Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Can You Achieve Happiness? I Think I Can!

                                             CAN YOU ACHIEVE HAPPINESS?


"I think I can; I think I can." If these words echo in your mind, you are one of the fortunate ones who remember sitting on your parent's lap listening to the classic story, "The Little Engine That Could." If you've never had this experience, run out to buy the book and read it yourself and also read it to your children.


Since I wrote about Pollyanna in the May edition of the Southern Neighbor, I’ve been receiving favorable comments about this story and its time-honored message: in Pollyanna's words, the Game of Glad. Happiness is a positive state of mind and emotion, optimistic thinking and a hopeful outlook. Happiness is an internal state; happiness is found inside yourself radiated out into the world. Beyond the subsistence level, research has shown that happiness has little or nothing to do with money, power, big houses or shiny cars.


So what does this have to do with another children's book?  The best known version of "Little Engine That Could" was published in 1930. The book was attributed to the author "Watty Piper" (actually a pseudonym used for children's books by the publishing house).  Since that time the book has been published in several versions and has made it into the popular culture in follow-up books, songs and movies.


In the story, a train filled with toys and treats needs an engine to reach the children on the other side of a high mountain.  One by one, powerful locomotives refused to pull the train, being tired, discouraged or too important to try. All that was left was a little blue locomotive who cared enough about the children to try to pull the train over the apparently impassible mountain.  The little blue engine repeated the mantra "I think I can; I think I can" until the mountain top was reached and the refrain changed to "I thought I could; I thought I could."  The book has been criticized by some as simplistic, moralistic or even sexist (the little blue engine was female) but those critics may never have seen delighted little boys and girls running around the house chanting, "I think I can; I think I can."


Many feel the moral of the story is related to the value of hard work. Yes, life is a difficult mountain to overcome, and diligence and hard work are important values. However there are other values  more important in our quest to achieve happiness. The engine was not trying to conquer the mountain for money or personal gain. The little engine cared about the welfare of others, especially children who had no one else to help them. Empathy, compassion and altruism are very important keys to achieving happiness. Most important, the story is a tale of hope and optimism. The hope that anything is possible helped the engine conquer the formidable task!


The story is a tribute to "positive thinking" as well as "positive doing." Ask yourself if your cup is half-empty ("I can't do it.") or half-full ("I'll try. I think I can.") The other engines could have conquered the mountain had they not given up before they even tried.


If you more information about optimism in overcoming personal obstacles, you can begin by consulting a previous Southern Neighbor article "Optimism and Happiness" in this section of my website containing a detailed discussion of a research-based approach to this important life skill. A therapist or life coach could also assist you. And, in these dark days, remember the old proverb, "He who has hope has everything."