Tonight I snuggled my two eldest children (5 & 4) into bed with a wonderful little book entitled "The Short & Incredibly Happy Life of Riley" by Colin Thompson and Amy Lissiat. It is a joyful tale of the happy simplicity of being a rat and makes some beautifully written comparisons to the lives of people, observing that whilst rats live a very short time, it is primarily happy, doing exactly what they want, when they want with whom they want to do it, while people can live an extremely long time being unhappy where they are, with whom they are with and their lot in general.
The story made me think of my grandmother, who at 102 was finally unable to live independently any longer due to her growing frailness. Today she has outlived all her peers and indeed many of her peers' children, she may even yet outlive her own and yet she has been a "martyr" all her life. Now don't get me wrong, she, like all people, has many wonderful qualities, but all my life she has told me how hard she's had it, all the things that went wrong, how she had to do everything and be responsible for everyone and that she married the wrong man and they never should have come to this country (Australia) when she was a child........ it goes on and on. To be honest, I am not sure I have ever met a more generally unhappy without being unpleasant to be around person. The one sticking point for me is the "married the wrong man". My grandfather who we lovingly called Grumpy, and who died 17 years ago, was indeed the LEAST Grumpy person I have ever known. He understood what she never could, that happiness is a choice. He CHOSE to think the best of everyone, to see the good in all events, to live truly and honorably and never have any regrets as a result. He was a truly remarkable man, yet like the rat, he died early (compared to my grandmother) having lived a happy life, while she still endures, most of the time living with a permanent level of discontent.
At the end of the story my children asked me why lots of people are unhappy when they have so much while rats who have nothing are so happy. And I thought about this for a minute when I realized something that I have been brewing on for a couple of weeks since the death of a dear friend (something I hadn't realized I'd actually been processing). It's the fact that we can THINK that makes some of us unhappy. Paradoxically, it is also the fact that we can THINK that makes some of us extremely happy. So I said, "We choose whether we will be happy or unhappy by what we think, because it is what we think which ultimately determines how we feel. And our feelings are very good guide posts to tell us when the thoughts we are having are poor and we should change them."
Let me explain. If my partner sits on the couch at night, next to the freshly washed clothes in the basket but doesn't fold them, and this happens for a week on end, it's my CHOICE whether this bothers me (makes me unhappy) or not and this is simply the result of what I THINK about what is happening. If I think, "bloody hell, how can he sit next to the clothes every night and not fold a single one and then every morning ask me where, such an such top or pants or whatever are", then I'm probably going to be pretty miserable! I might even feel unimportant and neglected and even go so far as to see him not folding the clothes as being directly related to how important he sees me and our relationship. I can actually carry that thought process a very long way down a very dark abyss IF I CHOOSE!
However, if I either CHOOSE not to think about it at all, OR CHOOSE to think how funny it is that he doesn't even seem to see the washing there waiting to be folded and still needs to ask where things are, then I might even find the EXACT SAME SITUATION a thing of great amusement. Note, the factual event hasn't changed at all. The only thing that has changed is HOW I SEE IT.
We CHOOSE happiness or otherwise by the thoughts we CHOOSE to have. And as intelligent human beings it is our personal responsibility to actively choose thoughts that benefit ourselves, and our own well being as well as that of others. As adults and parents, it is our absolute responsibility not to allow thoughts to become so habitual that we don't even actively realize we are having them and they are influencing how we feel. We should never be caught saying "xyz made me feel ....." or even "you are making me very angry", because it simply isn't true. But even more importantly we must teach our children, what we now have to teach ourselves and what we did not learn as children; how to think ACTIVELY (by choice) rather than PASSIVELY (by habit). It takes a lot of effort at first and we will probably always have relapses from time to time but it is our responsibility to think kindly on that and still persevere with the practice.