My wife Amelia was reminiscing about a time when her father went to a water park. He was already retired by that time, yet his inner child came out to play. Having plunged 100 feet down a water slide, he emerged from the water with an ear-to-ear grin on his face. That made me think, When was the last time I experienced this kind of childlike joy? I couldn’t remember. Sure, there are things I’ve enjoyed doing but nothing that prompted a belly laugh, jumping up and down, or that I’m-going-to-Disneyland open-mouthed smile.
“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” This bit of wisdom is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. When someone quoted Honest Abe recently, it made me think maybe happiness isn’t something spontaneous that just happens. Perhaps it’s a choice we make. I spent the week trying to make up my mind to be happy. It worked. Sort of. Making a concerted effort to be happy improved my mental state, a little. But it didn’t evoke the kind of childlike glee I felt I was missing.
I decided to follow the example of one of my favorite saints, St. Augustine, who obeyed the voice of a child and was converted. In my case, the child was my twenty-year-old daughter Maddy, hardly a little kid but someone who still knows how to have a good time. Her older sister Nadine and I visited her last weekend at Virginia Military Institute for Family Weekend. Several times Maddy said she wanted to go to the Safari Park in Natural Bridge, VA. Finally, on Sunday afternoon I gave in (when her sister agreed to pay the steep admission fee!). Driving through the park was fun and I enjoyed watching my two grown daughters delight in feeding the animals through the car windows, but it still wasn’t doing a whole lot for me. I’d been to a real safari park in Africa a little over a year ago.
At the end of our drive-through safari adventure, we parked and visited the walk-through zoo. It was hot and I was ready to leave. Then I saw the aviary filled with colorful little birds called budgies (aka common parakeets). We went in. That’s when it happened. I little blue bird landed on my arm and started gentle nibbling at my skin. Another landed on my shoulder and nibbled at my neck. A big grin came across my face. I think God was smiling too.
Is happiness a choice or just something that happens to you? It’s both. One of the keys to happiness is spending time with people you care about. Another is experiencing new things. Telling yourself to be happy can help a little, but creating the conditions for happiness helps a lot.
Living a good life doesn’t mean laughing all the time. The Bible says, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh.” We’re surprised by both joy and sorrow. If you’re a glass-half-empty person like me, weeping comes more naturally. Laughing takes effort. But it’s worth it.