What if being happy was as simple as making the choice to be happy? Ha! It can never be that easy, because when it comes to humans, nothing is ever simple. Still, in almost every moment of every day, we can make the happy choice or the less happy choice. Or not choose at all — which, unless you’ve worked really hard to rewire your brain for happiness, likely means a less happy choice by default.
Fortunately, I have been working on rewiring my brain for more than a decade. Covid has given my happiness a run for its money, but even so, happy choices are frequently my default mode.
Here’s an example: last week, I had more bad eye news. I’ve written about my eye problem before — something called neo-vascularization, or bleeding in the retina. Untreated, this condition leads to blindness. I was diagnosed five years ago. For a while the treatments — injections in the eye, but that’s not as awful as it sounds — seemed to be working just fine. I went many appointments without any injection at all.
Then in December, the doctor was alarmed at my loss in vision. I thought it was just a scratched, used-up pair of glasses and finally got a new prescription from the optometrist. I did much better at the next appointment with the retina specialist, but really, not good enough. The vision loss remained.
This week, again, my vision was worse (and boy have I come to hate those eye charts!). The doctor wants to see me for treatments more frequently. Nothing was said out loud, but the subtext was, I am gradually losing sight in my left eye. The injections will slow down that process, but they can’t stop it.
So could I, in that moment, choose happiness? Well, sort of. At the same time that I was feeling anguish as I tried to process the reality of failing vision (in only one eye, thank goodness), I was also working hard at holding on to the good. I wanted to be honest, to give myself grieving time, while also being aware of everything I have to be grateful for: I am getting excellent medical care, by a retinal team which is kind as well as knowledgeable; the drugs used to keep blindness at bay are still relatively new, so I am fortunate to be benefiting from them; my treatments are covered by medical insurance; and my very loving husband takes me to every appointment and waits patiently to tend to me when the appointment is over.
Plus, it was a gorgeous early spring day in Vermont. Bob and I had plans to walk on the bike trail next to Lake Champlain. We’d been on the same trail three weeks earlier when the lake was totally ice-covered and the trail itself had plenty of snow and ice, too. Now, Lake Champlain’s blue waters were shimmering in the sun, with the majestic Adirondack Mountains rising up on the other shore. Our walking trail was clear and dry. It was a blessed day. I was sad, but happy too. Both. Absolutely both.
It’s not that I intend to ignore my eye problem. How can I, when every six weeks or so I have to get an injection in the eye? Nonetheless, I want to savor all the happiness that’s available to me. That’s my choice.
The sadness in any given moment isn’t the only obstacle to choosing happiness. More often, we just forget. Our brains are wired to be on the alert for threats, not joys. Yet, as with my day by the lake, the joys often exist side by side with sorrows and threats. The trick is, remembering to look for your happiness.
For me, that’s the point of putting a slice of paradise into my pocket. It’s a remembering stone.
I have been aware of the value of having a happiness remembering device — specifically, a happiness bracelet — since studying for my Certificate in Positive Psychology (CIPP) with Tal Ben-Shahar. Tal was an understated dresser, not the type to wear a bracelet. Instead, he wore a rubber band. I love the simplicity of that choice. I don’t wear much jewelry myself, but decided to wear a happiness bracelet when I found the one pictured here at a second hand store. I adored wearing my used bracelet until one day the elastic gave way and beads rolled all over the floor.
One of my CIPP classmates, Laurel Burns, a marriage and family therapist and artist, even started a business making happiness reminder bracelets!
My wrist has been bare lately. Maybe it’s covid fatique. Plus, I don’t really go anywhere these days.
Then the other night, the happiness bracelet morphed into a paradise stone. This wasn’t my idea. Rather, I found it in the poetry of Roger Robinson, via the Onbeing Project. The project published Robinson’s poem, “A Portable Paradise,” which I shared with my weekly Tuesday night meditation class. I chose to share Robinson’s poem because it spoke to me of being mindful of the good in our lives (in the poem, the paradise can be found in a pocket). I really appreciated his awareness that we can carry a piece of personal paradise with us — a profound happiness reminder of not just the joys but the actual paradise that is there within, if only we remember to pay attention.
The next day, I decided to make my pocket paradise a bit more tangible. I looked around and found a small stone my granddaughter had painted to look like a present. The stone was no big deal. In fact, when she and her mom moved from Wisconsin to join us in Vermont during the time of covid, the stone was supposed to have been thrown out. It appealed to me, though. I stuck it in a pocket on moving day and brought it back to Vermont.
Now I stick that stone in various pockets, depending on what I am wearing. No big deal? The stone represents love, art, everyday beauty … all the joys and gifts in my life. I need only stick my hand in my pocket and rub the stone between my fingers to remember that my life is filled with enough good and happiness to create my own personal paradise. Paradise does not equal immortality for me or any of my body parts. But it does equal smiles in the storm and serenity in the sadness. It equals happier choices — and that is priceless.