Happiness amidst adversity has always fascinated me. Yet, so has misery among fortune. Both are totally counterintuitive – that is, people facing life’s toughest adversities logically shouldn’t be genuinely happy, just as among the most fortunate shouldn’t be miserable. But, we constantly see this occur with such frequency that it’s almost a norm rather than an isolated phenomenon. We see individuals facing challenges that, logically, should defeat the soul, but instead there’s a contentment and joy. Then, we see individuals with every advantage in life who are miserable. How is it that a 23-year-old with muscular dystrophy from which he or she will eventually die by age 30 is intrinsically happier than a 40-something multi-millionaire, recreational triathlete? I witness this all of the time among people I know and acquaintances – and, as one with a severe physical disability, I’ve experienced it myself.
Psychologists, sociologists and philosophers have been studying this exact subject, trying to crack this code of human nature: how does suffering allow for happiness while good fortune allows for misery? The recent consensus is intriguing.
See, what’s been discovered is that while happiness should logically come from good fortune, good fortune unto itself doesn’t evoke happiness. You can have all of the success in the world, and it doesn’t inherently induce happiness. Of course, many of us have known this, but, here’s the intriguing part. What does inherently induce happiness is gratitude. In fact, it turns out that they’re inseparable. If you have gratitude, you inherently possess happiness. But, that leads to yet another question in this equation: where does gratitude originate?
It turns out that opportunity is the root of gratitude – both in recognizing it and in appreciating it. I know where researchers are coming from because I live it. My independent living skills, such as bathing, are extremely difficult for me, sometimes having to endure a level of literal pain, if not suffering, in the process. When you lack coordination and balance, aspects like showering aren’t just difficult but often borderline dangerous, where falls and rebounds are just part of the nightly ritual. Yet, even in the midst of tremendous struggles, I’m genuinely happy. Heck, I even catch myself singing in the shower among the controlled chaos. How can I remain truly happy during such seemingly difficult times? Well, I know a lot of individuals who aren’t able to bathe themselves, and so I’m grateful for the opportunity simply to be able to do so, no matter how trying it can be. Opportunity creates gratitude, and gratitude creates happiness.
A childhood friend of mine, John, has had a slowly-progressing form of muscular dystrophy. He’s always used a power chair, but has slowly lost more and more muscle tone to where, now in his 40s, he doesn’t have the strength to use a television remote. But, John, as a super successful guy who knows the power of opportunity, gratitude and happiness, shared a story that made me smile. He found out that by getting a different cable box, he could use his smartphone’s touch screen to change channels. And, here’s what he said in his exuberance: “I’m quite overjoyed, and delighted even, to discover the new X1 system comes with an app on which I can completely operate the cable box from my iPhone. Losing strength and losing that ability killed me (metaphorically)… But now, I again have full control of my cable box!”
No, operating a cable box doesn’t in itself make John happy; however, the gratitude that he recognizes from the opportunity does.
Of course, this isn’t to say that we don’t all experience real human emotions like sadness and frustration, nor can gratitude overcome mental health conditions like clinical depression or chemical imbalances. However, when we’re emotionally and mentally healthy, gratitude can help us move toward positive states amidst difficult times. I recently lost Rosie the English Bulldog, my companion of 10 years – a very sad loss. But, amidst my understandable sadness, I found tremendous gratitude in her companionship, where reflecting on her hilarious absurdities – her tongue always protruding from her mouth, making her constant comic relief – filled my heart with joy despite the sad loss. In this way, finding gratitude in the toughest of situations can elevate our spirits. I’m not happy that Rosie the English Bulldog passed, but I’m grateful and happy for the 10 comical, adoring years we shared.
When the everyday aspects of life aren’t seen as doom or gloom, but as amazing opportunities, it creates gratitude, and with that we’re intrinsically filled with happiness. One doesn’t need to struggle or face challenges to find gratitude in one’s life – everyone can embrace it because where there’s life, there’s opportunity and gratitude. However, one does need to have gratitude to truly have happiness. Maybe we all need to take a lesson from John and recognize that the surest path to happiness is found in simply switching the channel – to gratitude.