It was first believed that a childhood digestive disease, never properly diagnosed, permanently stunted Hamilton’s growth and nearly killed him. But it was later discovered that his health challenges were probably due to his first of three brain tumors. His mother died of cancer while he was in his teens. Hamilton was dropped by the Ice Capades just two years after his Olympic win, putting his professional skating career in doubt. He battled testicular cancer in 1997 and a brain tumor (benign) in 2006, with recurrences in 2010 and 2016.
Hamilton once lived in fear of the problems that seemed to lurk around every corner, but now he remains happy and optimistic even during difficult times. Here are his secrets for happiness in a very imperfect world…
Consider all problems temporary… and temporary problems unimportant. As a skater, I knew that I would fall when I tried to learn a new jump. I also knew that these falls were irrelevant as long as I got up after each one and tried again.
I try to apply this lesson to my life off the ice as well. I might have a problem right now, but “right now” is just a moment in time that soon will be gone forever… and my “problem” really is just the starting point of a journey that will lead to a solution to my problem. Why let a starting point affect my mood? What matters is where I end up, and that’s going to be somewhere better.
It might take me a while to solve my problem, but I will start to feel better as soon as I begin working toward a solution. I find tremendous joy in tackling my problems. It breaks the “victim mentality” — a sure path to unhappiness — and puts me back in control of my life.
Don’t face problems alone. Men’s figure skating is a solo sport, but I still needed a coach to get the most out of my abilities. Life often seems like a solo sport, too, but finding a coach — a spouse or a friend with whom we can share our problems — will make our attempts to solve those problems more enjoyable and more successful. Humans are social animals, as my coach, Don Laws, used to remind me. We’re not designed to face problems alone, so we shouldn’t try to do so.
Find strength in challenges. My mother’s struggle with breast cancer taught me that there are positive aspects to even the most devastating losses. For three years, my mother continued to earn a living… work toward her master’s degree… and raise three children, even as she endured chemotherapy.
As awful as it was when she died at age 49, the lessons I learned from her strength in the face of the challenges were the most important lessons of my life. I had been an underachiever as a boy, but following her example transformed me into an Olympic champion.
We cannot completely control the events of our lives, but we can control how we respond to them. It’s this that defines us. I choose to be happy about the wonderful example my mother set for me in those final years, not sad about her death.
Don’t delay difficult conversations. My first inclination when someone does something that bothers me is to bite my lip and remain quietly unhappy. Over the years, I have learned that stoicism only prolongs my displeasure. As much as I dislike confrontations, they often are the quickest path back to happiness.
Example: My agent, Bob Kain, no longer had much time for me by the early 1990s. He had added new clients and taken on a management role in his firm. My career was suffering — but for years, I said nothing. I didn’t want to damage my relationship with Bob. Instead, I let my resentment build until our relationship was almost irreparably harmed. After I finally spoke up, we found a solution — a different agent at the company would handle the details of my career while Bob served as adviser. I could have avoided years of unhappiness if I had just voiced my displeasure sooner.
Sell your smile… even to yourself. I once saw Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi miss her landing on a triple lutz and fall hard on her back in front of a large crowd. She must have been in pain — not to mention disappointed and embarrassed — but she immediately bounced back up with a huge smile on her face. The remainder of her routine was flawless.
The crowd gave Kristi a big ovation. Her smile had convinced them that the fall didn’t matter — everything was okay.
Kristi’s smile also convinced Kristi herself that everything was okay. It’s easy to lose confidence and feel bad when we “fall.” Smiling or laughing releases endorphins, hormones that trigger feelings of happiness and well-being. In other words, we don’t have to wait until we are happy to smile — we can use a smile to make ourselves happy.
I put this lesson to use in my own life by searching for the humor in my darkest moments. If I can laugh at myself, my problems seem less daunting.
Example: I was scheduled to skate in Peoria, Illinois, just hours after I learned that I had testicular cancer. I feared that this could be the last performance of my life, and I desperately wanted to do well — but my mind was on my cancer, not my skating. Suddenly I noticed a woman in the front row ignoring my routine entirely and casually applying makeup. It made me chuckle to think that this performance that was so important to me was so meaningless to her. My mood immediately lightened, and I was able to get through the rest of the routine.
Fight for change. The world changes. We change. It’s inevitable. The only way to remain happy is to embrace change and enjoy it. We need to take pleasure in meeting new challenges and take pleasure in the surprises that lie around every corner. The changes that we fear often make our lives much better in the end.
Example: When the Ice Capades didn’t renew my contract, I feared that my professional skating career was over. As it turned out, getting fired led to one of the greatest successes of my life. My agent, Bob Kain, and I started a rival skating tour, Stars on Ice, that is still going strong and earning money today — while the Ice Capades folded years ago.