What Does It Take to Stay Happy When Times Are Tough?

Boredom and depression reside easily in a life where you are running so fast you never pause to ask the question: What would really make me happy? So what does it take to be happy, especially when times are tough?
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I wonder almost every day why the world hasn't yet realized that the attainment of wealth, status, bigger houses, having the latest gadget -- and being the star of your own reality TV show -- doesn't make people happy. In fact, it leaves many miserable.

Increasing numbers of people are on anti-depressants largely because they feel empty inside. Boredom and depression reside easily in a life where you are running so fast you never pause to ask the question: What would really make me happy?

So what does it take to be happy, especially when times are tough? "Meaning in our lives," wrote Viktor Frankl. And he wrote it 50 years ago in his landmark book, "Man's Search for Meaning."

Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942, with his wife and parents. There he watched his inmates' behavior consumed by two questions:
  1. What does it take to persevere and come through a monumental, tragic experience?
  2. Can there be happiness in overwhelming suffering?

Yes, Frankl said, if we have meaning in our lives.

Frankl's views were renegade in his time. The psychiatric profession believed people were best off living stress-free lives, while he saw those in the camps who survived kept struggling and striving toward a worthwhile goal.

Frankl observed that his camp inmates who looked forward to finding their families again or creating their next great work were the ones who survived. He saw when someone found a forgotten picture of a loved one or received an extra blanket that suffering disappeared and joy suddenly existed.

Frankl also believed we each have a unique mission in life and by enacting it we find meaning, and through meaningfulness we experience being happy and fulfilled.

How do we create a meaningful life?

Most people find it when they are in service to others or a cause or doing something they love, something they feel they were meant to do.

I began to experience this about nine years ago, with and through my diabetes, as I turned it into my work in a desire to help others.

I have also spoken to many patients, through a series of interviews, who used their illness to create a fuller, happier, more meaningful life.

They saw diabetes as a wake-up call to become healthier -- to eat better and lose weight. Then they took what they learned and helped others. Many redirected a life that had somehow gone off track, realizing that time is precious. They became more appreciative of what they had and made changes in their lives to commit to what was important to them.

Many told me something that surprised me the first time I heard it, but not the twenty-fifth time. Diabetes had made them happier; they weren't looking at what they might have lost, they were looking at what they felt they'd gained.

This note I received was typical:

Riva -- Two years ago, at age 68, I had a heart attack, a triple bypass and was diagnosed with diabetes all within one week. I'm doing well, have changed my diet and take exercise seriously now. It hasn't been lost on me that I got a second chance at life and believe me I'm not about to squander it. Someone said to me recently, "If you want to live a long life, get yourself a chronic disease to take care of." I didn't think of the diabetes as much of a "gift" until I read your "About Riva" page today on your web site. You say, "In many ways diabetes keeps me far healthier than I would be otherwise." You are right and I fully agree -- and thank you for that observation. I'm in better shape now than I have ever been. I know that we all should look at diabetes as a gift. A nuisance and a pain in the neck sometimes but it really is a gift.

Meaningfulness is the ingredient that transforms the feeling of one's life. Sometimes it needs to be built, sometimes we only need to shift our view to what we already have.

Frankl also witnessed in the camp the crush on a person's spirit when meaningfulness had gone. When a man sat on his bunk and smoked all his cigarettes, one after the other, that man would soon be gone. Immediate gratification was a sign that a man had given up.

I can't help but wonder if that translates to living with illness. In the case of diabetes, if you spend most of your time satisfying immediate desires, eating sweets for the momentary pleasure, lying each night on the sofa, forsaking blood sugar tests -- are you not choosing defeat in some subliminal way?

After the publication of his book, Frankl received a letter from a young man paralyzed from the neck down after a diving accident he'd had at the age of 17. He wrote:

The attitude that I adopted on that fateful day has become my personal credo for life: I broke my neck, it didn't break me! I am currently enrolled in my first psychology course in college. I view my life being abundant with meaning and purpose. I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others. I know that without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible.

Having just passed Thanksgiving, if your "meaningfulness" tank is low, ask yourself:

  1. What do I really care about?
  2. What do I love to do?
  3. How can I use my talents to serve others?

Then do something with your answers.

If, like me, you live with a chronic illness, ask yourself: What can it give me? A greater commitment to my health? The strength to follow a passion? The platform to help others? The determination to spend more time doing something I love? And ask yourself, what good thing has it brought into my life?

As Betty Rollin -- breast cancer survivor, author and advocate -- wrote in a letter in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine, cancer survivors notice they're breathing the way other people don't. And because they're breathing, they're grateful, the way a lot of people aren't. And grateful is a good place to wind up in life. Grateful shifts our quality of life like meaningfulness. And for Rollin, breast cancer inspired cancer activism.

If you don't live with a chronic illness, the questions to ask yourself toward your meaningful life are no different from those above. Apply them to any obstacle you see in your life.

This holiday season give yourself the gift only you can give yourself, the richness of a more meaningful life.

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