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Staying Happy in Law Enforcement

In December (2013) our article “Come On, Get Happy” (linked on the left side in the Related Content box) posted on this site, where we asked you to consider your own level of happiness and asked if this is the year for you to start making positive strides toward improving it.  We referred to a Psychology Today article by Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd B Kashdan (“What Happy People do Differently”) and presented a series of generally shared traits research had uncovered in studies of happy people, with the idea you can begin examining yourself and your practices comparatively.  In light of the research we encouraged reflection and self-examination. 

This month we shift gears to encourage action and ownership of your own happiness, and provide four steps necessary to move forward to real happiness.

Defining your own happiness

The simple fact is we are all going to be unhappy sometimes.  Sadness is to be expected but when it has become your default condition, as it does for so many people, you need to make some fundamental changes to how you view and negotiate the world.  The first step to becoming truly happy requires defining what happiness is for you

What does my happiness look like?

Being happy requires effort and the first effort is to answer for yourself this question: “What conditions are necessary for me to be able to say, ‘I’m happy’?”  A lot of chronically unhappy, depressed, and stagnant people simply become mired in their dissatisfaction, wishing for something better to magically appear but without even knowing what that “something better” might be.  This isn’t about longing for the greener, better tasting grass over there that really won’t satisfy, but about determining a real vision for your happiness. 

Create a portrait of your “perfect world”

In creating your perfect world, we like to use this example:  If you were given a magic wand and instruction manual to work it, you’d probably lead off improving and molding your personal environment into that most likely to guarantee maximum happiness.  I definitely would.  Now, maybe later you’d get around to ensuring world peace and curing cancer later but, just being honest here, for most of us there’s first gonna be a few pretty significant tweaks in our immediate surroundings. 

So what would that “perfect world” look like?  Over-the-top wealth and grandeur, major changes in our personal circumstances, or a pain-free do-it-yourself physical upgrade? Or would you opt for more subtle, realistic tweaks:  more money (or less debt)?; a different station in life?; improved relationships with the family and friends to close emotional distance and lessen interpersonal conflict?; better health for yourself and those who you love?; or would you choose the opportunity to go back and make different life choices?  What would your realistic “perfect world” look like?

Come to terms with the unrealistic, unattainable, and your “lost causes”

For many of us unhappiness has to do with past disappointments or unresolved mourning of missed opportunities.  Some disappointments can be rectified but more often missed opportunities are forever gone. 

Coming to terms with and accepting our “lost causes” – those things in our life we wish were different or we could have another shot at – is crucial to your search for happiness.  Staying stuck in wishful thinking wastes time, creates a cycle of disappointment, and paralyzes forward movement.  All of us have missed out on something because of our own poor choices, personal shortcomings, or sometimes just plain bad luck.  Assign the blame, mourn your loss, and move past it.  Seek out help if you need but refuse to hold onto your regrets.  Learn to let them go or, better yet, use them to spur self-improvement by perhaps laughing at the screw-ups, shortcomings, or evil fortune while vowing to not lose out again.  Staying stuck in regrets guarantees unhappiness. 

Determine where and how you CAN make changes

Cops tend to be fairly driven, success-oriented individuals used to getting what we want – the mere fact we were hired for a LE job sets us apart from the great majority wannabes who never made through the hiring process in the first place – and then we find ourselves surrounded by other driven, success-oriented individuals in our agency.  The competition for specialty assignments and promotions is fierce and, as talented and smart and competent as we are, there are talented, smart, and competent people all over the department who want the same jobs and promotions we do.  Sometimes they’re even a little more talented, smarter, and competent than we are.

For many of us, being rejected for a coveted assignment or promotion is devastating.  “What’s wrong with them?  I’m perfect for that job!” we rant, contempt rising for those who rejected us.  “I’ve worked my ass off around here, my dues are paid!” we complain, convincing ourselves whoever beat us out couldn’t possibly have done all that we did to earn the spot.  “What a brown-nose she is!  I’ll never lower myself and suck up to power.  It’s not worth it.  I’m better than that!” we rationalize, somehow transforming failure into a symbol of moral superiority.

But then we wonder:  “Maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was?  Maybe I’m never moving up here, or getting that assignment I want so bad, and I’ll just be one of those guys who just floats through, never really doing anything remarkable.” And then depression sets in, and the pain of professional disappointment begins to infect more personal aspects of life.

The truth is cops can be surprisingly fragile if our sense of self is challenged, and what challenges a cop’s sense of self more than challenging his identity as a cop?  The trick is to accept the failure with a sense of perspective.  Are you or your abilities being truly rejected, or was/were the successful candidate(s) who beat you out for the job simply more qualified, better prepared, or a better fit for the job?  Maybe it just wasn’t your time.  Later it will be, or a better fit will come along, or maybe the “rejection” was really an act of kindness – the assignment and you were a poor fit and someone saved you a lot of future frustration.

But if the job is a good fit then focus on what you can to be better prepared by seeking experiences, training, or networking opportunities. 

And if you feel like you’re failing in other areas of your life, such as with family or friends, love, child-rearing, pursuing goals, or whatever else may cause you unhappiness, likewise determine what you can do differently.  Be proactive.  Determine if the problem is a lost cause and, if it’s not, the problem is probably not irreparable.