On being happy, even when life is cruddy

Is there something inherently different about people who maintain a positive attitude, even in the most trying circumstances? Happy souls can be found on every continent, in every culture – but when times get tough they become the minority. What keeps a person from constantly looking backwards, becoming a pillar of salt after everything they’ve ever known is destroyed?

Today we explore thoughts on happiness from around the world. These philosophers and authors provide joyful medicine for suffering souls.

1. Start with the truth.

“When suffering knocks at your door & you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.” - Chinua Achebe (Nigerian Author & Critic)

No matter how insular a life we live, suffering finds us. The question is what will we do when the bully crashes into our heart? The first, inevitable step? Sit with it a while. Understand it. We must face reality before we can ever hope to heal.

"The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness." - Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russian Author & Philosopher)

2. Change your perspective.

“Let us try to see things from their better side: You complain about seeing thorny rose bushes; Me, I rejoice and give thanks to the gods That thorns have roses.” ― Anonymous verse found in “Lettres écrites de mon jardin” by French journalist Alphonse Carr.

Even though grief sits in our hearts, it cannot be our only companion. Healing begins when we look around and begin to see the roses on the thorn bush. Those people who find happiness during cruddy times manage to also see the good around them – in the beginning it might be nothing more than recognizing a nice breeze while standing at the grave of a loved one.  Over time we might be able to reframe our circumstances.

Take my life, for example: Mine is a story of rebuilding.

Rebuilding after living in multiple foster homes. Rebuilding after being separated from my siblings. Rebuilding after losing my brother. Rebuilding after “family” became synonymous with “temporary.”  I could just as easily say my story is one of destruction; one cannot rebuild something that hasn’t been destroyed. But here’s the simple truth: Any time I’ve focused on destruction, I am destroyed.

I’d rather see the roses than the thorns. Speaking of which…

3. Blind spots are a gift.

"I've come to the conclusion that, to be unequivocally happy, you have to have some blind spots." - Bill Withers (American Musician speaking on NPR)

When times get tough truly happy people narrow their vision. This survival skill allows them to keep moving forward without getting distracted by possible emotional drop-offs.

I recently heard Bill Withers on NPR – he’s most known for recording several major hits including “Lean on Me“, “Ain’t No Sunshine“, “Just the Two of Us“, and “Lovely Day.” Most remarkable, Withers walked away from the music biz when the studio’s creative limitations no longer served him. He continues to make music for himself, but he is not interested in being a part of the machine. He doesn’t focus on the glitz and glam he might have missed. Blind spots prevented him from staying in a bad situation and keep him content with what he has.

4. Give light to others.

“When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” ― Albert Camus (French Author & Philosopher)

Common advice after hardship is to “keep busy.” But I can keep busy on Facebook – and that does nothing but feed my depression. Instead, happy people often keep busy in some sort of service.

It’s impossible to feel sad or sorry for myself when I’m helping other people.

When we focus our efforts outside of ourselves it can rekindle a sense of purpose and meaning during trying times – which unlocks our inner summer.

5. Find comfort in community.

"A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so." - Excerpt from 'Things Fall Apart' by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.

There is much we can do on our own, but happy people allow themselves to be fed by community when times get tough. The classic example is the meal served after a funeral, typically at the bereaved’s home. Rather than eat alone, the grieving eat surrounded by loved ones. Simple things, like a walk in the park or watching a movie, are also better with friends.

6. Honor the journey

"Step by step walk the thousand-mile road." — Excerpt from 'The Book of Five Rings' by Miyamoto Musashi (Japanese Author & Samurai)

Real talk? Some sad things stay with us forever, like the death of a loved one. But happy people know to live in the moment, one step at a time. In this way we can keep moving emotionally, even while honoring our loss.

7. Stubborn happiness.

"The heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good and thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past." — Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez (Colombian Author & Journalist)

Finding happiness is not a one-stop shopping experience. Being happy is more like tending a garden. Emotional weeds pop up occasionally and the toil of dealing with them can sometimes be a setback. But, years later, we look back and remember the amazing tomatoes we grew… without much thought to the thistles and dandelions… and how little control over them we really had.

Happiness is as simple – and as complicated – as that.

"Happiness is not a destination: Being happy takes constant weeding, a tending of emotions and circumstances as they arise. There’s no happily ever after, or any one person or place that can bring happiness. It takes work to be calm in the midst of turmoil. But releasing the need to control it – well, that’s a start." - Excerpt of 'Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness'' by Sasha Martin.

Collages & quotes assembled by Sasha Martin // Art credit goes to: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.



  1. I stumbled upon you just this evening. I found you at such an overwhelmingly perfect moment. Thank you. This is a beautiful post.

  2. Thank you for sharing this inspirational post. It was a wonderful way to start my day.

  3. Thank you so much, Sasha. I so appreciate your wisdom, humility, and grace. And even more so now that I’m reading your book. It has such a lovely tone and truth. In this post, I’m taking to heart the part about tending a garden of happiness and dealing with the inevitable weeds. I’ve recently not done well with my literal backyard, and my internal garden needs work, too. This gentle visual speaks to me. One question — where did you get the beautiful backgrounds to the quotes above, especially 5, and 1 and 6? Did you draw or paint some of them? These choices are more demonstrations of your thoughtful approach to getting things “right” for your purpose, like presenting your food in pleasing ways that are allied with the country you were “visiting” each week. Anyway, thanks for being in the world, and all the best to your family. PS — I’ve always loved the little icons that come up next to commenters’ names. They’re quilt-like! And I’m a quilter.

    • Sasha Martin says

      CC, those are old paintings that seemed to capture the mood of the words… I spent a lot of time hunting for just the right artwork (and in some cases I adjusted the hue to be cohesive within this piece). I would like to get back into art more. Thank you for reading – happy cooking (and quilting!) 🙂

  4. Rileysmom says

    Hi Sasha!
    I must thank you for such a lovely post at a time when I soooo needed reminding of all the good things when sadness strikes.
    You’re such an inspiration….spiritually and in the kitchen!

  5. Cynthia says

    Thank you, Sasha. Beautifully written. And enjoyed reading the above comments from cc and you to understand your thought process. Your book awaits me on my coffee table. I am finishing another book which I think you recommended, Peace Meals. We are reading it for our church book group. I’ll be picking up your book next. Always enjoy your thinking and beautiful ways of sharing.

  6. Thank you. Life has thrown a lot at me and it just keeps coming and tonight I’ve been searching the internet for how to be happy despite what happens. I stopped looking and was just wasting time clicking from one thing to another…from a link on facebook for red velvet brain cake…to your piece on bored panda…to your website…and I found this…it was meant to be.

    I appreciate that you talk from real knowledge. I’m sorry you went through what you did…but it lends credence to what you say. So many people who have advice have a good solid foundation and maybe one bad thing and suddenly they are experts…which is maybe why their advice doesn’t help much, doesn’t jive with reality. Yours does and I am grateful for you.

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