On Optimism & Happiness

May 11, 2009 by Luann Robinson Hull
“The desire for happiness is essential to man. It is the motivator of all our acts. The most venerable, clearly understood, enlightened, and reliable constant in the world, is not only do we want to be happy, but that we want only to be so.” ~ Matthieu Ricard, author of “Happiness

Dear Friends,

I recently had the pleasure of viewing Michael J. Fox’s television version of “Adventures of an Incurable Optimist,” adapted from his book. As I am sure most of you may know the perky, upbeat actor, famous for his role in the movie “Back to the Future,” was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nearly twenty years ago. Despite the challenges of living with an incurable, disabling illness for most of his adult life, Michael continues to see life through the lens of optimism and happiness. While narrating the recent documentary (with occasional effort in overcoming the involuntary quiver in his voice) he doesn’t miss a beat. Instead, Fox proceeds with an uncanny willingness to face life with relentless tenacity. Regardless of what happens he will give it his all—110%. At one point, he is shown playing golf with close friend and fellow actor, Bill Murray. Due to an awkward, unpredictable swing, his shots fall anywhere but on the fairway or greens. Nonetheless, no matter where the ball drops, Michael plays with the fierce determination of a Tiger Wood’s in the making - never mind that his sensory motor skills are more than a little haywire. What causes this “incurable optimism” in Michael J. Fox? He states that as long as he can remember, he has always seen the glass “half full.”

And speaking of optimism, take a look at the life of Martha Mason. Ms. Mason died at the age of 71 last Monday. Sixty of those 71 years were spent in an iron lung (a 7 foot long, 800 lb. apparatus that completely encapsulated her entire body, leaving only her head exposed). Martha stated “I’m happy with who I am, where I am - I wouldn’t have chosen this life certainly, but given this life, I have probably had the best situation anyone can ask for (Charolotte Observer, 2003).” She had been paralyzed from the neck down since contracting polio as a child. At the age of 11, she was given a year to live, though she went on to graduate first in her class with an English degree from Wake Forest University in 1960. Lying flat on her back, she later wrote a book with a voice activated computer. Martha Mason was able to squeeze life, talent, hope, and optimism out of a seemingly lifeless body - being kept alive only by artificial means for over half a century. Was it her “incurable optimism” that moved her to defeat all odds? According to New York Times (5/10/09), there is no documented case of any American having lived inside the confines of an iron lung as long as Martha. Nonetheless, Martha Mason refused to see herself as a victim and optimized her potential to the most favorable degree imaginable8 0a stunning illustration of how to make the best of life.

The Kingdom of Bhutan, mentioned in Michael Fox’s documentary, provides another remarkable example of optimism. The entire country has been strongly influenced by a collective momentum that the Bhutanese describe as the pursuit of “Gross National Happiness.” In 2006, Bhutan was rated by Business Week Magazine as the “happiest country in Asia, and the 8th happiest country in the world, according to a global survey conducted by the University of Leicester.” (…makes you sort of wonder where America rated…) Fox mentioned that the troubling symptoms of his disease were significantly reduced while visiting Bhutan. During the documentary he queried to the camera, “Am I feeling better from the altitude, the dry air, or is it something else—like just being here in this amazing place, where everyone is so happy?” I tend to believe it was the latter.

And why is it that the people of Bhutan are the happiest culture in Asia? It most definitely would appear that this condition has little to do with materialism, given the modest, simple way in which the inhabitants live (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhutan). In our culture, we so often confuse happiness with pleasure, i.e. seeking the gratification that we believe will satiate our cravings - like filling up with ice cream or going on a shopping spree. From my understanding, real happiness is different from pleasure, because it can only happen through the willingness to explore the wisdom of our internal landscape on what really brings us joy. And there is nothing immediate about such a journey - rather it is a patient and deliberate process. I would imagine that the Bhutanese, with their admirable prioritizing of what really matters on a national scale - have a significant understanding of the necessary variables essential to living a truly happy life. With all of our emphasis in this country on “Gross National Product,” and likely a lower score on the happiness rating, perhaps it would behoove us to take a look at just what it is that these happier cultures value.

I think it is pretty obvious that Michael J. Fox and Martha Mason have solved the happiness puzzle. Instead of being limited by their challenges, they have used those as a spring board for growth - and yes, even joy and happiness. What might have happened if Martha would have given up when the doctor’s told her she may not survive the year at age 11? And how about Michael? What do you suppose motivates him to keep playing golf, even if he never knows whether or not he will hit the ball, let alone be able to determine where it is going? (Well, come to think of it, I expect that dilemma is pretty true of any golfer. I suppose it’s just how we handle the whole "not knowing" perplexity that makes the difference in our enjoyment of the game.)

On a personal note—speaking of happiness—this is the week of my birthday and Mother’s Day, and I find that combining the occasions certainly gives me something to celebrate! (I consider being a mom to be the single most gratifying, experience of my life—and I give thanks to my two amazing sons, for making it all possible!) As for the birthday thing—next year at this time, God willing, I will move into another decade of my life. And I must say, while advancing into these croning years, it feels increasingly grand to view life through the lens of optimism. How is it that I have come to see things from a baseline of happiness? Well, of course, there are a variety of factors, though I would say that the main ingredients are grace and gratitude. And then of course—inspirations like Michael and Martha. If you are willing, please join me in using them as examples for capturing every glimmer of gratitude possible for the many blessings that grace has so bountifully supplied on our behalf. Yes, I am sure there are more than a few of us, who have been thrown some curve balls. And of course, the important thing is how we play them, right?

Believing in you!