What Do Baking, Toilets, and Brain Surgery Have to Do With Happiness?
So much feels out of our control these days. I recently had a restless night’s sleep after watching a news program before bed. Note to self: Don’t do that again.
It’s not an easy time to be happy.
So, the following morning I decided to intentionally do something that makes me happy. Bake banana bread! The time was ripe for baking, evidenced by the three ripened bananas on the kitchen counter. I pulled out my well-worn recipe and before gathering ingredients I consciously asked myself this question:
How can I be my most joyful self while baking?
It didn’t take much thought to put on some Motown music. In quick time I was singing along with the Temptations as I mindfully mashed the bananas and mixed in the flour. I was nearly dancing in my kitchen when Aretha Franklin’s classic song, Respect, started blasting.
Baking banana bread may not be your happiness jam. But, what is?
Can You Really Choose Happiness Whenever You Want?
My 88-year-old neighbor, Sheila, and I got into a conversation about happiness on a recent walk. When I stated that we can each choose happiness when we want, Sheila immediately challenged me with this rebuttal:
“Oh come on, you can’t be happy cleaning a toilet.”
I replied, “You can be happy cleaning a toilet — if you choose to be.” No matter what I said Sheila wasn’t convinced happiness could merely be summoned by a simple choice.
A few weeks later Sheila and I revisited the topic and I was surprised by her change of tune when she said,
“Of course you can choose to be happy cleaning a toilet. All you have to do is focus on how great you’ll feel to have a clean toilet when you’re done.”
Then…A Bigger Happiness Challenge Reared its Ugly Head (literally)
With our conversation still on my mind, a few days later I came face-to-face with a bigger challenge to my belief that we can choose happiness when we want—brain surgery.
I arrived at NYU Langone hospital at 7am for a Gamma Knife procedure to treat a number of small lesions in my brain. This non-invasive procedure was part of my ongoing treatment for metastatic breast cancer. I’ve been reluctant to share this part of my journey since I don’t want to be judged for any brain lapses. I can assure you my brain is still fully functioning!
But what about my happiness?
As my husband and I began the one and a half hour drive into the city I tried to calm myself with deep breaths. Still feeling understandably stressed I shifted to my thinking by focusing on what I was grateful for even in this unpleasant situation. As much as I longed to turn the car around and ditch this treatment, my gratitude practice kicked in and I reflected on what was good in this fearful moment:
- Wayne for being my driver, loving companion, and ever-present support.
- My incredible medical team for not only their expertise but also their compassion.
- NYU for creating as safe a space as possible for my treatment during the pandemic.
Focusing on gratitude gave me a sense of optimism and, yes, even a small spot of happiness when I added gratitude that this treatment was available (not to mention covered by insurance).
Then during the treatment some serious pain kicked in and my happiness vanished in a nanosecond. I breathed into the pain. Tried to relax my body. And told myself this too shall pass. My team snapped into action, placing an ice pack on my head and giving me a powerful pain pill. I got through the moment, not yet regaining my happiness, but adding the availability of strong meds to my gratitude list.
This experience shifted my happiness belief to accepting that there are moments in life when happiness feels hard or impossible to grasp. Other emotions rise to the surface at those times. Perhaps fear, frustration, pain, grief, or despair. But, hopefully those moments are rare and impermanent.
When we’re ready we can once again choose happiness from our menu of emotions. This intentional choice can help us regain our equilibrium and our joy. I’m not saying we need to be happy all the time. It’s important to feel all of our emotions.
But, whether we’re baking, cleaning a toilet, or having brain surgery, it helps to remember that we can choose happiness.
In addition to gratitude as a route to happiness, happiness might also be found in reaching out to a friend, taking a walk, gardening, reading, or other activity you enjoy.
And because emotions are contagious, when we choose happiness, we spread our happiness to others. And this act can, at times, help to override the dysfunction and fear that surrounds us all.
I’m certainly not the first to make a case for choosing happiness. Aristotle said it clearly and simply:
“Happiness depends on ourselves.”
So, I’d say that even while our world feels like it’s spinning out of control we can have moments of happiness when we discover what it takes for us to feel happy and exercise our ability to choose happiness in most moments of our lives.
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