Learning How to Be Happy in the Midst of Pain

On the one hand, this season can be one of the happiest times of the year. It’s a time to gather with friends and family, to eat decadent foods or treat yourself to that extra glass of wine; to linger a little longer at a table, laughing or telling stories, to spend a little bit extra on ourselves or others, to enjoy the finer things in life and to put up decorations that, even at their worst, are glimmering and beautiful.

At the same time, this time of year can also be a reminder of what is missing from your life. Maybe it makes you remember somebody you’ve lost earlier this year. Perhaps there is something you desire to have—a baby, a business, a marriage, a friendship—but haven’t been able to manifest for yourself yet.

Maybe you walk through the mall, like I do, and feel thrown off your center of gravity by all the messages about what you lack, what you need to measure up.

Maybe your home or your life isn’t as glimmering and beautiful as you want it to be.
I understand.


This Christmas season will be nothing like I thought it would be. I had plans. Big plans. Plans I’ve been hatching since earlier this year—booking plane tickets and charting dates on the calendar and scheming surprises and dreaming of fresh cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning.

And for reasons I can’t and won’t explain until it is time, my Christmas will not be like that. Maybe you’re in a similar position. Maybe there is something you want this Christmas, but you can’t have it—something that can’t be wrapped and put under a Christmas tree—and maybe there is no amount of shopping or carols or glittering lights that can replace what it is you are missing.

Can you learn how to be happy when you’re in pain?

To be honest, the thought of being happy, even when in pain, hasn’t always been appealing to me. I’m not a fan of pretending to feel things I don’t feel, and that’s what “learning how to be happy” sounded like.

But this week, as I was reflecting on the disappointment I feel over the fact that the next few months will be so different from what I had imagined, I also received news that my brother and his wife were about to celebrate the arrival of their little baby girl. When I heard, this is what I wrote on my Facebook page:

My heart is breaking this week over some things going on in my little world, and at the same time, right this minute my sister-in-law is SO VERY CLOSE to giving birth to my first baby niece. We’ve been calling her meatloaf for the past few months (I think because my SIL was craving meatloaf while she was pregnant? Haha, I can’t even remember). I’m sure she’ll have another name soon—one that won’t mortify her when she becomes a teenager.

Until then, I’m sitting here thinking how strange it is that I can feel such sorrow and such joy at the same time. That there can be tears and laughter in the same breath. Life is a great paradox.

That realization seems like an important one when it comes to a conversation about happiness: feelings of happiness don’t mean an absence of pain. In fact, true happiness stays in the midst of the pain. It’s not that we pretend to not feel the pain we feel, or that we minimize its impact on our life. It simply means we fight like hell to see the good, in even what might be a really terrible situation.

We learn to leverage our profound human ability to curate happiness. It doesn’t take the pain away, but it is a great comfort when the pain inevitably comes.

Life is both profoundly beautiful and also painful. You cannot have one without the other.

A world filled with pain.

I was listening to the radio this week and the station I listen to was doing a telethon for St Jude’s Children’s hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. To be honest, telethons often bug me—all the hype and the heart-strings pulling and getting the little kids to tell their story tends to make me feel a little manipulated. But this time I didn’t roll my eyes or even change the station.

All I could think about as I listened to the stories of the parents fighting for the lives of their kids, and the kids fighting for their own lives, was how many people in this world will be truly grieving this season—grieving the loss of something they wanted and deserved and that is more basic and human than whatever may end up under our Christmas trees.

Think of all the people who must be grieving this December:

  • The victims and families of the shooting in Paris
  • The victims and families of the shooting in San Bernardino
  • The victims and families of the hundreds of other mass-shootings that have taken place in this country in 2015.
  • The innumerable Syrian refugees still without homes.
  • Those fighting a terminal or life-threatening illness and their families.
  • Those who have lost a loved one this year or in previous years.

I could go on and on. There are so many heartbroken people. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you know someone who is. Maybe you look out at the world and see how much pain there is and you are grieving for others who are grieving. The pain of others often reminds us of our own pain.

Pain does not discriminate. It hurts no matter how we go about acquiring it. (tweet that)

If you’re feeling pain or know someone who is, here are a few small mindset shifts I’m practicing that are helping me find peace and joy, even when circumstances aren’t ideal.

It’s okay to be happy.

For most of my life I felt guilty about being happy because I thought of happiness as a limited resource—as if there was only so much of it to go around. When I looked around at the world, or even at the people in my own little world, I saw so many people suffering from unhappiness, it didn’t seem right for me to feel happy.

If I was happy, who would have to be unhappy at my expense?

I’m starting to realize how flawed this view of the world always was. Happiness is not a limited resource. In fact, it isn’t a resource at all. It is a contagious state of being, that has very little to do with our circumstances and so very much to do with the way we think about our lives and what is happening around us.

The fact that happiness is contagious is not just a nice thought. It’s a chemical process that takes place in our brains, thanks to mirror neurons:

When we see someone experiencing an emotion (be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain “tries out” that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you’re observing. This is basically empathy. It is how we get the mob mentality, where a calm person can suddenly find themselves picking up a pitchfork against a common enemy once they’re influenced by dozens of angry minds. It is our shared bliss at music festivals, or our solidarity in sadness during tragedies.

But it is also your night at the bar with your friends who love love love to constantly bitch, whether it’s about their job, the man, the government, or about their other so-called friend’s short-comings, or whatever little thing they can pick apart in order to lift themselves up and give themselves some holier-than-thou sense of validation when you nod your head in acquiescence, agreeing like a robot afraid of free-thought.” —Steven Parton, Uplift

There are a few things I take from this when it comes to happiness.

First, if you’re having a hard time figuring out how to be happy, find people who are happy and spend quality time with them. You might even consider telling them: I’m going through a hard time and you seem really happy. I need that positive influence in my life right now.

It will not fix all of your problems but there will be an “instant” quality to your happiness, thanks to the amazing way your brain works. And the even better news is that the more adept your brain gets at experiencing happiness, the easier it will be for you to recreate that experience of happiness over time. It’s like riding a bike.

The more often you feel happy feelings, the easier it will be for you to feel happy again.

The fact that happiness is contagious like this completely reverses the way I used to think about it being a limited resource. The more happiness I can curate in my life, the more happiness I can pass on to those around me. Spend some time confronting some of your limiting beliefs around happiness. You might find the main person restricting the amount of happiness possible in your life… is you.

Happiness is not circumstantial.

It’s so easy for me to get stuck thinking “I’ll be happy when…” I’ll be happy when I graduate from college, happy when I get a masters degree, happy when I don’t have to work in a restaurant anymore, happy when I get married, happy when I have a baby, happy when I make more money, get a new car…

I could go on and on. I’m sure you could, too.

The truth is that happiness is not based on our circumstances.

Happiness is a state of mind that is created from our reactions and interpretations of circumstances outside of our control, which are constantly changing.

Generally speaking, our happiness—in fact, any emotional state, including a negative one—is generated by interpretations of events… When we interpret our negative boss as an obstacle, for example, we feel angry and frustrated; if, in contrast, we view our boss as “exactly what we need in order to become a better person,” we experience a sense of calmness, perhaps even gratitude — Raj Raghunathan Ph.D, Psychology Today

What are the “I’ll be happy when…” messages that you have been silently saying to yourself and what is something proactive you can do today to remind yourself that the “thing” you are longing for can’t and won’t make you any happier than you are right now?

Things provide temporary happiness—a relationship, a compliment, a good meal, a new pair of jeans—but the happiness you cultivate from inside yourself is a deep, lasting happiness that will stay with you, even if or when any of those good “things” go away.

Exercise your power of choice.

One way I’m learning how to be happy, even when my circumstances aren’t ideal, is by exercising my power of choice. I like to think of it as stealing my life back.

Here’s what I mean by that:

There are many things in life we do not get to choose but one thing we always have a choice about is how we respond to and/or interpret the events that unfold in front of us.

Remember happiness is born of our interpretations—not our circumstances. So the best way we can take control of our happiness is to take control of how we’re interpreting our life’s events. When something takes place that seems unfair or less-than-ideal—when the car breaks down or an unexpected bill comes or someone gets sick or a relationship ends—we can either think to ourselves, “why is this happening to me?” Or we can say: why is this happening for me?

We do not have control over life’s events, but we have control over our thoughts about each and every one of those events. This is the one thing we can control in this life. Do not give up your power of choice. Or, if you have, reclaim it as soon as you are able. Steal your life back.

What are the stories you tell yourself about what is going on in your world right now?

How might those interpretations be keeping you from learning how to be happy?

There is only one person you can make happy.

Because happiness is a state of mind or state of being, I am the only one who can generate happiness for myself. And I cannot be in charge of generating it for others. No circumstance, person, situation, opportunity, or amount of money can be in charge of my happiness and I cannot take on the impossible task of making another person happy.

It just won’t work.

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time trying to make another person happy—and most of us have, to some extent or another—you know the absolutely frustrating and impossible task it proves to be. You can give and give and give until you’re blue in the face, and they’re still not happy.

Happiness is an inside job. (tweet that)

And because it’s an inside job, that means we all must take responsibility and accountability for our own personal happiness. You are the only one responsible for the thoughts inside your head, the story you are telling yourself about your life events. You can be kind to people. You can work so share the happiness you have.

But at the end of the day, you are only in charge of making yourself happy. You have to leave the happiness of others to them.

Do not minimize pain.

I think perhaps one of the most important things I can say in a conversation about happiness and pain is that happiness—no matter how much of it we work to cultivate and curate—does not take away the pain we feel. It just doesn’t. This is, in my opinion, where so many people go wrong when talking about happiness.

Happiness helps us cope with pain. It comforts us in the midst of our pain. It helps us, ironically, interpret our pain in positive ways (which is exactly how we find happiness in the first place). It compounds upon itself, grows from itself, and once it gets rolling, has an incredible momentum to bring hope and peace and even more happiness to those around us.

But it does not take away the pain.

There is no escaping pain, sadly. We can either deal with it, or we can defer it to deal with it later, but we cannot escape it.

The real challenge then, is realizing that happiness and pain can and do coexist. In fact, this is the only way for them to exist—together. This is the great paradox of the life we are living. Philosopher Alan Watts says, “Because human consciousness must involve both pleasure and pain, to strive for pleasure to the exclusion of pain is, in effect, to strive for the loss of consciousness.”

Life is not either/or. It is not happiness or pain. It is both, and.

So I hope no matter where you are today, no matter what you feel you lack, or what you still desire, or how dark or painful your Christmas season seems, I hope you’ll be able to find just a sliver of happiness. Because truly, a sliver is all you need.


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Allison Fallon

I write books. I help people write books. I believe a regular practice of writing can change your life.

19 thoughts on “Learning How to Be Happy in the Midst of Pain”

  1. Love this! In my experiece binary thinking- I’m eother happy or I’m sad has
    Been a
    Limiting belief for
    Me to grow out of.
    I so appreciate your candid assessment of the truth/ they always exist together- and a sliver is big enough to tip the balance

  2. Ally,

    Thank you for this! I believe our capacity to love can be no greater than our capacity to experience hurt. Blessings on your spirit as you work through life’s rudeness.

  3. In the midst of whatever circumstance I find myself in, I recognize the God that I serve. Whether I am happy or sad, God’s love always lifts me to a higher level of true joy and peace.

    Thanks for sharing your reflection of happiness.

    With God, all things are possible. Tweet that.

  4. This post spoke to me because I have been struggling with happiness for the past few years and especially during the holiday season. I have two magnets on my fridge that help me to keep it in perspective and provide a focus for my meditations. One is from the Dalai Lama, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” The second is from Abraham Lincoln, ““I have noticed that most people in this world are about as happy as they have made up their minds to be.” They both help me to remember what you said, that it is up to me and no one else to find my happiness, and that it is a constantly evolving state of mind.

    I’m sorry that your holiday did not turn out as you planned. I wish you joy, peace, and of course, happiness.

    1. mm
      Allison Vesterfelt

      I love that second quote from Abraham Lincoln! Such a great point. Thanks so much for reading and for your comment. Appreciate you.

  5. Thank you for this post, Allison, and for sharing a little bit of what’s going on in your life. I always appreciate your transparency and authentic spirit and writing.

  6. Michelle Morrison

    Wonderful post, thanks for sharing that. I’ve had to realize happiness isn’t dependent on circumstances also, and it helps me to picture life as seasons that pass with time, and that life is a series of highs and lows. I’m sorry you’ve been having a rough time lately.

  7. You make a good point about the coexistence of happiness and pain. One of my favorite quotes is from the movie, Shadowlands.
    Just prior to the closing credits Jack reflectively says, “Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”

  8. I’m so glad I came across this– I’ve struggled with being happy for years and this was such an insightful article. I’ve gotten advice on how to become happier from friends and family and books and articles but they always left me feeling more cynical because they never really addressed how to deal with pain and unhappiness constructively. Thank you for sharing it with all of us!

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