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9/11: What We Gained

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SEPTEMBER 11 HAPPINESS
AP

Is it possible that 9/11 could have added to our overall happiness?

On the surface, the idea sounds preposterous, if not outright offensive. The date has rightfully been etched in our collective national memory as one of national mourning. Not only were thousands of lives lost that day, but 9/11 also sparked two wars that caused many more casualties.

But reading New York magazine's account of four unlikely survivors -- the only ones above the 81st floor when the plane hit who managed to escape -- I was struck by their sense of gratitude.

Brian Clark, then a 54-year-old executive vice president at Euro Brokers on the 84th floor, said that his experience on 9/11 "taught me very much not to worry about the future. I don't count on the future happening the way people plan it." He said that he thinks of the last decade as "a gift."

Rather than feeling guilty about surviving or angry about the tragedy, Clark chooses to focus on the fact that he's alive.

Marian Fontana, author of the memoir "A Widow's Walk," who lost her husband, firefighter Dave Fontana, on 9/11, admires Brian Clark's "amazing attitude."

It's one she, too, has developed since her life was changed irrevocably ten years ago. Since Dave died, Fontana has weathered her fair share of hard times, and she's had to raise their son, Aidan, now 15, alone. But she told me that 9/11 has helped her to put life in perspective.

"As cliché as it sounds, every day is a gift. Sure, there are some days when you get caught up in the details, but it's a conscious choice to take a breath and try to keep things in perspective," said Fontana. "I don't know if I would have arrived at this point if 9/11 had not happened."

In a recent essay for the Guardian, Fontana wrote, "Dave exists in my heart in a different way now, as a sort of spiritual guide, a loving presence reminding me that in spite of life's many challenges, I am truly fortunate."

Throughout the day yesterday, #BiggestLessonLearnedfrom911 was trending on Twitter, and many folks focused on the same "seize the moment" philosophy Fontana now espouses:

"Anything can happen. Be thankful for what you have in life, cherish it, and live everyday to the fullest," read one tweet.

"Treat everyday like it's your last day to live. Show your love. Show you care. Don't wait for tomorrow," read another.

Having lived downtown on 9/11, I'm surprised to find myself relating to these optimists.

Ten years ago this Sunday, I was 5 months pregnant and living with my husband in our rent-stabilized walk-up in the East Village. As we were getting ready for work, my husband flipped on the TV to hear the newscaster mention a freak accident. Apparently, a small plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. We didn't think much of it and headed off to our jobs.

On the 14th Street crosstown bus on the way to the office, I saw firsthand that it was much more than a freak accident. As the bus passed University Place, there was a collective gasp as I and my fellow passengers looked out the bus window to see the Towers engulfed in flames and smoke.

By the time my husband and I returned home that evening, we felt as if our lives would never be the same. "What sort of a world are we bringing this baby into?" I remember asking him, between sobs.

Several months later, I gave birth to that baby, a girl who will turn 10 this February. My life changed in other ways, some small and some gigantic. My husband I moved to Brooklyn and had another child. I was found by my long-lost twin sister. My husband lost his job and got a new one. Life went on, despite the horror.

Of course, we will not forget what happened that day and who and what we lost as a country. But perhaps being happy, or at least grateful, is the best tribute to those who died on 9/11.

When I called Gretchen Rubin, author of the bestselling book "The Happiness Project," to ask what she thought about this idea, she said, "You can feel uncomfortable and wonder: Is it ghoulish to give myself a little boost out of something that was so tragic for so many people? But it's not exploitative. It's trying to find the good in something bad."

Rubin noted that in the aftermath of 9/11, gratitude was the second most commonly experienced emotion among American adults (after compassion).

"9/11 was a huge event that was a catalyst for so many people to think about all of the things the took for granted," said Rubin. "Sometimes it takes something very bad to happen for us to be reminded of how grateful we are for an ordinary day."

This year, rather than attending a 9/11 commemorative ceremony or tribute to fallen heroes, some New Yorkers are choosing to celebrate life by doing something that makes them happy.

"What can I do to be happy about what I've got?" asked Angela Matusik, chief content executive at iVillage, who lived in downtown Manhattan on 9/11.

"I want to enjoy the day, counting my blessings with my family and dear friends and my little girl, who doesn't know anything about 9/11, but loves the Statue of Liberty," said Matusik, who also tweeted about her plans to "picnic in Liberty Park with loved ones, remembering and enjoying life."

Did 9/11 make her a happier person?

"I think that anybody who has ever grieved knows that one of the few things you get from grieving is your growth as a human and the way it makes you appreciate your life and those around you," said Matusik.

And me? I plan to take my kids to Coney Island on 9/11 to ride roller coasters, play on the beach, eat cotton candy and generally be as happy as possible.