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Come On, Get Happy

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -From the US Declaration of Independence

Interesting, isn’t it, that Jefferson saw fit to include “the pursuit of happiness” as one of the unalienable natural rights we are all endowed with, and whose protection and guarantee are the province of our form of government whose powers are derived by consent of the governed.  Of course, he didn’t elevate happiness itself to the level of a natural right – the guarantee of which for all the multitude of citizens is far beyond reasonable – but instead that we are entitled to pursue happiness.  How we define it is left to each of us, as is the responsibility to go after that which makes us happy.

Interesting, too, is how many of us struggle in our pursuit, and how elusive true happiness remains for so many. 

As cops you have a front row seat to the misery of others.  Consider the calls you go on:  The repetitive domestics where each day couples or families tear themselves apart with their words, actions, or fists, unable to see their own role in the strife or do anything to escape it; the habitual offenders whose own failures and weaknesses lead them to places of self-loathing and rage, which they pour out on unsuspecting victims; the addicts crawling inside a bottle or syringe to self-medicate their pain away only to see it come back stronger than before, and with an ever-growing side of guilt for their inability to stop.  Sometimes we even see it in the sad eyes of the perpetual victims and repeat callers who come to us with tales of yet another mistreatment or oppression (real or imagined) at the hands of another, which we’re supposed to somehow fix for them knowing full well they’ll be calling dispatch or schlepping into the desk next week with yet another complaint.

Why are so many so unsettled and so unhappy?  What is it in some of us that leads to such discontent?  Of course there are those suffering from depression or other mental illnesses who have little choice in the matter and who deserve our compassion, understanding, and help, but too many others are simply unhappy or dissatisfied with life.  There are no serious underlying chemical or organic causes, nor can they point to any particular life event (disease, unavoidable circumstances, etc.) that objectively points to unhappiness; they just seem willing to be unhappy or wait for circumstances to spontaneously change and bring them happiness. 

In truth, wallowing in unhappiness or being unable to extricate oneself from destructive or dysfunctional circumstances may be a byproduct of mental illness such as major depression.  But sometimes it’s simply inertia.  It’s easier to sit and wait for something better to come along, or to one day wake up happy, than doing the hard work that goes into actually pursuing happiness.

We easily see that so many of the public you serve are unhappy, and the reasons why are as varied as there are individuals, but what about within the police ranks?  As you probably well know, and we write about, police officers are not immune to unhappiness and dissatisfaction.  Why police officers might be unhappy is perhaps easier to understand but whether you are “civilian” or “cop” this truth remains:  If you want a fulfilled, happy, satisfying life it is up to you to pursue it.

What happy people usually already know, but everyone can learn, is that happiness doesn’t just happen but is created out of the choices we make and, more specifically, the behaviors and attitudes we put forth.  To paraphrase David Burns, MD, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, put positive behaviors into practice and then the positive feelings will follow.   Conversely, the opposite is true, as well:  Putting negative behaviors into practice leads to negative feelings.  This is only common sense but most people simply follow their moods. They act not with the motivation to get better and feel better long term but rather what feels good in the moment – even if they’ll pay a known price later. 

It’s helpful to even take this to a deeper level and think of pursuing happiness as a skill and, as with any skill, there are steps and principles that can be taken or adopted that will help practice the skill. 

Finding lists of specific traits or behaviors common to people with high levels of happiness and life satisfaction is easy, just do a Google search along the lines of “what happy people do” or “secrets of happy people” and see what pops up.  Some of the articles are excellent, some trite, and others repetitive.  We found one, however, that is particularly well-written, to the point, and supports what we’ve long been preaching for police officers interested in overcoming the cynicism and negative worldview that afflicts so many. 

In “What Happy People Do Differently” by authors Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd B Kashdan, from the July 2, 2013 Psychology Today the following behaviors/principles are presented (verbatim as they appear in the article):

The Real Rewards of Risk

They explain that research indicates that “truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things that you like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. Happy people, are, simply put, curious.”  We often resist taking on new challenges in favor of the comfortable and known.  This feels safe but is also boring.  Whether it’s as simple as trying a new type of food (you may be surprised – or maybe not – at how many people refuse to try anything outside a narrow selection of dietary choices) or getting up on stage at a comedy club’s open mike night, taking risks is about curiosity (Will I like it?  Can I make people laugh?) and “curiosity… is largely about exploration – often at the price of momentary happiness.”  The authors point out that “(c)urious people generally accept the notion that while being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not an easy path, it is the most direct route to becoming stronger and wiser.”

A Blind Eye to Life’s Vicissitudes

Paraphrased by the authors as being able to sometimes “see the forest but not the trees” this essentially means the happiest people know how or when to “not sweat the small stuff.” 

As cops, you know details are important, even critical.  A “horseshoes and hand grenades” approach to a criminal investigation, or how you document your work, is simply unacceptable. But you also need to let it go in certain circumstances.  We’ve all known those cops who live their lives and run their homes and family with military precision, with no tolerance for anything less than the best effort in everything.  But a willingness to let some of that precision slide or settle for “good enough” goes a long way.  Happy people know “too much focus on minutiae can be exhausting and paralyzing. The happiest among us (cheerfully) accept that striving for perfection – and a perfectly smooth interaction with everyone at all times – is a loser's bet.”

The Unjealous Friend

Celebrating the successes of your friends and coworkers – being happy for them and able to hold them up with genuine pride – is an important skill strongly indicative of personal happiness and, weirdly enough, which seems in short supply in many law enforcement agencies.  In many departments professional jealousy of the successes of fellow officers or a tendency to downplay others’ achievement is more the norm.  This is not at all uncommon in other workplaces and may be indicative of a broader human propensity for envy, but it runs counter to being happy.

Finding genuine happiness for the success of others is important to our own.  If you feel a twinge of jealousy when someone at work is in the spotlight or on an upward trajectory you wish you were on yourself, try to overcome the feeling no matter how unnatural it may feel.  Jealousy is an emotion that starts a cascade of negativity it is hard to pull yourself out of.

The Well-Being Balancing Act

Finding balance is a theme we’ve written about and stressed repeatedly, as have many others.  The article’s authors point out the importance of finding the balance between pleasure and purpose.  Finding and nurturing purpose is essential for happiness, and the happiest people might defer pleasure temporarily in favor of the long-term satisfaction of a bigger purpose.  But they also generally make sure to set aside time, sometimes each day, for pleasure. 

Eschewing purpose in favor of leisure is likewise detrimental.  It is in our nature to have goals and a bigger mission toward which to work.  Find the proper balance between the two for optimal happiness.

As we move into a new year it is natural we look forward to where and how we can make improvements in our lives.  How is your level of happiness, and is this the year to begin taking steps toward improving it?