How to be happy in spite of it all, part 1

Just after I returned to work after breast cancer treatment, a co-worker paid me an incredible compliment. She told me that I had handled my diagnosis and treatment with (I am paraphrasing here with all the accuracy Chemo-Brain permits) incredible grace and, well, I can’t remember what else, but it was good. The general idea was that I had a wonderfully positive attitude that continued to astound those around me.

I pshawed her, of course. Because, there was nothing graceful about my actions nor reactions. Nothing heroic. Nothing brave. At least I didn’t think so. I was just doing what I had always done during trying times. What I had watched my mother do before me. And my grandmother before her. I put on a happy face.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? Or maybe you’re thinking simplistic is more like it. Well, you’re probably right. When others began asking me exactly how I stayed so positive in the face of a daunting cancer diagnosis and 90% recurrence risk, right on the heals of my finding out my infant was born blind, well, I couldn’t explain it. At least not in terms of usable information. It’s just something I’d been raised doing. I didn’t know quite how to explain the process.

Then I found The Bounce Back Book, by Karen Salmansohn a few weeks ago. It’s a short little self-help book, more along the lines of a pocket manual than a book, but it certainly clarified things for me. Salmansohn has a knack for doing exactly what I could not; break down the process of having and maintaining a positive attitude.

In her book, Salmansohn offers 75 tips for “thriving in the face of adversity, setbacks, and losses.” Many of these tips are a bit redundant, merely rewording the same advice to fit a slightly different situation. Sometimes that’s what it takes, however, for understanding to register. Hearing something many, many different ways. I don’t mean for this to be a book review, yet if I had a friend going through a rough patch and looking for a way to fight negativity, I’d consider sending The Bounce Back Book. We could all learn a bit from it’s pages.

For my purposes here, I will tell you what I took away from this book. That is, I will share with you those behaviors (as identified by Salmansohn) that I have practiced over the years and feel contributed to my success in overcoming the more negative crap life has thrown my way.

The Formula
Each of us has a genetic tendency toward optimism or pessimism, according to The Happiness Project in the U.K. This, however, only accounts for about 50% of our personal happiness equation. The rest is all about what you do and the choices you make. Dr. Jonathan Haidt even came up with a fancy, schmancy formula to become happier. And he’s a Positive Psychologist, or a positive psychologist (I’m not sure which-but I think it might make a difference) so he ought to know.

H = S + C + V

H = happiness level C = current conditions

S = set point for happiness V = voluntary activities

I happen to think Dr. Haidt is on to something.

Family
About that genetic predisposition towards happiness, or not. I guess I must have it. We’re real Nietzsche people in my family, “What does not kill us, makes us stronger.” And boy, oh, boy, have we been getting stronger in my lifetime. I’ve always remembered my Mom laughing off the bad times. She always found the humor in life when I was growing up and still does to this day.

Humor saved the day when I was fourteen years old, sitting in the front row in front of my Father’s casket with the rest of my family at his funeral. As you can imagine, it had been a stressful few days after he’d died, no matter how expected his death was. We, as a family, have always turned to humor in times of stress. True to form, when we noticed that the florist’s shop had placed an arrangement directly in front of my Mom’s chair that was completely bug-eaten, we just couldn’t stop the giggles. I’m sure the entire congregation behind us thought we were sobbing uncontrollably, in reality, we were shaking from trying not to laugh out loud.

We’re sort of wacked, I know. But that outlook has served us well, over the years. In general, we try to always see the humor in a situation. One of my very first comments after my cancer diagnosis, which came close to Christmas 2005, was that I wouldn’t have to worry about what I ate over the holidays because I was starting the Chemo Diet come January!! Woohoo! Holidays, here I come!

My family could have focused on the loss of my dad, instead we chose to break an overwhelming situation down into more manageable pieces. We focused on the insect-riddled flowers to get through the funeral.

Similarly, I chose to see the diet-free holiday season as a silver lining instead of the dark cloud that was a cancer diagnosis. The cloud hadn’t blown away and my dad was still gone but my outlook on the world was much more positive for my efforts.
Cross posted at Mothers with Cancer
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