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The Happy Cop

“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.

It turns out the kid was developmentally disabled, the “burglary” was him and a bunch of younger kids playing war in the empty site, and his gun a broken airsoft pistol. The story hits the media and public scorn is heaped upon the “trigger-happy” cop, her failure to “shoot the gun out of his hand” or “just wing him I the arm,” and “out of control” policing in general. As you read and listen to the ensuing outrage, you have a choice of thoughts… consider how your feelings would proceed from each.

Thought option 1 – Idiots!! I cannot stand these ignorant morons any longer… ungrateful sheep… we put our lives on the line every day and get crucified for doing it… “trigger happy” my behind; eighteen years on the job and never an OIS and now she’s some kind of Dirty Harriet? Screw them… you won’t see me stick my head out for any of these fools… nope… I’m doing my time, keeping my head down, collecting my pension, and then moving somewhere I don’t have to be around morons ever again!

Thought option 2 – She’ll be fine, it was a clean shoot… Yea, it sucks now but most everyone will settle down and think once the emotions pass and see she really had no choice, and those that won’t will never like us anyway… most people understand and can put themselves in our place… I’ve really had a lot of folks come up and tell me they understand and hope our officer is okay… it’s really just the most vocal minority screaming bloody murder… maybe this would be a good time to educate folks about what we do and why…

Which thought option is likeliest to lead to unhappiness, or even rage? Which is more accurate? Adjusting our thoughts adjusts our emotions.

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose”

-          Helen Keller

“True happiness involves the pursuit of worthy goals. Without dreams, without risks, only a trivial semblance can be achieved”

-          Dan Buettner

“The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.

-          William Cowper

Do you still see worth in your work? Are you as committed to the ideals and purpose of law enforcement, and your role in it, as you were as an eager rookie? Losing sight of the purpose or principle of a vocation, or questioning whether it’s ultimately a fool’s errand, is demoralizing. If you have devoted much of yourself to it, in time and passion and sacrifice, only to question if it’s all worthwhile, is devastating.

If you are unhappy at work, examine if this might be the source. If it is, know your work is worthy and recommit to it. Know you do make a difference. Know most people do appreciate you and what you do, but also that most will never tell you and may be quite free with criticism at times. But really, they do appreciate it.

Happy people are purpose driven goal setters. Attainment is good, but greater satisfaction comes from the pursuit of those goals, and the happiest people refuse to rest on their laurels; instead, attainment of worthy (not greed driven, or acquisition-based) goals only leads to reaching for the next level.

 “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding”

-          W Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil

“Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to you own”

-          Robert Heinlein

Are you in love with your job, with what it means and the duty it demands? Are you in love with your community, whether you define it as the one you serve or the one you occupy, or both? Are you in love with your neighbor, even as he stares sullenly out at you from a cell while you read him his charges?

Policing is a hard, hard job to stay happy in if you don’t love your community and country, or the flawed people who comprise it. Cops are prone to cynicism – and we have always acknowledged that cynicism can be a good thing, in measured doses – but cynicism need not be synonymous with disdain of those whose very humanness leads to its formation. This cynicism is a necessary survival skill, but staying happy and balanced in the face of it requires the kind of love the ancient Greeks referred to as Philia (brotherly love, familiarity with and service to community).

Not everyone, or even all that many, you encounter on the job are particularly lovable. Some are outright despicable, either in the moment or by their nature, and you get to see even the best people at their irrational, self-absorbed worst. Have love for people anyway.   And the job and some of its duties can sometimes be imminently exasperating. Have love for the profession and the duties anyway (and sometimes that can mean trying to be a change agent to dial down the exasperation level).

Look at some of the happiest long-time veterans around you and notice their secrets. Often you see they are cops who have done the job with an attitude of servant hood, affection, and empathy, serving the community and mankind with love.

Happiness lives in the servant heart.


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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.