am not a total downer. At least I don’t think I am. But if I had to choose between categories — intrinsically positive or negative — I’d have to pick the latter. My slightly skewed point of view is like the cowlick on the right side of my hairline: I’ve always had it.
I actually like my less-than-positive slant on things (unlike my less-than-strong chin). I think of it as a critical eye that’s helped me develop my sense of humor and my voice.
While I admire positive people, perky ones work on my nerves. But I don’t think we should pick on them — at least not in public forums (for the love of Christ can we please leave Anne Hathaway alone). They (and she) can’t help that they were born with a syrupy spin on this wacky ride we call life.
As for me, I’ve been on a quest for contentment for much of my life. And it’s been a struggle. I believe most intelligent people struggle with happiness. (Now I’m being negative and uppity, which could be construed as positive).
In recent years, psychology’s study of depression has shifted and there’s been a lot of research done on the idea of happiness. If you haven’t seen “This Emotional Life,” a three-part PBS series by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, or Roko Belic’s documentary “Happy,” you should.
They got my neurons firing. And got me revved up about my own pursuit of happiness. For about four weeks — during which time I forgot to make the deliberate choice to be happy. Because that’s the way I’m wired.
Both Gilbert and Belic suggest human nature and happiness are often in conflict. That anxiety, depression and isolation can prevent contentment, but that social connections, experiences and resilience can ultimately permit you to choose happiness.
“Self,” I asked myself, “why did you not choose Happiness?”
I also asked my shrink. She told I was impeded by a personality profile that laid down unrelenting standards and a need to punish myself. That’s why I pay her the big bucks.
But wait, I’m not a total wreck. I have known times of happiness.
Meeting my husband made me deliriously happy. I felt like I’d won the love lottery. But even in the midst of being mad for him I remember thinking, “Chemically, this ride will last 30 months max. Eventually, I won’t feel in love.” Even during the most exhilarating part of our relationship, I waited to fall from my peak and sink (inevitably) into a joyless valley.
Having my children also made me swim in serotonin. The love I felt for them was incomparable. It was visceral and unexpected. Being a parent made me fulfilled, connected, and content. But that happiness was soon overshadowed by the fear and sadness I felt when we had to struggle with my firstborn’s neurological damage. Peaks and valleys again.
I mention this now because, until recently, even with flu, head lice and winter cooties of every kind, I’ve never known the joy and happiness that I’m experiencing this year.
No joke. I am dripping with happiness from head to toe.
I don’t want to set off gag reflexes, but I’ve never felt more loved or more loving. Or more content. I regularly burst into joyful tears just watching my children play and pummel each another. I well up watching my older son swing in the park and talk smack about his Nintendo or Wii. I swell with joy when my smaller one sings in Italian and reads in English. And I still feel like my husband is a major prize.
All the newfound emotion got me thinking. Was I perimenopausal, I wondered? Or maybe affected by steroids I’m taking? Or was I just wired in a wacky way?
What I came to realize was this: For me to enjoy the peaks of parenting I had to first experience the depths — in my case a child born too soon who has struggled with stunted development. Without that downside I would never be in this place, with the view I have now. The sadness I endured served as a contrast that has led me to enjoy my family in a way that I probably never could have or would have.
So, thank you, abysmal valley, for showing me the way to this paramount moment in parenting.
Maybe I didn’t “choose” happiness this time. Maybe it chose me.