I recently heard a TED talk on happiness. Four people spoke about keys to this emotion. The first was Dan Gilbert who had conducted scientific surveys and had come up with an interesting notion. He found in his surveys that people’s minds wander about 47% of the time. In wandering we slip into negativity, fears, anxiety, envy, etc. Why to the negative and not the positive, I’m not sure , except that our minds wander when we’re unengaged and bored. Often in commuting to work, we daydream. When doing drudgy task, we also do not pay attention to what we’re doing.
His key to happiness, then, is to be attentive, be engaged. Know what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it, must you keep doing it? The key is to engage as often as possible in the work, play, and general activity that expands and uplifts and absorbs us.
A second person spoke of editing of “too much stuff” to find more happiness. Living simply and paring down one’s life, one’s belongings, then, was crucial.
A third person spoke of the speed of our lives as another possibility for less happiness. Slowing down allows us to absorb our surroundings and the input coming our way. Slowing down permits us to think and reflect. Are we happy at the moment? If not, why not? Is there some control over our continuing to do this less pleasant activity?
The fourth person was a Catholic priest who spoke of finding gratitude, gratitude for the blessings in our lives that we haven’t earned, the surprise joys, the surprise gifts. This causes us to slow down, as person number 3 would have us do. This causes us to be attentive and not fantasizing, as Dan Gilbert would have us do.
Disability, I think, gives us more drudgery in our lives—routes we have to practice in order to walk and do errands independently. Often we have to work harder, prepare more, practice, etc., to keep up with peers without disability.
But disability usually demands that we are engaged, fully, mind and body. Successfully pulling off an activity, facing something we dread can give us a sense of empowerment. Disability generally slows us down and makes us reflect, so it can give us more self-insight. I suppose it’s a matter of attitude. Can we take the priest’s advice and find gratitude, rather than self-pity? When we’ve lost one of our senses or when we’ve lost relationships, we certainly must mourn. But do we have the control to move forward, to heal?
I’ve just finished a much-lauded book, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. The rather lengthy “message” at the tail end is about our inability to control what we want, who we are. The protagonist lost his beloved mother at the age of 13, which is devastating. But if I’m understanding a book I confess to not liking very much, he seems to think that this personal tragedy imprisons him the rest of his life and saps his happiness (to make a kind of accidental rhyme)
I have experienced the wondrous consequence of disability fostering in me a mental life (such as it is, but it’s sure more present than in my sighted life). For me, happiness comes from more honest self-examination and from the effort to do positive things and speak positive words. I think we can have some control over who we become, despite the difficulties in our lives. We can have some control therefore over our happiness.


About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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