On a cold, wet morning in Boston, I was peering out the subway windows over the recently thawed Charles River, dreaming longingly of the sailboats that dot the water in summer, when all of a sudden a woman accosted me. I say "accosted" because unlike in warm Texas where I grew up, people in Boston rarely strike up conversation with strangers. But this middle aged woman decked out in North Face rain gear seemed undeterred by anything. She asked me if I was heading to work. I replied yes, I was going to give a lecture on my research on happiness to the doctors at the Boston Children's Hospital. The woman grimaced and looked sympathetic, then noticed her stop was fast approaching. As the doors opened, she said, "Good luck with that. Man, having to take care of dying kids all the time...it must be impossible to be happy."
After my talk in the cavernous lecture hall at Children's, I was elated that the research had resonated so well with my data-driven colleagues. As I packed up my computer, I asked one of the doctors if it was hard to be happy there. He was rushing back to his patients with a sack lunch in his hand, but he turned and looked very serious. He said, "Sometimes I get frustrated with normal job things. But when you work in a ward where there are kids with terrible diseases, maybe dying, dealing with a lot more things that I ever will but who are still able to smile and be happy, well...it's just impossible to remain unhappy."
We tell ourselves a lot of stories about happiness. Our brains invent very elaborate cognitive strategies to tell us who can be happy, when and why. No one can be happy in an economic downturn, no one could be happy in a children's cancer ward, no one could be happy with my job, etc. But this doctor poignantly pointed out that those stories don't check out.
(Do you have examples where you thought happiness would be impossible but it turned out you were wrong? If so, please post a reply!)
There are definitely times--like last week when my flight was delayed three hours because United could not find the copilot--that my brain tells me, "it's not possible to be happy right now." But if happiness is impossible in a certain situation, then two corollaries have to also be true.
First, the external world predicts 100% of my happiness.
Second, no one in my position has ever or would ever feel happy.
Neither of those things hold true.
In the last decade, researchers have discovered that only 10% of our happiness is predicted by the external world. So much more of our happiness is based on how our brain interprets that world, and how we choose to respond to it.
Moreover, I am shocked how often we tell ourselves happiness is impossible when that is so clearly factually inaccurate. This week I gave a talk to a group of HR managers in Iowa on the research indicating that if you are positive in the midst of challenge, your success rates go up. A battle hardened HR manager said, "With everything going on, you know it's impossible to be happy in this economy." Yet sitting beside her were some of the most positive, happy HR managers I've met, managers who were down in the trenches with their teams proving that cognitive story false.
In a down economy, it is easy to feel anxious or depressed. That may even be the average response to an economic downturn. But just because it is average does not mean that it is required of our brains. If there are people in the world in our circumstances that would maintain an optimistic outlook and cheerfully connect with people, then our happiness story can be revised. If there are people who miss a flight but are still happy, then I cannot tell myself it is impossible to be happy in this circumstance. It merely requires work.
If there are people in a struggling business, in a cancer ward, in a poor inner-city school who remain positive, we are left with two choices. We can ignore that fact and assume that happiness is beyond our reach, or we can change our philosophy. I vote for the latter, based on another scientific fact: if your brain is positive, it makes you better at overcoming those challenges in your world. That is the Happiness Advantage. And that is a topic I look forward to delving into with this blog.
People who tell us happiness is impossible imprison us in illusion. Positive individuals break the tyranny of our stories about happiness, because they, like that doctor at Boston Children's Hospital, show us that the external world does not dictate the terms of our happiness. The truth is there have been positive people even in some of the most horrific situations in history. And thus, happiness is a verifiable, scientific possibility.
If you're interested in reading more about the science of happiness, check out The Happiness Advantage.