One of the best-known quotes about happiness comes from President Abraham Lincoln. He said, “A person is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be.” That’s right, Lincoln, who was said to be the most respected and loved of any American President basically implied that my happiness, and your happiness, is up to us. But why don’t more of us accept that as true?
Maybe because most of us think that in order to be happy we need the world to change—not ourselves. Lincoln somehow knew it didn’t work that way. And, in case you are wondering, President Lincoln wasn’t exactly a happy-go-lucky guy to begin with. It is reported that he suffered from clinical depression for his entire life. Besides that, he is often listed as one of the most persistent people ever even though he was born and raised in extreme poverty. It’s reported that when very young his family lost their childhood home and early on he was fired from work. Following that, he failed at his own business startup and was forced into bankruptcy.
Lincoln was also familiar with personal loss. His mother, younger brother, and uncle died when he was nine years old, and then his fiancé died before they were able to marry. Later after he did marry another woman, one of his four sons died. He sought and lost several elections—congressman, senate, and vice-president. And while he eventually triumphed as President, it was during one of the most turbulent times in U.S. history and was never easy or joyous. In spite of it all, he goes down in history as a man who helped hold our country together in perilous times—all in spite of his own personal demons.
How was Lincoln able to overcome such adversity and accomplish notable things in his life? According to some reports, “Lincoln learned to live with negative thoughts and not dwell on them.” Instead of focusing and dramatizing the destructive events in his life, he used them to become a more caring, thoughtful and compassionate man. During a lifetime of suffering, Lincoln used his well-developed mental and spiritual muscles to build crucial skills and capacities.
What makes most of us so different is that we want the world to be different, rather than change anything within ourselves. Instead of doing the work inside ourselves like Lincoln, many of us believe that if other people or things change, or if circumstances play out perfectly according to our righteous knowledge—then we could be happy. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Stuff happens to each of us every single day. What we do with it—defines us—and that becomes the story of our lives.
When you think about it, any circumstance can be viewed as neutral. It is we who judge it or give it a label and then must live with the consequences. And it’s likely that most of the time how we choose to judge a circumstance is a habit we have been forming most of our lives. Are we like Lincoln who chose to see his circumstances as character building—or are we different?
No one, me included, is saying that it is easy to be happy or to choose to see the positive when things are difficult. I’ll agree it can be difficult. But it is actually quite useless to tell anyone else how they should experience the events in their life. What’s critical is that people know they really do have a choice. And from there, decide for themselves—and/or give them the tools to help them get there. Maybe that’s why Lincoln’s quote is so brilliant—it addresses the need for the individual to make up his or her own mind.
SMART Living, or being happy, isn’t about coming up with a few simple ideas and then living in Shangri-La for the remainder of one’s life. Instead, SMART living is hopefully a sign pointing in the right direction for each us. Even then, road maps might point the way but the direction and the corresponding steps are always up to us.
“Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.” – Hafiz of Persia
“No one is in control of your happiness but you; therefore, you have the power to change anything about yourself or your life that you want to change.”- Barbara de Angelis