“Happy in Spite of” vs. “Happy If Only”

“Karl Pillemer of Cornell makes the distinction between ‘happy in spite of’ and ‘happy if only,’ the former being a benefit of old age, the latter a vexation of youth. ‘Happy in spite of’ entails a choice to be happy; it acknowledges problems but doesn’t put them in the way of contentment. ‘Happy if only’ pins happiness on outside circumstances . . ..” –John Leland

After reading these words in Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old a couple weeks ago, I went for a pre-dawn walk in a high wind warning. As the crosswind threatened to push me sideways, and the headwind occasionally stopped me in my tracks, I thought about this idea of being “happy in spite of” vs. “happy if only.” It brought two concepts, to mind.

The first is the JustWind mindset, inspired, of course, by the Kansas wind. The JustWind mindset asserts that we have the power and freedom to choose our perspectives, and that is really what Pillemer’s distinction is—a recognition of the “wind” that presents as challenges in our lives and the decision that we are not victims of circumstance.

The second was the Serenity Prayer, which teaches the wisdom of releasing the illusion of control where there truly cannot be any and accepting responsibility where we do have the ability to change our conditions.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Happiness is a Choice You Make felt almost like a sequel to the book I highlighted last week, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, although it was published about four months earlier, and by a different author, than The Happiness Curve. Much of the same research was mentioned, and the age group that Leland featured was a generation or two beyond that examined by Rauch. Leland followed a group of 85-year-old+ seniors for one year and shared stories of his conversations with them that were poignant and instructive. What really struck me was the wisdom these older adults had gleaned. Most were generally content, even happy, despite quality of life that most of us would find very disagreeable.

The “happy in spite of” vs. “happy if only” distinction was the most significant idea in the book for me. The seniors who made the choice to be “happy in spite of” recognized that life had problems and was not perfect. Maybe their conditions were not what they would choose, but they decided to control what they could and made a conscious decision to be happy in spite of life’s imperfection.

No matter our current season of life, odds are we can find flaws in it. There are things we wish were different—some small, others larger.

I think our responsibility lies in recognizing when there is something we can change and when we cannot change our circumstances. Just because we CAN change a situation that is less than desirable, doesn’t mean it is easy. Doing so requires the courage mentioned in the Serenity Prayer. Part of the reason it calls for courage is that creating change comes with no guarantees.  Making the decision to pursue change may come down to the choice I discussed in this post—that the risk to remain tight inside the bud of our comfort zone is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.

Legitimately, sometimes we may decide that the risk of blossoming is greater or that we actually have no control over a situation. That leaves us with one choice.

We can choose to wallow in our misery, or we can choose to be happy in spite of our circumstances.

That is both wisdom and power. Since we can’t control the situation itself, we are controlling our response to it, rather than allowing it to dictate our quality of life.

Living in a pandemic, there are many things we would like to change but can’t. We always have control over what perspective we choose, though, and we can make the decision to be happy in spite of the things we can’t make go away.

That is a very freeing thought. No one and nothing outside of us determines how we respond to what life gives us. We do.

It’s not too late to claim your free Quick Coach Power Session to help you take responsibility for courageously changing the things you can change.

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