At a creativity retreat a few years ago, my friend Bronwyn grabbed her guitar and said, “Ginny, this should be your song.” She then began serenading us with Donovan’s song, Happiness Runs. Bronwyn was onto something. The song’s chorus repeatedly asserts that “happiness runs in a circular motion”. The more I learn about happiness, the more I appreciate its circular nature.

The symbiotic relationship between personal well-being and a Gross National Happiness paradigm is a great example of the circular nature of happiness, though I’m pretty sure Donovan didn’t have that in mind in the 1960s. I also suspect that Donovan wasn’t talking about the interdependence of happiness and sadness, though that connection is also necessary for good emotional health.

The circular motion between happiness and sadness is one that I’ve spent some time with lately. A little over a year ago, I developed troubling symptoms in my left eye – flashing, and a black spot, called a floater. Oh, yes, and just a wee bit of haemorrhaging behind the left retina. My optometrist sent me immediately to a retinal specialist.

There, on a gorgeous Friday afternoon in June, I learned that my vision was threatened by “retinal neovascularization” – bleeding behind the retina. I had already suffered some permanent loss of vision and would, without treatment, go blind in that eye within a matter of months. Doctor Kim told me I urgently needed to begin painful eye injections, starting the following Monday morning.

I was in shock. Permanent vision loss? Almost blind? Painful eye injections? What if the medicine didn’t work? What if my right eye developed the same condition?

Over that long weekend, I unwittingly made the perfect happiness choice: I gave myself permission to dwell in sadness. To cry. To grieve. To acknowledge my mortality and fears about my very breakable body. I cocooned. I didn’t want to be near anybody but my husband.

Fortunately, I rebounded pretty quickly, within the week. It helped that the eye injections weren’t that painful, and that the doctor was reassuring about both my eyes and the efficacy of the medicine. It also helped that I’ve been building my happiness muscles for years now, and was better able to see many silver linings. Amazingly, the medicine is only ten years old. Before that, patients just went blind-so how lucky am I? Further, the symptoms that sent me to the optometrist were unrelated to the neovascularization. I am very fortunate that my vision loss was caught before it got any worse. Plus, I had health insurance. Can you imagine how much a retinal specialist costs? And brand new vision-saving drugs? Thank goodness I didn’t have to go bankrupt to save my sight.

During this scary time, I posted a blog about my challenge and received a virtual outpouring of love and support from friends online. This filled my heart with joy.

06 Direction - Hope Is Being Able

“Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”

~Jon Kabat-Zinn

Whether you’ve tried mindfulness before, or considering trying it for the first time, begin with short, simple exercises. Start with some everyday mindfulness – being conscious of your day to day activities. Then try the short guided mindfulness meditation at the end of this blog post. There are many 3 minute guided audio exercises to get you going available online too. And try the longer meditations when you’re ready to dive in – but no rush.

There are many misconceptions about mindfulness. They can lead to unnecessary struggles. Mindfulness is not trying to relax. It’s not about thinking positively. And it’s not about making your mind blank. Then what is? It’s about simply being present with what is. Being open to your moment to moment experience with acceptance, kindness and curiosity. No silent mind required. So you can do it, and you can bring your crazy mind along with you – it’s very welcome. You can be mindful in this way right now, and you can also do mindful meditations to deepen that experience.

Finally, I gained a valuable insight: happiness and sadness run in a circular motion. Paradoxically, happiness gave me the strength to grieve. Since I know what happiness feels like, and what I need to do to coax it back, I didn’t need to short-change the crying.

It works the other way around, too-that is, those who embrace the reality of suffering are better equipped to feel happy. We can’t turn off the sad without also turning off the happy. As Golda Meir put it, “Those who do not know how to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.”

In Bhutan, where Gross National Happiness was born, they honor this belief in national policy. On a return trip to this happy country, Geography of Bliss author Eric Weiner found that the residents are encouraged to think about death five times a day. That may be more than most Americans could handle. Nonetheless, I say, let’s all have a good cry now and then. We’ll laugh more later.

The circular relationship between sadness and happiness nicely illustrates that being your happiest self does not equate to a lifetime of sunny skies and smooth sailing. We are inescapably human, and fated to experience stormy seas. Trying to be happy when you really need to feel sad is a recipe for disappointment. That disappointment could feel like failure, thus creating deeper unhappiness. Not good.

The last thing I want to do is make anyone feel unhappy for not feeling happier! What I do want to do is share some of the why’s and how’s of cultivating happiness so you can recover more quickly from pain and live your best, most flourishing life.

What, then, is happiness? Because happiness is so personal, we all have different ideas of what it means. I think of happiness as contentment and peace of mind, with an enhanced capacity for joy, laughter, and other positive emotions. Researchers in the positive psychology field have used flourishing, thriving and positivity as synonyms.

If happiness is a word that discomforts you, I invite you to translate what I’m saying to one of those words, or perhaps well-being. It isn’t the word that matters, it’s the concept.

I definitely like the word happiness. Aristotle wrote: “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” The whole aim and end of human existence. I think that’s pretty good. I’ll stick with happiness.

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About The Author

Ginny Sassaman, M.S., C.I.P.P. is a happiness advocate, lay preacher and author of a new book Preaching Happiness: Creating a Just and Joyful World (Rootstock Publishing, 2020). Ginny is also a co-founder and past president of Gross National Happiness USA.

“Happiness Runs in a Circular Motion” is an excerpt from Chapter 2 in Preaching Happiness: Creating a Just and Joyful World and is reprinted with permission of the author.


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