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Shifting Gears / Spring: A time to turn to happiness

Updated 1:15 pm, Tuesday, March 19, 2013
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Spring is not around the corner -- it's here Wednesday. The birds know it. So do the buds. And we know it, too. I'm not sure if all seasons have a defining emotion. But if spring does, it must be happiness. It is cushioned by optimism and hope, an awareness of resilience and an eagerness to live.

Winter's been tough -- so many losses -- for some almost beyond bearing. Autumn, too, was hard.

We're climbing out the other side. Billboards on I-95 say simply, "Sandy Hook chooses love." People are returning to their homes near the water. Many trees have been cut down, jagged edges blunted, and sunshine is visiting places long shaded.

An article in "the Atlantic," sent to me by a young friend with reason to be both sad and grateful, is about the usefulness of optimism.

Noting two good, recent movies -- "The Life of Pi" and "Silver Linings Playbook" -- the theme for both is about how we choose to look at the events that happen to us.

Terrible things happen in the life of Pi. The story he tells is one full of life within the natural world, fraught with danger and respect for the nature of nature, of resilience and, ultimately, the happiness that comes with accepting what is. The story he doesn't tell is one of depravity and cruelty. He asks at the end, "Which story do you prefer?"

And that is the important question. One could say that the reality was the depraved and cruel one. Then there is the story he chooses, the story that is the film, the story that touches our hearts and that allowed him to survive --is that the true one?

Life seems to be an endless set of choices. Our brains are, miraculously, made to make sense of events in adaptive as well as maladaptive ways. It seems to be our choice. As a therapist, I am privy to both possibilities. One course keeps us in a state of perpetual anxiety, depression and repeated failures and disappointments. It keeps us stuck, trying to make sense of a bad story. The other option, even when we have been stuck, allows us to slide (often with incredible ease, I might add) into a resolution or ending to that particular story which is adaptive, turning the page and going forward into the next part of the story.

Happiness is a side effect of choosing an adaptive interpretation of circumstances. Even events long past can be re-interpreted and put to rest once we have learned something useful that allows us to go forward.

Even something as simple as, "Ah, I could have done this instead of that." Out of such a recognition comes a re-visioning of options, possibilities and, even, meaning. Those are the words of resilience and optimism. That's what life seems to want from us. To survive and go forward with hope and an expectation of good things to come.

Like spring, climbing out of winter's rubble and debris, we, too, can learn to grow again, a little stronger and taller, a little wiser. We can pick up the pieces, rake away the branches and deer droppings, loosen the soil for new growth.

We can begin to plan ahead for new bushes, trips to take, skills to learn, a friend to make, a cause to commit to. There is so much to being a human being.

Many winters to crawl out of and many springs to re-plant. With so much to do, it is important to strive to be happy.

Carol Swenson is a counseling psychologist with a practice in Westport. Her "Shifting Gears" appears monthly, and she may be reached at shiftinggears.swenson@gmail.com.