control what happens to us, we certainly can control how we respond. In the words of one of my most respected fictional characters from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Albus Dumbledore: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.