If I could not find my own happiness in the middle of the stresses of life, did I deserve to be happy at all?
I have always been intrigued by people who can apparently brush off levels of stress that would have most of us pulling the bed clothes over our heads until further notice. Photograph: iStock
I am not a big fan of stressful circumstances. My natural tendency has been to shrink away from them even though this usually turns out not to work in the end.
So I was surprised by the cheerfulness of an old, fleeting acquaintance who seemed completely undaunted by his circumstances.
The survival of his business was, as always, on the brink. His personal financial circumstances were also, as always, on the brink. On the relationship front things were, as usual, challenging.
Yet he seemed full of the joys of life. Far from hiding away, he was out there meeting the world head on, laughing and even taking the time to appreciate the scenery on his visit to Ireland.
I asked him for his philosophy but it came peppered with so many four-letter words that when you removed them his pearl of wisdom could not be found.
Brushing off stress
I have always been intrigued by people like that though, who can apparently brush off levels of stress that would have most of us pulling the bed clothes over our heads until further notice.
I have most often seen this among men who do business deals that would have serious consequences if they went wrong (presumably women of this ilk can also be found).
During the Celtic Tiger years I met people who owed millions and who would walk themselves into further debt for some new investment or speculation without a care in the world. Some are still in fairly robust psychological shape and looking forward to further risks.
I thought of all this one night recently as I was walking along by St Stephen’s Green in spitting rain and with a cold breeze getting inside my bones. I spotted the state of gloom this change of weather had thrown me into and realised, without much joy, that my atttitude was pathetic.
Since when did making me feel better become one of the tasks of the weather systems of the world? If I could not find my own happiness in the middle of the stresses of life, did I deserve to be happy at all? Let’s face it, in space and time I am a tiny speck so unimportant that my unimportance can hardly be measured.
I recall a novelist stating at a workshop that an author should spend the entire plot of a book flinging rocks at the main character. The flinging of rocks should pause only while the author is searching for an even bigger rock to throw.
That’s not a bad metaphor for life. Generally speaking, another rock is winging its way towards you. So if you want to find happiness you had better look for it while you’re dodging the rocks.
Tense and happy
The Jesuit writer Anthony de Mello – best known as the author of
Awareness – declared you could be tense and happy at the same time. Demanding that your circumstances should be calm and peaceful was a mistake.
The psychologist Albert Ellis, who developed a form of cognitive behavioural therapy, saw human beings as creating trouble for ourselves by clinging to irrational beliefs.
He collected irrational beliefs and one of the more common could be expressed as: when things are tough and I am under pressure I must be miserable and there is nothing I can do about this.
Ellis would say statements like this have a rational and irrational part. Wanting things to be easy and wanting the absence of pressures is perfectly rational. What’s irrational is assuming that you have no choice but to be miserable when times are tough.
And getting the conditions we want doesn’t necessarily make us happy. For instance, I always long for summer but when it comes I get restless and mope. I dislike the arrival of the short, dark days of winter but when they come I feel my overall mood go up – even if a blast of cold rain can put a hole in it.
But what would that old acquaintance I mentioned earlier think of me and my speculations? Expletives deleted.
Padraig O’Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.
Twitter: @PadraigOMorain firstname.lastname@example.org