The Secret to Being One of the Happiest People
For the fifth morning that week, it was raining. Condensation dripped onto me from the roof of the tent, the rain pitter-pattered outside, and my damp sweatpants clung to my legs. I sighed.
I grew up in Colorado, so the year after we were married, Curtis and I decided to take a camping trip from Chicago to the campground in the Rocky Mountains that I’d grown up going to.
The first day we got there, we chose a campsite that was on the high side of the campground, on a gravel rise. We wanted a site closer to the river, but there were none available.
Little did we know how fortuitous that would be.
A light drizzle the next morning left me unphased, and I made a fire to cook breakfast. The rain continued through the day, but we stayed around the campground and kept the fire going with sticks and logs from the nearby woods.
“Don’t worry,” I told Curtis. “I’m sure it won’t rain tomorrow.”
Of course, as it so often happens with proclamations like that, I was absolutely wrong. It was raining the next morning. We donned rain slickers and went exploring, hiking through the woods and down by the swollen river.
Making the fire that night was more challenging than the day before.
The wood was wet, the firepit was wet, I was wet. It took me almost two hours to boil a pot of water for our dinner.
Instead of huddling under our four-dollar, cheap plastic rain slickers, we took our lukewarm dinner into our tiny Ford Fiesta and played card games while we ate.
That night, I said the same thing when we were going to bed.
“Tomorrow will be dry, I’m sure.”
Sure enough, the next morning . . . It was raining again.
On our whole six-day camping trip, we had one sunny afternoon and went on one short hike. The rest of the trip, it was cold and raining.
But we loved it, not because of what happened—in fact, to the casual observer, the trip was a disaster.
We ate barely cooked food from campfires that never really started after the first day, were constantly wet, and slept in damp sleeping bags. Most evenings, instead of sitting around an idyllic campfire, reading poetry and watching the stars, we sat in the car and played card games and battleship while listening to the rain beat against the metal roof.
We loved it because we love being together, and we know a secret about happiness: it’s not circumstantial.
When life doesn’t go your way
My mother, an incredibly wise woman, used a few phrases regularly while I was growing up. Some of them were to remind me of my own mortality — “You are going to die someday” — while others were simply good parenting lessons: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
But the one she said the most often, the one that really stood out to me, was about happiness.
The happiest people are those who know how to be happy when things don’t go their way.
I would get turned down for an opportunity I really wanted — perhaps a job, or a part in a play — and she’d say, “Well, you know, the happiest people are those who know how to be happy when things don’t go their way.”
My plans would be rained out, and I’d express my woe to her. She’d remind me, with an adaption, “Remember, the happiest people are those who know how to be happy when their plans don’t work out.”
Everything would go wrong with an event I planned, I’d be having social and relational troubles, and I’d come to her in frustration:
“Why don’t they see my point of view? Why did they have to do that?”
And, after listening to me and offering solid life or relationship advice, she’d add,
“But maybe this is a good learning opportunity. After all, the happiest people — ”
“I know, Mom, I know.”
A lifelong perspective
Moving out after high school, I went to college, then on to marriage and “real life.” But, as so often happens with those phrases that we hear consistently during childhood, her lesson on happiness — which is really a lesson on perspective — stuck with me.
I don’t need her to repeat it to me anymore, now I can hear her saying it in my head.
And it’s shaped my perspective on circumstances. At the end of the day, circumstances are just that — something connected to an event. I can’t control them, but I can control my attitude about them. And I can use that to spread misery or spread joy.
My furniture might all get ruined twice in three years, but that’s okay. I can see past that and understand the valuable lessons in it.
My first year of marriage might not go how I planned. My perspective can be eternal, and while I mourn the loss, I know it’s not the end.
Even simple things, like my cat urinating all over the front seat of my car, aren’t the end of the world. It’s just the seat of the car. Nobody got a major injury, we’re all still fine.
When I have kids, I’ll probably have phrases that I use too. Maybe some different ones than my mom used, but absolutely her happiness phrase.
Because I want my children to know that their emotions, attitudes, and reactions aren’t at the mercy of their circumstances.
Even if they go on a camping trip and it gets rained out.