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Is Happiness An Inside Job?

Do you think that happiness is a choice? In every life, circumstances occur that result in unhappiness – our partner gets sick, our parents die, our marriage falls apart, we feel disappointed. We experience happiness and unhappiness millions of times throughout our lives. Many times we are overwhelmed and it’s just too hard to even think about being happy. But how about the times that really do depend on our reactions to the situation we find ourselves experiencing? Our reactions can in fact affect the degree of happiness or unhappiness we feel. In AA there is a saying that pain is inevitable, however, suffering is optional. I understand this to mean that life is difficult, AND our reactions to our lives determine the degree of suffering we experience.

An excerpt from Sylvia Boorstein’s book, Happiness Is an Inside Job, reminds me that we often do have choices in our everyday reactions to life’s events and that in fact the way we respond can shorten or even eliminate our unhappiness. Perhaps, we really do have more influence over our happiness than we realize. Take a moment to read what Sylvia writes. I think you will be able to relate and who knows, you may remember this little vignette when you need it most.

I was wending my way slowly, along with hundreds of people, back and forth through the cordoned-off lanes of an airport security line, when I became aware of the conversation of the two people right behind me:

“It’s your fault!”
“What do you mean, ‘It’s your fault’? It’s your fault!”
“That’s what I mean. It’s your fault we’re late.”
“No, it’s not. Prove it to me that it’s my fault.”
“I don’t have to prove anything to you. It just is.”

I glanced behind me, as if looking beyond them, and saw that they were young, casually dressed, and apparently (was it tennis rackets, golf gear?) were going on holiday together.
The Ping-Pong recriminations continued. “Your fault.” “No, yours.”

I had a momentary impulse to turn around and say, “Listen to me! It does not matter one bit whose fault it is. Either you’ll be in time for your flight or you won’t. And if you miss this flight, there will be others. What’s more, you don’t know that this flight is the best one to be on. Perhaps this one will have engine trouble and the next one will arrive safely. Relax! You are ruining the beginning of your holiday with a useless skirmish.”

Of course, I didn’t say anything. I think I could have gotten away with it if I had done it sweetly enough, but I imagined them telling someone later. “You won’t believe what this wacky little old woman in the airport. . .” Anyway, eavesdropping and intruding are both impolite, even if unintended and well meaning.

I took off my jacket and shoes and pushed them through the X-ray machine along with my carry-on bag with my computer out for inspection. Retrieving my possessions on the other side, balancing on one foot and then the other to hurriedly put on my shoes, I noticed the couple just in front of me, also just emerged through the sensor gate, taking a moment to kiss each other, give each other a hug. I was amused by the thought that they were congratulating each other for having made it through the security hurdle unscathed. It was the briefest of exchanges of affection, but it was there. Right in the middle of getting re-dressed. Then I thought, “I should call the attention of the arguing folks behind me to the kissing folks in front of me. ‘Look,’ I could tell them, ‘here is another possibility. In fact, there are only two possibilities in any moment. You can kiss or you can fight. Kissing is better.’ ”

This story is simple and is one that is very relatable. Often when faced with a situation, it isn’t easy to catch ourselves and then make a choice to act differently. First, we have to have the capacity to actually stop reacting in a way that may be habitual, and feels like relief. When we are able to catch ourselves, we then need to make a decision to act in a way that may not seem comfortable. Sometimes, getting angry and blaming seems to bring happiness, but I believe that this happiness is temporary, and when looked at closely isn’t happiness at all.
Response flexibility is what is required when our desire is to respond differently. This is the temporal space between input and output, between perception and action. Response flexibility harnesses the power of the middle prefrontal region of our brain to put a temporal space between input and action. This ability to pause before responding is an important part of emotional and social intelligence. It enables us to become fully aware of what is happening – and to restrain our impulse long enough to consider various options for response. This skill would have served the couple well in the airport who found themselves caught in the blaming game.
In my next blog I will talk about practices that help to strengthen the middle prefrontal region of our brain that has been found to be an integral part in developing response flexibility.

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