I started this post as an extended review of a book called The Happiness Project, that got my wheels turning over the active and determined pursuit of happiness. Turned out that it was a much bigger topic and focus of my life than just one little essay.
Reading the book made me realize how happy I am right now, in my life exactly the way it is. I’m well aware that many other people would not at all be happy with this, perhaps would not even be able to endure it. I’m often perched on the edge of broke, when I work for money it’s at a job I don’t love, I’m living in my very unfinished converted barn without running water, windows or constant heat. But in downward comparison, I have more than some of the wealthiest Cubans have. Cuba is much better off than a lot of Africa. Relative poverty in Canada is still unattainable riches to the third world, and the great thing (that I’m quite grateful for), is that I rarely forget it. I feel rich, almost all the time. I have an abundance of time, good credit, my health, the unflickering love of friends, wood to burn and a stove to start fires in, beautiful wheels, plenty of food, clean air and water. I live in one of the most beautiful chunks of the most beautiful countries, and I really love the things I do for free.
The few aspects of my life that aren’t ideal don’t bother me that they’re not ideal, and I think that that is the real definition of happiness. The non-ideal elements don’t throw you off the balance. One is never going to get every aspect of your life into total alignment with your ideal vision, certainly not living as small pieces of a greater whole that is collectively terribly out of ecological harmony. At the very least, putting off happiness until arriving at some ideal is an unreasonable expectation.
I also realize I’ve done a huge amount of work to become what I think is pretty damn happy. I am deeply proud of being in this place, now, with a quick backward glance at struggle that at times, I barely survived. It is not an exaggeration to say I am lucky to be alive, several times over. But beyond luck and endurance, I am here and happy, and that is my own doing. It does take work, and deliberate attention, and that is the gold of this book.
The book. The Happiness Project is Gretchen Rubin’s story of one year spent working deliberately towards greater happiness, with the intention of inspiring others to do the same, in their own way. Naturally, the book is also an examination of the state of happiness and the philosophy of seeking for it. Perhaps it’s not as lean and mean a book as it could be, and quoting blog comments in a book drives me NUUTTTTS!, but it’s a very important book, and I highly recommend it not only for the take home message but all the references to a wealth of research and resources.
In her project, Gretchen embarks on a very structured year of meticulous plans to do things and cultivate characteristics that will result in happiness. This is in no small part because she is a meticulous person who thrives with structure and believes character is for cultivating. Her style is not for everyone! For one thing, the ambition of it would knock the average person down.
I was in a place of paying attention to the effort involved in happiness because I was about to start working at H&R Block for tax season, a job that has been so stressful and hard in the past that I could practically count on a major health crisis at the end of every April. This year I was determined that it be different, and with my fabulous boss supporting me to not overdo it, I was actively planning a program to support my soul through the inevitably challenging “taxing” months.
I’m a systematic person, a lover of lists and accomplishment and I respond well to routine. I’ve been seeking and evolving systems that will support me in my pursuit of happiness for some time. I have the evidence, too, so many types of lists and programs I created for myself over the years, from wearyingly ambitious gym schedules to comprehensive lists of everything I want to do in life (that one wasn’t daunting at all, haha!). I know already that the single most essential part of her program (as she identifies by the end of her year) is the feedback system of acknowledging personal successes. What you must have is a way of acknowledging your success that works. It’s the only way that it grows.
Interestingly, my project followed similar lines to the book, though somewhat cooincidentally. I made it a high priority to knock a whole bunch of lingering loose ends off my list. Like clutter, these things weigh on your spirit. Even making a plan for dealing with them can relieve the pressure. So I made a plan that would first commit my free time to knocking those things off that I should have done long ago, right at the beginning, as she did (HP pg 25- Toss, Restore, Organize, and Nagging Tasks). For a while it feels like you’re floundering around in the past instead of getting ahead, but that’s temporary. You’re really making room for the new stuff . It’s as though the most important things get buried at the bottom of the pile of trivial housekeeping junk, and you have to excavate them.
After making the room for it, I started a habit of exercise that is perfectly appropriate for my body and really makes me feel good (HP pg 21 – Exercise Better). I scaled down expectations of myself (in other words, I let go of getting my windows and floor finished before May). I started saying no, even if it disappointed people. I’m better at saying no now. I made a list of things that really satisfy me and people that I care about, and made a plan of things I could do for/with them that was reasonable, not over-reaching (HP pg 141- Friendship; I’m working on pg 143- Remember Birthdays). I paid attention to things that I wanted to be and what tangible actions I could take to become that. For instance: I want to be a person who makes the world a better place; I can blurt out encouragement or a compliment when one to mind, and to get better at doing that, I must give myself a mental gold star every time I succeed at it (HP pg 268- Give Positive Reviews). I looked at what feeds me and thought of a few things I could manage to do to keep those interests alive. Above all I improved my efficiency (HP pg 82- Work Smart), by making the things I have to do compact little habits, and deliberately making habits of things I want to do that fit in and around other things (listen to Spanish course while I’m driving, or else sing; write on the ferry; read while I floss; listen to the radio while I cook). I revisited my list of everything I wanted to do in my life with an eye to what felt “hardest” in my chest when I thought about it- either from a feeling of urgency to do it or a greater pitch of desire. I let the other things go, the ones that can wait, and planned micromovements towards the important ones. I started collecting crows (I already did, just made it deliberate; HP pg 130). I love crows and ravens. Sometimes I can hear the kwoosh, kwoosh sound of their wings pushing air as they flyover my barn in the night, and it gives me a wave of great peace.
Another practice that I’m exceedingly happy about is my success at sleeping. The day after my last day of the work week, I sleep. That’s all that I plan to do, it’s sometimes all that I do. I turn my phone off, and I sleep. I don’t look at a to-do list- that’s for another day off. This may also be known as a “free day”, a day in which you plan nothing, and let whatever riles your fancy spur you to action- there is nothing to supercede it. Sometimes I wake up early, sometimes I wake in the afternoon, sometimes I read and fall back to sleep, sometimes I write energetically and fall back to sleep, sometimes I cut a week’s firewood, cook, clean, organize, work out, and build a couple things, but I never do anything I don’t feel like doing. The other weekend day is for doing all the things I have to do, like wood and laundry. Sometimes I just sleep. It turns out I have a hunger for sleep that would make a teenager twitch, whether it’s my body needing the recovery or a desire for dreams. I’ve always been a good sleeper, fantasizing about being a four-hour-a-night Martha Stewart or Albert Einstein, but never for long. Sleeping with abandon makes me very very happy.
What I was really jealous of in Gretchen’s Project was her reading several books a month (while writing a couple, plus maintaining a seriously complicated life). Not easy books, either, but heavy, edifying ones.
Maybe I’ll start a want to read list. I find this incredibly daunting, too, because just Powell’s daily book in my email adds three or four a week to my list, and an hour browsing Chapters or one library shift can add 20 more in a stroke. There are just too many books out there. Good ones, funny ones, important ones. As it happens, I can be very, very grateful I have no interest in ever reading anything by Nora Roberts, James Patterson, or Clive Cussler. So if I want to read Teri Hatcher’s autobiography, so what. Speaking of Terri Hatcher’s memoir, it’s good.
In a good (and normal) week, I can read two books, but many weeks are not normal, and the more I read the more books tack on to the end of my list in an Alice in Wonderland effect that means before I start I will never, ever keep up with all that I want to read. Even if reading was all I did. But in fact, there are several other things I want to spend my time doing. Making my 100 books in a year goal was a way of giving myself permission to read (while it may seem like a waste of productive time in the moment, it was contributing to a worthwhile long-term goal). In addition, as a sort-of writer with the notion that someday, when I’m older and wiser, I’ll probably produce a couple books – well, what is there that’s important enough to add to the astounding pile of worthy books already in the world?
But back to happiness. These are the five best tips and principles I’ve ever learned and used (aside from the peerless life advice of Mary Schmich): 1. Make your passwords work for you. I use passwords hundreds of times a day, most people will use them dozens. Use that opportunity- choose words or phrases that make you smile or think happy thoughts. 2. A system of organization that works for you. I’ve been fidgeting with mine for years; right now, it’s a clipboard that goes everywhere with me, that covers everything. This also means habits that feed you, and habits have to be formed through deliberate attention. Then they will stand by you like a dog. 3. SARK talks about micromovements in The Bodacious Book of Succulence. For instance, if you have to write a letter, start by getting some paper and pens out into view, and praise yourself for that step, no matter how small. It only takes a few micromovements to add up to an accomplishment. 4. Celebrations and appreciations, courtesy Anna Christensen. I’ll use her words, because they’re best: “Doing something different often feels uncomfortable; this is the first stage of change. Without celebration or acknowledgement of the changed behaviour, your subconscious mind will not be clear about what you want…by celebrating, your subconscious mind will know that you want to encourage more change in that direction.”
What it’s really about is practice, a series of habits that sticks, that forms a matrix that will sustain you through stress and tragedy and the unexpected. Really, her book would be better titled the Happiness Practice, although she definitely makes a Project of creating a Practice (capitalization intentional). That’s what it turned into for her, too, a series of experiments in which she learned what worked and what didn’t. By the end of her year she knew what habits she would maintain, and had a blog with a life of its own to reflect her continued attention to happiness.
Happiness is tied less to the fulfillment of desire than the pursuit, anyways, and this is backed by science (I know, I read it in Psychology Today!). There was some study on the hormonal/chemical state of happiness that said (according to my memory), that a happiness event can only last for 15 minutes before it fades and is balanced or neutralized. “The moral of the story” was that we are wired this way to keep us seeking. This internal setting is responsible for our individual and collective growth (not to mention reproduction), because it keeps us striving. We never stop, because the happiness “hit” never lasts. Sad? I don’t think so. Seeking and striving is satisfying; it’s what we’re made to do.
Three months later, I remain almost unbearably happy with my life. And the best part is that I didn’t have to meditate. Meditating is not one of my things:)