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Yes, You Can Be Chronically Ill and Still Experience Happiness

What is happiness? In American society, people are likely to equate happiness with money, professional advancement, having a nice house or car, and travel. Being chronically ill—or being the caregiver for a chronically ill person—means that many of these accomplishments will be difficult or impossible to achieve. The logic then follows that it is impossible to live with chronic illness and be happy at the same time. But is this really true?

In an interview with “Voice of America,” British author Gyles Brandreth talked about what led him to write the book “The Seven Secrets of Happiness.” At a particularly difficult time in his life, he experienced a low point in his career as well as the passing of several loved ones. He began talking with a psychiatrist, and naturally the subject of parents came up. Gyles’ parents had described their experiences during World War II—his father had served in the army, while his mother stayed on the home front—as the happiest time of their lives. While Gyles was puzzled by this, the psychiatrist was not; the overall sense of common purpose and unity during the war was likely what made his parents so happy.

Esther Earl was a teenager living with thyroid cancer who became friends with John Green, an author of young adult fiction. (She in part provided the inspiration for his novel, “The Fault in Our Stars.”) In the introduction to the book “This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl,” John recalled a time when he and Esther were talking about their happiest memories. Esther’s happiest memory was a time when she was hospitalized with pneumonia, thought to be dying, and surrounded by her entire loving family.

There is no doubt that many others share similar experiences of feeling happiness during difficult times. According to these perspectives, being happy means feeling connected to others, sharing a common purpose, and being loved. These are all experiences that people with chronic illness and their caretakers can have, sometimes even to a greater extent than those whose lives are not affected by illness.

After my husband was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) several years ago, he often apologized to me for (in his words) “ruining my life.” While I don’t think he ruined my life, I do sometimes feel sad about the experiences we won’t get to have together. We decided not to have kids because of his illness, and most likely, we won’t ever get to buy our dream house or take our dream vacation.

But then, there is the world of experiences we do have. We get to experience the loving support of family, friends, and each other. We feel camaraderie with others in our CMT support group and communities like The Mighty. And we are often reminded to keep our priorities in life straight, since living with CMT means that we don’t have the extra energy, time, or money to spend on things that don’t matter.

Living with chronic illness and happiness aren’t mutually exclusive. There will always be sad times, but that makes the colors of the joyous, happy times even brighter.

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