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Mona Ackerman

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Dr. Mona Knows

Posted: 08/06/07 11:11 PM ET

Check out Arianna's introduction of Dr. Mona here.

I can't get something I read about Beverly Sills out of my head. She was once asked if she was happy. "I've never considered myself a happy woman," she said. "How could I, with all that's happened to me. But I'm a cheerful woman."

What an incredibly insightful and wise answer to the question. True her life was full of traumas and tragedies, but she seemed to be able to transcend that and to come up with her own coping mechanism. I can't get out of my mind how useful her view is for the rest of us.

The question of happiness in our lives is certainly overly superficial and silly. Does happiness mean we are giddy with the highs of pleasure? Does happiness mean we have learned what is really meaningful in life? Does happiness mean we are using denial, repression or distraction to ignore the pains, responsibilities and disappointments of life?

Yet, when we are asked that question, everyone wants and expects us to answer with a big, resounding "YES!" No one really wants to hear why you are not happy. Just say yes. Don't explain how you've been questioning how to merely find peace. Don't talk about your parents' abandonment. Don't bring up your boss's cruelty. Don't dare to mention your children's selfishness. No one really wants to know. It's too much of a burden.

Beverly Sills, maybe the most famous of all American opera singers, must have discovered this. She had her share of tragedies. But listening to her misfortunes, which included a severely deaf daughter (she could never hear her mother sing) and a severely retarded son, may have made the listener feel woefully un-entitled to relate their own troubles. Did she feel this and decide that the best way to function in the world was to smile, act cheerful, keep her problems to herself (and a select few), and keep her listeners comfortable? More importantly, with this attitude did she learn that she could then accomplish what she wanted in other dimensions of her personality, including her various careers. REALITY!!!! She faced it.

In my analysis, Sills knew that she could not call herself happy as long as her children were so severely ill. She knew how people would be distracted by this. But she knew she had personal needs -- a life beyond a persona as a mother of children with special needs. She knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it.

So, I repeat... I find her answer wise, useful, realistic, insightful and a superb coping mechanism. She may not have been happy, but she could deny, repress, or distract from her core pain in order to be cheerful. It allowed her to have other aspects of her life. Her cheerfulness was not mere escapism. It permitted others to deal with her as a woman, a performing artist, an impresario, a civic leader -- something other than a mother with a crushing personal burden.

In my life, maybe I could answer the same way. I feel lucky to have healthy children whom I adore and who are involved in meaningful and satisfying pursuits in their lives. I have a charming and of course perfect 3-year old granddaughter. I have a loving, fun, interesting, supportive and satisfying romantic relationship. I have a career that I am proud of. I have had many adventures and experiences, and I have financial security... God that all sounds so perfect. But happiness would require a definition from the questioner of what they mean. Do I live on a perpetual high? NO!!!! Do I search for meaning? CONSTANTLY!! Life is a constant transition. I have an expression that life is a series of little lives. In other words, what was meaningful to us once is not meaningful constantly, forever. Am I ever anxious, depressed, disappointed? BUT, OF COURSE!!!!! Every item that I stated above as a positive or something to be thankful for, has at one time been exactly the opposite. Things always need to be rearranged.

But I am absolutely certain that I am cheerful! Others say I always look happy. But they don't see me when I need to plug in my batteries or hear me when I am trying to work through a conflict or handle distress.

What about you? Are you happy or cheerful? How do you define the difference? What can I do to help you get through some of those expected unhappy moments?

Please send your questions to me by posting them in the comments section, and I would be happy -- not just cheerful -- to answer them.