Creating Happiness is a Choice

Editor’s Note: Published January 30, 2003, this is the first article published for this column.




“A person is about as happy
as they make up their mind to be.”
Abraham Lincoln


I have always appreciated this Lincoln quotation—but have not always believed it. How about you? Do you think it’s true that, despite circumstances, we make our own happiness?

Abraham Lincoln expressing happiness
Lincoln’s saying reminds me of the story told by my elderly orthodontist—a story so memorable I can easily recall it more than 30 years later. The kindly Dr. Jamieson—with a broad grin on his face—told of a psychiatrist who welcomed twin boys to his office. The boys’ mother explained that one of the twins was an incorrigible pessimist; the other boy—you guessed it—the most optimistic young man one could imagine.

The pessimist is given an hour in a brightly-lit room filled with toys and games; meanwhile, the optimist is placed in a dark and dank room with horse manure up to his knees. After an hour, the psychiatrist asks our pessimistic young man how he is doing. The boy complains bitterly, “These toys aren’t any fun!”

Then the psychiatrist visits the optimistic twin and is puzzled when he sees him digging frantically in a corner. The boy explains, “With all this manure, there must be a horse around here somewhere!”

Do you know anyone this optimistic? Perhaps. As for me, the lure of pessimism is tempting. It is so easy to complain—and there is plenty to complain about.

Of course, we cannot always be happy. There are catastrophes we experience that make happiness impossible. We need time to grieve our losses. But in the long run, some folks are generally happy even though their lives are filled with chronic pain, poverty or a series of crises. Others are sad or moody despite good fortune. Perhaps Lincoln is right: Happiness is a choice.


Overcoming Grief and Grievances

I remember writing to a member of my home church while attending seminary. I hear a report that “Betty,” known for her outlandish optimism, has witnessed the sudden death of her husband. Instead of grieving, however, she stands over the coffin three days later and tells a friend, “Isn’t it wonderful! Now he’s with Jesus!”

Happiness: woman at husband's casket
I write to Betty that, while she can be glad for her husband, I wonder if she is able to grieve for herself. After all, she dearly loved Paul and surely misses him. I suggest to her, with my new identity as minister, that it is appropriate if she occasionally needs to cry.

Betty responds with a letter expressing gratitude for the years she and Paul shared. She gives no indication she has grieved. To the contrary, all seems bright and wonderful. Her faith in Jesus appears to require that she be a model of joy. This denial of intense grief, I conclude, is pure Pollyanna.

Still, Betty’s outward joy in spite of dismal circumstances cannot be entirely dismissed. Some people are far more resilient and optimistic than others. She is a “prayer warrior” and looks to Jesus to sustain her. There is also much to be admired in Betty’s ability to be grateful to God for her husband—and her looking forward to the future with hope. Certainly there are worse afflictions.

As to the rest of us, we may grieve more than the year or two often required to recover from the death of a spouse. We may become embittered by injustice or calamity. Responding to such experiences with a litany of complaints may poison our perspective. There comes a time when we must let go of our grievances.

Like the pessimistic twin, we may reject gratitude in favor of grumbling. At such times, let us resolve to remember the many blessings we also enjoy. Instead of focusing only on our complaints, we need to remind ourselves of Mr. Lincoln’s admonition—and decide to be happy anyway.

©2004 Harry Rix. All rights reserved.

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Why Strive to Forgive?
Where are You, God?
Seeking Faith Amidst Evil Fosters Hope

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