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The Essence of Happiness: Choose Your Focus

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A colleague of mine posted a photo on Facebook recently showing the armrest of his airplane seat. It was covered with dried coffee stains. He was complaining that it hadn’t been cleaned from the previous passenger, who obviously spilled the coffee. He was upset that he had a long flight ahead of him and had to put up with the soiled armrest for the entire trip.

I understand his annoyance at the lack of cleanliness but, in the big picture, how important is some dried coffee on the armrest? Certainly, if you had to choose, would you rather have the plane’s engine maintained properly or have spotless cabin seats?

When I read the post, I questioned why my Facebook friend didn’t ask the flight attendant for a couple of wet towels to clean the mess or get up and take care of it himself. Then, about a half-hour after the first post, he removed it and replaced it with a second one. He wrote that after posting a photo of the dirty armrest, he realized how uncomfortable he was complaining about such a trivial thing. Several people responded and complimented him on not only sharing his feelings but, more importantly, reminding them not to sweat the small stuff.

After reading the two posts, it got me thinking that this was, in part, the essence of happiness. Instead of letting a dirty armrest set the tone for an unhappy experience, my friend could have focused on the fact that he was going home and would soon be spending time with his beloved children. Or that his occupation allowed him to travel the world over. Or that traveling by plane allowed him to get to his destination in hours instead of days or even weeks.

The underlying lesson here is that being happy or unhappy depends on where we place our focus. Concentrating on what is wrong gets in the way of our happiness. Our upset often drags us down as it escalates or lingers when we have thoughts like: “I paid a lot of money for this seat and it should be clean.” Or, “I could wash the coffee stains off this armrest but I’m not getting paid to do that. That is not my job.” Or, “This never would have happened years ago. The airlines no longer care about their passengers. Flying is no fun anymore.” If you tell yourself that flying is no fun anymore, then you are setting yourself up for that outcome.

Finding what is right about something breaks that cycle, allowing the door to more happy thoughts to open. For example, one other thing my friend could have done was to reframe the situation and see the miracle of flight through beginner’s eyes. I mean, here were a couple of hundred people sitting in a metal tube that weighs dozens, even hundreds, of tons who will soon be thousands of feet above the earth moving at five hundred miles per hour.

I remember when my Mom took her first flight at the age of 82. After she got off the plane I asked her how she liked flying. She replied with great joy in her voice, “Oh, that was wonderful. I could see the tops of the clouds.”

Next time, the seat or the tray table is not as clean as you would like, your flight has been diverted, or your seatmate is annoying, remember to look out the window and savor the tops of the clouds. It’s an experience many people in this world will never have.

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