AN EXCERPT FROM:
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness
101 Inspirational Stories about Finding Your Purpose, Passion, and Joy
Mark Victor Hansen
Foreword by Deborah Norville
Some people pursue happiness, others create it.
We’re all familiar with our constitutional right to pursue happiness. As a child, I recall more than once telling my not-at-all-amused mother that I was “pursuing my right to happiness” when I made a particularly large mess. She very cleverly informed me that if I wanted to enjoy life or liberty, I would clean it right up too! Who doesn’t want to be happy? Not only does being happy beat the alternative, happiness has some pretty attractive benefits. Research has found being happy adds about nine years to your life!
Chances are you picked up this book in hopes of reading some stories that can help brighten your own day or put you on a new path that’s got a bit more joy or a little more laughter than the road you currently travel. Inside this book are 101 stories specifically chosen to show you there are many roads to happiness. After you read these stories, you’ll be much better equipped to find the path -- and the destination -- that’s right for you.
Some people pursue happiness, others create it. Take a look at Margaret Bowen’s quote and ask yourself, “Who’s more likely to be happy? The person chasing, or the one creating?” If you need a hint, you may find a clue in these words by Henry David Thoreau that I had on a poster on my wall during high school and college:
Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.
As much as you may try to be happy, your efforts probably only serve to make you frustrated. “Don’t Worry -- Be Happy” was a cute idea in a song, but as advice for those who’ve lost their zest for life, it doesn’t work. You can’t just “be” happy. But turn your attention to other things -- the right things -- and you will find that happiness has found you. What are the right things? We’ll get to that in a moment. But here’s a central truth: When it comes to being happy, the journey IS the destination.
It’s funny that the Chicken Soup for the Soul people came to me to write the foreword for a book on finding your happiness because there was a period in my life when I was profoundly unhappy. Perhaps I was even depressed. I was too down in the dumps to seek professional help to find out. My career was in the toilet. My telephone had stopped ringing. I didn’t think I would ever work again. So what happened? Did I wake up one day, put on make-up and hop over to a TV studio, saying, “I’m back! Put me on the show!”?
Hardly. Instead, I got out my sewing machine. In the depths of my unhappiness, I pulled out my old Kenmore machine, dug out some lengths of fabric, and started making curtains and slipcovers. You can work out a lot of aggression on those long seams as you floor the foot pedal. When you see the results of those hours with the machine -- slipcovers that make an old chair new again, curtains that warm up a bare room -- you can’t help but feel pleased about your work... and yourself.
That long-ago search for happiness led me to reconnect with a long ignored passion. I had been sewing, doing embroidery, and knitting and crocheting since I was eight years old. Dusting off that machine, reminding myself of the many pleasant hours I used to spend stitching, helped brighten my spirits. Some people pursue happiness, others create it. That I was happy after returning to my long-lost hobby was an unintended consequence of engaging in something that I had once enjoyed. Without expecting to, I had created my own happiness.
The surprise factor has a lot to do with happiness. If you look up the etymology of the word “happy,” you see that it stems from the Old Norse word happ, which meant “chance” or “unforeseen occurrence.” By chance, we stumble into happiness. Like that butterfly, we rarely catch it if we are chasing it.
Here’s another secret: You won’t find happiness by always striving to be the best. Good enough is, well, good enough. Research conducted by Professor Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College found some notable differences between those he calls “maximizers,” people who have to have the best and are compelled to research every possible choice, and those who are satisfied more easily. Because they insist on the “best,” those maximizers do tend earn about $7,000 more annually, but they feel worse. They’re not as happy as the rest of us who are willing to “settle.” The ordeal of making the choice, coupled with the potential for regret over the decision made, mitigated any pleasure they might have enjoyed from their increased spending power.
So what can help you Find Your Happiness? Here’s my recipe:
- Count Your Blessings -- Happiness operates in an upward spiral; it feeds on itself. People who keep track of the “good things” in their lives are healthier, more active, more productive -- and held in higher regard by others. That would make me happy, wouldn’t it you? So take note of what’s right in your life and see if things don’t change for the better. This book is filled with examples of people who say it has worked for them.
- Foster Connections -- There is no question it is the connections with others that bring richness to our lives. Strong social connections and shared experiences create the foundation on which happiness can thrive. Pick up the phone; e-mail an old friend.
- Know Yourself and Pursue Your Passion -- To “Find Your Happiness” you must first know what makes you happy. Perhaps the words of the German philosopher Goethe are helpful: As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live. Pull out your notebook and a pencil and try to answer these questions: What are your passions? What pastimes give you joy? What are you good at? What long-ago dreams have you put to pasture because they weren’t practical, were unrealistic, “could never happen?” Forget what all the naysayers may have said in the past. The answers you supply can help you plan a new journey and find your happiness. The joy is in the doing as much as it is the “done.”
- Keep Learning -- The day you stop growing is the day you start going. There is no question that people with goals and challenges find life more zestful than those content with the status quo. You’ll love the story of Jane Congdon, who gave up a career that had stopped making her happy, and at age sixty-six will have her first book published.
- Find Meaning -- People who have found meaning and purpose in their lives are happy. Period. You might find meaning by getting outside yourself in service of others as Shannon Anderson has with her “good deed a day.” You’ll read her story about how she first taught her family the benefits of doing good deeds, and then inspired her whole first grade classroom to do good deeds and keep a diary of them. The kids loved it! Ralph Waldo Emerson urged: Make yourself necessary to somebody. You lift yourself when you lift others. Perhaps you fail to see the meaning in your job or profession or maybe your job’s not right for you. Even hospital cleaners, at the bottom of the ladder in both pay and prestige, see their work as challenging and skilled when they are shown that their contributions are central to the hospital’s mission.
- Find Quiet -- The Chinese have a wonderful expression: Only the stillness can still. No matter how noisy and hectic it may be where you are, close your eyes for just this moment and imagine you are deep in a lush green forest, sitting on a moss-covered stone, listening to the distant sounds of water tumbling down a stream. Breathe. Sit. Forget about all the “stuff” in your life. Don’t worry about the jam-packed schedule. Just breathe. That small momentary exercise has likely left you feeling just a bit more in control, a bit less frazzled. Remember that butterfly called happiness won’t come and sit softly on your shoulder if you are rushing about madly.
The people who have shared their stories with you in this book have all found their happiness through variations of this “recipe.”
Betsy Franz knew only one way to live her life and that was at full speed. The way she described a trip to the grocery store, you almost wanted to warn the other shoppers to stay home. She flew around the corners on two wheels hurling her purchases into her cart. Then one day Betsy’s life coasted to a halt. Literally. She was so busy she forgot to check the gas gauge and she ran out of fuel on the way to an important meeting. Being the sensible woman that she is, Betsy did the obvious: She screams and pounds the steering wheel.
Then she stepped out of the car to flag down some help -- and saw something she hadn’t seen before on her morning commute: the sunrise. It was a glorious, awe-inspiring sight. She eventually made it to work with a lighter heart. Today Betsy Franz moves at a slower pace, one that allows her to be present, to notice the small things, and hear the small voice deep in her soul that had been muffled. She is happy.
Michelle Smyth found her happiness and an unexpected purpose when her son was diagnosed with autism. She became a mom on a mission, researching everything she could learn about autism, elated when she heard about a new therapy that held promise. She hit brick walls at every turn. “Too expensive.” “We don’t offer it here.” But this mom was not to be denied. Michelle cajoled her way into observing some training sessions, convinced a respected specialist in the field to coach her, and turned her basement into a therapy center, all so she could work with her little boy. His progress was incremental, but real. Small accomplishments were celebrated and more challenging tasks tackled.
Before long, other families struggling with autism heard of Michelle’s efforts and asked if she’d help their children. A support group was born that has since blossomed into a full-fledged autism center serving kids throughout her area. Michelle says she has “an indescribable joy,” excitement for the future, and happily believes she is fulfilling her destiny.
Jennifer Quasha thought her destiny was to be constantly depressed. She probably hadn’t heard that researchers believe that forty percent of our sense of happiness comes from our own activities. She’d had a difficult childhood, lost two friends in a car accident, survived a mugging at gunpoint and was brutally assaulted -- all before her mid-twenties. Depression ran in her family and she just assumed it was to be her lot too.
Then she decided to confront her depression. She’ll tell you all the things she’s done, including what she calls her “little secret.” It’s the small datebook in which each night she writes down the one thing that made her happiest that day. It’s working. As Jennifer puts it, “The spin on my life has changed. I actively seek the positive.”
Alexander Brokaw tried to see the positive in his college studies. He really tried. With two parents on Wall Street, he figured he was supposed to pursue a career in business, but his heart wasn’t in it. His books went unopened until just before finals, which he somehow squeaked through. On winter break his sophomore year, a friend got into a bar fight and Alex rushed to defend him. Two guys attacked him and Alex ended up in the emergency room, being examined for a concussion.
The CT scan revealed no concussion. It was worse. The scan had picked up a brain tumor. Alexander had to withdraw from school and undergo chemotherapy. During his forced break from school, he resumed a childhood pastime he’d discarded years before. He began playing pretend, conjuring up epics with adventures and storylines that he put on paper. When Alex recovered and went back to school, he switched from finance courses to a creative writing major. He says, “Being successful is doing what makes you happy. Life is too short and uncertain to do anything else.”
It is the uncertainty of life with which we begin our stories, with the incomparable wisdom of Angela Sayers. One of Angela’s greatest wishes was to be published as an author. In this book, she is. Sadly, it was one of Angela’s last wishes, as she had been battling osteosarcoma since she was fourteen. You’ll notice I said one of her “last” wishes, not her “dying” wishes, because as this very wise young lady put it: “I’m living. Every day.”
Angie wrote her story for this Chicken Soup for the Soul edition as she was nearing the end of her long cancer battle. She’d already lost one of her lower legs and most of her lungs to the disease, which doctors had just learned had spread to her brain. Yet twenty-year-old Angie had not an ounce of bitterness. Listen to her perspective:
“I’m still here. I’m still living. Life is precious, whether you have a straight road stretched before you as far as the eye can see, or whether, like most people, your road turns and bends into the undergrowth and you have no idea where it leads. Follow that bend, and your heart, no matter where it goes. Mine may go on, to places unmentionable, but everyone’s does, eventually.”
Angela Sayers’ journey ended on July 15th, 2011, as this book was being completed. She was only twenty. But while her body has gone, her incredible wisdom lives on. We start and end the book with Angie’s wisdom, including Story 1, in which she describes her happiness as she continues to live her shortened life, and Story 101, her final letter to family and friends, which her family found after she died. Turn the page to see the gift that Angie left you in her inspirational stories and ninety-nine others that show you how to find your happiness.
With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
It seems that when something awful happens to me, my mind just shuts down. These things change the way I think for a period of time after they happen. Somehow, I find a way to keep it all together by reverting to my “one day at a time” motto, but really, inside, I’m freaking out. Sometimes I’m freaking out and I don’t even realize it yet. I’ve discovered lately that moving on from those difficult times really is a process.
These days, I am in the final stages of my long battle with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, which made its appearance when I was fourteen years old, claimed one of my lower legs and a lung along the way, and recently spread to my brain. The doctors found three or four new tumors in my brain. This news was a terrible blow since it meant two huge things. It meant that one, along with the nodules that I already had in my single lung, the Thalidomide I have been trying isn’t doing a single thing for me. And secondly it officially marked me as terminal. The doctors told us that they thought I probably had less than a month to live.
It has now been longer than a month, and I am still here and still feeling well. Nothing has truly changed about my situation. I am still taking medication for the headaches, and sometimes my breathing is a lot more strained than it used to be. Although I do have a cold, which could be part of it, it’s most likely that the cancer is progressing. There is nothing in my situation that has changed. I know that I probably won’t make it, still. But there is something different now about the way I look at things. I feel different. I feel inspired! I feel invigorated! I don’t feel like I’m just sitting around waiting to die anymore. I feel infused with life. There’s a reason I have already beaten the odds. There’s a reason it’s not time yet.
I don’t know what came first -- the changes to my daily routine, or the changes to my perspective. But somehow they’re working together to be just what I needed. During the past week or so we’ve been making small changes to my medications since I’ve been doing so well. The first thing we did was drop the nausea medicine I’d been taking on a schedule with the pain medication. It turns out that I don’t really need it at all, since I haven’t had any nausea since. We also started weaning me off the steroid I’d been taking to control swelling, which makes me eat everything in sight and makes me swell up like a balloon. Somehow, and the only thing I can think to attribute it to, is that by getting rid of those two medications, I am feeling a little more like myself. I haven’t had to take a nap in ages! My eyes, which had been blurry and unfocused, are doing so well that I finished a book that I was reading... on my Kindle! My computer screen no longer tries to flip letters around. But that’s not all -- a few days ago Mom convinced me to put my prosthetic leg on for a while. It didn’t take too much cajoling, since it was something I’d been meaning to try since I have been feeling better. It doesn’t quite fit right because I haven’t worn it in a month. Right now because I haven’t been wearing it, I have no leg muscle to even hardly hold it up. But I can kind of walk on it, with my crutches, and I have hope and faith that before long I’ll be able to use it again for a short time. :)
I’m not sure where it came from, this sudden epiphany I’ve had. But something inside me has clicked. It reminds me of a story my pastor told me when he came by for a visit, about a man who was pronounced terminal. Another person asked him, “What are you doing right now?” And the man who was dying answered, “Well I’m terminal, I’m dying.” The first man either asked him again what he was doing right now or informed him somehow that he was wrong. The man who was terminal wasn’t dying just then, just at that moment he was living. And as long as he was breathing he would be living. That’s the epiphany I’ve had. Right now, regardless of the things to come, I’m living! I’m not sitting around waiting to die. My entire perspective has changed. I’m alive right now. I’m living.
So, today I leave you with this message, one that I can hardly believe that I went this far without. Cherish every single day. It is one of those things that is easier said than done. The way that something feels is all about perspective. Sometimes our hearts don’t need a miracle. Sometimes there just aren’t any miracles and the world around us feels like there can never be any happiness in it again. I know how that feels. I have had some dark days these last few months. I won’t lie. It’s difficult to know that eventually I won’t feel good. It’s hard to know that essentially I’m just sitting around waiting for the cancer to progress.
I can’t think like that anymore. I have to think about the things that I can do. The life that I can live. I may not be able to go on the ski trip this month, but I’m still doing better than expected. I’m still here. I’m still living. Life is precious, whether you have a straight road stretched before you as far as the eye can see, or whether, like most people, your road turns and bends into the undergrowth and you have no idea where it leads. Follow that bend, and your heart, no matter where it goes. Mine may go on, to places unmentionable, but everyone’s does, eventually. All roads lead to the same bend, and although we can’t see around the corner, I know there are people who have gone before me that will help me when I get there. But for now, I’m not there yet. Today I’m living, and my heart sings with joy for the days that follow.
For anyone going through a difficult time, I want to pass on the list of ten steps that I composed. These steps have helped me move forward in the past. I’m not a professional and I have no claim to fame, but these steps have helped me and I want to share them with other people. Here are my Ten Steps to Moving Forward:
1. Cry, Yell, and Grieve: The first step can make you feel like you are taking a few steps back, but it is necessary. I think when something happens that reroutes your entire life and the direction you were going previously, it is normal to grieve and be sad. Because I believe that whenever you go through a difficult time, it changes you. It changes the way you think and perceive things, and the first step to acceptance of the new reality, whatever it is, is to mourn the past and the person you used to be. So, let yourself grieve for as long as you need to, and when you’re able, you’ll find the next step.
2. Talk When You’re Ready: Sometimes you feel like talking things through and sometimes you don’t. When you’re ready to talk, find someone who you can talk to as an equal and whose opinion you value, and pour your heart out. Sometimes, just having someone who cares and who is there for you, no matter what, gives you the boost you need, to move on from the first step (even though you may feel still the need to grieve from time to time).
3. Escape When You Need To: but not too often. Sometimes life just takes a dump on you, and your heart and mind are too full to process things in a healthy way. In these moments, escape is essential; watch a TV show or movie, read a book, or veg out on the Internet. Take a break from the things that are weighing you down, and come back to them later with a fresh outlook. But I caution you on escaping too often, because escaping never makes your problems go away, and you always have to deal with them eventually.
4. Start Small: If the big things are too overwhelming at any given moment, start small. Instead of worrying about a huge appointment next week that you’re afraid might hold bad news (perhaps similar to where you just were) try to focus on smaller more attainable goals. Rather than brooding about the appointment, focus on your exercises, your chores, or even your homework assignments. You’ll get there in the same amount of time, whether or not you worry about it.
5. Find Your Muse: Your muse is the source of your inspiration. Find the thing, or things, that inspire you the most, and absorb them into your world. These could be anything. For some, it could be their children, others music or nature, and for people like me, poetry or literature.
6. Reach Out: Interaction is an important thing in any person’s life. Reaching out doesn’t necessarily mean telling everyone about your struggles, rather it means finding people you enjoy, and spending time with them. It can mean laughing and teasing each other, but it also means support. Maybe not support like that of step two, but support that lets you know that they care and that they’re thinking of you. This kind of support is a bulwark that can bolster you through any storm. These are the people who know how to cheer you on, when you’re going through a hard time.
7. Channel Your Nervous Energy: Often you may find yourself stressing out and worrying. The best way to prevent this is to throw yourself headlong into another project, albeit a more relaxing one. For me, this usually means writing, scrapbooking, or artwork of some kind. I actually find that some of my best poetry is written when I’m trying not to freak out.
8. Help Someone Else: Helping someone else is actually a great way to help you deal with tough things that are going on your own life. It may sound selfish, in an ironic way. But not only does helping someone through their problems distract you, it also fills you with a pleasant satisfaction. Plain and simple; it feels good to help someone else out.
9. Focus on the Good Things: If you go through life with a “woe is me” attitude, things can seem harder than they really are. Granted, I’m finding that optimism comes more easily to me than most, but I cannot help but feel that some optimism is imperative to dealing with any situation. By focusing on the good things in your life, you can muster up enough strength to hope. And I believe that hope is ultimately what allows you to move on.
10. Take One Day At a Time: We spend so much time worrying about things that are far in the future, that we miss the things that are happening in the moment. Even if the moment you are in seems difficult, and there are things on the horizon that seem even more difficult, it is important to focus on the moment you are in. We can’t worry about things that haven’t happened yet, or that may or may not happen. If you must worry, worry about the day you are in, and worry about tomorrow, well, tomorrow. But remember also, no matter what you’re going through, that you will get through. No matter how hard it seems in that moment, or how bleak the future looks, time will move you forward against your will. Eventually you’ll find that things don’t seem as hard, or hurt as bad, and life will take on a new routine. And you’ll be okay. Or... at least that’s the way it’s been for me.
A Final Word
Editor’s note: Angela Sayers died on July 15, 2011 as this book was being completed. She had already edited the story “My Epiphany” that appears first in this book and she was thrilled that it was going to be published.
Angie lived half a year longer than the doctors predicted and was active and involved right up to the end. She left a final letter that her parents found after she died. It was an extraordinary gift for her family, friends, and fans.
We were lucky to have Angie on our writing team and we are honored to publish this final letter from her. Angie embodied the spirit of “happiness” right to the end, always looking at the bright side, being grateful, and thinking positively.
Dear Friends and Family,
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve written this letter in my head and across my heart. I both want and feel like I should bestow some great wisdom upon you, and tell you all kinds of great and amazing things. I want to comfort you too, and tell you that everything will be alright. And it will be; you’re not there yet.
Even though I would like to wipe away every one of your tears, come back and hug you one last time, I can’t. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry for leaving you. I won’t begrudge you your tears. Not now. After all, I would cry and hurt and shed tears for you too, if the situation were reversed. No, I understand all too well how time and life plays tricks on us in the moments of our deepest sorrows. So, I want you to cry and hurt and yell and scream if you need to.
But I don’t want you to cry forever. I want you to turn around when you’re ready and seize life with all you’ve got. I want you to remember, if anything, for my sake, that life goes on and you’re a precious part of it. I take comfort in the fact that even though I’m gone, each of you is not, and that I will always continue to live in your memories and in your hearts, because I will never have truly left you.
I’m there when you breathe in a sweet drop of spring air. I am the splash of a raindrop across your window. Whenever you think of me and are reminded of the way I lived -- I will be there with you. Hold me and your memories of me close to your heart. But never forget to live, laugh, and move on. Mourn me gently and deeply but then dry your eyes, take a deep breath, and live. Live, cherish, and love.
In my mind’s eye I envision myself up in Heaven as this is being read. Perhaps, it is only in my imagination but I am dangling my legs, yes legs, off a silver-lined cloud looking down upon you. I’m sorry for your tears, sorry that I left you. But as I sit there, encompassed in white, I remember that every cloud has a silver lining and mine does too.
This image of me is so very clear. It is a healthy me. That’s the silver lining. The version of me sitting upon that cloud not only has two legs, but is skinny, blond, and rosy-cheeked -- the picture of health.
I am healthy in this new body, no longer chained to a body that has been abused beyond recognition and belief. The irony is that the Angie upon a cloud is the answer to every prayer that has been spoken in my name over the past five years. We prayed for healing over and over again and I am healed! God has granted me health, on his terms, in His time, and using His method. He may not have answered our prayers in the way we expected, or perhaps wanted. But I still cannot deny the fact that now, the moment you are reading this, I am healthy. I am okay.
You might be wondering how I can be so optimistic all of the time. People do ask me that a lot. I’m not optimistic all of the time. I have my dark days. But I am also, you see, exceedingly fortunate in all other things in life. I have a wonderful family, amazing friends, and a faith in a God that is bigger than the cancer in me. Optimism and perspective are nearly the same thing.
Sometimes life just needs a new perspective and to be optimistic you must teach yourself to see the good in every situation. I choose to envision myself as being fairly healthy at the moment. But when I think of it, I could pull out a host of complaints, of what hurts, my fears about what is growing where, and a million other incessant complaints that sometimes worm their way into my thoughts.
I think believing in the best is the only way that I could bear this journey. It is the only way I could ever stand to leave. The only way that I can deal with the challenges of these living moments is to believe with all of my heart that the dying moments will bring me the peace and happiness that I’ve always yearned for. It comforts me to know that eventually I will no longer be stuck in this body of mine. I hope, with all of my heart that this comforts you too. My heart and my soul are now free and that is the miracle we’ve been wanting all along.
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