When I was newly married, my dad would always end any conversation with this question: "Are you happy?" Over the years I was alternately appreciative of or irritated by the question. Of course I was happy. At least most of the time.

Last week an essay in the paper started me thinking about happiness. "The Dark Side of Happiness" was a title that intrigued both Kenny and I. To sum up, the essayist - Gareth Cook - indicated that "happy" is not always the way we want to be. In fact, to be a little bit sad makes you more realistic in your view of life, and of the challenges that we all face throughout our human existence.

When I think of the word "happy" I immediately have a mental picture of one of the nuns in the comedy "Sister Act." If you've seen it, you will remember that she was the perpetually giddy one: "My mother used to say, 'That girl is pure sunshine. She'll either grow up to be a nun, or a stewardess.'"

Kenny and I have always been able to see the humorous side of life. Even though we are dealing with a disease that has no funny side, we occasionally laugh at the situations we find ourselves experiencing. But we aren't giddy or unrealistic. We know we'll experience pain and frustration. There will be no storybook ending.

The essay in the paper reveals that the secret to happiness is to be able to accept that negative emotions and experiences are part of the human experience. We will experience both happiness and sadness, joy and agony.   The problem with focusing on "happiness" or even on "positive thinking" is that it is ultimately not helpful.   We don't abandon hope when we accept that negative experiences are part of life.  We embrace a hope that we can transcend that experience.  If it is a terminal diagnosis, we have realistic hope that the disease will not define us.  If it is a painful experience, we have realistic hope that we can grow and learn truths that had eluded us previously.  

Cook's essay ends with the paradoxical truth that taking the focus off of oneself and on personal happiness us the way to experience satisfaction in life.  When we focus on what we can do to help Alan adjust, what we can do for others who are experiencing the same devastating diagnosis, we feel more content, less anxious.  We are happier.  We  do not lose heart. (2 Corinthians 4:16)


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