The Art of Happiness

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Let me just start this by saying this is not an advice post. I love stories, but I don’t know the hard details of yours. The things in here that were true for me might not be true for you, and I know how much it can hurt to be in a vulnerable place and hear exactly the wrong advice. So let me say again: this post is just me, sticking a peg in the ground to mark where I am today. So I can look back and remember.

Anyway.

When Iris was about four months old and Carl was just hobbling back to work on crutches, needing rides everywhere and help in the shower, I have a vivid memory of one particular afternoon, pacing from the front door to the back in endless repetition while Iris screamed in my arms (she cried before every nap and woke up 3-6 times every night at that age). And I remember the total exhaustion of misery, just luxuriating in all sorts of self-destructive fantasies.

You know. What they used to call having a good cry before we all became our own psychotherapists.

And somewhere in the middle of all that pacing, I stopped at the front door and stared out the window and realized that I wasn’t going to end my life, and I needed to knock it off already.

I needed to figure my life out. Now. For real.

And I no longer cared if it made me selfish or superficial or unspiritual to admit it: I wanted to be happy. Not just “joyful” or whatever people say when they really aren’t happy but are trying to make the best of it. Happy.

In the last two years, let me tell you, I have read so many books and articles on happiness and psychology and positive thinking and random life stories I’ve lost count. My news feed is stuffed to the gills with articles about productivity and motivation and peace and joy and gratitude and YES, I MIGHT BE INSANE. I KNOW. There are so many awesome ways to tear apart this kind of process that I wasn’t particularly vocal about my intentions. This is not the kind of thing you want to bring up at holiday dinners. But that’s what I’ve been up to for the last two years, give or take.

Here’s the thing: it’s impossible to really, confidently assign cause and effect in something so huge and complicated and interrelated as 2 years of living and 2 new babies and normal life growth.

But I can also tell you: I’ve never been happier.

Not like: today was a good day! Like: I have been pretty much happy for two or three months straight. If this is normal life for you then you go, Glen Coco, but it’s not been normal for me. It’s been so abnormal that I’ve spent the last couple of weeks mulling it over, trying to figure out if it’s just random life stuff (I have cute kids! My marriage is good! I don’t have to juggle working outside of the home!). Granted, it could be. I’m in a pretty sweet spot right now.

But I also read a lot of books on parenthood and talk to fellow parents of young kids, and according to every study I’ve ever read having young children actually makes you less happy. Less satisfied with your marriage, more stressed, less happy. So, yes, I have a lot of awesomeness going on in my life right now, but based on the entire course of my life—and anecdotally from plenty of survivor stories both big and small—I’m going to go out on a huge limb here and say that, for me anyway,

Happiness seems to be an art.

A habit.

A gift only I could give myself.

So there you have it. And what does all that mean? I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up totally depressed and angry at the world. It’s possible. But it’s also just possible that all of the crazy things I’ve been doing, the habits I’ve been learning, the questions I’ve started to ask myself ARE paying off in small, tangible ways.

And on the outside chance that’s true, I’m going to go on a farther limb (a leaf?) and list the most helpful ones here. So I can find them again when life gets rough. On the off chance that there’s somebody out there who’s where I was two years ago, looking for company on this particular journey.

1. You are the mountain, emotions are just weather. (Also known as: read a crap load of zen books). I love reading zen books for a lot of reasons, but the two most helpful things for me have been 1) the practice of noticing my emotions rather than inhabiting them (wow I’m really frustrated right now, I should proceed with caution vs. volcanic eruption of frustration, blame, and self-justification). And 2) stop believing every storyline my emotional self offers me. Emotions are good at telling stories, and they’re always high drama. The baby goes down late so you don’t have time to get out like you planned and suddenly THE BABY TAKES UP ALL YOUR TIME. Or your husband forgets to do something he promised and YOU HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING. Or God forbid you yell at your kid and YOU HAVE DESTROYED HER SPARKLE FOREVER.

2. Say what you need to say, and do what you need to do. The path to enlightenment is littered with people who tried to control their emotions by just stuffing them. I know because I have regular smashups. But emotions are like good lies—most of the time there’s a kernel of truth in them. Deal with the kernel before it sprouts into something bigger.

 

3. Make friends with failure. There is a zen story about a master who was asked what he would do if he met his worst enemy outside his house. His answer? Invite him in for tea.   Do you want to know what my writing goals are for next year? To get rejected 10 more times. Do you want to know what my writing goals are every work day? One sentence. And yet… I started the novel I’m working on right now when I was four months pregnant with Oliver, and I’m 40,000 words in. I am perfectly happy to fail all the way to the finish line. Fear of failure is the biggest time waster in the world. For sure it never added one iota to my happiness.

4. You can’t love your life until you accept your limitations. I am me. I will probably never make as much money as my brother Aaron or live in exotic places like my brother Michael or invest in as many people as my brother Jon or be as focused about paying back debt as my brother Dan or have the sly joie de vivre of my brother Stephen or the academic sharpness of my brother Joel. (I have a lot of brothers). I’m not going to be the next J. K. Rowling or Anne Lamott either. That’s ok. The giftedness of others doesn’t lessen the value of my gifts. It just makes the world a better place.

5. Stop trying so hard to fix your problems and start trying to enjoy your blessings. I have plenty of problems. My house is rarely clean. Iris watches too much TV. Starting an interesting movie in the evening or leaning in for a kiss pretty much guarantees that Oliver will immediately wake up and cry. I wish I was able to contribute financially to our family, and I wish Carl had more time to be home. I hate winter. I have a few loved ones struggling with various and sundry. But you know what? All of those things are either out of my control or waaaaaaaaaay too far down the priority list for me to worry about right now. Which leads me to…

6. Practice gratitude. Practice the heck out of it. There are a million ways to do this and all of them are good. I think about my 3 favorite moments from the day before falling asleep. I look at newborn pictures of the kids and am blown away by how sweet the days have been. Carl and I remind each other of fun or funny things that happened years ago. When I see myself in the mirror and think inevitably about those last 10 pounds of baby fat, I thank my body for giving me two amazing babies. I don’t make as much time for prayer as I’d like, but the prayer I always have time to say is simple. Thank you.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve been learning lately. Nothing too earth shaking. Nothing you couldn’t read someplace else, but so beautifully happy-making in practice I can’t resist writing it down to keep like a lucky penny.

As I like to remind Carl when Iris spills her milk across the table and Oliver is howling because I’m not shoveling the bananas in his face fast enough, THESE ARE THE GLORY DAYS. My biggest goal, the biggest change, is just trying to enjoy the ride.

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4 thoughts on “The Art of Happiness

  1. I think this is great advice. I have found similar things to be true in my 27 years of parenting. I am glad that you are finding them out now. Thanks for your writing. You have a way of putting things that i really appreciate.

  2. Wonderful to share your weekend and Iris’ birthday. Dad and I left just glowing because you’re happy! We are happy too. Thank you, Father!

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