Happiness. So what’s the big deal with that anyway? People talk about happiness all the time. There’s a scene in the movie We Bought a Zoo after Dylan Mee accidentally releases a bunch of snakes on the front porch. Dylan is fifteen, and he doesn’t like living at the zoo his dad bought. A part of the conversation goes like this (his dad’s name is Benjamin):
Benjamin Mee: I just want you to be happy, man! Unless you don’t wanna’ be happy!
Dylan Mee: What is so great about being happy?
I think Dylan’s question is an interesting one. So, what is the big deal with being happy? Happiness can be a hard thing to find, or it can seem hard. Is happiness really worth the effort it takes to get? And what about all the unhappy stuff you have to ignore? There are so many bad things in the world, who has room for happiness? Besides, wouldn’t you feel guilty being happy when there are so many bad things going on everywhere else?
I think I have exhausted my weekly quote of rhetorical questions. What I hope to do with this post is provide an adequate response to these sentiments. What I don’t want to do is make it sound like I’m anti-sadness. Not true. There are times when we just have to be sad. But I am anti despair, which is when we just give up and spiral downward.
Perspectives interest me. How can two people view the exact same situation and see totally different things? This question is important because understanding the fact that it describes reality can help us choose what we want instead of allowing our circumstances to dictate to us what we feel.
Here is an example:
The world is full of misery and pain. It would be hard to argue with that statement, I think. The world is full of goodness and mercy. Likewise, indisputable. Depending on your own mindset, either is true.
Let’s just get right to it. History is full of some pretty bad things. Documenting all of them would be reasonably depressing at best. The Holocaust has to rank up there with the worst ever in the category of “things that happened.” As a teenager, I studied a lot about WWII, which was one of my favorite topics. But I was interested in it for the military strategy, what happened during battles, and which tanks had the best technology. I did not look too deeply into the true history of the war.
Of course I knew some of it, and had read a little about it, but it hadn’t really solidified in my mind as to what had really happened in Germany in the 1930s. My wife, however, has a different story. She was also interested in WWII, but from the complete opposite perspective from me. She focused on the rise of the Nazis and their actions towards those they deemed undesirable. Today, she has learned so much about what happened during the Holocaust that she is my primary source when I want to know something about it.
When I read Night by Elie Wiesel, I came away reeling. This was many years after I had read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, but for some reason it all hadn’t hit me at that earlier point in my life. Anne’s diary is not so revealing of what happened during that time in the concentration camps. I read Night as a young adult in my early twenties. Wiesel’s descriptions and settings put me into that world mentally to the point where I almost felt like I could see it all happening. The question I came away with, as perhaps many do was: “how could a person do that to someone”?
I understand that there are psychological studies for how the Holocaust occurred. Discussions follow regarding “the mob mentality”, dehumanization, scapegoating, and on and on. I don’t know all of them. But in the end, whether these studies and explanations bring some understanding or not, I am left with the same question as at first. How could a person do such a thing to another? Because in the end, despite all the studies and the explanations, a person made a choice to do something horrible to another person. There is no escaping that fact.
But that’s why I want to bring in this particular subject. It heightens the point I wish to make. The Holocaust was likely one of the darkest events in history. It’s a candidate by any measure. And yet, even in the midst of that, is all happiness and hope lost forever? Is it all lost simply because humans, a set of humans, could do something like that to other humans?
Happiness in Anne’s Way
Now I know that we don’t have a record of how Anne Frank felt after she was taken to a concentration camp. I am convinced that Wiesel’s description in Night is sufficiently accurate to be applicable to the experience the Frank’s likely went through as well. I will make no claims on how a person ought to have felt in the midst of Auschwitz in 1944. It would be dark, no doubt.
But there are two quotes from Anne Frank that I believe should never be forgotten. This is the first:
Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in your own heart can only be dimmed; it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again.
Anne Frank, February 23, 1944
She wrote that in her diary about six months before the secret police came for her. Most of the things I have experienced in my life that have been negative have turned out to be less serious once I got to look back at them afterwards. None of them have approached what Anne Frank lived through while jammed into her attic hiding place and then beyond to the concentration camps.
No matter what, I think we can keep a positive attitude even throughout the most difficult things we face in life. I’m not saying you have to smile your way through it all and pretend that nothing is wrong. That’s not a healthy way to live life. But you own your own happiness. You decide in the end how happy or how sad you are long-term. There are moments in our life where we get sad, depressed, unhappy, and so on. But we decide if those moments define who we will be in the future, or if we can regain who we really are after the pain goes away.
How Bad Are People, Anyway?
I think one of the reasons that the Holocaust and other similar events feel so horrible is that they were caused, carried out, or permitted by people. And we are people. So we feel almost like we might have been part of what that other group did or allowed to happen. And maybe also we fear (somewhere deep) that we might have a tiny piece of what made them do that terrible thing inside us somewhere too. And if we do, we are afraid that it might come out under the right circumstances.
Now maybe we do. We carry with us the tendencies, or maybe the capabilities, to do things that would be considered wrong. We all have that in us. That doesn’t mean that we are bad, though. It also doesn’t mean we all have the capability of becoming a serial killer; that’s an extreme. But I think we all have a tendency toward at least one thing that we do not consciously want to do; a thing we would consider “bad.”
In fact, resisting those types of instincts and choosing instead to do something good makes us morally stronger, regardless of what “instinct” we first felt. What we actually do in the end is what matters most. I wrote about this in a different way in this post about why life hurts. And we also have to accept that sometimes we will give in and do something we regret (hopefully not too bad of a thing).
My opinion is that one of the keys to being happy is looking at ourselves and other people not for just who they are and what they have done, but for who they could be as well. Nobody that I know does everything right, not even me. If I only looked at people as the sum of what they had done, my opinion of most people might be quite low. Instead, I try to think about what that person intended with their action. If I can see a good intention, that really helps me feel less upset.
And if I’m less upset, I am happier.
Look for the Good
There are those that say that my kind of attitude is naive, and probably a little bit simple. I’m perfectly fine with that. It helps me feel better. I would rather look for good in people than not.
I know some people who seem to always look for the opposite, or assume the worst in others. They do not seem like happy people to me. Maybe they are, but I doubt it. And this is where I think the second quote from Anne Frank fits in best.
As she struggles to understand her world, one in which humanity seems to have been lost to most people, she wrote this:
It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
Anne Frank, July 15, 1944
She wrote this less than a month before she was taken to Auschwitz.
Happiness is Worth The Trouble
Before I continue, I want to answer Dylan’s question from earlier: the great thing about happiness is that it takes away the burden of anger, depression and hate. Happiness is worth the effort because it brings us closer to our loved ones and our family. And if we are happy, we can actually do more to help those around us feel better too.
There is a saying that you can’t lift someone up unless you’re standing on higher ground. You will never be able to help a friend in need if you are stuck in the same hole they are in.
Here’s the key: happiness is a choice; circumstances are not. Some days will challenge our strength and it will be tough. Tragedy and difficulty are inevitable. But so is recovery if we can keep just a little bit of happiness in our heart, as Anne said. Then, when the difficulty ends, we can draw on that happiness we have stored and get back to where we should be.
You being happy, me being happy, that’s not going to eliminate tragedy or sadness from the world. Anne Frank didn’t end the Holocaust with her attitude. But she has made a difference in millions of lives because of it. And there is no reason you and I can’t do the same.
I think most of the problems in the world are incurable on a mass scale. But individually, each person can be helped. To do that, however, it takes a helper (or more than one). When it comes to the statement that the world is full of misery and pain, I misstated that there was no argument. The word “full” implies everyone is that way. But you can be the one that is not and make that statement false.