Author Jennifer Dukes Lee speaks in Carroll Friday about her book, “The Happiness Dare,” and about choosing happiness despite difficult circumstances.
Author Jennifer Dukes Lee speaks in Carroll Friday about her book, “The Happiness Dare,” and about choosing happiness despite difficult circumstances.

February 13, 2017

About a year ago, Jennifer Dukes Lee stepped into a lobby at the Mayo Clinic.

The day before, her dad had lost his leg to a surgeon’s knife after an infection that couldn’t be treated.

Dukes Lee was far from OK at that moment, she said as she recounted the story during a presentation at Central Church in Carroll last Friday.

Most of the people in that hospital lobby were in the same boat. Children in wheelchairs, their hair lost after chemotherapy treatments. Women in burkas visiting loved ones in the hospital. Harried doctors and nurses.

Then there were the two men playing the piano and singing.

At a time when none of the people in the room were happy, when the men invited them to sing along, they all sang.

That included Dukes Lee, who simply sank to the floor when she couldn’t stand anymore.

For a moment, despite their circumstances, they chose happiness, she said.

She seeks to do the same — to choose happiness despite what happens from day to day and to teach others to do the same.

Dukes Lee lives on a farm in northwest Iowa with her family and is a former reporter for the Des Moines Register and Omaha World-Herald. She now farms with her husband and daughter, has written two books and travels to speak about them. Dukes Lee’s sister, Lynda Dukes Franey, lives in Carroll and works with Yoli, a health products company. She previously worked in advertising and sales at Carroll Broadcasting and the Daily Times Herald. Franey’s husband, Mike Franey, is co-owner of Mid-Iowa Insurance & Real Estate.

A happy child who grew up to experience periods of unhappiness in adulthood, Dukes Lee set out on a fresh path after wondering one day — did God want her to be happy? Was happiness a selfish request? Could she try to be holy but still be happy, too?

So began her “happiness dare.” It ended with a book that she wrote, “The Happiness Dare,” but started with dozens of books, hundreds of Google alerts and piles of scientific research — all about happiness.

And, indeed, her book is deeply reported, quoting and citing dozens of sources on the subject. She offers views on happiness from Corrie ten Boom, who helped Jews escape during the Holocaust and who, along with her sister as they were imprisoned in a concentration camp with fleas hovering over them, created a list of things they were grateful for. She quotes Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic at the age of 17 after a diving accident. She has things to say about happiness, too.

“I went after happiness like I went after news stories all those years ago at the Des Moines Register,” Dukes Lee said. “I was all in, because who doesn’t want to take a dare for a little more happiness?”

That dare brought her to Carroll to speak last week. I went to check it out partly out of curiosity because of her journalism background, and partly because I’m human — and what human doesn’t want to be happy?

Happiness can be a tough choice to make, Dukes Lee said — partly because it feels selfish to be happy when you’re surrounded by heartbreak and partly because you might be afraid the feeling will be snatched away tomorrow.

“I know of no more vulnerable and scary emotion than happiness,” she said.

Her book digs a bit into some difficult topics, but it makes you smile, too, such as when Dukes Lee urges readers not to underestimate — or judge — what might make someone else happy.

“There are moms who actually enjoy hosting Pinterest-perfect half-birthday parties for their cats,” she writes.

GUILTY.

In case you need to know, my cats’ half-birthdays are Sept. 6 and Feb. 27.

I’m not joking.

And there’s new vocabulary to be learned, such as “crap stack,” which Dukes Lee defines in her footnotes as “A gigantic tower of papers, bills, and lost spelling lists that build up over time on account of laziness and/or denial.”

Dukes Lee describes in depth five categories of people and how happiness looks for each of them — doers, relaters, experiencers, givers and thinkers.

I’m not sure where the happiness-through-cheesecake-and-cats section is; I might have missed it.

And she describes small, concrete ways to inject happiness into your life as you train your brain to — her core idea — choose happiness: Do one “five-minute good deed” a day. Learn a joke. Smile.

There’s more, but I’m not gonna recite the whole book for you. That’s not how this works.

One of those ideas Dukes Lee suggested Friday night in Carroll was particularly simple.

Each night, for a week — or longer — think of three things you’re grateful for.

“Maybe it’s as simple as, ‘I’m just glad I got out of bed today, because it’s been really hard,’” she said. “Maybe it’s something bigger.”

Write them down. Keep track of them.

Post them on social media — goodness knows the minefield that is Facebook these days could use some jocundity, she said.

After a few days, you’ll start to notice three kinds of happiness from the simple exercise, she said:

— Anticipatory happiness — you’re scanning the day looking for what makes you grateful.

— In-the-moment happiness — the feeling of being in the center of the situations for which you’re grateful.

— Residual happiness — thinking back on the good moments of the day.

Happiness isn’t about reacting to good circumstances, Dukes Lee said — it’s about choosing to be happy even when circumstances aren’t great. It’s not just a feeling — it’s a choice. There’s scientific research to accompany that idea in her book, but Dukes Lee stressed in Carroll last week that choosing to be happy despite difficult circumstances doesn’t ever mean you won’t have bad days.

“When you choose happiness, you are not denying the pain of this world, or the pain of your own life,” she said. “You are refusing to give into it.”

Sometimes you’re the woman who’s fallen to her knees on the hospital lobby floor and can barely sing through her tears.

But days, weeks, months, years down the road, you might be the guy at the piano accompanying her as she sings.