A quirky thing about happiness is that it is much less dependent on circumstances than most of us think. Positive psychologists* have found that as individuals we tend to have a default happiness level and even the most dramatic life events mostly just create a very temporary divergence from this^.
We might enjoy “when I win the lottery” conversations but win the lottery or have a disabling car accident and our happiness levels are pretty similar. Lots of money doesn’t create lasting happiness. This doesn’t mean poverty is irrelevant to happiness though, or that the onus is on “the poor” to accept things and be happy. It is more challenging to be happy if you’re living just on welfare benefits and I do write from experience. We need a decent professional level wage, below that anxiety about paying bills lowers happiness levels, but once we reach the level of being not having to juggle money to pay the electric bill extra money doesn’t increase happiness.
Love is a bit of an exception. Marriage does give a small, ongoing increase in happiness, but if we lose marriage through death or divorce, we are likely to then be less happy than if we had always stayed single. The gamble!
January 1st will mark 20 years since I woke up on a friend’s sofa with swollen glands after staying up into the early hours for a New Year’s Eve party. I had glandular fever which triggered ME and my cardiologist thinks it probably triggered my POTS too (though that went undiagnosed for 16 years).
There have definitely been times during the last twenty years when ME has had me at my wits end. The frustration of the diagnostic process and then the prejudice when I got with diagnosis was awful. The realisation that I was too ill to work or study. Then gradually building up work and health only to relapse and have to give everything up again. It is more challenging than a survival film against the elements.
BUT I have found that the resilience of my natural level of happiness is true for me. New twists and turns throw me off course for a while but in my experience so far I’ve always found my way back. Last month I was abnormally low, the lowest since I had to give up my job 5 years ago. Now I’m back to my normal self, if not happier.
This is mainly related to Christmas. I’ve seen a lot of posts this year about how hard Chronic Illness is around Christmas. These posts all make valid points and most give useful tips. I want this to be a bit of a counterpoint to say that it is possible to enjoy Christmas with chronic illness.
I still feel that childlike magic about Christmas. We haven’t had a Christmas tree for the last 5 years but this year I persuaded my partner to buy one and she also splashed out and bought sophisticated decorations that go together in a theme and everything (in this time period we’ve gone from living on just my benefits to having some disposable income for the first time in my adult life). I haven’t felt unhappy since the tree went up!
We had friends over for a Solstice party. I felt excited planning the playlist. On the day my POTS was much worse than it has been recently. I put makeup on lying flat on my back, but still felt the getting ready buzz. I enjoyed seeing people, though I really was feeling off colour. My legs were giving way and I had to be helped up to bed at 8pm, but from my bed I took an interest in eavesdropping on snatches of conversation without being expected to contribute. I also remotely controlled the party music. Okay when it was approaching 2am and they woke me up I did feel grumpy until I could go back to sleep! Overall I was happy about the party, though it could equally be interpreted as a personal disaster. I think happiness is a lot about expectations.
Managing the expectations of friends and relatives is also key to a chronically happy Christmas. This has taken 20 years of setting firmer and firmer boundaries and becoming more resilient against guilty feelings. I’ve now got to a point where no one expects me to go anywhere or do physical chores. Fortunately my partner is a great cook and host, so we can have people here, so some things are circumstantial advantages and some of it is about interpretation and boundaries.
In many ways my Christmas is a lot less stressful than for most women my age. Though I would prefer to have hyped up kids and a mad dash around the supermarkets, given the choice.
Have a very merry Christmas wherever you are and however bad your health is!
I recommend Jessica Out of the Closet Vlogmas for cheerful chronic illness seasonal viewing.
- these observations are from my memory of a pop psychology book about happiness which I will reference soon but the book is downstairs, I am upstairs and have no spoons right now.
There’s probably also contradictory evidence, there usually is in psychology, and it may be the case that a lot of studies are completely irreplicable. Accurate accounts of research isn’t the main point of this post, I include it because it chimes with my experience.
^ clinical depression is different, it’s an illness, and not what I’m talking about in this post.
If you liked this post, check out
This guest post about enjoying the essence of things
My stoicism posts eg this one