I want to be happy and I want my family to be happy. And I was doing a damn good job of happiness until Wednesday afternoon when I heard my wife weeping in our bedroom after what seemed like an intense phone call. She had just learned a close cousin of hers had been diagnosed with cancer. She was inconsolable. It was clearly not a time for happiness. The gravity of the situation pulled a dark cloud over our home. I say this know it will sound odd, but the change in mood was almost a relief. I’d only been pretending to be happy. In my defense, I wasn’t pretending to be happy as a form of subterfuge. I was pretending to be happy in an attempt to actually be happy.
It’s not that my family and I weren’t happy. I suppose we were as happy as any other middle-class family with two working parents. Which is to say, we weren’t as happy as our social media posts would imply, but we were doing fine. Between the stress and the chaos of parenting and work, there were the occasional moments of mirth and the odd hours-worth of smiles.
But I wanted to be happier. I wanted the family to live a life of positivity and joy. I wanted to increase the happiness.
There is an idea in psychology that is sometimes called the “as if” theory. The idea is that when you want to change your brain you should act “as if” it were already changed. This is the “fake it ‘till you make it” method of self-improvement, and there are actually studies to back it up. For instance, research has shown that the act of smiling can actually make people happier and that when shy people act as if they’re confident they can often become truly confident.
Some of the reason this works is physiological — smiling causes the brain to release neurotransmitters that are consistent with happiness. But some of it is social too — when you act happy, other people will respond in happy ways, creating a feedback loop.
It made sense, then, at least in theory, that if I could pretend to be happy, I might actually be happy. And my family, seeing me happy, would respond in kind. Virtuous cycles can be ridden uphill.
I started the experiment on the weekend. I rose into a Saturday morning with unrelenting happiness and positivity. No matter how grumpy my kids were, I smiled. No matter how exhausted my wife was, I offered comfort. I gave them all the old bright side. But it’s not like I was going full Pollyanna. I pumped the brakes. Still, it was a noticeable change and my wife was genuinely pleased. She didn’t question it and I was happy because I didn’t want to tell her what I was doing lest I taint the results of my experiment.
The weekend, it turned out was pretty darn pleasurable. I’m sure some of that was intentionally resisting bad attitudes when they did occasionally pop up. Instead of reacting, I’d smile and point out what a lovely fall day it was. I’d point out how nice it was we were all together. I’d nod my head and say something sage-like, “this too shall pass,” or some such bullshit.
Was I feeling happier? Not necessarily. But I was having fun pretending.
Then, Monday evening threw me a curveball. The kids had come home from school in a terrible mood. They were whiney and crying. They argued. They begged for snacks. And my mask started slipping. I fought as the corners of my mouth were pulled downwards. I tried to laugh it off and give my boys encouragement. But I caught myself sounding slightly unhinged.
“Put a smile on your face, boys! The world isn’t so bad!” I was nearly yelling into their faces. “Cheer the hell up!”
It should come as no surprise that this didn’t work — not for them and not for myself. By the time my wife came home from work, I was in danger of aborting the experiment altogether. But then I had an epiphany. Before storytime, I announced to the family that we would not be reading the story until everyone had stated 15 things they were happy about.
“Too many things!” the boys protested.
“I’ll start,” I said, rattling off a list that as I spoke it, turned out to be genuine. My dog and my family, my beautiful boys and our house, my wife and my job — all of these things did really make me happy. My eldest son went next. “When the dog falls off the couch … “ he said, giggling.
With each thing the mood lifted. By the time my wife finished her list, we were all smiling and laughing. And, contrary to every indication that afternoon, storytime and bedtime were an absolute treat. Maybe there was something to this. Because the next day I didn’t feel like I was pretending. I felt happy. Really happy. So did the rest of my family. Plus, frankly, they seemed to just like me more.
But then, on Wednesday, the cancer news came. Happiness left the building.
But interestingly, what I found, was that while darkness had come, it didn’t linger. When I held my wife and offered consolation and comfort, I was operating from a foundation of contentment. Yes, this was bad. But also, I knew we’d get through it. Because all of those things I listed on Monday night before storytime? All of those things were still there. And all of those things my wife had listed were still there too.
I realized that maybe I’d come into the week with the wrong idea. It’s not that I needed to be happy all of the time. It’s just that I needed to give the happiness I already had its due. Faking happiness helped me actually focus on the things that already made me happy. And when I parented from the knowledge of that happiness, things got easier.
In all honesty, the cloud is still hanging over the house. And it might remain for some time. But sometimes you need to make room for sadness. It doesn’t mean that happiness has been lost.