I never thought of myself as someone who would write about happiness. Most of my writing has been focused on the other life in America: our conflicts over issues such as women’s rights, gay rights, and climate change. And this year has not been good on any of those fronts.
But this year—this stunning, disorienting, frightening, destructive, tragic, and tumultuous year—has also changed me. For the good.
What follows are six things I learned about happiness along the way that I hope might be helpful to you, too.
First a caveat: This is not at all meant to minimize the suffering and death that has occurred in 2017. Nor is it an attempt to slap a falsely happy face on the sorrow, heartbreak, and fear many of us feel about our beloved nation right now.
It is, however, to remind us that the pursuit of happiness is core to who we are as human beings and as important as ever to focus on now — for ourselves and our children.
An inalienable right worth fighting for. Whether Republican or Democrat; rich or poor; black, white, Latino, or Asian; gay, straight, or transgender; citizen or refugee — all of us share a desire for happiness.
Moreover, as Americans, we put happiness on the world political map. We enshrined its pursuit as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence more than 240 years ago. In the 20th century, so did Japan, South Korea, and France; and in the 21st, so did Bhutan.
So yes, happiness has sometimes been overdone, misunderstood, and treated superficially in America. But it is not something to dismiss.
In fact, as many of us now fight to uphold what is truly great about America — our grounding values of freedom and equality — it is worth remembering that the right to happiness is also worth fighting for.
Here then are six suggestions derived from some lessons learned in 2017:
1. Refuse to let the headlines determine how you feel and, instead, make positive values your “ground zero.”
We all have a limit, and I hit mine about the state of America somewhere in the early summer. After months of being whipsawed about by news of the latest forces of destruction coming from Washington, D.C., I decided enough was enough. It was time to choose well what to focus on.
To name only one of the most recent worthy things: the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria, the latest climate-charged hurricane. For everyone there, we must weep; and, more importantly, we must act. We must focus on doing what we can to help.
As for the things unworthy of our attention, there is the daily stream of reckless and destructive actions and words coming from the White House. As Thomas Friedman recently wrote in The New York Times:
“There was no good time for Donald Trump to be president. But this is a uniquely bad time for us to have a race-baiting, science-denying divider in chief. He is impossible to ignore, and yet reacting to his daily antics only makes us stupid—only makes our society less focused on the huge adaptation challenges at hand.”
So we need to not set ourselves up to simply react to the latest outrage but to identify a new “ground zero” that sets our attitude and hopefully our actions for the day: namely, the values of truth, kindness, compassion, justice, and love — those qualities America and Americans need now.
2. Notice that people are being kinder to each other and see in that an enormously affirming reminder of the good in human nature.
In public places and private ones, people are responding to the rise of hatred and division with more gentleness and compassion.
This is not true everywhere, of course. Social conflict and violence have risen, egged on most unconscionably by the person who currently holds the most powerful political office in our land. But this we know. This is what we see in the news.
What we need to be inspired by is what we see on the street, on the ride to work, while waiting in line at the supermarket. In small everyday moments, people seem a little more thoughtful, as if we are quietly signaling to each other: We’re still here. We’re still good people. And indeed we are.
3. Recognize that it does not actually achieve anything positive to wallow in the bad news of the moment.
The Dalai Lama offers this wise and simple (which is not to say easy) mindset: “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
This could, of course, be used as an excuse to not engage in any of the many social problems that face us in America today. But that is not the point of this teaching. To the contrary, it inspires more action by focusing us on where we can do something helpful.
4. See positive actions, including your own, in a larger context.
When asked what advice he had for someone who found it difficult to experience joy because of all the suffering in the world, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu responded: “You are not meant on your own to resolve all of these massive problems. Do what you can.”
He then went on to suggest that we think about that very thing that, again, we are unlikely to find in the news: the millions of people who do care about contributing something good to the world.
People who hold some of the most powerful positions in America right now may not be leading with caring and compassion for others. And it is shocking to see how much hatred remains in in our country.
But the majority of Americans, like all people, aspire to be caring human beings. And — in the spirit of Vaclav Havel’s wonderful phrase, “the power of the powerless” — we have not yet begun to explore how truly powerful we can be.
5. Research shows that we are more likely to contribute to the greater social good if we are happy.
We’ve all felt this: When we’re unhappy, we have little to give. But when we’re happy, we’re much more likely to lend a hand, to be more patient and kind with others.
And it turns out this applies to social change, as well. When we’re happy, we’re more likely to help make the world a better place.
Specifically, research shows that people who are happy are more likely to vote, do volunteer work, participate in public activities, offer to help others, and be effective problem-solvers.
6. Let in the wisdom of those who have navigated dark times before.
There have been many incidents in recent American history that rocked our world: 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, the economic crash of 2008.
But the election of a man like Donald Trump to the presidency – especially at a time of so many time-sensitive crises, from climate change to the threat of nuclear war with North Korea – is a wholly unique event.
It is a dark and frightening chapter in American history and, because of our global significance, the world. How dark it gets, and what good might come of it, remains to be seen.
But in the meantime, we need courage: a courage we can believe in. And in this, as in the face of any great challenge, it helps to turn to those who have been here before. Case-in-point: the experience of the late Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who said:
“I know and I speak from experience, that even in the midst of darkness, it is possible to create light and share warmth with one another; that even on the edge of the abyss, it is possible to dream exalted dreams of compassion; that it is possible to be free and strengthen the ideals of freedom, even within prison walls; that even in exile, friendship becomes an anchor.”
And so…In the midst of today’s darkness in America, on the edge of what sometimes looks like an abyss, where it is possible to feel in exile in a newly unrecognizable country, this may be exactly what we need remember:
We can create light and share warmth, dream dreams of compassion, and strengthen our ideals of freedom.
But we cannot go it alone.
We need the anchor of each other.
What is working for you?