Choose Happiness

As Beyonce owned the stage—and the world for a moment—at last Sunday’s Superbowl, I got to thinking about leather, lace, awesomeness, and choices. I am light years from the fierce triple threat, but I too had a moment of Superbowl greatness. Some know the story and others (my very best!) were right there beside me in 1985 as the San Francisco 49ers battled the Miami Dolphins for the title at Superbowl XIX. I was 16 in a torn sweatshirt, nude nylon tights, Reebok high tops, and a ponytail higher than Bob Marley on the Devil’s lettuce. With heavy blue eye shadow and an abundance of sass we danced to a Flashdance mashup at frigid Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto as gusts shot from the north off the Bay piercing though our polyester leotards. Our high school dance team had faired well at state competition that year and we were asked to join an ensemble of dancers in some wholesome choreography sans pyrotechnics, indigo floor lighting with springing trap doors and larger than life video imaging. A diva-inspired power outage was incomprehensible.

I had no business being anywhere near the likes of Joe Montana, Dwight Clark or Dan Marino for that matter. My offensive lineman boyfriend at the time could barely contain his jealousy! We were young and fresh and blissfully unaware of our good fortune. To this day my children love to watch the halftime show with me and snidely comment about how I could have been a fly girl, or at least a back up dancer for Madonna, because “she’s really old”.  Ahhh, coulda, shoulda….

Truth is, I seriously considered studying and building a career in dance. And for all of you snivelers, my aspirations did not include a pole! I have no vocal talent so I would have struggled to find a life better than that of a troubadour in a traveling circus. My parents were pretty definitive about NOT sending me to UC Santa Barbara—the greatest party school on the west coast—to….dance. So, I chose to study Communications and English Literature. Could I have been a Laker girl like Paula or a fly girl on In Living Color like JLo? Doubtful. I do know that I wouldn’t have worked as an English teacher in South San Jose, or a writer in Silicon Valley or a fitness instructor, yoga teacher and trainer. I made a choice and I’m pretty sure it was the right one.

Perfection is Boring

My daughter, Hannelore, is a hardworking, self-driven student who places herself under plenty of pressure to achieve academically. This past fall, at the beginning of freshman year in high school, she auditioned for and was cast in a lead role that took much of her time. In addition, she performed with what I referred to as a ‘repertory theatre trifecta’ where cast members perform in two productions while stage crewing a third. These collective opportunities were priceless additions to her education as an actor and performer (she’s been doing this as long as her memory serves); and each unique performance equipped her with invaluable tools of the trade while challenging her time-management skills and stamina.

Closing night will bring a sigh of relief next weekend and Hanne will get her first breather in six months. The semester grades fell just a little short in one class and it pains me to watch my daughter beat herself up over the choice she made  to embrace this amazing opportunity that she earned—doing what she loves MOST. Having taught middle school and high school English I assure her constantly that higher education does not equal perfection. The problem is she is inundated with students, teachers and parents living in the pressure cooker of our uber-academic sub-culture that is frankly dangerous for our children, in my ever-so-humble opinion! (NOTE: If you have children see Race to Nowhere). I believe strongly that if you cannot do what you love alongside your studies you will surely not fair well in LIFE. Without a functional and happy LIFE how can we possibly teach our children to value school or grades or career!  A balance is necessary to feed your soul, and perfection is boring. She’s getting it.

“I have decided to be happy, because it’s good for my health.” ~Voltaire

Choices often happen deliberately, with methodical perseverance, but some are attained circumstantially or…organically. We must embrace this notion; our happiness relies upon it.

We choose. And most often we choose well and without regret. The unexpected will  emerge and we will continually be charged with navigating each serendipitous connection, challenge, obstacle, or adrenalin rush. Our happiness depends not so much upon the acts that we choose but our reactions  to what the universe presents. Our responses may be toned with indifference or emphatic confidence or even with subconscious affection, omissions or additions, but all are suited to realize an intended path or an outcome that serves us (and hopefully serves us well!).

Each of us knows someone who dwells on the negative, who turns a laser beam focus to the one unattainable or unavailable aspect of a situation while refusing to recognize the many gifts in a challenge or change. We all know takers: friends and loved ones who hold onto ‘expectations’ above all else, who are comforted by their chronic pessimism.

In researching “Happiness and Health” you will be relieved to know there are thousands of articles, legitimate scientific studies, illegitimate and non-scientific studies,  blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, cartoons, etc. on the subject. I won’t bore you with massive amounts of data attesting to what I’m sure you can predict I am about to claim, but there is one article that seems to sum it up tightly. Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publications (4/17/2012) posted “The happiness-health connection,” which states that:

“…scientific evidence suggests that positive emotions … have been linked with better health, longer life, and greater well-being in numerous scientific studies. On the other hand, chronic anger, worry, and hostility increase the risk of developing heart disease, as people react to these feelings with raised blood pressure and stiffening of blood vessels.”

The path to happiness does not simply dictate that you visualize a rainbow or a puppy until you smile. You must do the tough work of authentically, over time, creating a true positive outlook, incorporating relaxation techniques, and maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain (uh, obviously!). This may sound elementary to us committed optimists who know all too well about the physical damage that the stress hormone cortisol wreaks on our bodies (read my Spring 2011 installment: Is Stress Making You Fat? The Cortisol / Belly Fat Connection).

Briefly, the “pathways to happiness” described in the Harvard report are as follows:

  • Feeling Good: “seeking pleasurable emotions or sensations, from the hedonistic model of happiness put forth by Epicurus.” Try scheduling YOURSELF on your ‘to do’ list and get some exercise, practice yoga, climb a mountain, swim in the ocean. Endorphins from exercise allow you to achieve this ‘feeling’ and you don’t even have to remove your clothes!
  • Engaging Fully: full immersion in everyday activities. Researchers in the study “dubbed this state or intense absorption, flow.” I suggest yoga, meditation, and silence as a conduit to help you attain this state.
  • Doing Good: Find meaning outside of yourself. Altruism = Euphoria. Choose Happiness.

But Sometimes We Have No Choice

Unfortunately, some choices are not at all deliberate, circumstantial or even fathomable, for that matter. My gorgeous friend, all-around awesome chick, and fellow yogi, Catherine, did not expect to be blindsided by her husband of 20 years when he stoically reported on a chilly October evening that he would be leaving her after the holiday season that year and there was no need for therapy and nothing she could say or do to change his mind. She didn’t rise immediately from the ashes of this crushing news, but somehow, after some searching and acceptance and reflection she re-discovered herself as more open-hearted, less judgmental, and even more self-actualized than before. She knew her choice to follow a loving path through her divorce was the right one.

Catherine is a divine and glowing example of perseverance through love and loss. Because of her unwavering adoration for her family, her resolve, and her positive outlook, Catherine—a very successful stylist and wedding planner (CBS Life Stylist:—dug deep to never lose sight of her passion for her work and raising her boys, even in her darkest hours. Uhhg…the sound of Debussy on a church organ or The Chicken Dance must have been nauseating.

I remember the anger I felt the day she told me her story, months after the weight and reality of her situation had set in for her. It was new to me in that moment and I was fuming. I found her comforting me,  explaining she was going to be fine because she had her boys and she had herself.  There was not one expletive in her description of her feelings toward her husband (of course I did not show as much restraint!). She simply claimed that she loved him in marriage and would love him through their divorce. Wait a minute…WHAT!?  She not only survived and persevered, she is without a doubt in a better place today, publishing a book about her experience (Love Never Goes Away), living her authentic life with her boys and amazing new husband, Brian, who is the lucky recipient of my fabulous friend. I have trudged alongside a handful of friends as they maneuvered through the fog of bitter, angry separations that I came to find were never one-sided, but a collective dissolution of marriage spread equally among the former partners. Catherine rose above the fray and chose instead to fight for her happiness first; and from there she created her own destiny.

I am blessed to have resilient people like Catherine in my life who chose not only survival but happiness  in the face of fear, illness, loss, or loneliness. I’ve known parents of children with severe life-altering conditions, some of whom did not survive; cancer fighters who don’t deny the gravity of their diagnoses, but peacefully resist and push through with strength and light and love; and, I’ve known amazing partners of friends who passed much too early.

We don’t choose the challenges life throws at us. We don’t even choose who we love. But we do know when we feel  love, and with that feeling is the motivation and drive to live  for our loved ones, the desire to find love in the fractures, and to choose happiness.


19 Responses to Choose Happiness

  1. Amy Chope says:

    Great article, Cuzzz!! Keep ’em coming! (:

  2. Catherine says:

    Beautiful. You are a gifted writer and wonderful friend.

  3. Janice says:

    I love that you choose to write, informed by your own happiness gauge I expect. It can be such a mystery why we love certain things, often unconscious, but we do. And it works. Go Hannelore! Go Julie!

  4. Christie says:

    Beautifully written and so inspiring. It was the perfect thing for me to read this morning. 🙂

  5. Elizabeth Allan says:

    Very motivational and inspiring Julie. Thanks for reaffirming my belief in the power of Love!

  6. Sandi says:

    Bravo, talented and insightful Ju!

  7. Dean says:

    Julie, you did it again, brought tears to my eyes. The message is not new. The delivery is beautiful and compelling. It reveals the healing forces of the Positive. Your most biased fan, Dad

  8. Maryanne says:

    Julie – so inspirational and well written .. thanks for sharing this

  9. Linda Sandstrom says:

    Julie, thank you for sending this for me to read. I still have a short story you wrote that was inspired by Joe’s annual summer visits with his grandparents. I can still smell the bacon and eggs when I read about Chris and Joe making their way from the upstairs bedroom to the kitchen in Idaho to behold such a nice breakfast awaiting them. Much better than cold cereal in San Jose! I always hoped that you would keep writing — it is a gift. Please keep sending. You are special.

    Linda Sandstrom

    • Julie Manriquez says:

      Linda…..what a treat to hear from you on this piece in particular! At times, 1985 doesn’t seem all that long ago. Wishing you, Ron, Chris and Joe (and extended families:) all the very best. I still remember Dave the cat lounging with all us at the townhouse in Saratoga and Chris stopping over with Schmuck the dog while you and Ron made ‘healthy’ muffins for breakfast 🙂

  10. Ruthie says:

    love this, ju! “Our happiness depends not so much upon the acts that we choose but our reactions to what the universe presents”…keep shouting it out!!!

  11. Lyn Denend says:

    What a great reminder to finds ways to recapture the feelings we had out on that SuperBowl XIX field! It’s funny how we sometimes need work at happiness when it used to come so naturally. Thanks for making this all top of mind…

    • Julie Manriquez says:

      Lynni, you are right…we certainly didn’t have to ‘work’ at being happy on that bitchin’ day in ’85!! “What a Feelin…” xo

  12. Hanne Manriquez says:

    Great article mom! this makes me feel much better about the decision’s i have made.

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