Illustration by Holly Lindem
2. Focus on a Present Happiness
Even during difficult times, there are things that bring you joy, or at least gratitude. Once you're in the receptive state of letting go, think of your greatest current source of comfort or happiness—a loved one, your job, your innate determination, the stash of See's Nuts & Chews hidden in your sock drawer. Whatever it is, write it down now.
3. Recall an Event That Ushered in This Happiness
With your treasured prize in mind, think back to an event that helped bring it into your life. Maybe you met your spouse while jogging, or learned your trade in a terrific class, or nabbed your great apartment by seducing the building manager. Record this event now.
4. Keep Tracing Casual Events Until You Find an Unhappy One
Each source of joy has a "family tree" of progenitor events that get more plentiful the further back you look (just as you have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on). Keep tracing the chain of events that led to your greatest current happiness until you run across one that seemed painful or ugly when it happened.
For example, my client Hannah has amazing friends, gleaned from dozens of pleasant encounters. Why? Because Hannah was once very lonely. "My father left my mom when I was 5, and she had to work to support us," Hannah says. "I spent a lot of time alone, imagining a loving family. So when I meet people who interest me, I never pass up the chance to create a friendship."
Meanwhile, Maddy's greatest happiness comes from her job managing a famous film festival. When she started, however, the festival was obscure and the job paid only minimum wage. She never would have taken it if she hadn't been desperate for work after losing her previous job.
And the thing that brings Jaquee the most joy is her faith—a faith born from the "ugly ancestor" of an abusive relationship. "If I hadn't lost myself so completely and felt so unloved in my marriage," she says, "I wouldn't have needed to find myself in such a deep way, or keep hunting until I found the unconditional love I feel now."
Once you've traced the ancestry of your greatest happiness back to a painful event (I guarantee you can), you'll see that the pain involved an ending—the end of innocence, or freedom, of a life, of a love. Write down the name of that ending.
5. Notice and Nurture the Happy Children of Your Unhappy Ending
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes how most people, when dealing with endings, focus exclusively on the loss, not anticipating other events that could occur in the wake of—or even because of—that loss. Gilbert often asks people how they think they'd feel two years after the death of their eldest child. ("As you can probably guess," he says, "this makes me quite popular at parties.") Everyone answers that they'd be totally devastated. "Not one person I know has ever imagined anything other than the single, awful event suggested by my question," writes Gilbert. "When they imagine the future, there is a whole lot missing, and the things that are missing matter."
When people actually lose a loved one, the subsequent two years can be pure hell, and Gilbert knows this. Yet he also knows that they contain the beginning of new joys. These joys—call them children of loss—don't burst into our lives full-grown, instantly turning grief to euphoria. Like all babies, they start out weak and tiny, and require nourishment to grow. If you're in the midst of a loss or its immediate aftermath, you may not be paying much attention to newborn sources of happiness. And if you can't think of a single good thing that came from a long-ago ending, you've probably been too busy grasping at ghosts to care for your baby joys as they were born. The good news is, they didn't die from lack of attention. They're still waiting for you to help them flourish.
Now, list five things arising from a recent ending that bring you even tiny bits of positive feeling. Maybe losing your job lets you sleep in, or your boyfriend's departure replaced arguments with peace. See what you can find.
Next: Letting it happen, letting it go
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