Once upon a time, between the years of 2013 & 2019, I heard a piece (probably on NPR) about the effects our life-narrative has on our happiness. The study said that individuals who shed light on the positives derived from challenging situations were significantly happier than those who didn't. It makes sense right?
Take the 53-year-old woman I met at the discount store the other day. After a brief introduction, she proceeded to tell me of her divorce from her German Engineer ex-husband.
"I'm so grateful, even though it was 30 years of hell
because now I get to bake these sugar cookies for my
The woman began to wave a rolling-pin in my face,
she continued, referring to the rolling pin,
"is a FIND. These are like $20 online and here it's only $11.
E-LEV-EN. Can you BELIEVE that?!"
I nodded and smiled, a genuine smile. This woman was no Pollyanna, this woman was an optimist.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, the role our narratives play in our happiness. It was William S. Burroughs who said, "language is a virus." Without diving too deep, I'll say that I agree. I think language can be an insidious dictator of human emotion as I suspect our brains are more susceptible to influence than we like to acknowledge.
2020 hasn't really been a piece of Marie Antoinette's cake, either. It's been more like a flaming pile of Satan cakes (off-brand Little Debbie's). Along with the pandemic, in my own life, I've faced unemployment, the end of an engagement, heartache, moving cross country, financial instability, health concerns, the crumbling of my social network and most recently an automobile accident. That's a whole heck of a lot to process and if I were to focus on the events and negative feelings associated with them, I'd be a short skip away from a performance art collaboration by Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath and Radiohead's Thom Yorke.
I won't pretend that this year hasn't been painful, that I haven't found myself crying in the Walmart parking lot to Led Zeppelin or developed an unhealthy relationship with an abandoned lot (lots of trash, many birds). I've acted like a teenager in moments, lying at 2am in my front lawn during a snowstorm wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt because I was "sick of the suburbs" and needed to act out in some form of protest because "no one understannnnnnds".
No, I've been overly indulgent in my own pain at times and felt sorry for myself in moments when I should have been "doing." But hey, I'm human and that's all okay. Because the biggest takeaway has been that I wouldn't change the last year for anything (mostly, for other people's sake I would but I think you get what I'm trying to say here).
2020 and on has reinforced a skill that I've been able to translate into my code and the way in which I code. In learning how to sit through pain, I've found my frustration tolerance has significantly increased. What might have sent me fuming from my desk in the past or to chain smoking in an excavator (back when I had an excavator and smoked cigarettes) now seems only a minor nuisance. This year has given me a new perspective, forced me to redefine progress, trust in myself, learn how to be a better friend, and all of sorts of beautiful gifts that I already feel make me a kinder human-being and a better computer engineer.
I don't want to comment on the experience of anybody else, I acknowledge both my privilege and luck. I know that the divorcee at the discount store was probably in a lot more pain than she let on. I don't want to say to ignore the pain because that's unhealthy. I just want to say that after the storm passes, there might be a way to tap into an endless supply of happiness boosters that are stored in the web of one's own narrative.
However, if someone says to you while you are weathering the storm, "look on the bright side," (or anything similar) and you have that urge to dump their lunch onto the floor, that's fair. Unsolicited advice during a hard time is like waking up next to a Teletubby every morning and hearing it giggle behind you as you zombie your way to the Keurig.
Feel it. Re-frame it. Weave your technicolor narrative.