“Most folks are about as happy as they make their minds up to be”
- Abraham Lincoln
Are you happy with your place in life, the choices you’ve made and where they have taken you vocationally, relationally, where and how you live, how you spend your free time, and what you see in your future? Even if the answer right now is, “No” or “Not completely,” or “I have some regrets,” do you at least have faith that happiness is attainable and disappointments only setbacks to be overcome? Unhappiness is not necessarily bad, as long as it’s brief and circumstantial or a sign of something needing attention or change. But when it becomes someone’s more or less permanent emotional state unhappiness is devastating. Sometimes it’s even lethal.
In last month’s column, Choosing Happiness (linked below), I wrote of a brief but nostalgia-inducing encounter with a recruit class at the St Louis (MO) County and Municipal Police Academy. I wondered about the excitement and happiness that, if those kids were anything like me at the start of my career, they were feeling for their new profession. And I wondered how many of them – and how quickly this would happen – would experience the excitement fade and the onset of unhappiness, whether it had anything to do with police work or not.
We all have colleagues, and probably more than a few, for whom each day is an emotional drag; they drag themselves to work, they drag themselves through the day’s tasks and assignments, they drag themselves home at the end of it with little joy because they know they have to do it all over again tomorrow. Maybe it’s even what goes on at home that fuels the unhappiness. Whether their unhappiness stems from the job – the politics, pressures, disappointments, criticism from within the department and outside gets to everyone from time to time - or follows them to work from home is less important than the fact they are living unhappily.
If you are basically happy and enjoying life, your career, your family and friends, we commend you. But keep a jealous watch over that happiness; it can be fragile. But if you are unhappy – and not circumstantially because of certain events that will pass in time, but rather unhappiness has become kind of a personal hallmark – you need to change that. The good news is, as Lincoln concisely pointed out, the durable happiness most of us crave is attainable, and largely a matter of choice.
“The true source of happiness, the experts say, are deeper patterns of behavior and thinking in our lives – patterns that we can adjust if we just put out minds to it”
- Dan Buettner, Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zone Way
There are a couple of common myths people hold about happiness, and feelings in general. First, that you have little control over how you feel or think about the circumstances you find yourself in. The circumstances may be unavoidable – and likely are if they have to do with being a cop; the calls you go to, the people you deal with, media representations, politics, and many other variables are unavoidable – but a lot of people believe how you intellectually and emotionally file them is unavoidable, too. They allow themselves to be victims of negative feelings and thoughts because they fail or refuse to understand they have power over how they interpret or are affected by circumstances.
The second myth is that thoughts and feelings are somehow divorced from each other when, in fact, their relationship is deeply interconnected. Let’s take a look at a (not really so) hypothetical situation and how a cop’s thoughts about it lead to feelings:
A 17-year-old is shot and killed by a colleague in your jurisdiction when, as she arrives at a burglary –in-progress call at a construction site, encounters the kid holding a silver handgun. She orders him several times to drop it; instead, he looks at her blankly, then smiles, and raises it as if he is going to fire. Of course, your fellow officer, believing she is about to be shot, fires first.