It’s one of the great opening sentences of all times, because you know right away that you are going to be reading someone’s unhappy story, which I assume is what Tolstoy knew would keep people reading. Discontent sells.
With the advent of the Internet, and blogs, and people openly writing about their daily lives and problems these days, I think though that Tolstoy might have to flip that opening sentence around these days. It seems like unhappy people are more alike than different, but truly happy people are content in their own way.
I have known people my whole life who are not “happy” unless they’re unhappy, and want you commiserating along with them. These people often have interesting jobs, nice homes, are financially secure, they and their families are healthy, and yet they are always complaining about something, or asking you to feel sorry for them or excuse their bad behavior because don’t you know they’re having a bad day/month/year? Why can’t you respect their misery or understand how hard their life is? Something is always going wrong and it’s not their fault! They seem to have an inability to see how good they have it compared to almost everyone else, or are obsessed with what others have or are doing. They seem disinterested in figuring out ways to overcome or rise above whatever is bothering them, or accept responsibility for their own agency. They choose to be unhappy and they are.
One of the benefits of being invited into others’ lives, whether in a book or a blog, or real time, has been not only learning and thinking about new things, but also realizing that there are many and different ways to achieve happiness. And, what works for one person or family, and brings them joy or contentment, will not necessarily work for me or my family. Every person, every family has their own unique way of finding happiness or contentment, and their own ways of dealing with the obstacles of daily life. Each person or family defines happiness, contentment, gratification, whatever you want to call it in their own way, and no one gets to define them for anyone else. We really don’t even get to have an opinion about it (although we of course always do). If there is a sameness to others’ contentment or happiness, as Tolstoy contends, it’s that it takes work and commitment to maintain it. It’s easier to complain, to sulk, to criticize, to whine, to look for or expect the negative than it is to remain positive and cheerful, even in the face of obstacles. It’s often easier to point the finger at others rather than focus on our own lives and what we could change or do differently to increase our own happiness.
No one lives a life free of trouble, worry or unhappiness; I certainly don’t. I have days when it seems like everything is going wrong. Bad things happen sometimes. There are days when I’d like nothing better than to get on this blog and vent. But, I also worry less these days than I did in the past because I finally figured out that problems have solutions and that things will eventually be resolved. Maybe not always the way I’d prefer, but they will work themselves out. I know that tomorrow will not be the same as today. As written in the I Ching, “you cannot step in the same river twice.” Nothing lasts, everything changes, and while things may not always get “better” right away or the way I want or even at all, things will at least get different. And, different will eventually change as well, and sometimes different is the best we can hope for.
I have far, far more good in my life these days than bad. We have enough, more than enough really. We’re healthy. We’re living the life we dreamed of and worked for. You can choose to be happy, and I choose happiness.