Can we choose happiness even in cancer?

Grand-dog Chloe and I are glamping in an elegant Airstream in a land of sunny skies and craggy mountain ranges and saguaro cacti. Tucson. I’m grand-dog sitting while my son and daughter-in-law are traveling internationally.

Stenciled on the vintage trailer next door is this thought: “Today, I will be happier than a bird with a French fry.”

Which begs the question: Can we choose to be happy?

Marlys Johnson

When my husband, Gary, was diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer, the experts said, “Two years.” Because he was relatively young, and in good shape. Because prostate cancer is slow-growing. Gary defiantly, stubbornly, tenaciously lived ten courageous, far-reaching years. And I suspect a good deal of it had to do with making positive choices.

There are a variety of opinions and conflicting reports about whether happiness is a choice. My intent isn’t to prove one opinion or another, but to share what Gary and I experienced in those years when happiness and peace wouldn’t have normally been hanging out with us. 

Here are 11 intuitive methods Gary and I did to choose happiness over the blues and sadness and anxiety that cropped up during those ten cancer years:

1. Dance, hike, swim, kayak – in a word: move

In our middle years, Gary and I took on more outdoor physical activity. If you caught us hiking to the top of tall mountains, or slushing through powder in snow-shoes, or stroking our oars in synch on a mountain lake, you would have noticed our giddy ear-to-ear grins. 

2. Get outdoors, and keep getting outdoors

The simple pleasure of being outdoors went a long way in creating joy for us. And when you throw in some movement with the outdoor-ness … well, then, double happiness. 

3. Show random and not-so-random kindness

On a twelve-hour trip to Arizona from Oregon—one of those series of flights where I flew north to get south, with boots on the ground in four different states—I intentionally looked for random ways to show kindness. And glee overflowed on what would have otherwise been a long and arduous day.

4. Look for things to be grateful for, even in the hard

Inspired by Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, I’m on my second journal of counting one thousand things I’m grateful for. I started the first list during Gary’s cancer years. You might be surprised at how counting what remains—instead of counting what was lost—made a huge difference on the happiness meter.

5. Be aware of our mindset

Setting our thoughts in an optimistic direction embraces courage over fear. And hope over despair. It holds onto peace as we intentionally boot out anxiety and worry. It chooses good humor instead of taking ourselves too seriously. 

I suspect that all these things feed each other: gratitude brings contentment that fuels a positive way of seeing things, that helps us battle anxiety, that ushers in joy and happiness.

6. Practice good (selfless) self-care

There’s the debate that self-care is selfish. But self-care isn’t seeing to our needs and comfort first. It’s seeing to our responsibilities, and then taking time to care for ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in order to have a full vessel from which to serve.

I’m happiest when I’m rested, when I’m eating healthfully and walking some distance daily, when I take time each morning to sit still and nurture my spirit.

7. Consider how to give back

Brainstorm about ways to be in service based on our life experiences, especially the hard ones. I know an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) widow who is passionate about awareness and research for this degenerative disease; a friend who struggled with painful infertility issues who now mentors young women; a brain cancer survivor who stages cycling events to support local cancer services. 

Beautiful redemption stories — how God brings good from our pain and fills our hearts with joy through the giving back.

8. Listen to our favorite tunes

Music has the power to affect our frame of mind. Which is why calming music is played in elevators, and upbeat music is played in stores, and inspiring/fighting music is played at sporting events.

Put on soaring music and see if your spirit doesn’t soar.

9. Keep a journal for a brief period of time

There’s science to back up the benefit of capturing our concerns and fears and hopes and joys on paper. Even if you don’t enjoy writing, try journaling for a set period of time. 

(I’m pretty sure I saved Gary thousands of dollars in psychotherapy costs through the years by keeping a journal.)

10. Try our hand at something creative

I can’t describe how happy it makes me to knit soft fuzzy things for all the beautiful women in my life. Water color painting, photography, cooking, pottery, designing landscapes, wood-working, repurposing old junk into cool new stuff. It doesn’t matter what we do; it matters that we get out our creative side and make some happiness.

11. Hang with incredible people

I’m in Tucson this week, where I connected with a couple friends: Randy, who is in a wheelchair as multiple sclerosis (MS) continues its relentless march.

And astrophysics grad student, Charity, who lost her husband, Jayson, and son, Woody, when a sneaker wave swept them out to sea. 

Charity and I had scrumptious tacos in a courtyard surrounded by old stucco buildings and cast-iron gates, with stone walkways and trees strung with lights. Live music played while we talked about a number of things, including what she needs to do to become an astronaut. She said the odds are against her — not simply because 12 in 18,000 applicants are chosen every four years when a new class begins, but also because she doesn’t have a background in the military, and particularly flying planes. 

But she’s made a list of goals that would enhance her chances of being one of the chosen few: learning fluent Russian, getting her pilot’s license, deep-sea diving, and wilderness survival. And she’ll eventually meet with her advisor for her input on the feasibility of pursuing this large and improbable goal. If anyone can do it, it would be Charity.

Randy and Charity inspire me with their grit and audacity in the face of incomprehensible loss. Which leaves us with a couple questions to ponder: 

1) How do we feel after hanging out with people who whine, who can’t see the positive in anything, who gossip viciously, or make fun of others? 

2) How do we feel after being around people who awe and inspire and make us realize we’re not dreaming big enough (Charity does this for me); people who challenge us, hold us accountable, who speak hope into our lives, and believe in the beauty of our dreams? (Come to think of it, I have a lot of friends and family like this in my life.)

Does the crowd we hang out with affect our happiness? 

I’m thinking, Yes.

And there you have it, eleven ways Gary and I practiced choosing happiness during the bleak cancer years. In that hard and holy season—when we shouldn’t have experienced peace or happiness or contentment—peace, happiness, and contentment mostly surrounded us.

Here’s hoping that today you’ll be happier than a bird with a French fry!

Marlys was the caregiver of her husband Gary who lived ten years after being diagnosed with late stage prostate cancer. After his diagnosis, together they founded a non-profit called Cancer Adventures, sharing their story with groups across the country. After Gary’s death in 2014, Marlys has continued to share the underlying theme of her and her husband’s story: How challenges are a part of life but you have choices. She has a passion for helping people navigate life’s challenges, having negotiated a few herself. 

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