The cost of things

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of speaking to a generous audience of 1000 people at the 2012 Happiness and its Causes conference, where I'd been booked to talk about ... happiness.

For months I was nervous about this speech, mainly because I wasn't happy and knew anything I said on stage would be fraudulent; I felt like a wife beater asked to address White Ribbon.

Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

I'll moderate my previous statement by saying my happiness is fragile nowadays. I'm a grateful person, aware of how lucky I am to be white, able-bodied, male, middle class and living in Australia with a gorgeous, healthy two-year-old daughter.

However gratitude is not happiness, so, who the hell am I to tell 1000 paying truth-seekers how to generate it?

My only hole card as a writer and speaker is honesty and on that day, I was truly the emperor with no clothes; my only weapon had been denied me as I tried to enthuse about concepts that, quite honestly, have failed me when I needed them most.

Afterwards, however, I told a couple of audience members if I'd had my druthers, I'd have said something completely different to them. This is it.

Happiness does not mean the absence of problems, but the ability to deal with them, a skill I am slowly mastering so I can set a good example for my beautiful little girl.

As I enter my 40s, I've also realised we all battle demons and it is this battle that defines us as adults; more than our income, skin colour, religion, sexual orientation, education and the obstacles and gifts they confront us with.

I have read many books about happiness and its causes and, despite learning a plenitude of helpful lessons, I  realise that perhaps the greatest words spoken on the subject come from a dead American President with a funny beard.

Back in the hoary, old 1800s Abraham Lincoln said "most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

It has taken me a long time to understand the wisdom of those words but I think I'm starting to comprehend what Lincoln was trying to communicate.

We are the architects of our own salvation and it is the choices we make each day that augment or dissipate that fragile, sought-after condition we call happiness.

I think some of us tell ourselves we want to be happy, but our actions speak otherwise. Despair can become as comfortable as an old shoe, so we make subtle choices that lead us back there. We make up our minds to be sad.

For many people, the idea of happiness has also been confused with an avoidance of suffering, so it seems not only logical but healthy for us to hide from our demons using a plethora of socially-acceptable means - be they booze, sex, drugs of all stripes, golf, shopping, eating ... and so on.

I now know you cannot hide from demons - not without consequences - for what you choose to forestall does not disappear, and if their flames cannot consume you, they'll often do it to those who love you.

The children and families of alcoholics, abusers, gamblers, drug addicts and cheats know this intimately, as they suffer for the acts of a loved one who refuses to confront their pain and failings.

Soberingly, there is no short-cut to doing this - no pill, book or mantra can replace the hard work required to build a life of personal responsibility and the self-respect it offers.

To paraphrase the writer Joan Didion - happiness comes from knowing the cost of things: it's the courage of your mistakes.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.