The Pursuit of Happiness

Do you, like me, feel the need to make everyone happy? I keep pestering my girlfriends with my pearls of wisdom on this one, so sorry guys if you’ve heard it all before. I just think it’s pretty important.

When I walked out of my oncologist’s office the day I found out I was terminally ill, my first thought was about the irony. All I had ever wanted to do was bring happiness to other people’s lives, and here I was causing the most misery I possibly could, especially for my family. But I undertook extensive research that very night and found out, interestingly, that the children will probably be okay. At least they are no more likely to suffer a mental disorder in later life – for example, they are no more likely than anyone else to be depressed or anxious. In fact, provided there are no complications, children who experience the death of a parent tend to do rather well in life. This was obviously a great relief to me and I hope it is to any other parent out there who is terminally ill.

For a while I couldn’t listen to One Direction’s ‘Story of my Life’ without crying – ha ha, no comments about their lack of talent, please! I cried because my children’s story would include their mum dying while they were still young. I don’t want this to be their story. It’s too sad. But my psychologist pointed out to me that the story was all alright. Of course the children will be sad when I die but they won’t be sad forever, and they will move on with their lives and live them fully, as I have taught them to do. That’s okay. We are meant to experience the whole range of human emotions.

I can’t say it often enough to myself: it is not my job to make other people happy. Other people are responsible for their own happiness. In fact, what we should be doing is pursuing our own happiness. I had forgotten to do so over the years of trying to live a worthy life but I now think it’s our duty to be as happy as we can be. I don’t think it’s selfish because other people benefit. Happy people are great to be around – just think about those you most like spending time with. I remember something my daughter, Romy, said to me in the run up to Christmas some years ago. She was only eight, I think, but she had the wisdom to point out that she and her siblings didn’t really care about Christmas being ‘perfect’; they just wanted their mum to be relaxed and happy. I am usually very FAR from relaxed and happy when I am running around trying to find the ideal presents, decorating the house tastefully, preparing lavish meals from scratch and generally chasing that White Company catalogue idyllic image of Christmas. I now try to remember at every big family event that my children just want me to be laid-back and fun.

So pursue what makes you happy! What do you love and enjoy? I envy Bart loving sport so much because pretty much every weekend he has something to look forward to. I have expensive leisure pursuits: I love spending time in beautiful environments and designing new ones. I have to admit I do watch a lot of TV, especially the True Movies Channel – my guilty pleasure! And I relish a good novel – as long as it’s undemanding. I know many of you enjoy a workout, a run or a brisk walk in the countryside. I’m sure we can all think of something we enjoy that can be incorporated into everyday life. Of course there are many other ways of pursuing our own happiness, for example by giving to others, but I’ll save those for future posts.

I still hate saying ‘no’ to the kids and I’m at my best when everyone around me is happy, but I’m getting better at thinking of myself. Let’s make a pledge to find joy in life, wherever that may lie.


About Libby Sheehan

I am (as of May 2014) a 46 year old professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Warwick in the UK. I am married to Bart, a psychiatrist, and have three children: Tadhg (14), Romy (12), and Blaise (10) - I know, weird names, but I love them! In March 2012, completely out of the blue, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 bowel cancer. After two major operations and two rounds of chemotherapy, I thought I was well, but unfortunately in October 2013 my oncologist told me the cancer had come back in many different places and it was now terminal. Life is very different for me now. Mostly I am quite happy and peaceful and I am learning all the time. I am writing this blog because it helps me to write my thoughts but if I can offer hope to even one person in a similar situation to me, then it will be worthwhile.
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7 Responses to The Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Helen says:

    LOVE this one Libby….you know how important this is to me too xx

  2. Katie says:

    Went on an amazing course today – about our ‘right’ to always feel safe and behaviours, feelings and thoughts. Its a course designed to support working with children but it really made me think about my relationships with my children. I always felt responsible ‘for’ them and what they do but after today I realise we can only be responsible ‘for’ ourselves. We can be responsible ‘to’ others – to care for them, to educate, to guide, to feed, to advise etc etc but not for them. We learnt all about the relationship of feelings, thoughts and behaviour – feelings are feelings but behaviour is a choice with an effect and our thinking can influence both. Reading your post tonight made me reflect on what I learnt today and I shall try harder to remember its not my responsibility to make my children or others happy but I can choose to behave in a way that hopefully will help them feel happy which is something you have definitely mastered! Thank you Libby xxx

  3. Dave Harvey says:

    Yay Libby.

    Just Yay. Lots of other things to say,
    but for now, basically, YAY!
    Dave and Ali

  4. Katie says:

    Hi Libby, I hear what you are saying, and I don’t think I have ever had any problem with making myself happy!! In fact, I think I was hugely fortunate to be brought up to value that.. And to find enjoyment in the everyday (though not sure a new Hoover wouldn’t do it for me!!). I dispair at people who have every opportunity, but don’t make themselves happy. One of my standard ‘frets’ about able but miserable people is that ‘they have no idea how to make themselves happy’… Of course, not everyone can.. responsibilities, jobs, poor health, genuine hardship and worries can all be too much, but to NOT make hay while the sun shines or even try to enjoy lifes little pleasures seems crazy to me.

    But, of course, its nice to make other people happy too, so long as its not at the expense of your happiness all the time. I bet your guests enjoyed the Christmas that you provided, and I bet you liked seeing your home perfectly done! And I enjoy when someone else has made the effort for me and my family.. so I think its all a question of balance. And perspective. I’m going to give a shout out to my good friend Hess here, I love his ability to find humour in almost anything..whatever happens, theres always a good anecdote in it, and a humourous perspective… there’s also a real generousity of spirit in that…making other people share in the enjoyment….And his life is far from straightforward!

    My Dad is seriously ill right now, so I’m living through that and I think my general perspective is one of gratitude. He has a degenerative illness, but I am SO grateful for what we still CAN do, even though it changes almost daily. We can still laugh, drink tea together, enjoy sunshine and spring..I am also grateful for our lifetime together, and for haiving him as my Dad..Its so easy to dwell on what we don’t have when what we DO have is so important. Today, I am mainly enjoying my shoes, my new hair oil, my Marni shades!! (yay), the fact I can cycle to the centre of Bath from my house (yes, after 7 years here, I still get excited about that EVERY day!!), and feeling good after a proper sleep!

    I have to get Dad a wheelchair today, a trip to Argos that I thought I’d dread (he’s more of a classic car type) but actually this is fine, it means we can go out more again.. back to the farmers market on Saturday for brunch..which makes us all happy… so thats cool…

  5. Katie – you brought tears to my eyes! I really admire your attitude towards your dad’s illness – looking for what you CAN still do. And you are so right about Hess and his humour being a real gift. Tadhg did a strengths questionnaire and his top quality came out as ‘humour and playfulness’. Unfortunately it gets him into trouble at school being the class clown but I see how he can cajole his sisters out of their glum moods with a few witty comments. I’m trying to laugh more at life – it doesn’t come naturally. It makes so much difference and gives you perspective. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

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