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LETTERS TO MYSELF – Here’s why character matters

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Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 12:42 pm

Character is one essential component to living life at its happiest.

Who we are makes a difference. The way we treat others matters. he decency or indecency that fills our hearts and minds matters. Our values as expressions of what we believe and how we live our lives really do make a difference to our happiness. The traits we’ve developed over time are of no little consequence to how we feel about who we are.

When we look in the mirror, it’s often our character that speaks the loudest.

But not all character traits are created equal, at least not insofar as happiness is concerned. Following, then, are those traits I’m convinced will have the greatest impact on your happiness:

1. Courage: Fear is the great thief of happiness. It is parent to surrender. It sneaks in closed doors and robs us of resolve and the commitment and ability to endure to the end. Courage, on the other hand, is fear’s great nemesis. It challenges fear, pushes it back, and keeps it in check by taking steps toward its objection. Courage thereby shatters the shackles of fear, sending it into the insignificant margins of obscurity. Courage allows us to challenge our comfort zones, approach people and situations, embrace life and accept the pain that’s inevitable in all of life’s changes and challenges. Without courage, happiness is little more than an illusion, a temporary mirage, a puff of smoke that dissipates into thin air at its first challenge.

2. Patience: How happy are impatient people? This is a rhetorical question, of course. The answer is obviously, “not very.” Impatience is another major bully to happiness. It pushes happiness out of the neighborhood almost as soon as it shows up. But learning to accept and allow, to go with the flow and relax a bit is critical to living a happy life. Impatience is often the irritation we feel at the loss of control. But life bubbles and gurgles in ever-changing streams and flows of unpredictable activity. It simply is not 100 percent controllable. And the more we try to control and manipulate the outcome of life and the events that boil up around us with any kind of precision, the more frustrated we’ll be at the effort.

So breathe. Relax. Take it in. Be patient. Learn to accept the uncertain and buddy up to the unpredictable. Let life happen, at least a little. You’ll find it that much more beautiful and happy when you do.

3. Gratitude: To be grateful is to notice the good amid the bad, the color against the backdrop of gray, the lovely even as it’s surrounded by the ugly. It’s to count your blessings and recognize how beautiful life is even when life isn’t quite going as planned. Learning to be grateful requires the desire to see what’s sometimes hard to locate for those who are not accustomed to seeing it. It requires retraining your mind to think about the silver linings in life. But for gratitude to affect happiness in the deepest way requires it to permeate your soul, encompassing attitude and thought, and becoming the general way you perceive life. It’s not that grateful people don’t notice the difficulty of a challenge. It’s just that they’re too focused on the benefit the challenge provides and the opportunity it opens.

When we’re grateful, our problems don’t disappear, they simply occupy less space in our hearts, minds and lives. The reason is that grateful people are focused on that for which they are grateful. By definition, that means the difficult, disappointing and painful commands less of our attention. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe there is a single more important character trait to your happiness than developing the persistent, even automatic, grateful response to life.

4. Love: Love conquers all, as they say. And while perhaps not always technically true (I don’t think any person’s love of murder would make this act of violence any less evil, for instance), love certainly goes a long way to being nearly true. To recognize the centrality of love to living a happy life, just imagine a life lived without it. Imagine a hateful, loveless life of happiness. (I know. That’s the point. It’s not possible.) The more love that beats in your heart, the happier and more buoyant your heart will be. The more you love life, the more life will love you back. Love overlooks weakness and closes its eyes to idiosyncrasies. It accepts and serves and blesses and seeks what’s best in others. This is plainly a better path to happiness than its alternative.

5. Forgiveness: There’s not much more conducive to happiness than the ability to forgive quickly, spontaneously and freely. People who hold on to pain, who nurse their wounds, who call out the troops to seek vengeance for the wrongs done to them, may win battles here and there. But the war against unhappiness will largely be lost before it’s even started. Unforgiving people cannot know the level of happiness, the peace, joy, and pleasure of releasing others from the prisons of their unforgiving that forgiving people regularly experience. It’s the very bars that keep others imprisoned in our hearts that keeps happiness far away, at a distance, peering in at best. It’s time we free ourselves by letting old pain dissipate into the darkness, so new opportunities can take us to greater heights of joy.

So, have you forgiven your parents for their weaknesses as parents? Have you forgiven the playground bully or abusive ex-spouse, or your neglectful children or inconsiderate neighbor or insensitive church leader?

If you haven’t, you’re picking at the open wounds that can only irritate, infect and fester. Such open wounds often turn cancerous, metastasizing, entering the blood stream of other relationships, infecting them with its mortal disease as well. Instead, open your heart to forgiveness. Then your heart will finally be open enough to catch its share of happiness as well.

Some afterthoughts: So much ink has been spent on the power of positive thinking and optimism and finding your passion to live a happy life. I write about such things myself. But not enough ink has dried on enough pages to draw enough connections (perhaps with the growing exception of gratitude) between character and our personal happiness. I hope this oversight is soon corrected. And I hope this helps close that gap a bit.

So where does that leave us? We are left with the knowledge of what traits to develop, but also of the distance we have to travel to develop them.

The beauty of life is that we can change. We can learn and grow and mature and expand, acquiring traits we don’t yet have or haven’t yet fully developed. All it takes is a little humility, the desire to start and a little determination to see it through. You might want to start by adding those character traits to your list too.

Daniel Parenteau is a freelance writer who resides in Biddeford. His column appears every other week. Find his blog at danielparenteau.com.

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