Tuesday, April 17, 2012

the secret to happiness

It seems impolite to confess that I’m a happy person.  Happiness seems like something we all seek but feel we don’t quite deserve.  Recently someone in the know about my ongoing happiness regimen asked me to distill it into (solicited!) advice.  I didn’t know where to begin: I see happiness as a conscious ongoing effort.  I advertise the fact that I’m content because I believe that happiness is the result of attention and action, and I think that it’s surprisingly easy to forget to exercise your happiness, like a muscle you don’t get around to using enough.

There are more pressing things to attend to than happiness.  And I wasn’t always happy.  I had a horrifically crotchety and mean grandmother who made our whole family miserable.  She threw some kind of unreasonable hissy fit on the day of my bat mitzvah and stopped speaking to everyone.  At some point not long after that, after some tirade of complaints I regularly made during dinner about my day or my life or whatever, my dad commented to me, “wow, you sound just like grandma.”  I was stunned and ashamed.  I often doubt people who say that a single moment of epiphany changed their lives, but I shouldn’t, because that was one for me.  I simply vowed right then to not turn out like that grandmother.

I made lists of positive events, positive experiences, positive qualities in myself and others.  I wrote letters to my future self reminding Future Rebecca that she needed to have a cool job and to always think stickers were amazing.  In fact I became a second grade teacher and then struck up a friendship with someone who works at Mrs. Grossman’s Sticker Factory, so on that front I’m totally set.  I try to appreciate the things that kids love (stickers, bubbles, unrestrained rhyming) because kids really take pleasure in wonderfully everyday, simple, repetitive things.  People at the park think I’m indulging James when I pretend to let him knock me over as I block the path of his swing for the eighty-seventh time.  But I’m not.  I’m not waiting for him to get bored, I’m consciously enjoying how hilarious he thinks I am.

With annoying frequency I quote a study of the satisfaction levels of people who either won the lottery or suffered a debilitating injury, both immediately after and then years later.  Sure enough in the short term these people were either ebullient or dejected, but a few years later it had completely evened out - they ultimately felt the same way about their lives that they always had.  I love this case as a reminder that happiness is simply not external, no matter how convinced people become that just one thing (money, house, hot girlfriend) will seal their contentment for life.  Still, I acknowledge that the path to bliss is easier if you live a comfortable American lifestyle and suffer no extraordinary tragedies.  I don’t blame people living in poverty or cancer-stricken for not waking up delighted every morning, but, then again, how come there are those that do?

I also concede that some people are far more primed for happiness than others.  I think that parents set a strong example - if you grew up in a home where they looked on the bright side of things and exuded safety and optimism, you’ve got it easy, and if every frustration set them off, you have a tougher road.  But ultimately I think it’s no different than learning to read or learning to run fast - some of us have advantages right off but with focus and practice we can all achieve a satisfactory level of competence.

One happiness exercise that I think benefits anyone is to learn to value your own wants and desires by expressing them to others in a positive, productive way.  A few friends and I were recently mulling over why the first year of marriage is the hardest.  I had kept waiting for Bill to do the wrong things, silently daring him to not do a batch of laundry or comment on a new dress.  I had wasted so much time.  This was a common thread - all of us had spent lots of energy thinking about what we “deserved” and why we were right, instead of focusing on what would make us happy.  It’s not as if we required our partners’ words or actions to be happy, but it was sure hard to be content while fuming inwardly about some stupid dish left in the sink.

My marital happiness soared when I simply started telling Bill what I wanted to hear.  If he came home and didn’t notice my excellent house-cleaning work I would dramatically whisper to him that I had scrubbed the entire kitchen and that he should try entering the room again.  He would humor me by stepping back out and walking in again with a huge smile of appreciation and a stream of compliments, and instead of feeling cheapened and annoyed I felt genuinely good, actually, pretty much as good as if he had thought of it himself.  Bill to this day puts on well-practiced expression of interest and pride as I walk him through my minor accomplishments of the day, and then adds something along the lines of “wow, you do so much!  And you look GREAT.”  Often it’s still because I’ve just directly suggested that he say it.  But somehow he means it.  He says that there’s a whole book about how this practice really, scientifically, works for relationships.  I need to read that book.

The same rule applies to ourselves, not just interpersonal relationships.  It’s hard to remember to pay attention to setting yourself up with false expectations (“I’ll finally be happy if I get that raise, I’ll finally be happy if I lose that weight”).  It takes an extra step to frame things in terms of actual happiness, not what you’re used to assuming is going to bring happiness.  Yes, an awful job may contribute to melancholy, but most of the time it’s not the job’s fault - it’s that we haven’t tried to address the things that bug us on a daily basis, like negative coworkers or feeling unrecognized.  We end up putting more energy into imagining or creating a whole new situation than simply fixing the current one.  It’s as if we all decided long ago that a certain thing would make us happy - a better job, relationship, money, power - and ever since then we’ve forgotten to check if we already have it or if it was ever the right goal at all.

We set out on these paths in life - schools, careers, families, and it begins to feel like life actually is a long To Do list or a race to a goal.  But it is so incredibly short - if you even half pay attention to the speed of the days ticking by it’s disturbing - and so what really matters other than happiness?  When I focus moment-to-moment on my own happiness I find myself building pillow forts, hosting impromptu dinners, buying large stuffed animals at Costco, as well as baking massive amounts of cookies and cakes.  The last one (or two) are hazards, but instead of suffering a diabetic coma in the name of happiness I’ve worked on believing that healthy eating can bring happiness too - when sharing a very messy bowl of spinach soup with James or noticing that I feel energetic after a light breakfast.  Mind you, it takes work, and I’m quite sure that enjoying spinach soup will always require some conscious effort.  Happiness often does.  Try it.  

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