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‘Happiness is not something that happens to you. It’s something you have to choose, everyday’

25th Jan 2021

Remind yourself that happiness isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you initiate, writes Emer O’Reilly-Hyland 

was reading an article about Oprah’s latest book, The Path Made Clear, in which she argues that having purpose is the key to happiness. Nothing to argue with there, I thought, from the Queen of Self-Help. My eye moved to the sidebar – Oprah’s celebrity pals were giving their purpose in life with a lot of wordy self-help speak: “honouring your own life” (Elizabeth Gilbert), and a particularly rambling, “if you’re full of love, if you come from being and then feeling and then self-reflection…”  (Deepak Chopra). Now, I’m all for whatever gets you through, but, well, too Deep.

Then came Goldie Hawn, Private Benjamin herself, still blonde and smiley at 73. Goldie’s golden nugget of reflection was, “At 11 years old, I made a definitive decision… that above and beyond anything I ever did in my life, I wanted to be happy… That’s a better intention than a white picket fence.” And something made me smile. You see, Goldie, good-natured Goldie, had voiced what I have long since believed, that happiness is a choice, not a state. Happiness is not something that happens to you or can be given to you by someone else. Happiness is something you have to choose, every day. Nail that, and you’ll get through most days – well, like Goldie, good-natured and smiley.

But some people are born with a sunny disposition and a charmed life, you say; people like Goldie with her successful acting career and her gorgeous partner, Kurt Russell, a combination of Wyatt Earp and Santa Claus rolled into one. But even Hollywood’s happiness guru must have a bad day. Maybe she got passed over for First Wives Club 2, or Kurt got cast opposite a woman a third of her age, or maybe it was just that her bamboo yoga gear shrank in the wash. Either way, Goldie is the embodiment of happiness as intention, and, though I never thought I’d say this, I’m adding Goldie to my list of happiness-inspiring heroes.

You see, sometimes, when I’m stuck in my own personal drama of stress or anger or frustration or fear, or when I’m beating myself up for just not being good enough, when happiness is too big an ask,I draw on my private stash of happy heroes, people who triumph despite adversity. I keep them on my mental list and call them up whenever I’m wimping out or feeling down.


The reality of choosing happiness

Take my fabulous friend Jane. She’s really smart and so good at her work that organisations pay her fortunes to share her secrets at large ticketed events. Pre-COVID, she invited me to come along to such an event at The Convention Centre Dublin. One look at the massive escalators and I’d have run, but big is best for Jane. So there we all were, about 200 of us, waiting as our host introduced Jane. But the host was ashen-faced. The PowerPoint technology had a glitch, and three bespectacled techies were glum-faced, plugging and un-plugging leads. Jane stood in the shadows; what would she do, I wondered, without her armour? Call it off? Cause a strop? Be apologetic and soldier on?

But no, she sauntered on stage, never mentioned the cock-up, and proceeded to charm her audience with stories while imparting wise learnings. Afterwards, as the crowd of men and women gathered round her in adulation, she smiled and chatted. At one point, Fleabag-like, she caught my eye, broke the fourth wall and mouthed, “What a clusterfuck”. In that little aside, I knew Jane had made her own choice, not to ruin her or her audience’s or the organiser’s day. Perhaps she has her own heroes list and she, Daenerys-like, had called on her dragons of confidence, charm and life-experience to save the day. In other words, she chose to make everyone happy, and in so doing, she was happy herself.

Another friend, Kate, went to Antibes on holiday after having IVF treatment, only to find out that it hadn’t worked. It was the last roll of the dice for her; now, she’d never be a mum. To add insult to injury, as soon as she got back to her hotel suite, she noticed a WhatsApp from an old fellow dinner club member, someone she had long lost touch with, announcing to the group that she was “expecting” and would be trading in her Ottolenghi for Annabel Karmel. Kate wanted to puke at the smugness of it, then rage at the unfairness. She spent the remainder of the holiday in her hotel room while her husband tried to tell her, as he had always done, that it would be fine if it was just the two of them.

Not for Kate. But time passed, and she realised her grief and her singular aim of having a family was killing her and her husband. She had to imagine another life. She took a deep breath, channelled her own inner heroine, and she stopped clinging to the mummy-dream. She filled in her application for the therapy course she had always wanted to do. In so doing, she chose happiness. There was one other thing she did, she admitted to me much later. She examined her friendships, decided who made her feel good and who made her feel like a failed mother. Anyone who wore the badge of busy motherhood too proudly and too volubly had served their purpose.

In short, Marie Kondo-like, she asked herself, “Who sparks joy?”, and culled those who didn’t.


Happiness big or small

I too have had my choose-happiness moments. When my father died and that wave of grief seemed overwhelming, someone said to me, “My God, it’s the worst thing of all, especially for a girl, when her dad dies.” She was kindness itself, but something made me pause and wonder, was it really the worst thing? I was a middle-aged woman with a family of my own, whose father died at the age of 87. I have a lifetime of happy memories with a lovely, gentle man, and that’s what I hold onto. There are worse things – to suffer terminal illness or depression, to have a dead or missing child. I thought of them. I thought of Kate too; if she can do it, so can I. I took a deep breath, wiped my tears, and chose happiness.

Happiness is a choice on smaller daily concerns too. When I have a deadline looming and am in full deferral mode, beating myself up for leaving it until the last minute, I cast about for an inspiring hero. Jessica Fletcher does the trick. Ridiculous, I know, but it’s Jessica’s light touch I’m after; her practical, get-on-with-it persona, and she’s always on her typewriter banging out yet another Murder She Wrote bestseller. A quick mental intake of JF and I’m banging out an oeuvre of my own with a no-nonsense attitude and a deadline aced.

This is serious stuff, this happiness lark. It requires strength and bravery and not everyone makes that choice. We all know them. They have everything in life and treat it as nothing. The glass is always half-empty. They’re caught up in a soap opera all of their own making, and they’re playing Scarlett O’Hara for all they’re worth. That’s the easy route – the cowardly one. In your own private war against negative demons, you need your own list. The great thing is, you only have to call them up mentally. After all, they’re all you.

My husband, Mr O’Highly-Lightly, who himself believes in laughing at least once a day, said to me recently, “You’re a happy ol’ thing, aren’t you?” I was surprised. I hadn’t realised my choices really had added up to an overall happiness. Then he added, “It’s your nature.” I inwardly punched the air – success! It’s not nature, it is the nurture of happiness as a conscious choice, and I for one am making it every day. I’ll add Goldie to my ever-changing list of inner heroes, but their voices, ultimately, are mine. And yes, the husband is on the list.


This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of IMAGE Magazine. Featured image: Jonas Verstuyft on Unsplash

Read more: Why happy childhood memories are good for your health

Read more: Feeling blue? Five ways to be happy according to the experts

Read more: I lost three stone in weight but I still wasn’t happy

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