03/30/2011 03:46 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Hope Springs Eternal

It is hard to stay hopeful when you are worried to death. It requires determined attention and an exquisite combination of focus, concentration and surrender. It is an exercise of discipline, a test of faith, a karmic obligation.

During a recent ceremony of deep cleansing and release, I passed a set of Guatemalan worry dolls around the circle to help us relinquish the nagging apprehensions and insidious anxieties that sap our strength and resolve. All those sneaky, nasty, niggly worries that worm their way into our brains and take up our good time.

Worry dolls are wonderful. There is nothing you can't tell them. Absolutely nothing shocks them, they've heard it all before. And whatever it is that troubles you, they take care of it. Get rid of it. Swallow it. Spirit it away. It is their job, and they are professionals. What a tremendous relief it is to hand over your distress to someone else to deal with.

As the participants took the tiny figures into the palms of their hands, they would allow the flood gates of their heart to open, and let loose a stream of sadness, stress, panic, guilt, worst-case scenarios and catastrophic fears.

When the dolls reached Anita, a woman in her late sixties, she calmly declared, "I don't worry. I hope."

Brilliant! I felt five decades of self-conscious, conscientious pollyannaism vindicated by the transparent truth of that one simple statement. Talk about positive reinforcement.

There are those who say that hope is futile, a waste of time, of precious energy. They contend that hope is completely unrealistic. Simply wishful thinking, they insist. And I say, "Yes. It is, and thank goodness!"

Studies show that optimistic people consistently out-perform those who consider themselves to be more realistic, because they place fewer restrictions on themselves. If you don't know that something is impossible, you are more likely able to be able to do it. Things are only impossible until they aren't! "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can."

While we often have little or no control over the situations that affect us, we do have control over our own perceptions of them. We do have the very real and extremely potent power of perspective. And we definitely possess the crucial and vitally influential choice of how we will deal with whatever comes our way. How we will handle ourselves.

In a wide range of happiness studies conducted lately, including several with major lottery winners, it was clearly demonstrated that professional, educational or financial success are not predictors of contentment. Nor are gender, age, race, religion, health or ethnic background.

The key common factors across the board that seem to determine satisfaction, peace of mind, and yes, happiness, are: optimism, self-confidence, self-control, connection to community and living with a sense of spirituality. And, I might add, the desire to be so.

Take me, for instance. I was the most miserable of children. Painfully shy, sadly confused and badly bruised; constantly abused by great chilly blasts of debilitating negativity. All I ever wanted was to be happy. When an adult would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would -- in my imagination where I dared -- answer, "Happy."

I hung hand-lettered and illustrated affirmations (before there was a word for such things) all over my room: I WANT TO BE HAPPY. I WILL BE HAPPY. And then, when I was eighteen years old and living away from home for the first time, it suddenly, incredibly, indelibly occurred to me one marvelous morning that I could be anybody I wanted to be. I could be a happy person!

Happiness is fleeting (as is pain). The trick is to court it, to recognize it -- even in camouflage -- to acknowledge its presence when and where we least expect it, to celebrate each second of the healing heart and soul of it, and to rejoice in our own exhilarating ability to create it for ourselves and others at any given moment, in any circumstance.

"If you are happy and you know it, clap your hands."

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