Can a recession teach us anything about happiness?

Like many of us, I’ve been affected by the economy. Sometimes, when projecting my life out into the future, I have become deer-in-the-headlights scared, which has caused me to turn to the past and berate myself for choices that got me to where I am. No matter which direction I turned—forward or back—I felt awful. Eventually, I realized that I felt most comfortable in the present moment.

I realized that I would create the very future that I feared if I didn’t bring my thoughts home to the present. I also realized that no amount of second guessing could change the past, and pulled those thoughts into the present as well. (This is not something that stays done, by the way. It takes constant vigilance.)

For some reason, I believed that the circumstances I found myself in amounted to failure, and I feared that others would judge me as harshly as I judged myself. They didn’t. In fact, I received the most love and support from the people I least expected to receive it from.

Letting go of the past and the future and feeling the support of loved ones enabled me to relax into the moment and discover that I have absolutely everything I need—right now.

I achieved a somewhat fragile sense of inner peace when I heard a recorded interview with Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason, and checked her book out of the library. Since then, I’ve learned more about the field of Positive Psychology, and have a queue of books to read, including two by Positive Psychology founder Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism) and one by scholar Sonja Lyubomirsky, who wrote The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

In the Upanishads, it says, “Happiness for any reason is just another form of misery.” The idea that I could be happy for no reason was a new one for me.

Like most of us, I thought my circumstances determined my happiness. We think we’ll be happy when we get a better job, find our soul mate, earn a certain amount of money, acquire a desired object, lose weight, achieve better health, and so on. But when we realize those goals, we often find that they don’t make us happy after all–or do for only a while. So we set our sights on a new goal, get back on the hamster wheel, and try again. It’s a game that can’t be won.

Not so with happiness that we find within. Because unconditional happiness isn’t linked to what we have, what we do, or who we’re with, we can never lose it. The spiritual masters we revere most achieved this state. They had nothing in the way of possessions, yet radiated a sense of unshakable peace and happiness that draws us to them.

For years, I’ve claimed the saying, “My greatest gift to others is my own happiness.” I even had it printed on my checks. But I never really got it until the recession forced me to realize that happiness doesn’t come from anything outside me. It comes from within and to achieve it, that’s where my focus needs to be.

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life,
the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle

The illustration, by Kris Wiltse, is from the “Happy” card, which is part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Happiness: not for the faint of heart

There is no happiness fairy. There is no guru, motivational speaker, author, mentor, lover, or clergyperson who can make us happy–though we often wish there was.

Happiness is a decision we make, a risk we take, and if we are happy, it is because we dare to be.

ConfidentI am happy because I discovered that English made my heart sing, and I majored in it in spite of the fact that it provided me with no guaranteed livelihood.

I am happy because I paid off my student loans and cashed in my 401k to finance a year in Europe.

I am happy because I stepped out of the center of my own universe to make room for a child.

I am happy because I weathered the storm of ugliness that is divorce, and gave the sun a chance to come out again.

I am happy because I left the security of a nine-to-five job to start several businesses based on my passions.

I am happy because my son and I left everything we knew behind in Seattle to move to an island that felt like home from the moment we set foot on it.

I am happy because I built my dream house when I wanted to–even though I was a single parent at the time.

I am happy because I have a little farm.

When my courage wanes, I put on a bracelet that says, “Leap and the net will appear.” Happiness, I have discovered, is not for the faint of heart. I am only truly happy when I have the courage to be.

The illustration, by Kris Wiltse, is from the “Confident” card, which is part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Is it selfish to be happy?

I once had a conversation with artist/author Jerry Wennstrom that I’ll never forget. I had recently created my card deck, Mixed Emotions, but wasn’t really sure what to do next.

“When will I have met my obligation to the Universe?” I asked Jerry. “Have I already met it by creating Mixed Emotions, or won’t it be met until every single copy in the warehouse is sold?”

“Maybe,” Jerry said, “Your obligation to the Universe is to be happy.”

Isn’t it funny how the biggest epiphanies you’ll ever experience are also the simplest?

I didn’t feel like I had much choice in creating Mixed Emotions. Sometimes you have an idea and sometimes an idea has you. Mixed Emotions was definitely an idea that had me. I felt like I was hand-picked to bring it into being. I enjoyed creating it, but once it was published, I had no idea what to do.

Like many creative people, I didn’t have much experience in business. I also unexpectedly found myself separated from the father of my 12-month old son. Our divorce was final three days after my father died, and a few weeks later, the first few cases of Mixed Emotions arrived from the printer. It was onto this fertile soil that Jerry dropped his seed–the idea that my happiness might just be a worthy and legitimate thing to pursue.

I was not raised to believe that my happiness mattered much. It was the happiness I could give others, especially my mother, that mattered. But, to be fair, how am I doing as a parent? Am I teaching Adrian that nothing is more important than his own happiness? After all, he would’ve been happy if I’d let him skip school yesterday and I said no.

As the creator of a deck of cards, I’ve collected quite a few sets of cards over time. One of my decks is by Esther and Jerry Hicks, and is called The Teachings of Abraham Well-Being Cards. My favorite card sits in a holder above my sink and says simply this:

My happiness is my greatest gift to others

Thanks to Jerry Wennstrom, that is now the motto that I live my life by. And if I can somehow get that across to my son, I will consider myself a success as a parent.


Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Happy” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.