So, the thing is... Charlie Brown isn't Happy.
You know, it seems to me that people seem to fall into one of two camps: Happy People and Not Happy People. I am fascinated by Happy People. People who are just... well... HAPPY at their core. No matter what bad things they've been through, they remain intact, as does their fundamental essence of happiness.
This is not to be confused with optimism. It's not the same as contentment or serenity. It's not the same as "perky" or "cheerful." It's not an external thing at all. Some Happy people I know are fairly quiet.
And people who aren't Happy aren't necessarily UNhappy. It's more like people are either Happy or they're OTHER. I know lots of people who are happy in their lives but they're not Happy people --they don't have happiness as their fundamental core. I was talking to my husband about this and we found that we couldn't quite put our fingers on what made a person Happy or Not Happy but we totally agreed on who was and who wasn't. For example, Paul McCartney --Happy. John Lennon --Not Happy. Mick Jagger --Happy. Keith Richards --who can tell?
This is a subject I've thought about, because I'm not Happy. Oh, don't get me wrong --this is the most wonderful time of my life so far. I still marvel at finding myself HERE: very happily married with these great kids and a budget that includes the occasional trip to Half-Price Books. There are days when I am EUPHORIC but I'm not Happy. I know I'm not Happy, because after carefully considering it, my husband said, "I think the jury is still out on whether or not YOU'RE Happy." Well, I know what that means. If the jury is still out, you're probably not Happy. I mean, our friend Keith is Happy. We all know it. No jury needed.
My husband is Happy. I've seen him go through some tough times but nothing really touches that fundamental core. He thinks the difference between Happy people and Not Happy people is that Happy people don't have anything eating at them. He feels regret but it doesn't haunt him. He gets bummed out and he lets himself really feel every bit of it but then it's OVER. I, on the other hand, spend weeks (years) after a sad/embarrassing/unjust turn of events replaying the scene and regretting that I didn't do something differently.
I was talking to my friend Linda about the Happy/Other Theory and she stopped in her tracks and said, "So, you think a person is either innately Happy or not, right?"
"And if a person is NOT a Happy person, there's nothing he or she can do to BECOME one?"
"Well, I don't think so. I think it's like freckles -you either have them or you don't."
"You are depressing me to no end!"
See, Linda and I are both moms and like most moms, our number one goal is to raise well-adjusted, happy children. And we both have children for whom the jury --ahem-- is still out. But I don't think that wanting our kids to be happy is unattainable just because they weren't born Happy. I mean, so I'm not Happy. But I am really happy in my life. I think those of us who are Other just have to work harder to stay in the present, to let things go, to keep our senses of humor when we're surrounded by idiots.
I think the key to raising happy kids who turn into happy adults is to give those who aren't Happy as many tools as we can to foster resilience. Because into each life a little rain must fall. It's how we teach our kids to deal with the monsoons that will determine their happiness quotient. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "It's hard to fight an enemy with outposts in your head." And I couldn't agree more. I think the key to finding happiness and resilience is to make sure your brain isn't sending you messages of inferiority or limitation that undermine your happiness. My oldest daughter Ana (4) is a child who lives in her brain --a deep thinker and a deeply sensitive soul and she's probably an Other. Her sister Jane (20 months) is Happy. No jury needed.
So Jane is going to have it easier staying happy than Ana will. That doesn't mean that Ana is doomed to a life of lithium and in-patient stays at the local psychiatric hospital. The way I see it, some people are just born with a little added talent for happiness, much the way some people are born with a talent for art or sports. And the thing is... if you have a child who doesn't have a gift for math, you put a little extra energy behind helping that child, right? Wouldn't you do the same for a child who is Happiness-challenged?
What I try to do is to monitor the messages that Ana puts in her brain. I make sure she's getting wholesome fare in her television shows and her music and the stories we read. I try to encourage her in new endeavors because I think this builds confidence. And when something bad happens or she gets sad or she withdraws into her head, I make sure the words out of my mouth and my corresponding actions all reinforce the messages that she is loved. That we CARE. That we will help her as much as we can and when we can't, we'll sit beside her and feel grief right along with her. We role-play different things she might say when someone is mean to her, or different ways she might react if she gets embarrassed. I'm don't know if it's helping but it sure can't be hurting.
I DO know that we parents can stop beating ourselves up because our children aren't Happy. It's not because of anything we did wrong or because we worried too much or fussed over them too much. It's just the way some kids are wired. And in the end, it comes down to how we help them meet their own particular challenges --in the tools we give them, in the love we show them, in our consistency as their biggest fans and supporters. And I think we can learn a lot from those people, like Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, who said, "My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I'm happy. I can't figure it out. What am doing right?" He accepted his happiness as a gift to be shared. Just look at how he spread smiles to millions of people!
Schulz also once said, "Happiness is a warm puppy."
Might not be the answer for all of us but it sure worked for Charlie Brown.
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(c) Barbara Cooper 2002
Barbara Cooper is the mother of Ana (4) and Jane (20 months). She lives in Austin, Texas and her children think they'd be MUCH happier with a new warm puppy.