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Finding Happiness Even As Death Approaches
Leaning into happiness
Right before my mom died and was in a hospital in New Hampshire, she asked for some vanilla soft-serve ice cream. She was terribly weak, terribly shaky. She was seeing her beloved brother who was already dead and occasionally calling out to him.
They brought her that ice cream and after her first spoon of it, she closed her eyes, absolutely blissful. Then she opened her eyes and said my sister Debbie, my daughter Emily and me, “Do you want some? It’s so good.”
Even when she was about to die, my mom wanted to share the source of her happiness, to give it to us, too.
My mom went through a lot in her life and she always—always—managed to try to share her happiness and her joys and even when she was sad or angry or bitter there was a great element of joy to her, a joy that she leaned into.
Erin Benson wrote a heartbreaking and brilliant article on Medium a couple of years ago entitled “What My Son’s Final Words Taught Me About Happiness and the premise behind it is that “joy comes when we let go of the idea that we deserve it.”
In it, she talks about her son’s death and how as he was dying she asked her little boy what could she do to make him happy.
“Sam looked at me, his face full of confusion, and said, “I am happy, Mom.””
I am a person who sobs a lot when I read about love and loss, but when I got through that crying, I managed to read Benson’s next words and those are the words that I want you all to read.
“When I think back on Sam’s final words, “I am happy,” I am awestruck and humbled. I don’t know how Sam found happiness in a moment like that. A moment in which Death had his long, stringy fingers around his neck, stripping him of his ability to live. A moment in which he was preparing to leave us. A moment in which his mother was kneeling before him, pleading for a way to make him happy. Whether due to the wisdom created by a lifetime of illness or his young age or some innate gift bestowed upon him at birth, Sam possessed a grace that allowed him to see happiness even in a moment most of us would define as profoundly sad. I believe he looked around and saw a room full of people who loved him. It was that simple. At that moment, he wasn’t afraid of losing his capabilities. He wasn’t angry because he deserved better. He was content. He was loved. He could see that and it made him happy.
Happiness is not something you find externally but something you cultivate deep inside of yourself.
Sometimes I still think to myself, how dare we be happy without our Sam? How dare we celebrate? How dare we enjoy? How dare we, for one second, forget that Sam had brain cancer and died and that we are broken? But Sam’s words pull me out of that mental frenzy, back into the present, and I realize we are doing.”
For decades psychologist Martin Seligman has been studying happiness and coming up with tools to cultivate it. He calls his discipline “positive psychology.” It’s about building our own strengths rather than focusing on what we or society considers our weaknesses.
In an ABC News interview, Seligman said, “We used to think that a happy person was just someone who giggled a lot, but if you define it solely by how much you laugh, you confine yourself to one category.”
In The Good Life he categorized happy people.
“Some happy people are low on pleasure, but high on “absorption and immersion,” meaning they take great pleasure in the things that they do. “Think of these people as hobbyists who become so immersed in their work that time ceases to exist,” Seligman said. “A person who enjoys gardening discovers that the day has gone by without notice, for example.” The Pleasant Life: This is someone who laughs a lot, and thrives on pleasures, such as eating good food. These are people who seem surrounded with contentment, pleasure and hope. The Meaningful Life: Those who apply their highest strengths and virtues for the greater good, as through charities and volunteer work, religion or politics. There are vast benefits to leading a happier life, Seligman said. A study of cloistered nuns found that those scoring high on happiness tests at age 20 lived the longest. (Cloistered nuns make for good research subjects, since variables such as environment and financial status are the same for all.)”
The point of that book is that you should find your happiness category, find your strengths, find your virtues, and then as ABC News says, “apply the qualities in such a way as to enhance your happiness-generating category.”
Or as J.D. Meier writes,
“According to Seligman, The Pleasant Life, just as it sounds, is about having as many pleasures as possible in life, and having the skills to amplify your pleasures.
The Good Life is about recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure, and parenting to use your strengths and spend more time in your values to have more flow in life.
The Meaningful Life is about using your strengths in the service of something that is bigger than you are.
Here’s the surprise:
You don’t need to be cheery to be happy, and pleasure does not equal happiness.
Instead, you can focus on eudemonic pursuits to improve your satisfaction with life.
Rather than focus on hedonic motives such as pleasure, enjoyment, and comfort, you can focus on eudemonic motives, such as personal growth, personal excellence, and contributing to the lives of others.”
Happiness. Contentment. Purpose. They are all such huge concepts, aren’t they? Yet Sam even the day before he died knew that he was happy. We can find that, too.
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