Choose Happy

by Jane Ashley

Did you know that each of us can choose to be happy? It turns out that we, humans, are hard-wired to feel joy and happiness.
Early humankind focused almost all of their waking hours just trying to survive – finding food to eat, keeping warm or finding shelter from the heat of the day, and protecting themselves from danger — they discovered simple pleasures too. Simple pleasures are defined as activities that do not contribute to one’s survival.

Choose Happy

• Music. Evidence of the ancestors of Neanderthal and modern humans demonstrate that music goes as far back as 40,000 years ago. Researchers suspect that these early human-like ancestors made instruments like our modern flutes from wood or reeds; evidence of these “flute-like” instruments is long gone because of the fragility of these soft materials. But what has survived is bone pipes, made of swan and vulture wing bones. Carbon dating indicates that these bone pipes are between 39,000 and 43,000 years old. Music, even in these ancient times, most likely served the same purposes that it does today – rhythmic dancing and entertainment, and for rituals (celebrations, church, and death).
• Art. Primitive cave art has been found in France, Indonesia, and Spain — dating back about 35,000 years ago. While we don’t know the exact reason that early humans created art on rocks, stones, and inside caves, we see our children begin to create art without any intervention on our part.

Neither music nor art had anything to do with survival. These activities appeared to be simply for pleasure and entertainment.

But I have cancer. How can I possibly choose to be happy?

Even with a cancer diagnosis, we can choose to be happy. Cancer treatment lasts a long time for most patients — six months to a year for many patients. And afterward, we will be followed by our oncologist for five years. That’s a long time to be a “Debbie Downer” or “Sam Sad Sack.”
Studies show that people facing serious health problems, like cancer, who find a higher meaning or purpose in their life when diagnosed with a serious health crisis, also experience a better quality of life and a sense of well-being.

Instead of focusing on the things that we can’t change (our diagnosis), we can choose to focus on the things that we can change and the good things that still exist in our life. We can be grateful that we caught our cancer at an early stage. We can be glad that we “connect” with our oncologist. We love our chemo nurses and radiology techs. We can be grateful that our loved ones and friends are empathetic and supportive. Being empathetic with others who are in worse-off situations can bring us a deep sense of joy and gratitude.

Yes — even during cancer, we are capable of experiencing joy.

How do we choose happy?

Choosing to be happy requires us to be proactive.

The definition of choose is “decide on a course of action, typically after rejecting alternatives.”
The alternatives are being miserable, having a pity party, or being angry. None of these alternatives will help us through treatment. So although it sounds a little bit crazy, choosing to be happy in the midst of cancer helps us cope with our diagnosis. So how do we begin choosing to be happy?

Early Humans

Each day, when we wake up, we must affirm our decision to “Choose Happy” today. Let’s make each day count.
• Wake up, and look forward to the day. It’s easier for a “morning” person to wake up looking forward to the day. That first cup of coffee always brings joy. Plan something for each day that will bring joy — your favorite sandwich for lunch, doing your favorite hobby in the afternoon, a phone call to an out-of-town friend — do something special, just for yourself.
• Give compliments. When you give a compliment, you’ll receive a smile. Smiles are contagious, and you’ll be smiling too.
• Do one productive task each day. Showing up for chemo or radiation counts as productive. But on other days, do just one “little teeny-tiny” productive thing. It might be writing a thank-you note for a casserole someone brought you and your family. It might be sorting through one drawer of your dresser. It might be just one load of laundry. Being productive helps us feel useful, and feeling useful makes us feel happy and still of value to others.
• Listen to music. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you prefer, listening to music is linked to happiness. Studies show that when we listen to music, our brains release dopamine, often called our “feel good” hormone.
• Make time for a hobby. Whether it’s woodworking, knitting, or walking, make time at least several times a week to do something that you love to do. For Greg, it’s woodworking, something he has always loved to do. For me, it’s watercolors — a hobby that I took up after my cancer treatment — something that I had always wanted to try but never seemed to have time.
• Stay connected. Now, more than ever, with the pandemic, many of us feel isolated and alone. Reach out to someone you’ve haven’t seen or talked to in a long time. Reconnecting with old friends makes up happy. Try Zoom — have a mini-class reunion, a virtual birthday party, or a cancer support group using Zoom.
• Savor special moments. For me, it’s watching 20+ hummingbirds from the living room window. Another special moment of the day is when my rescue cat crawls up in my lap as I watch TV at night. Your special moment might be sunset photography or working in the yard. Take some time to savor those special things in life.


These are just a few of the ways that we can, consciously and deliberately, choose to be happy. We learned from our cancer diagnosis that life is, indeed, precious. Every day is a gift, and we’re grateful to be still be here. With a little more conscious effect, we can “choose happy.”

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