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Teaching Your Kids Positive Mental Attitude: Happiness Is a Choice

Happiness isn't something that happens to you. It's something you choose to be. And that fact isn't really a secret anyone's been keeping from you. But it takes a surprisingly long time for most people to realize it, if they ever do. Jeremy McInnis learned that powerful lesson at the young age of twenty. And ironically, he learned it from a boy half his age and halfway around the world.

After high school, Jeremy served in the U.S. Army National Guard's 1313th Engineer Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. In May 2012, his unit was deployed to Israel for search and extraction support during a period of the heavy Palestinian conflict. That meant when a bomb blew up and collapsed a building, Jeremy's job was to go in and pull out victims trapped inside.

One of the first times that happened after they arrived was in a five-story apartment building in Jerusalem. The 1313th was the first extraction team on the scene. Jeremy described the work this way: "These things turn into something that's not a building anymore, but not just a pile of rubble either. We used jackhammers to cut our way in until we found a tunnel to move through. Then we put up braces to maintain what little structure was left so we could get out the way we came in. We knew there was fifty thousand pounds of reinforced concrete over our heads ready to come down any minute."

Well, about six hours into the work, they found a room with a partially collapsed roof. In it was a barely conscious eleven-year-old boy just visible underneath his mother and father. His parents had obviously covered him with their own bodies as the building collapsed, which saved his life. But it cost them their own.

Well, after medical treatment, the boy was taken to an orphanage only a few blocks from where Jeremy's unit was stationed. What that meant was that each day for the next four or five days, Jeremy had to walk by the orphanage, and he would see the boy out in the yard playing with the other children. Jeremy recalls, "He was smiling, and laughing, and . . . happy. And I thought, 'How on earth can that be?' This kid just lost everything!" So at his next opportunity, Jeremy stopped to talk to the boy and find out. He asked him how he could be so happy and smiling all the time after what happened.

Jeremy told me, "He responded in impressive but broken English, and in a heavy Israeli accent, 'Because the sky is blue.'  " That didn't make sense to Jeremy, and it must have shown. So, the boy invited Jeremy to sit down and then continued, "It's something my father taught me repeatedly for as long as I can remember. 'Because the sky is blue' can be a reason for anyone to do anything, any time."

What he meant, Jeremy explained, is "it's like saying 'because it's Thursday,' or 'because I'm left-handed,' or even 'just because.'  " In other words, I don't really have a reason. Nor do I need one. It's just how I choose to be.

Think about that. That eleven-year-old boy had just lost his mother and father and every worldly possession they owned. And yet, he was happy and smiling simply because that's the way he chose to be. That's the secret Jeremy learned. Happiness isn't something that happens to you. It's a decision you make. It may be the most important legacy that the boy carries with him from his father. And now Jeremy carries it. And now maybe you carry it, too.

In fact, just to reinforce the point, here's another example a little closer to home, at least for me. If you had to pick the unhappiest place to work in a modern hospital, you'd be hard-pressed to suggest a better candidate than oncology, the cancer ward. Yet that's where my sister, Bobba, took her first job after finishing nursing school. Even for the survivors, cancer treatment can be gruesome. And imagine how hard it must be for the nurse who has to administer that treatment. On top of that, patients who didn't survive often stayed just long enough for a nurse to develop a genuine, caring relationship with them. And then that nurse has to watch her patient (and now friend) die, a process that gets repeated dozens of times a year. Not a place for the faint of heart.

So in oncology, the patients could rightly be expected to have short tempers and long faces and make for pretty unpleasant company. And, as you might expect, the more experienced nurses opt for other departments. So it shouldn't be too surprising that when Bobba got her first job offer as a nurse, it was for oncology. So that's where she started.

Now, to be sure, her first year had its share of tears. But it didn't seem to be the disagreeable place she expected. In fact, her patients were more peaceful, kind, and appreciative than their circumstances would seem to warrant, which seemed counterintuitive to me. So, she explained it this way: "Imagine if you knew you had two or three months to live. Suddenly it wouldn't matter if there was a wrinkle in the bed, or the room was cold, or if your eggs were runny. It matters if your grandkids get to visit, or if the nurse has a few minutes to look at your pictures or read a letter from home."

But she only came to really appreciate that outlook when she was later placed in a nursing pool and assigned to other departments on a rotating basis. "On other floors, you could have people in for short stays or even outpatient visits, people who were otherwise quite healthy and would be home in a few days or maybe just a few hours. And yet, they were the crabbiest people you could ever meet. I would think to myself. She said, 'Shut up! You don't have anything to complain about. So you have an ingrown toenail. You go spend one day in the cancer ward and tell me you have problems.' I couldn't wait to get back to oncology."

Every other ward of the hospital is mostly filled with people who come in knowing they're going to leave eventually. Some of them are just angry at the inconvenience of having to be there for a few hours. But in oncology, some of them are terminal and know they're not getting better. So being there isn't the burden that's keeping them from enjoying life.

The lesson is that your happiness is not a function of your circumstances. It's a function of your outlook on life. In other words, happiness is a choice. Those cancer patients are arguably in the worst circumstances imaginable. Yet they're the happiest people in the hospital. I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

So, if your children are habitually irritable or have a generally unpleasant demeanor, and blame it on their terrible lot in life, share this story with them. And then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Are you happy? Why or why not?

  2. When are you not happy? What do you think makes you unhappy?

  3. What if everything in your life was going to be exactly like it is during those times when you're unhappy, and you couldn't change it? What would you do?

  4. You may have heard that having a life-threatening illness can give you a different perspective on life. What do you think that means?

  5. If today was your very last day to live, what kind of things would you stop worrying about? What kind of things would you start worrying about?

  6. Do you think there are times where it's good to be unhappy?

Okay, the next lesson will help your child see how a positive attitude can help them learn better at school.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith