I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition – Martha Washington
The moment we assign that responsibility to another person or set of circumstances we give away our power.
As a mental health therapist I have worked with people who have suffered great adversity and difficulty in life, and yet have cobbled together a life they are happy to be living.
I have learned from them that happiness is found in how we relate to ourselves and others. It is created by our own thoughts and outlook.
I woke up to dark and foreboding thoughts recently. I did not want to start my day feeling so grim. My inner pessimist was yelling. I remembered something I had read recently (sorry to say, but I don’t remember where) that suggested the creation of an ‘inner mansion’ where our dreams and hopes are held.
I decided to imagine what the rooms of my mansion would hold, not that I need a mansion to be happy! I pictured riding my bike near the river, my skin basking in the sun, the vast expanse of a blue sky with white billowy clouds the size of mountains. I imagined the laughter of my children. I thought of the quiet comfort of my desk with my computer, books, pictures and memorabilia.
By expanding our inner narrative, we expand our mood.
We are in a relationship with ourselves longer than anyone else we will ever encounter in our lives. We choose happiness by nurturing an attitude of compassion toward ourselves. If we can’t be kind to ourselves we will always be strapped to some misery, even if it’s held behind an exuberant façade.
Kindness toward ourselves, patience with our own shortcomings, acceptance of our mistakes and eccentricities allows us to do the same with others. And, we are happier as we offer that kind of generosity to ourselves and others.
And when we face the adversity and difficulties that are an inevitable part of life, the more we can find our way to seeing and being grateful for what is working, the more likely we are to thrive.
As a young girl, humanitarian and journalist Amanda Lindhout made her way through a rough childhood by collecting pop cans to turn in for money and then buying used copies of National Geographic Magazine for 25 cents each at the local second hand store in her small hometown in Canada. She would lie on her bed for hours gazing at the pictures of all the amazing places there are to see in the world. She vowed that someday she would go to those places. She was already designing her own happiness in that moment.
At age 19 she began saving her tips from her work as a cocktail waitress for travel. She backpacked through Guatemala, Laos, India, and Thailand and many more countries. When she ran out of money she went home and worked another six months then headed out again.
Eventually she ended up in Bagdad where she began doing a little work as a self-made journalist. At that point she set her sights on Somalia. Despite a raging war, famine, and religious extremists, she felt she could make a short visit, write about a place that was largely being ignored, and get out.
It didn’t work out that way. Four days after she arrived, teenage insurgents from the Hizbul Islam fundamentalist group kidnapped her. Her friend, Nigel Brennan, a 37-year-old freelance Australian photojournalist from Brisbane, was kidnapped along with her.
The kidnappers demanded $2.5 million each for their safe return. She was held for 464 days, sometimes in squalid conditions, other times in a normal house. She was given very little food and unclean water. Sometimes she was kept in a dark room. Sometimes she was chained up. She was frequently raped by her captors and often beaten.
Her survival was aided by the fact that Nigel was being held in a room next to hers. They were able to communicate through the walls. She offered encouragement to him and expressed hope. It helped her to not give up.
I could barely put down her memoir, A House in the Sky, written with Sarah Corbett, as I read it over the past two weeks. Most astonishing was how she continued to use her own agency, limited as it was, to make choices of self-support and optimism.
“I found my way into a sense of routine, curbed on all sides by the dark and the rules,” she writes in her book, “but still, there was comfort in anything I could do for myself. . . I stole fifteen critical seconds to make up the bed, tucking the bottom sheet tightly beneath the sides of the mattress, using a hand to smooth any wrinkles. I folded my blue floral top sheet into a neat flat rectangle and set it at the foot. This, for me, marked the beginning of a new day.”
“To pass the time, I reminded myself of what I knew, of things that tied me to the world beyond . . . back at home the Rocky Mountains would be covered in layers of deep white snow. My mother would be wearing a scarf … “
After she was eventually released, she was treated for acute malnutrition and received specialized treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Eventually she summoned the courage to travel again.
Most astonishing to me, she also founded the Global Enrichment Foundation to create more opportunities in Somalia by offering university scholarships to women.
Her book was an extreme example of choosing happiness, even if there are only a few crumbs available. Knowing that gives us power. Amanda Lindhout’s kidnappers could hold her hostage, but she held control of how she faced her situation and found that even in the worst of situations she still held the power of her own outlook.