We Can Be Happy Despite Pain from Our Past


“Think of all the beauty that is still left in and around you and be happy.” ~Anne Frank

At first glance, the happiest person I’ve ever met appeared to be a simple man. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly sophisticated or spiritual about him.

Srulik was five-feet tall, with a big round belly and a wide smile permanently plastered on his face. He enjoyed the small things in life: a good joke, a familiar television show, a wholesome meal. He radiated such joy, and was so unassuming in his demeanor that one would assume he was blessed with an equally simple and joyful life.

Many years ago, when I was only ten years old, I remember coming home one day particularly distraught.

My class had just learned about the Nazi Holocaust. At the sink, my mother was washing dishes. I started telling her about what I’d learned in school, when she gently cut me off and, in a matter-of-fact kind of way, said, “Oh, your grandfather is a survivor. You should talk to him about it.”

“Wait, which one?” I asked.

“Grandpa Srulik,” she answered as she continued scrubbing a pot.

I was flabbergasted. What? Him of all people? How could that be? He is always so happy. It just didn’t make any sense.

I was only a child, and yet I could feel that something out of the ordinary was happening here.

Later I learned that, indeed, volumes of psychological research confirms that a difficult past leads to a difficult future.

No need to go as far as the Holocaust. Common problems we suffer in times of peace and plenty, such as bullying and poor attachment to our parents, can have serious psychological consequences, preventing us from enjoying our lives many years after the problems go away.

Veterans often suffer from severe post-traumatic stress, and Holocaust survivors in particular are known to suffer from a wide array of emotional problems after the unspeakable horrors that they suffered. Who would expect anything else?

And yet, there was my grandfather, happy as ever—smiling, telling jokes, and laughing his heart out. I had to know what enabled him to survive so wholly.

“How do you manage to stay so happy?” I said during one of our conversations.

“You need to learn to be happy from any success,” he told me. “Any success at all. When some misfortune happens, we need to view it with humor and think of it as temporary. Think of something else.”

“I view everything with optimism, it’s very important,” he added later.

His secrets boiled down to gratitude, the power of positive thinking, and optimism. I must admit, I have heard it all before. But, suddenly I saw it in a whole new way. Can things such as gratitude and optimism help us overcome even the most tragic of traumas? How powerful are these principles?

When Grandpa Srulik was ten years old, the Nazis came into the Polish town of Nowosiolki, and gathered up his family—the only Jewish family in town.

With the entire town watching, a Nazi pushed Srulik’s father against the brick wall of his house. Then, the Nazi grabbed hold of his mother and pushed her hard against the wall. Next, he did the same to his brother.

Realizing that he was next, Srulik picked up his heals and ran as fast as he could through the thick crowd surrounding his house. Behind the river across from his house, he suddenly realized that he was alone. He had escaped the Nazis. He decided to hide in the bushed until morning before returning home.

The next morning, Srulik overheard three women doing laundry in the river. This is when he learned that, the previous night, his mother, father, and brother were shot dead into a hole in the ground. Devastated, utterly alone, and on the run from a powerful enemy, he tearfully mourned their loss.

Yet through this pain, he never lost hope. He shared with me that even in that terrible moment, he believed with all of his heart that he would find a way through this challenge, monumental as it was.

But, things got worse before they got better. Several weeks later, Srulik was discovered and imprisoned in a Nazi ghetto.

There, he saw Nazis throwing live infants against walls and witnessed the murder of thousands of innocent people every day. He nearly died from starvation and disease, and narrowly escaped the Nazis’ bullets on numerous occasions.

Against all odds, optimism carried Srulik through this unimaginable horror. Every day, he told himself that the Nazis would be defeated and he would be free.

Through the years he spent running and hiding from the Nazis, Srulik never forgot to be grateful for the small rays of light that lit his path.

He recalled with delight the wonderful homemade pickles that a young Polish woman gave with him when he had nothing. He never forgot the kindness of a German cook, who, instead of reporting him to the authorities, shared his delicious soup.

Srulik held onto his positive attitude for years after the war. He was grateful for all the kind people he had met along the way, the orphanage that took him in, and the opportunities he had to earn an education.

Until his last day, Grandpa was able to find something positive in every situation. “Even good weather counts,” he taught me.

Despite an incredibly difficult past, Srulik grew up to be a joyful, contagiously positive man. Having had the most difficult past of anyone I’d ever known, my grandpa was, and still is, without a shred of doubt, the happiest person I’ve ever met.

If gratitude, positive thinking, and optimism helped him lead a happy life, then imagine what these principles can do for the rest of us. Surely, there is hope for all of us, no matter what lies in our past.

Man with raised hands image via Shutterstock 

About Margareta Ackerman

Margareta Ackerman, PhD. is a granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Srulik Ackerman and author of his inspiring memoir Running from Giants: The Holocaust Through the Eyes of a Child. She also authored over a dozen academic publications, including research on applications of traditional Jewish study methodology to the modern classroom.

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  • J

    Thank You Margareta for the inspiring article. Sometimes we just forget to be grateful for what we have and only look at what we don’t. It’s easier to dwell in the past, think of all the misfortunes and pity oneself. A truly happy person is one who has endured miseries and yet feels “I learned something from it. Time to move on”.

  • yhtong

    Very well written article, Margareta. I was brought up in an asian background where we were taught to not be so contented to what we have in order for us to achieve more in the future, be it financial aspects or career advancement. This has brought me into a dilemma. On one hand, I believe it has helped me to achieve this far by getting me accepted into medical school and passing 2 out of the 3 professional exams. On the other hand, I am often stressed out by myself to achieve more in order to be good at what I’m doing. I also tend to compare and compete within my peers, which to me, isn’t very pleasant. Any thoughts on that? Thanks.

  • Peace Within

    Thank you for sharing Margareta. Your grandpa, Srulik, is a beautiful person. I can’t believe he went through everything and still found happiness in his heart. He reminds me of my mentor. She never talked about the past, she looked forward. She used to say you need to close the chapter and move on. Like, everyday is a new life and the past was an old life. There is no reason to keep reliving it. She was the happiest person I know. She glowed when she walked into the room. Her happiness was contagious. She always seen the silver lining in the cloud, no matter what was going on.

    You said “volumes of psychological research confirms that a difficult past leads to a difficult future”. I just wanted to share my thoughts on this. I don’t agree with this statement. I think it goes two ways… Either we let our difficult pasts ruin everything in our lives or we use our pasts to make the best out of our lives. This is something I’ve seen with the people in my life that have been through hardships, but overcame them. The kind of people are rare. Like, your grandpa. The types of people who are grateful and happy about everything. The simple things in life, the things most people tend to overlook.

    Just had to share my thoughts. Thank you again. Take care. <3

  • lv2terp

    What a true blessing to have such an amazing role model in your life. Thank you for sharing your/his story, truly inspiring and a wonderful reminder! 🙂

  • Talya Price

    Really good story. The best thing to do is to focus on the present. The past is in the past and cannot be undone. Think how awesome the world would be if people lived in the present.

  • Shreya

    I almost cried reading your post. What a beautiful man he was. You are truly lucky to have such an inspiring guy in your life.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    This was a really touching & inspiring story…thank you for sharing! 🙂

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    & you still haven’t shared the story of your grandma in Tiny Buddha as you promised before..:P

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Regardless of you being from an Asian background…I think most cultures around the world does the compare & contrast with others, esp since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution! The very fact that you have the awareness that your ‘social conditioning’ growing up has made you ‘Successful’ by society standards & yet have brought a pattern in you of not feeling contentment & chasing more & more is a POSITIVE in itself for you to try & be conscious of it in your day-to-day life…& finding your own balance in being present & trying to find that happiness that we all seem to be chasing…:)

  • The power of positive thoughts are remarkable. Gratitude, optimism and affirmations are beautiful tools at your disposal for a happy life. much love!

  • Prafulla Shrivastva

    Thanks for sharing this with us, I had a sad past, rejection in love & I was unable to come out of the trauma in spite of having a beautiful, loving, caring, sacrificing for all my happiness wife & two sons. My sufferings are nothing in comparison to your grandpa, he has survived & still he is laughing against all the odd. I was one of most pleasing & optimistic person in the world before this rejection, I will again go in that world where there is only happiness.

  • Peace Within

    I will soon! Glad you remembered. I talk about her through most of the comments I write. So she is still with me, in my heart, always. <3

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    haha..I sort of noticed; will be looking forward to it! 🙂

  • Lughni Alfa

    Get inspired by it. Thank you for this writing, so awesome 🙂

  • Saji

    This article is so nice, thanks for sharing(: