The Importance of Being Happy
The option of “choosing happiness” may be a forgotten key in the quest to create a more sustainable – and happier – human family
An Interview with Barry Neil Kaufman
by Alan AtKisson
Reprinted from IN CONTEXT A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture #31
The number of people in the world – 5.3 billion and growing – is not just a number. It’s a symbol for 5.3 billion unique and individual lives being experienced all over planet Earth, lives that are marked by blessing and disaster, joy and despair. Is happiness, for every one of our human siblings, inevitably linked to physical and social circumstances? Or is it an ever-present possibility, reachable by a simple decision?
Barry Neil Kaufman believes that Happiness Is a Choice, as the title of his new book boldly proclaims. Kaufman – “Bears” to all who know him, for his size and bear-hugs – is the author of Son-Rise (the story of his son Raun’s recovery from supposedly incurable autism) and seven other books, as well as the co-founder and co-director of the Option Institute, a teaching center in Sheffield, Massachusetts. He and his colleagues live and teach the belief that we can be happy, and teach others how to be happy, in any situation. Should this claim seem only mildly outrageous, Kaufman goes further and suggests making happiness our number one priority.
Kaufman explains his thinking – backed up by two decades of teaching and personal experience, especially with the families of special needs children – in the following telephone interview. Why is a lengthy look at the nature of happiness included in an issue an population and family planning? Because it’s impossible to imagine that a global family of any size will be sustainable if it isn’t happy – and cultivating true happiness may indeed be a major key to achieving sustainability.
Alan: Population, more than any other single issue, often gets the blame for all the rest of our social and environmental problems. It tops many people’s list of things we should be doing something about. But here you come along and say that cultivating happiness is what we should be doing something about. What do you mean by that?
Bears: I think the population explosion – as a place to focus, as a core belief that this is the main problem we need to solve – is actually a distraction. Let me explain why, and why I would say that there is perhaps nothing more pertinent than choosing happiness.
When I use the word “happiness,” I’m thinking of something that other people might use different words to express. They might say “peace of mind” or “inner ease.” Some might say “communion with God.” Some might say “a sense of self-fulfillment.” Whatever the wording, we know what it feels like inside of ourselves when we have a sense of comfort, peacefulness, centeredness, solidity. I call that happiness.
Now, if you look at the social and political changes occurring throughout the world now – all the people sitting down at the table and trying to restructure their relationships by designing new countries, new political boundaries, new political and social philosophies – there is one thing that becomes chronically obvious. People are trying to redesign the external structures by which they relate to themselves, but they’re bringing to the table what I call the many faces of unhappiness. What you hear are accusations, judgments, calls for revenge and retribution. Ironically, it is with hearts and minds heavy with discomfort and displeasure that they are trying to hone a better external relationship. For that reason, a lot of those conversations and negotiations are perhaps destined to fail – either at the tables themselves, or in the structure that they ultimately design – because they’re not designed by people who are approaching that table happily, comfortably, and open heartedly.
I sometimes wish I could work with such people and help them to be truly present and non-judgmental. I’d want to help them prioritize being comfortable in themselves before they got to the table. With that perspective, not only would they be much more productive, they’d also be able to hone structures that would serve more effectively.
Alan: Happiness Is a Choice is a rather bold title. How did you come to write such a book?
Bears: For about 20 years my wife and I have been teaching people this extraordinarily simple but life-transforming idea. Whether they’re dealing with a diagnosis of cancer, with being the parents of a special needs child, with divorce or financial difficulties or lack of employment, whatever the circumstances, we teach people that happiness is a choice, and choosing happiness on a sustained basis has enormous dividends and benefits.
Now, when I started to explore this point of view many years ago, I was as big a resistor as anybody else. I was constantly blaming others for the way I was feeling. There was some comfort in that, but at the same time, it was a trap. The trap was giving over my power to what other people said, to what other people did, to the circumstances around me – and becoming a victim.
We teach people how not to be victims. We show them how to think differently, and also to speak differently. After coming to one of our workshops, they might say things like, “When you’re late for an appointment, I get myself frustrated. When you ignore me, I get myself angry and upset.” That ownership of their feelings, describing themselves as the designer and architect of their responses, gives them and everybody else an amazing opportunity – because if we can design our responses one way, it suggests that we have the power to redesign them if we so choose, and to experience things quite differently. In fact, we’re omnipotent in that respect.
We have been taught and brought up systematically to use unhappiness to take care of ourselves, but we can systematically unlearn those lessons. We can choose again in a very different way, with a lot more productive results.
Alan: What do you mean when you say we’re trained to use our unhappiness to to care of ourselves?
Bears: Most of us have been brought up to utilize unhappiness as a motivator. If we want to lose weight, we get uncomfortable about the rolls of our belly or the size of our buttocks and thighs, as a way to judge something and motivate ourselves to diet. We frighten ourselves out of smoking cigarettes using threats of emphysema and lung cancer. And I’ve worked with so many parents who talk about yelling at and hitting their children as a way to motivate them to change.
So we use discomfort to move ourselves, and when that discomfort becomes more intense, we’re not simply angry with ourselves, we’re angry with someone else. Next, we’re no longer simply angry with them, but perhaps we’re picking up a stick or a knife or a gun. So to me it’s clear that the solution – globally, socially, and politically – is not simply designing social, political, or market-driven systems based on the current fantasy of what works, but really helping people change their attitude about how they live with themselves, their families, their communities, their countries, the world.
Alan: You mentioned earlier that we have a certain kind of omnipotence in terms of having the power to choose how we feel. Yet most people’s experience is that they’re up against some external omnipotent forces – social, political, economic – that make “choosing happiness” very difficult, if not impossible. What do you say to somebody who’s feeling caught up in the tide of social unhappiness, or controlled by external structures?
Bears: You know, we can take a finger and point at anything. We can point to the economy, social prejudice, bigotry, and say these are the reasons that we are unhappy. But we’re not unhappy because of those things. We’re unhappy because of the way we choose to see them and experience them. That results in what looks like unhappiness and despair. I’ll give you an example. Over the years we’ve adopted children that other people perhaps see as unadoptable – children who came from areas of great poverty, great nutritional deprivation, who were abused physically and in other ways. These were kids who people said would be very hard to change and socialize. But that has not been our experience, not only with the children who became part of our family, but with anybody we work with.
As a result, we have a mixed-race family – Caucasian blood, Hispanic blood, South American Indian blood, and African-American blood. Sometimes our children get exposed to what people would call “racial prejudice” or “ethnic slurs.” Once, my two oldest daughters took one of my young sons to a pizza restaurant. This little guy is a mixture of all kinds of blood – he gets very black during the summer, he has very wide lips and a thick nose. He’s the cutest, most wonderful little munchkin. They were with some teenage friends, and one of them said, ‘Oh, are you baby-sitting for that little boy?” And one of my daughters said, “No, he’s our brother.” She explained about when he was adopted – how he couldn’t roll over or move, how he was thought to be brain-impaired, how our family worked with him for two or three years. Now he’s doing great – he’s in the third grade and getting A’s. She was really excited to tell the family story.
Then the other teenager said, “Oh. So you mean essentially your brother’s a Spic.” This came out of nowhere. Now, the daughter who was speaking suddenly jumped up and grabbed this other youngster and screamed, ‘Don’t you ever talk about my brother like that! How dare you!” She got very upset and really angry – unhappy. Now, on the other side of this little boy was another one of my daughters, and when she heard that commentary about her brother, she started to laugh. Later, when they all returned to the house, we got all the children together to talk about the event and how all the kids felt about it. Interestingly enough, the daughter who ran to defend her brother’s honor felt that what the speaker was saying meant something about her brother, and therefore she had to defend him. But the other daughter thought that the speaker’s words meant something not about her brother but about the speaker – she thought it was rather silly and funny that somebody would be prejudiced in the first place, and especially against this little boy. That’s why she laughed.
Both of these young girls were part of the same experience, yet they had two dramatically different responses to it, because they saw it in different ways. We ended up realizing as family that words are only as powerful as you make them. If somebody says something ethnically prejudiced to you, and you give that word power, unhappiness might result. However, if you didn’t give those words any power, you could not only still be comfortable in front of them and know they mean nothing about you, but you could actually – out of your happiness – still be loving of the speaker and maybe even helpful in teaching the speaker how to see things in a different way.
Alan: The attitude you’re describing is what some might call a spiritually advanced attitude – the kind of awareness that some people pray or meditate for years to attain. How is it possible to develop that kind of attitude quickly, and on one’s own?
Bears: In Happiness is a Choice, we have taken the best of what we have learned from working with people for twenty years – people who want to adopt a loving, accepting, embracing attitude – and encapsulated it in such a way as to create ultimately what we call the “Six Shortcuts to Happiness.” These are simple perspectives that we can implement in our lives to make changes quickly and immediately – things like letting go of judgments and being present in the moment.
Let me give some background. Most of us in this culture were brought up under the umbrella of certain perspectives on personal psychology. Perhaps the biggest umbrella was the Freudian one, which says that most of us are dominated deep inside by a cauldron of steaming feelings called the unconscious or the subconscious. It’s difficult to deal with, part of it’s unknowable, and you spend your life trying to cope with it. The more humanistic, updated version of that philosophy, which is just as prevalent, is what I would call the notion of the dysfunctional family: something happened to you in your past, and that’s why you are the way you are. You search for and try to save the wounded inner child, and maybe you’ll be able to save a portion of yourself.
But whether we point to an unknowable interior, or point to the distant past, we lay blame on that for how we’re feeling and how we’re behaving right now.
That’s simply another victimizing perspective. When you do that, you’re giving up an aspect of your self-empowerment and attributing it to things either gone by or things outside of your control. We teach people that if you have a perspective, a set of beliefs, you can change those beliefs quickly and immediately – and if you do, not only will your feelings change, your behaviors will change as well.
Let me give you another example. A man came to one of our workshops, also entitled ‘Happiness Is a Choice,’ and he reported that his wife would scream at him and be angry much of the time. In response, he would get angry right back. I asked him, in the context of the workshop, why he did that. He looked around at the others and said, “Because if I don’t get angry, I’ll end up being a wimp or a doormat.” Then he started to laugh. He said, “You know, I never won an argument with my wife by being angry at her. I don’t want to do that anymore.” So I asked him, “What do you want to do?” He said, “I just want to feel differently, no matter what she says. I want to prioritize feeling good with her no matter what she does.” Would he do that? He looked at me and smiled and said, “Yes.” He left.
Four days later he came back and shared a rather wondrous story. The night after the workshop completed, his wife started screaming at him. He looked at her lovingly and said, in a gentle voice, “Nothing you say or do will diminish my love or good feelings about you.” She huffed and walked away. Later she screamed at him again and he looked her right in the eye and said exactly the same thing. He continued to do this over the next three or four days no matter what she did. He said it was very exciting for him because she wasn’t changing, and the circumstance hadn’t changed, but just by making that simple decision of positioning himself differently and seeing things differently, he was already having a much better time. He felt his whole emotional make-up had changed just by creating that situation.
On the fourth day his wife said to him, “Listen, Buster, we have to talk. On the first day when you said that to me, I wanted to kill you. On the second I still wanted to kill you. But by the fourth day, I was genuinely touched that no matter what I did, you wanted to feel good about me.” He said that conversation and several subsequent conversations resulted in dramatically changing their relationship for the better.
The process is simple: it’s based on deciding. It’s based on choice. That’s why we say “Happiness is a choice, and misery is optional, not inevitable.”
Alan: What’s the difference between “changing one’s beliefs” and denial? When does “choosing happiness” become the opiate of the masses?
Bears: Let me tell you a story that was a key turning point in my own life. For three years, my wife and I had been teaching the Option Process, a simple method for helping people become happier, even in the face of great difficulties. We saw it as wonderfully therapeutic and educational. Then something happened in our lives: Our third child was diagnosed as irreversibly neurologically damaged and impaired. He was labeled as autistic. He didn’t look at people. He didn’t acquire language. He basically spun in circles and rocked on the floor all day. He was also tested as having an under-30 IQ, considered severely retarded.
When we started to search around the country – in fact, around the world – for some help and input, what people kept saying was, “Oh my God, this is terrible. It’s awful that it happened to you. Thank God you have two healthy children. You might as well start to get used to the idea of putting this little boy in an institution, because there’s not much you can do with him.” I remember saying to my wife, “Listen, we’ve been teaching people that you can switch your perspectives any time you want and create a different response to circumstances. Could we take this very dramatic, seemingly difficult personal circumstance and change it – or at least start by changing the way we looked at it?”
Some time later a physician said to us, “It’s really terrible that this happened to you.” I looked at him and I looked at my child, and I said, “He’s very different, he’s very bizarre, but he’s beautiful, he’s peaceful, and he’s gentle. I think there’s something wonderful in his uniqueness, in his differentness.” The doc said he thought I was in denial because I wasn’t acting “appropriately” – uncomfortable and distraught. At another clinic they told us our son was uneducable, and we said “He’s breathing – there’s always hope.” They shook their heads, again to say that we were in denial. Then another group of clinicians said to us, “There’s really nothing you or we can do.” So my wife and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s make up something to do.”
As a result of that choice, we developed and designed our own program for our child based on love and acceptance. We worked with him twelve hours a day, seven days a week for over three and a half years. He not only emerged from his so-called irreversible and hopeless condition, he became an extraordinarily extroverted, highly verbal, intelligent and socially interactive youngster. Just six months ago he graduated from high school as a high honors student, and be is now attending one of the finest universities in the United States.
What those doctors thought was an “appropriate response” to the situation is what I would call paralysis. Here at the Option Institute, we teach people not to be “realistic” in the way that society demands, but to be unrealistic. “Realistic” means functioning within accepted norms of what’s possible and impossible, so that your behavior is appropriate to the accepted collective mindset. If I had been realistic with my son, he would no doubt be rocking back and forth in his own feces in some nameless institution instead of being a straight ‘A’ student, a member of the debating club, and a fine tennis player and skier.
Alan: So in your experience, the social teaching that we must react with unhappiness in the face of suffering and misfortune disempowers us to respond effectively.
Bears: Absolutely. We were taught to react that way, and we systematically teach our children to do it all the time. For example, one holiday season I was with my family in a food market, waiting to check out. There was a little girl in the next line who was trying to grab some of the candy that her mother was about to purchase. The mother pushed the candy to the other side of the cart and said “No, not now, you can’t have it.”
This little girl started to cry, and then to scream, and everybody was looking at her. Suddenly, the store Santa Claus pushed through the lines, reached the center of the commotion, whipped out a chocolate candy cane and delivered it right into this little girl’s hand. While the tears were still flowing down her cheeks, she immediately stopped crying and broke into a big smile. Everybody nearby went “Aww, isn’t that wonderful,” and a woman behind us said rather boisterously, “Santa Claus saved the day!”
One of my daughters, who was thirteen at the time, looked up at me and said “Papa, Santa Claus didn’t save the day. Santa Claus just taught her that by yelling and screaming, she gets something. So guess what she’s gonna do in the next store?” In effect, we teach that lesson over and over again. Part of why we do that – and this might sound ironic – is because people are afraid of their unhappiness, and so they are also afraid of it in their children. They try to protect children from feeling uncomfortable, but that emotional protection actually fuels the belief that feeling and expressing discomfort is the best way to get our needs met. It doesn’t work that way. Misery just breeds more misery.
Alan: And sometimes more babies. One thing that stands out in reviewing the literature on family planning and population is that people who don’t have a sense of community and trust – who don’t feel loved and cared for by society, or economically empowered to take care of themselves – have more children. The only people they can traditionally trust are their immediate family, so they have a bigger one. How can we begin to care for other people’s children, and increase the amount of love and trust flowing across family lines?
Bears: Here at the Option Institute and Fellowship, we do a lot of work with families, especially families with special children. Parents are always amazed, they tell us, at how loving all the staff are – how “their love seems so incredibly real and tangible when they reach out towards my child. I don’t understand how this is possible,” they say sometimes, “because they don’t know my child.” Maybe this story can explain it.
As a way to express our gratitude for our work with our one special son, my wife and I decided to adopt other children who wouldn’t otherwise have the same kind of chance. We were called by an orphanage where we had once worked, and they said, “We don’t normally make a call like this, but there’s this little guy here who needs a very special environment. We feel that nobody will probably ever take him. He’s about five years old, and we think maybe he would thrive or at least survive if you would consider adopting him.” So I asked about his circumstance, and they said his mother died when he was two and a half, and about three or four months later his father got very upset for some reason and decided to kill this child by slitting his throat twice with a knife.
The little boy survived. The father was ultimately imprisoned, and the little boy was put in an orphanage. He ended up in the back wards, because he would go to sleep standing up. Although his vocal cords were intact, he wouldn’t speak very much. He seemed strange and different.
So this woman from the orphanage asked me, “Well, what do you want to do?” And I said, “Based on what you’re telling me, we’d be happy to take him.” “Don’t you want to talk to your wife?” she asked, and I answered, “I’ll talk to her later, but I’m sure it will be fine.” “Well, do you want me to send you a photograph?” “That won’t be necessary.” She didn’t believe me, so I said, “Is this a beauty contest? Because for me it’s not, so it doesn’t matter how he looks.” And then she said, “Well, you could meet him first to see if you would like him.” This is what I told her: “Since I know liking someone is a decision, I don’t have to meet him. I’m deciding right now on the telephone with you that I’m not only going to like him, I’m going to love him. I’m just going to decide to do that.”
I spoke to my wife later that evening and told her about this little boy, and asked her whether we wanted to take him. She said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And I said, “We already did, five hours ago,” and we laughed together about that.
Several months later, after all the paperwork was done, we were at JFK airport in New York City. I was standing behind a rope in the International arrivals building. People were coming off this plane from South America, I was looking over the rope, and I immediately recognized one of the people from the orphanage. I saw him holding this skinny little boy in one hand. I got incredibly excited, so I jumped over the rope and he spotted me – and so did this little boy. I came towards them, knelt on one of my knees, opened my arms, and the little boy broke from the person from the orphanage and started to run towards me. It seemed as if time was in slow motion. In those few seconds it took him to cross the aisle to get to me, I looked at this child I’d never seen before, and I made him incredibly familiar. I looked at a little boy who was going to be my child, and I realized that I was making the decision, as he was moving towards me, to love him. And I felt a power of love when he jumped into my arms that was as sincere and as deep and as abiding as my love for any of my other children – and I have six children, some of whom had lived with me for fourteen, fifteen, eighteen years. There was an incredible lesson in that for me, which was that love doesn’t take any time.
You don’t have to know somebody to love somebody. You don’t have to have a certain kind of chemistry between people in order to open your heart and open your mind to love them. Love, like happiness, is a decision. And when I realized that, I felt I knew something about loving people that I had never quite understood before. In our work, we teach people that you can make those kinds of decisions and those kinds of choices.
So how do you teach somebody to open their hearts and minds not only to their own children – and that’s really the place to begin – or to the childness of themselves, but to children around them? Children of different races, nationalities, ages, whatever? I say we begin by finding a happy, loving place in ourselves. Because once we can do it for ourselves, we can turn toward somebody else and do it. The erroneous path is trying to reach out and love another before we learn to love ourselves. It begins inside. We make those changes inside.