The Secret to Happiness

Christmas Eve was almost upon us. Mom had just started working several weeks earlier, so things truly looked promising. I had spent most of my days leading up to Christmas Eve, when I was outside of the house, playfully quarreling with my friend Larry about which of us was going to own bragging rights about the gifts we anticipated getting on Christmas day.

“Man, your little race track ain’t got nothing on all the stuff I’m going to get in the morning,” I said with confidence on Christmas Eve.

“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see tomorrow then,” he retorted, ending our conversation.

“Yeah, that’s right, we’ll see tomorrow.”

All night I tossed and turned in anticipation of diving into the mountains of gifts that were going to be waiting for me upstairs in the living room the following morning. “Man, I can hardly wait!” I said to Martin [my brother], who was already fast asleep on the mattress and box spring identical to mine, resting on the floor.

After hours of tossing and turning, somehow, I was finally able to fall asleep. I slept like a baby while visions of gifts danced in my head. A few hours later, I woke to the raspy morning voice of Martin, who was pulling at my covers. “Come on, come on, Tommy, let’s go open up our presents. It’s Christmas!” We dashed upstairs, where Carmen and Melony were already waiting in their pajamas.

After some discussion about who’d wake Mom and Dad to bring out the room full of presents, we forcefully bestowed the honor on Carmen.

“Go on, and hurry up. We ain’t got all day.”

The ruffling of bags in the room was like music to our ears. Mom followed Carmen back into the living room carrying a black plastic trash bag. Our eyes gleamed like stars as we waited to get our hands on our first set of gifts.

“All right, all right, y’all calm down now,” Mom sternly said, while digging through the bag to pull out the first round of gifts.

“Okay, now that ya’ll are quiet we can begin. Melony here’s one for you—and you, and you, and you.” She handed each of us a six-inch teddy bear from the bag.

Now a teddy bear was cool, but we were now ready for the real stuff. “Thanks, Mom!” Melony said.

“Yeah, thanks, Mom!” Carmen, Martin, and I followed in unison behind Melony, battling each other to be first in line for the next gift.

The second gift out of the bag was a box of dominos for each of us, which we graciously accepted. By now the bag was completely empty, and we were ready to lead Mom back to the room to get the next bag of toys. After a little more battling for position for the next batch of items, we calmly stood in attention waiting for Mom to proceed back to the bedroom for more stuff.

And then, with a face of stone, Mom said, “That’s it. That’s all I have for y’all.” She fell to the floor in tears.

What! That’s it? What do you mean by ‘that’s all’?

We were in total shock, not knowing whether to be angry with her in the midst of this mind-blowing moment or to comfort her. Still hoping somehow that it was a joke, we jumped to the floor to comfort Mom. But there must be more. Come on, Mom,

you have to be kidding, right? You must have overlooked the other gifts in the room, I thought to myself, rubbing her back. “It’s okay,” I said.

On the inside of me, it wasn’t okay as I looked at the empty plastic bag lying crumpled on the floor. I was saddened and disappointed. She hadn’t overlooked bags of gifts in the other room. That really was it. So much for Christmas.

(Excerpt from A Face of Courage-The Tommy Watson Story)

Despite this negative 6th grade experience around Christmas, I held on to the belief that someday there would be a better Christmas for me. Now, with my wife and children, Christmas has become an amazing experience.

When we possess positive beliefs, thoughts, and emotions, we act more effectively in our lives despite any challenges. We tend to be more creative, motivated, and more helpful towards others. The amazing thing about the holiday season is that it creates great cheer for many, many people. This great cheer prompts us to think about others and how we can show acts of kindness. I noticed over the years following my disappointing 6th grade Christmas, that when I felt down and out, my focus was on the negative experience and myself. However, when I thought about helping others it wasn’t about me anymore and my zeal for the holiday season and life came alive.

Positive thoughts and emotions allow us to experience what the ancient Greeks referred to as eudemonia, which means flourishing or thriving. Barbara Fredrickson, a researcher on positive emotions, found that positive thoughts reduce negative emotions. Cultivating positive thought also strengthens our ability to be resilient, allowing us to better handle difficulty when it comes our way. Positive thoughts and emotions can help us during times of challenge as well. Researchers have found that resilient people are typically happier people

Prevention researchers have found that positive thoughts and emotions increase our courage, future thinking, optimism, interpersonal skills, faith, work ethic, honesty, and perseverance. Being positive and optimistic even increases our physical health (Peterson, 2000). Even in cases dealing with life-threatening illnesses, those who were optimistic survived longer than those who were not.

Positive thoughts and emotions produce enjoyment, rather than pleasure. Pleasure is about meeting an immediate need, like the desire to watch television. Enjoyment focuses on long-term growth and happiness, like the desire to read a book that may give you greater insights into money management.

So if you have a need for greater happiness in your life, start with your thoughts!

Questions to prompt positive thoughts and emotions during this holiday season:

1. What are 3 things that I am most happy about regarding myself?

2. Who are the people around me that bring me great joy?

3. Who is someone that I can bring great joy to during this holiday season?

Consider donating your time and resources during this holiday season to ensure that other children and families can experience a joyful Christmas despite their circumstances.

Until next time.

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