This is the last part of my letters to you on what a car accident and death taught me about life and happiness. I tried to cover the 5 most important things I learnt after my car accident when I was 21 years young, in the hope you can take away some pieces of those lessons without needing to take your life apart to do so. If you haven’t already then please read part 1and part 2 of the letter – without understanding the classroom I learnt these lessons in, they’re just words on the screen.
4 . SMILES MAKE YOU HAPPY
This one is pretty simple, and actually pretty scientific. The muscles used for smiling tell the brain to release endorphins which make us happy. Faking a smile triggers them in the same way a genuine smile does. Plus, other people like seeing you smile – so you’re bringing happiness into others’ lives at the same time. Over the months I spent figuring out how to process the after-effects of that Saturday afternoon drive, there were a lot of fake smiles. Once I understood how lucky I actually was, they became real.
I still smile a lot, it’s not because I was born with a sense of humour that’s easy to hit, or because I’ve had a better day than the people talking to me, and I’m definitely not ‘free of cares’. It’s because I know the difference it makes to my day when I smile, I know the difference it makes to the people I’m talking to, and I act on that knowledge by making smiles a habit. Like I said, they started off fake, now they’re real.
Smile as often as you can, even when the world is telling you frown.
This works alongside part one and controlling how you react to situations. It’s always up to you how you respond to a situation, if you choose to respond with a smile you’ll make it easier to find the good in every conversation, even the bad ones.
5 . DO YOUR LIFE JUSTICE, IT DOESN’T LAST FOREVER
Not everyone gets a spot on earth, and a lot of those that do, lose it sooner than they were expecting. You were the single little swimmer of 600 million that made me and your mum’s hopes of pregnancy a reality – I’ll explain that process later… or maybe your mum will – anyway, the fact you made it that far is pretty incredible. To then make it to the point of being able to read this is definitely worth celebrating.
There are will be things you don’t appreciate until it’s too late. Don’t let your life be one of them.
I remember Dad sitting on the edge of my hospital bed and telling me “Don’t let this be something that takes your life too”. He didn’t only mean it in the literal sense of taking my own life, but also taking away from my life – I’m lucky, I’m still here, I’ve got a life I get to make the most of.
Your grandad was speaking from a place of understanding. The year before I was born, two of my three big sisters passed away at the ages of 6 and 8. They should have been your wise old Aunties today but nothing in life is granted, including life itself.
When I was little I used to talk with them in my head, running around barefoot on Kapiti Island doing the same things I imagined they did while they were here. I used to play out conversations in my head with my little big sisters, when I got older these were often me asking; you’re not here and I am, if we swapped places is this something you would be wasting frowns or spending energy on?
After my car crash upset the balance on life’s scales, answering that question myself became easier and harder at the same time. I suddenly had this rock on my shoulder that for years weighed me down whenever I acknowledged it, but I also had a much more personal reminder of what I should do if the answer was no. The rock’s weight told me I was lucky to be here, and that I was obligated to do that opportunity justice. Your Aunties’ have always sat on the other shoulder, telling me the same.
Their story is a sad one for our whole family, and having a better understanding now of the force of love that ties a parent and child together, I see even more clearly how strong my mum and dad are and how much of that strength and resilience I drew on while I was going through my smaller car-crash. I hope that one day they can sit and tell you about the difference my sisters made to our world in their beautiful little lives, but in the meantime just know that our family will always hug you with the strength that comes from having those hugs snatched away without warning. And know that for your nana and grandad especially, the opportunity to watch you grow from a young girl to a lady is a gift I don’t have the words to do justice. Your smiles mean as much to them as they do to me and your mum. So give them freely.
I know I wouldn’t appreciate my life as much as I do now if I hadn’t nearly lost it. I’m lucky that appreciation moment happened earlier rather than later, but it’s sad how many people go through life without ever having that realisation – most people know in theory that they’re lucky to be alive, but few truly put that theory into practice or principle. Tomorrow is never guaranteed – and even when we see life right through to [whatever our age expectancy is by the time you read this], we’re still only here for a tiny amount of time so it’s up to us to make the most of it. While that seems like the most obvious truth when you realise it, knowing so doesn’t make it less of a challenge to put together a life that does your time justice. It’s easy to get caught up in engineering your day to day living, and forget about engineering your life.
Appreciate the time you have in the world, because you are lucky to have life. If you live it with that in mind, your life will be one the world is lucky to have.
I thought I had finished this letter, but yesterday another young guy I went to school with took his own life. I hadn’t seen him for a few years and even though my postal address has been in Wellington for a while now, Otaki is a small town and it’s still home. So I felt the pain ripple through our flax mat of friends and family just as sharply as if I lived there still.
It doesn’t change anything I wanted to say to you in this last lesson about how lucky we are to be here, but it reminded me about the consequences of not getting that understanding right. Even without the car-crashes you will go through in life, the world can be a pretty sad place sometimes. I don’t know if there’s more pain and suffering than there used to be or if we just have longer reaching sight and more vivid imagery of that pain thanks to globalisation and the internet. Like a smart lady said in a talk we listened to on our way home from your cousin Tui’s 5th birthday today; if you can’t see that there’s a lot to be depressed about in the world, you’re not paying attention. But equally if you can’t see the potential for happiness, joy, and transformation in your own life, you’re un-informed. It’s up to me and your mum to inform you about that because more often that not, the world will only tell you about the other half of the equation. It’s our first attempt at doing so, I hope we get it right, and I hope your life is filled with enough smiles to make the tears only passing moments in time.
Later on it will be up to you to proactively create a life of happiness, that’s where resilience starts, happiness is your most basic defence against those car crashes. And you can control that.
Happiness isn’t the absence of sadness, sadness is the absence of happiness.
There’s a lot more letters I need to write for you about happiness because there’s so much you can do to build and maintain it. It affects everything, and knowing that you can control it is only step one.
I hope these lessons have been worth the time it took you to read them, and that they help.
- Happiness affects everything, so work at it
- Adapt to the things you can’t control, own the things you can
- The perspective you look at challenges and problems through is your reality. You control the camera
- Choose your words carefully, even when you’re talking to yourself
- Smiles make you happy
- Do your life justice, it doesn’t last forever
- Happiness isn’t the absence of sadness, sadness is the absence of happiness
Before I finish there’s one other lesson I learnt without which all of the other things I’ve talked about would have just been events, and wouldn’t have had any impact on my life, and therefore yours. That was the realisation that the lessons and opportunities to learn never stop, and that if you don’t pay attention to them, you will never grow.
Life has lessons for you every day, but you’ll need to listen for them if you want to grow
Right now in my day job I’m a leader responsible for business, people, and process performance and development. Looking for the leadership lessons that were there every day and taking advantage of them are the only reason I’ve kept growing in my job. Using those lessons to get uncomfortable and succeed at things I failed at the first time, have meant I’ve been lucky enough to love doing what I’m paid for too.
Outside work, listening out for those smaller lessons life had for me, and setting goals for growth has kept me happy and kept me enjoying life. To be the father for you I need to be this year, I’ve needed to push myself to talk about my car-crash so you can benefit. I’ve needed to grow into the kind of person that can cry into a keyboard, knowing it might stop you crying later on.
Everything you go through is a lesson, pain can be a harsh teacher so those are usually the ones we remember first, but happiness and joy have lessons attached too. Give both the attention they deserve and you can turn every day to your advantage, even the sad ones.
Be happy. This life is all you have – make it a good one.