Carolyn Hax is away. The following is from Jan. 4, 2010, and adapted from an online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I recently read one of your columns where you said it was easy to be unhappy. Do you think it’s easier than being happy? With now many years of experience under your belt, why do you think people protect their bitterness, anger, weaknesses and past traumas to the end, no matter what they lose? I’ve watched some people lose almost everything and everyone in order to hang on to what a friend called “their triumphant unhappiness.”
Anonymous: I love that phrase, please thank your friend for it.
Yes, I do think it’s easier day-to-day to be unhappy. Meaning, when we’re faced with these little decisions about how to perceive something, it’s always a little bit easier to blame than it is to celebrate. For example, how often is it “another bleeping meeting” vs. a chance to leave your desk, see some people, scam a doughnut?
And it’s always a little bit easier to put that blame on someone/something else: “Guys are such jerks” is easier than “I missed obvious signs that he didn’t like me,” or “I expected him to read my mind and be my little puppet, when in fact I didn’t pay any attention to what he might have wanted or the ways I might have dismissed his feelings.”
That’s why I think it’s harder in the short run to choose celebration over blame — you have to take responsibility for more of your own bad outcomes. “He’s a great guy” becomes, when it doesn’t work out: “He really is a great guy, he just doesn’t love me,” or “I took him for granted and didn’t treat him the way he deserved.” It’s so much easier to save face with “I thought he was a great guy, but he was just another loser.”
In the long run, though, those little easy choices make life so much harder. When you’re cumulatively pessimistic and/or fundamentally negative, you’re actively choosing to accept a lower allotment of joy.
Even calling it “joy” is deceiving, because joy sounds easy. However, when it means being grateful even when something isn’t going exactly as you had hoped — and often when you’re plainly receiving less than someone else — then suddenly it isn’t so easy.
When you feel wronged and angry and you’re awaiting your apology or due or whatever, choosing joy means accepting that someone got the best of you and you’ll never get your due. It means accepting that any joy in your future will have to be of your own making. Ego out, perspective in.
Optimism also demands that you greet new people and situations with an open mind, instead of just lumping them into some lazy category of Things You Already Know. When we prejudge, we close doors, deny opportunities, marinate ourselves in the past.
To have an open mind, though, we have to assign ourselves to the role of students in life, and to not knowing the outcome in advance. It’s trading the secure (if false) sensation of being wise to everyone and everything, for the possibility of surprise, be it pleasant or un-.
Choosing optimism is choosing vulnerability and humility on an ongoing basis, and that’s often in conflict with our nature.