The Happiness Sieve
“It could be worse.”
That is the response I received when I asked my mom how she was doing given the current Covid-19 restrictions. She lives in a retirement community that allows limited access to visitors. For her, social distancing has meant she is confined to her room except for occasional visits with family. Her response was so refreshing and comforting, but not surprising if you know my mom.
She worked full-time as a nurse while raising eight children and then, when most people are considering retirement, she started up a home health care business and operated that with my brother for several years. She survived three different types of cancer, endured numerous hardships and yet is the most cheerful and resilient person I know.
So, how is it that some people who experience tragedy or challenging times manage to be so positive and upbeat?
My theory is that they possess and are masters at one of life’s most powerful tools: The Happiness Sieve.
My 92-year-old mother and her three sisters, ages 87, 89 & 99 not only have this gift, they are what I consider master sieve-sters. They, along with their three brothers and parents, grew up on a farm in the depression era in rural Minnesota. Tragically, their home burned to the ground and they had to live in a barn while their father rebuilt their house. As if that wasn’t devastating enough, a few months later, the bitter cold and harsh conditions caused their mother (my grandmother) to die of pneumonia since penicillin had not yet been invented.
At age 12, Gladys, the oldest daughter, took charge of the household and helped her father raise her six brothers and sisters. Those were bleak and difficult times. Even so, each of the siblings recant stories of their childhood days on the farm with laughter. Today, when they are asked how they dealt with the challenges, they simply say, “We just did what we had to do.”
Finding Joy Amidst Pain
They recall treasured moments when their father did simple, yet special things for them such as letting them ride along with him into town. Going into town was a big deal. They also have cherished memories of him hanging up a curtain in middle of the living room on Christmas Eve while he spent hours secretly wrapping presents and lighting the candles on the tree, a tradition he carried on from his German heritage. No matter what, birthdays and holidays were never sacrificed due to hard times. My grandfather made sure that their ever-present burdens were constantly replaced with joy. He passed that upbeat and lighthearted spirit to his 40 grandchildren as well.
Think about your collective burdens and unpleasant memories, setbacks, or failures as if they are grains of sand entering a sieve. Although they can feel extremely trying and cumbersome at first, with time they can and will eventually dissolve or pass through the sieve. Next, treat your memories of joy as if they are pebbles or precious stones that stay in your sieve and continue to build and grow as they are added to your life experience.
Seeing the Positive
With practice, the more happy or positive moments you allow to remain in your sieve, the less you notice the negative memories that pass through. It becomes part of your everyday way of life. Eventually, you begin to see the positive in every moment and in everything.
That outlook became crystal clear to me the time I stayed at my Aunt Gladys’ house when I was a child. I sat down with her and my cousins to watch an old-fashioned western movie which had a great deal of violence. I recall scores of cowboys and Indians and their horses being gruesomely shot and killed. Yet, right in the middle of the blood-curdling screams of that tense, horrific battle, Aunt Gladys casually remarked, “Isn’t that beautiful scenery?” I looked over at her with my mouth hung wide open, then slowly everyone in the room burst into laughter. My cousins told me that she has a gift of seeing something beautiful even during the scariest of movies or situations. Her ability to see only the good – no matter how small – in every situation stays with me today.
So, what is in your happiness sieve?
Do your frustrations and negativity exist equally among your moments of joy?
How does the size of your troubles compare to the size of your joy?
Do you allow negative particles to pass through, leaving only pleasant thoughts and memories?
Martin Seligman, known as the father of Positive Psychology, found that while 60 percent of happiness is determined by our genetics and environment, the remaining 40 percent is up to us.
Follow these tips to master your happiness sieve:
Try not to dwell on negative experiences and memories
Strengthen good memories by focusing on those experiences as they occur and recalling them more often than bad experiences
Realize that each time you face a situation, you have a choice as to how you can react
Surround yourself with people that have a positive attitude to help nurture and support your outlook
Don’t dwell on what went wrong - focus on solutions and the next positive step
While it is important to recognize difficulties and deal with them, try not to hold onto them too long. Let go and let your troubles pass through. Release them into your sieve and let them disappear. Spend time noticing and appreciating all the beautiful and precious pebbles of joy that remain and allow them to multiply instead.
I encourage you to read, “Soaring Sisterhood,” an uplifting an inspiring article about my mother and her three sisters who broke a record five years ago for the total number of years in age for passengers in a hot air balloon. Despite the hard times they faced, each of them continues to seek joy in life and inspire others with their lighthearted, positive attitude. Enjoy!