When I was dating the man who would become my husband, I asked his middle son if he was tired of me hanging out at their house so often. “I like having you around,” Dan said. “You’re ...”
My relationship with Bruce’s children did not hinge on this one exchange, but years later I remember how Dan’s words hung in the air above us.
“You’re really ... cheerful,” he finally said. What teenager uses that term? I still get teary thinking of the moment I knew I’d won over a Taylor kid; the other two soon followed. Being a step-parent reminds me of the Emily Dickinson line: “The heart has many doors.”
A friend once called me the life of the party. I teased, “It’s the beer, Mary.” Truth is, I pride myself on not just being a happy person but someone who tries to spread that joy.
I was not always this way. As a sad sack kid my feelings were easily hurt, usually by one of my seven older siblings or a mean girl at school. When I cried to my mom she pulled me onto the wide expanse of her lap and said, “You need to toughen up.” Little by little, I did. When I’m upset, I still hear her voice in my head.
If we considered the cast of “Winnie the Pooh” I am definitely a “Tigger,” bounding with endless optimism and grit. Not that annoying you-betcha-energy but full-on life source glee. Even my blood type is B positive.
2020 challenged me to the bone. I see how it has worn down the “Piglets” (constant worriers) and the “Eeyores” (diehard pessimists). More than one-third of Americans acknowledge COVID-19 is affecting their mental health. Isolation and anxiety are a terrible combination.
After a crisis, experts say the majority of adults experience “post-traumatic growth,” an increase in well-being. Consider how a job loss can lead to an unexpected, better path or an illness brings a family closer. Resilient people recognize they always have a choice in the matter, even if it’s how they react to a difficult situation. That glimpse of control is what Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl called “tragic optimism.”
The pandemic is not over, but we can anticipate the end is near. This is what I’m primed for in 2021.
Cultivating positive energy is a blend of realism and hope, compassion and thanks. Still, Yale University professor Laurie Santos says bluntly, “Our minds suck at happiness. They’re naturally wired for survival. ... You have to work at happiness.”
Recently a team of “genetics of joy” experts discovered 304 “happy genes” built into our DNA. That’s no surprise to those of us who live among Tiggers.
Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky conducts research on what she calls “the architecture of sustainable happiness.” Half of the joy we feel is based on genetics, so that means all of us have a pre-determined “set point” which governs how content we are. People tend to return to that level no matter what happens to them. Lyubomirsky says, “Truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness.” In other words, half-full folks always report their glasses are midway to the top. Half-empties barely see the glass.
Surprisingly just 10% of our joyfulness can be attributed to external circumstances. That leaves a whopping 40% of our own gladness or misery within our control. There are many ways to increase our contentment. Some swear by exercising or being in nature, talking to friends or helping others. Science supports that the simple act of gratitude — focusing on what we do have and not what we do not — reaps rewards people often cannot imagine.
The night before Thanksgiving I received a text from a friend I see once a summer. Lori wrote, “Thanks for being in my life. Hope you find joy this holiday season.”
Though sad about spending the time without a packed house, I remembered what a typical Thanksgiving would be like: many hectic meals with different sides of the family. We’d be together but likely no one would say anything affectionate in a crowd, least of all me.
Lori’s message prompted me to send a short text to my loved ones: “I am thankful for a sister (or brother or niece or nephew or in-law or son or daughter or friend) like you.” I copied and pasted over 40 times.
My very first response made me question reaching out. “Day drink much?” my nephew shot back.
Nope, Mitch, not at 8:30 a.m., even on a holiday. Other texts soon followed: “What a thoughtful greeting” and “I am the grateful one.”
I received the stoic Midwestern “Back atcha” — twice from people who don’t know each other — and “same here” to “Aww, thank you” to “You make our family so fun.”
One friend wrote: “One day we will have a joyful reunion.” One in-law texted, “You are my favorite ... shhh, don’t tell the others.” This long-standing family joke likely would have been uttered across the table if we were celebrating in person but only to get a laugh.
After doing research on happiness I took my remote gratitude a step further. I recently sent a New Year’s postcard to loved ones with a short paragraph describing what I appreciate about them: my outspoken sister who makes me want to be bolder, step-daughter Laura and her husband who transformed their dream wedding into a safe celebration, friends who illuminate any room.
I realize I likely won’t experience the immediate back and forth response I did with my Thanksgiving message. Though entertaining and sometimes affirming, that’s not really the point.
Over a month ago when I texted Dan that I was thankful for a stepson like him, he wrote me: “You are one of the best things to happen to our family.”
I teased back, “What do you mean ‘one of’?”
He wrote: “Well, you know Laura and Ben picked a really awesome dog.”