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Choosing Happiness

Happiness depends upon ourselves.
- Aristotle

No man is happy who does not think himself so.
- Publilius Syrus

This past March, while teaching at the St Louis (MO) County and Municipal Police Academy, I got to experience a bit of nostalgia. I wandered out to the lobby to ask a question about the set-up of our classroom and was greeted with about fifty consecutive “Good morning, sir’s!” as a line of young, eager looking, and very fit police cadets filed into the building. Althea and I had seen them in the parking lot when we arrived, listened to their excited chatter as they gathered in small groups before getting down to their day.

As the line of neophyte cops passed, I remembered the excitement I felt at beginning my police career and how happy I was to finally realize a childhood dream… at the relatively ripe old age (for rookie cops, anyway) of thirty. I thought back to my own academy days of early mornings, long runs, inspections, class after class after class… and then more classes, thousands of rounds fired on the range followed by reloading, shooting, reload again with fingers blistered and bleeding, and hours of studying for the weekly exams.

I loved every minute of it. I even learned to enjoy the running... sort of. I was happy. And when I watched the faces of the passing recruits, I could see they were happy, too.

As the last one passed and disappeared into the classroom, nostalgia gave way to a sad irony. Althea and I were there to teach a class titled Police Morale for Supervisors: It IS Your Problem; we were there to help front line bosses and police management overcome the plague of low morale – the professional, and often personal, unhappiness – so endemic in law enforcement.  

I wondered how these young officers would fare. Would their happiness and excitement at achieving a dream endure, or would it falter in the face of disappointment, disillusion, politics, or the inevitable personal failures everyone experiences but no one foresees in the early stages of a life journey? How many of them would slide from eager rookie to burned-out, cynical veteran counting the days to retirement, and how fast would the slide happen? How many of them would someday need nursing for their own morale?

I wonder, for those of you reading this article, “How is your happiness?”

Happiness is vitally important to our emotional and even physical health, and very generally is defined as someone’s emotional experience of a state of mental well-being. Exactly what it is and how it’s achieved and experienced is up to the individual; what excites one man bores another, and the specifics behind happiness are highly individualized. But people generally know when they are happy and when they are not, or at least can describe and identify that which troubles, frustrates, angers, or saddens them. They can equally identify what gives them the needed sense of well-being. What they have more trouble doing, however, is discarding (or managing/overcoming) those things that cause distress or achieving (or utilizing/maximizing the experience of) those most likely to enhance happiness.

We understand happiness is largely determined by life events, often far outside locus of control, and when faced with adversities happiness can suffer. Trust us, both Althea and I know this very well. We also understand that sadness and happiness are not mutually exclusive; sad events or circumstances can certainly be experienced – and they will be experienced - without necessarily sacrificing overall happiness. Sadness, depression, and disappointments are inevitable but should be fleeting and circumstantial. Happiness itself needs to prevail and, as much as can be controlled by you, must be a choice.

It’s true that a career in law enforcement changes a person. You see things that shake, and shape, your understanding of humanity. You experience things most never will, nor could tolerate if they did. You hold a clear and unwavering sense of justice, of right and wrong, and try to apply it in a morally ambiguous world where political – rather than ethical – considerations shape the law and how it’s applied. And devotion to your professional self often comes at the expense of the personal. All these things act on a cop and can influence professional and personal happiness, but still, the ultimate decision to be happy falls upon you.      

Positive psychology asserts individuals can influence their thoughts and beliefs and improve their own happiness. Psychologist Martin Seligman, a highly respected and leading teacher and practitioner of this model has come up with the acronym PERMA that summarizes many of positive psychology's principles. PERMA asserts people are generally happiest when they have Pleasure, Engagement (being wrapped up in challenging but satisfying activities), Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments.

If you are happy with your life, like where you are and are excited about where you are going, look deeper and consider why that is so. What is it about your life that makes you happy?

If you are unhappy right now – and not because of a specific circumstance or event, but because of chronic sadness, dissatisfaction, disillusionment, or some general or unspecified malaise – also look deeper and consider why that is so. What is it about your life that makes you unhappy?

We know happiness is vitally important for everyone’s well-being – and that goes for cops, too - but that it’s elusive. Althea knows this from what she hears in her office. I know from being around a lot of fellow officers. Together we know from what we hear in response to our writing and training. We also know that it need not be so elusive, that people can choose happiness. We know many people, including in law enforcement, who successfully do this. We think this is an important topic and we’re going to give it greater attention next month. We hope you do too, and will join us.


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.