The small Cessna 172 may not have looked like much, but to me it was a beauty. For my eighteenth birthday I had purchased a Discovery Flight: a one-hour introductory flight lesson that included 20 minutes of flight instruction and 40 minutes of additional flying time with the pilot.
On the runway for takeoff I was shaking with excitement. I had waited almost two years for this moment, and now I was about to fulfill my dream of flying a plane. We sped down the runway so fast that I was afraid we would run out of runway. But then the pilot lifted the nose, taking us up into the sky. The higher we rose, the more I could see–one great stretch of horizon, the most beautiful view I had ever seen. Just when I thought it could not get better, the pilot gave me the wheel, and I took control. I felt free–as though I could go anywhere I wanted and explore the far reaches of the earth. The feeling did not last forever: we eventually returned to the airport. But I smiled for days thereafter, telling everyone about my experience. Even thinking about it now makes me happy. But why? Some people hate to fly; others feel sick; still others are scared. Why does it make me happy?
In the documentary Happy, directed by Academy Award nominee Roko Belic, happiness is discussed through academic studies and authoritative interviews from all over the world. The subject has rapidly expanded in interest and data worldwide over the past 30 years. This niche of psychology tries to interpret every possible way that people, cultures, governments, and religions understand and value happiness. Based on these studies, psychologists have hypothesized that 50 percent of happiness comes from one’s genes, or personality makeup: an introvert may be happiest reading a book, putting together a puzzle, or otherwise operating in quiet; an extrovert may be happiest at a boisterous party among many friends. Our personalities dictate what we are comfortable with in mental and social situations. So our happiness is filtered through the genes that make us who we are.
My happiness in flying is because the major component of my personality is the love of exploration. I have always wanted to explore new places and experience new things, and the airplane is the ultimate exploration vehicle, with no limitations on where it can go.
I now see a purpose for the injury, a story to tell about the wonders of God.
In the Happy documentary, psychologists hypothesize that the 10 percent of happiness derived from life circumstances–such as income, social status, age, and hardship—seems to make a difference in happiness only when all basic needs are met. After that is handled, horrible things can happen to a person, and they still are happy. To illustrate, we are told Melissa Moody’s story.
From a young age Melissa Moody was a happy person who loved doing such things as supporting her family and sharing new experiences. She says, “I was very, very busy raising three children and loving that, and raising horses on my ranch and doing volunteer work. I had a very full life.” Then in 1992 she was run over by a truck, dragged behind it on a gravel road, and finally thrown underneath the truck. She lost her face, her husband, her confidence, her ability to do the things she loved, and, almost, her will to live. Still, she continues to live, healthy and happy with her children, discovering new things she can do to be happy. Her story teaches that even if the worst things happen to you, you can still be happy. It isn’t easy, but it is possible.
I had a similar experience to Melissa Moody almost two years before my Discovery Flight. On January 15, 2020, I fell on the back of my head from six feet up during a gymnastics performance, resulting in nerve damage affecting my cervical spine, thoracic spine, and cranial nerves. Everything became difficult—reading, walking, and much more; the ability to do the things I loved; things that made me happy. But I never gave up hope that I would find new things to make me happy, as well as recover to my preaccident condition. Hope kept me happy; got me well enough to fulfill my dream: I flew a plane!
When psychologists report on people who stay happy through hard times, they state that these people adapt more quickly to hardship than others. What allows them to is the 40 percent of happiness that comes from intentional activity.
Researchers have interviewed hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. And according to an essay by Harvard social scientist Arthur C. Brooks, “The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic,” faith is one of the best intentional activities or actions we can do to impact our happiness. Whatever your faith, “the key is to find a structure through which you can ponder life’s deeper questions and transcend a focus [from] your narrow interests.”
After my accident I could understand Brooks better: through the darkest times I had to pass, through days when there was no happiness in sight; when the pain, darkness, and misery seemed to close in around me; in those moments my faith in God and His promises were the only things keeping me going. As a practicing Seventh-day Adventist Christian, I believe that life’s experiences are for a reason, and that no matter what, Jesus will be with me, carrying me, protecting me through whatever the world throws at me. Faith let me see the light, warmth, and happiness around me. Faith said that I was alive, not alone, and recovering.
According to King Solomon, wise ruler of Israel from 970 to 931 B.C., another intentional activity for impacting your happiness is the loving support of those close to you: “Two are better than one, because . . . if either of them falls down, one can help the other up (Eccl. 4:9, 10, NIV). I never fully understood how much I relied on friends and family for happiness or support until my accident. Before the accident, fun activities with friends and family provided much laughter and happy memories. After it, friends and family banded together to pray for me; write me get-well cards; check on me periodically through calls, emails, texts, and gifts that showed they cared. They loved and supported me even when I thought I was unlovable or a burden to them. Through their mental, physical, and spiritual support I was able to see happiness and hope around me that pushed me forward in my journey of recovery.
A final intentional activity or action that can impact one’s happiness is finding purpose or satisfaction in your work. Brooks’s formula for finding satisfaction is taking what you have and dividing it by what you want, meaning that improving your perspective on what you have instead of focusing on what you want will stress and disappoint you less about things you already have. I understood the impact of satisfaction on my happiness much better after my accident. When I was first injured, all I could think about were the things I wanted to do but could not—playing sports, going to school. It made me depressed. I lost progress on recovery. Not until I saw what I could do (walking, reading) through my rehabilitation exercises was I able to feel happy again. Once I focused on what I could accomplish through these exercises, I was able to see the satisfaction in my actions and truly feel happy.
Before I studied Happy, Ecclesiastes, and “The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic,” I thought happiness was an emotion people activated through experiences and thoughts that randomly made them happy. Now I see that happiness is an emotional formula specific to every person’s personality, life experiences, and habits, which can be enhanced through personal hardship and trials. The Cessna 172 plane ride was my life’s happiest moment both because the activity
was designed for my personality and because that plane ride was one of a few experiences that made me feel normal and free.
Before my accident, I thought pain and trials shatter happiness. Now, through a perspective of faith, I see pain and trials enhancing and adding value to happiness. Considering that God makes all things work together for good—as my faith dictates—I now see a purpose for the injury, a story to tell about the wonders of God; about appreciating that all the happy experiences and memories after my accident were gifts from God. Not only do I see that Cessna 172 plane ride as the happiest moment of my life, but I also see the events leading up to that flight. I see my accident, my suffering, recovery, and growth all culminating in the moment I achieved my dream of flying a plane. My accident not only enhanced my experience and happiness during that flight, but also enhanced my understanding of my future career of becoming a missionary pilot. This moment of pure happiness and clarity has been forever burned into my brain, permeating my whole being with purpose and drive to share God, and the happiness He brings, with everyone I meet.
Angela Coppock is a student attending Andrews University, where she is majoring in aviation and premedicine. She hopes one day to be a missionary doctor and missionary pilot.