Don't You Deserve to Be Happy?

1995 Steve John Eric.jpg

This is one of those times when I'm not sure I can actually get what I'm feeling inside of me onto paper, but I'll go ahead and give it a try. I find it's harder to verbalize my thoughts into language once I start feeling emotional and I'm feeling emotional because I started thinking about my uncle Steve. 

Uncle Steve was perhaps my favorite relative from my extended family when I was growing up. We'd see him a couple of times per year and I remember it being so fun every time. We'd do cool activities and I recall him always being very smiley and enthusiastic. My aunt was generally present as well, but my uncle Steve seemed to energetically be the driving force behind all the excitement. 

Since I was so much younger, I didn't understand at the time what Steve was going through mentally. I didn't understand that smiles can hide a deep sadness. 

Looking back on it now, I remember hearing stories about addiction lingering just beneath the surface. I didn't realize that he and my aunt may have been alcoholics, but I do remember them telling me a story that I thought was funny at the time. Instead of completely giving up alcohol, they had decided to only drink at meal times with their food. Soon they found themselves having multiple beers with breakfast each morning.

As a child I thought the picture of someone drinking beer with their breakfast was quirky and funny. Now that very picture perfectly encapsulates the concept of addiction in my mind. Metaphorically, I don't want to be the person who drinks beer at breakfast. [Note - alcohol has never been my vice of choice, but the picture still emotionally resonates with me somehow because I think it conveys how hopeless and pitiful addiction can feel at times.] I think they both got their drinking under control, but to be honest I'm not completely sure. I was simply too young to access all the details at the time and to understand what was happening around me. 

From what I understand from talking to my mom now, Steve had been an art dealer by trade (fine art I think) but had always dreamed of owning his own flower shop. It seems like a bit of an odd goal to me, but to Steve evidently it had been hugely important. He really disliked his art job and would constantly dream of the day he would own his own flower shop.

In the interim, the couple had kids (a delightful set of twins). Delightful but also tiring since the sound of one of them crying would cause the other one to cry. The end result was near constant wailing from the infants. Reading between the lines in retrospect, I'm wondering if there were preexisting marital problems that they were both trying to resolve by having the kids. Intellectually, I understand that's something people try to do sometimes. 

I'm not completely sure about the timing; it may have been a bit before the birth of the twins or a bit afterwards, but either way, one day Steve did quit his job and buy a flower shop. 

Unfortunately, he was not good at running a flower shop. In fairness, I don't think he had ever been an entrepreneur before and it's a skill that really takes practice. Again, I was too young to really understand the financial details, but in what seemed like no time, my aunt and uncle had lost the flower shop. I want to say it only lasted six months, but it very well could have been longer. I experienced all of this was from afar in another city. 

In retrospect, I can only imagine the stress of losing money at a new business while also trying to raise two young children. But more importantly, Steve lost his dream. He always used to be able to say to himself: "Sure, my life sucks, but when I get the flower shop, I'll be happy and my life will be great." Once Steve did get the flower shop and things still weren't great, at some level he had to face the possibility that things were never going to be great. Perhaps things were never going to work out for him in the way that he wanted. Now I know that's a dangerous mental place to be. 

I wish I could go back in time and save my uncle Steve's life. I wish I had the chance to share what I've learned since that time: that anyone can choose to be happy, right now, no matter what their circumstances. You don't have to go out and achieve to be happy. You don't have to go out and acquire things to be happy. You just need to make the choice that you are going to learn to be happy and then systematically take the time to start engaging in healthy thought patterns. Healthy thoughts lead to more healthy thoughts. 

Conversely, unhealthy thoughts lead to a death spiral where someone gives up and hangs themselves in their garage. I happened to be holding my aunt when she received the news and I remember it like it was yesterday: a mother falling to pieces because now her children were going to be fatherless. She kept repeating over and over again "just two little boys with no daddy" as her body shook from the pain of her loss.  

I wish I could go back to the past as an adult and meditate with Steve. I wish I could show him about affirmations and using exercise to kickstart healthy internal brain chemicals. I wish I could hug him one more time. And he's not my only family member that I've lost to this hopelessness that can descend on any one of us if we aren't careful. 

Since then, and it's been a long and winding road, I've dedicated myself to learning how to be happy. I've learned that happiness isn't achieving some goal or acquiring some thing; it's a way of relating to yourself (and, by extension, to others). It's about being patient with yourself and granting yourself understanding, even when it comes to your weaker qualities. You are a person, an imperfect person, and that's ok. 

I've founded a company called Aspire Healthy Living to systematically explore this concept of happiness and to share it with as many people as possible. When I look around at our society, I see a lot of people who seem to feel disconnected and unfulfilled. I want to help those people. If sharing Steve's experience could save one person, I'd feel really good about that. 

We all want to be happy but many of are confused about specifically what would be required to make that happen. So it's easy to simply fall into the trap of thinking that getting rich (or whatever) is our goal, rather than an internal mental feeling. I think systematically moving towards consistent happiness is actually very simple but it does require a plan for yourself. 

Happiness is healthy mental processes plus a healthy body. Having a healthy body helps produce happy mental processes and vice versa. They effect and compliment one another. Happy mental processes would include both how you relate to yourself and how you relate to others. We ideally want to fire that internal critic living in our heads that just seems to criticize us all the time. We also want to feel closely connected with others in a tight-knit community. These are turbocharged via eating healthy foods and living an active lifestyle.

I also hold a very strong conviction that over time there are certain changes to society we can make to help encourage a default experience of happiness rather than unhappiness. If we build a world more in tune with nature which enables us to connect more deeply to one another, your average person just is going to be happier. Aspire is on a mission to build that future.

This is the beginning of an ongoing series that I'm writing to fully explore this concept of happiness. How can you learn to be happy? Is there a way to do it without spending money and without having to achieve some hugely difficult change in life circumstances? I think so and we're going to explore that at a deep level. 

But in the meantime, I think it's important for everyone to understand that happiness is a choice. If you aren't feeling happy, you can decide to make a change. You can decide to learn how to make your experience of your own life awesome. Isn't that what we all really want anyway?