You grow up with an alcoholic mother and she eventually dies of breast cancer. Your sister dies of breast cancer. You marry your high school sweetheart and raise two kids with her and she passes away from ovarian cancer. You escape your tragedies by going on a lifelong dream trip — a cross-continent motorcycle trip with your best friend — but a week into that, your friend gets into an accident and dies. On returning home, you devote time and mourn with your friend’s widow. The two of you eventually begin your own relationship — and then she too contracts cancer and passes away.
Meet Rick, a profile subject in Peter Jennings’s book The Power of Happiness: How to get Happy in Unhappy Times. “For most of us, it would be a recipe for despair but for Rick, he faced these trials and was able to find happiness that inspires his life,” says Jennings.
Rick’s story is one of many triumphant retellings in Jennings’s book. We recently spoke with the inspiring writer to find out more about how we can all unearth our own happiness:
Q: How did this book come to be?
A: Hearing Rick’s story was one factor that influenced me to write this. The other was friends of mine I ran into at a cocktail party one night. They’re just ordinary people, but that night at the party the wife joked that we shouldn’t call them because they forgot to pay the phone bill. And she laughed again. Her husband was laughing about it too. I was shocked, not only that they forgot to pay the bill, but how at ease they were about this and were laughing at themselves. It occurred to me at that moment that these people were really, really happy.
Q: How did your perception about what creates happiness change along the way?
A: After writing this, I walked away knowing you can get happy after unhappy times. There are things you can do to have a life of greater joy — practical, doable things. A number of people I interviewed had negative setbacks in their lives that could have sidetracked them but they found their strength of character to recapture their happiness and move on. I also believe we’re in the midst of a happiness revolution. Happiness is important and we need to find a way to ratchet up our happiness.
There are two important things I learned from people I interviewed:
1. Improve your relationship
Dr. Susan Johnson-Douglas, a professor at the University of Ottawa who I interviewed for the book has written a book called Hold Me Tight. She believes if you want to be happy and healthy, you need to have quality, intimate relationships, particularly the one with your lifelong partner. The quality of those lifelong relationships is the key to happiness.
2. Help your kids be happier
Dr. Christine Carter, a sociologist with The Greater Good Science Centre at the University of California Berkeley, says increasing happiness for kids will in turn increase happiness for parents. She thinks parents are trying too hard at the wrong things in terms of raising their kids — putting kids into more lessons and forcing them to practise things they don’t care about. Instead she wants us to take the time with our kids to work on their happiness. She says take the time to develop your relationship with your kids to be happier.
Q: Finally, how did Rick find happiness again?
A: He takes the time to think and consider what’s going on around him. He ultimately said he could let all this tear him apart or realize there’s not a chance he could control everything in his life but maybe he could learn from it. He’s focused on the context — thinking about what else in his life is happy rather than just defining his life by unhappiness.
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