“I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition.” -Martha Washington
If nothing else, working with people addicted to heroin has given me the opportunity to hear first-hand some of the most difficult life circumstances imaginable. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t listen to their life stories and wonder how I would have handled the situations they found themselves in. They have experienced trauma, abuse, isolation, abandonment, betrayal, homelessness, illness and much more, yet have found ways to cope with these circumstances. They have all survived physically, but many seem to struggle emotionally. Working on their recovery and starting to imagine what life can be like without the very substance that got them through, is sometimes a daunting task. To talk about what would make them happy is often not received well, as they argue that they can’t be happy because of the circumstances they are living in. When I offer an alternative that they can choose to be happy despite their circumstances, I am often met with resistance and told that I just don’t understand how bad their situation is, which justifies to them why they can’t be happy.
Realizing that we have the power to choose our emotional state despite our circumstances is a big jump for many people and it took me a long time to truly believe this for myself. We are taught early on that we need things to be happy and we need approval to be happy and we need to be good to be happy. We have been taught that happiness is contingent on getting what we want and we will be happy when we get the house, car, promotion, bills paid off… fill in the blank. We have learned to future-ize our happiness and honestly when we get what we said we wanted we may be happy for a moment until we have the next goal to work towards. Life becomes a big game of getting things, avoiding things and forcing events to happen just as we planned in order to make us happy. We can only be happy when the outer things are in alignment with what we say we want. When things are out of alignment we are frustrated, angry or depressed. The big question I ask my clients is ‘Is it true that you need that to make you happy?’ While most people’s initial reaction is a resounding ‘YES!,’ we talk about it some more and dig deeper into what the truth is. While it is true they may prefer to have different circumstances we discuss how the circumstances themselves do not create their emotion. It is their thinking about the circumstances that creates the emotion. We are free in this moment to choose our thoughts. We can choose to think about things that have made us happy, to be grateful for what we have been able to experience, to give thanks for the life we currently have. We give thanks to the body that is breathing without a machine, to the legs that walk without devices to the hands that are able to grasp objects, to the mind that is able to think, for the family members who have supported them, for the shelter that provides protection, for the food that nourishes them. Once they truly begin to feel happy and grateful for what they have, there is a moment where they do realize that it is within their power to choose to be happy right now, despite their circumstances. If they can do it for a minute in the office, what is stopping them from doing it at home? Once they truly get that the outer circumstances don’t have the power to determine their happiness, they are free to be happy despite their circumstances. This is a liberating realization!