Earlier this morning, as I was sitting on my porch working, Mason (my 7-year-old wildlife lover), made an exhilarating discovery. I was startled to the point of nearly falling out of my chair when he started bellowing for me to “Come here! Right now! Bring your phone! Hurry!” Now, I figured this had something to do with some form of backyard wonder, since already today he had captured and studied a snail, a roly-poly, a few ants and a slug. I was not, however, expecting his enthusiasm to be over a pair of mating lizards, furiously going at it on the screen enclosure. He frantically waved me over as I got closer, like some manic supporter at the finish line of a marathon. “Look!” he practically screamed at me, finger outstretched and pointing to the lizards. “Look mom! He’s smiling! Take a picture!” As I attempted to open my camera app while holding back my laughter, he said one more thing that would bounce around in my head for hours.
“He’s just so happy!”
Well isn’t that just the damn truth. From the looks of it, the little guy had plenty of reasons for the big smile on his face. But it got me thinking. What is happy? What does that mean? The answer is likely different for everyone. Theoretical physics makes Kaleb (my 10-year-old going on 20-year-old going on 5-year-old science nerd) happy. It does not make me happy. Instead, it makes my head hurt and my eyes feel like they’ve just gone for a run through the clothes drier.
Seriously though, what defines happiness? How do you measure it? Can it even be measured?
A couple years ago, after the reality awakening experience I wrote about the other day, I picked up a couple of self-helpy type books that focused on habits and happiness. One of them was Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”. It was a good read. Insightful, funny, and full of ideas about how to perceive and improve your own happiness. I enjoyed it immensely and vowed to work on my own happiness. But I did so with a narrow focus, and no real inner rumination past the point of one goal.
I had decided that my key to happiness was paved with college courses. That if I could just go back and finish school, I could finally be what I was supposed to be, and that new level of self-sufficiency would make me happy. I wasn’t entirely wrong. But I was nowhere near right either. I looked at one tiny corner of my great big life, and decided it was going to be the thing that saved me.
Nevermind that I wasn’t happy with my health, especially after having quit smoking, thus eating my cravings and steadily putting on weight in all the wrong places. Nevermind that I felt like I was juggling the kids and the house on my own with little to no support. Not that I ever said these things to my husband, for a variety of ill-conceived bullshit excuses. I don’t want to start a fight. Maybe I’m the problem. This is how relationships are supposed to be. I’m not holding up my end of the deal. So on and on the cycle continued.
I figured I would go back to school, and everyone else would have to step up to help me. They wouldn’t have a choice, because I’d be too busy to do it all on my own.
Let me just tell you, it did not work out that way. Shocker! I know. Instead, I ended up juggling a full-time school schedule, a 30 hour a week job, and coaching Kaleb’s tennis team so I could adjust the schedule to fit around Mason’s baseball practice. All while doing the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, and the resentment building. Man, I mastered the art of that last one. I may never be America’s Next Top Masterchef, but I could win some pretty intense awards for hanging on to anger and resentment.
So, the whole time I’m doing this thing for me, and in the long term, my family, I’m secretly getting more and more angry. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that is probably not the most effective path to happiness. In the meantime, my husband was sitting on the other side of this grand new endeavor I had taken on, stewing in his own resentment. Because I had no time. I don’t have time to talk about your day, I’m sorry. But I’ve still got two hours of work to do, a ten page research paper due in two days, I have to leave in fifteen minutes to take one kid to one sport or another, and I can’t remember the last time I ate.
In short, I did not find my happiness, or improve my life.
Do not get me wrong. that doesn’t mean I gave up. Instead, I plowed forward with all of the stubbornness I could muster. I put my head down and I worked my ass off through three semesters of school, all while dealing with the boys’ school stuff, work, birthday parties, holidays, and the chaos that came with buying our first house. And then I took a break. I took the spring semester off, so I could work on taking our new disaster, oh, um, I mean house, and making it our home.
And still, all of this time slipped by. All of these warning signs, meltdowns, problems, and cries for help slipped right past me. Because I was doing what I said I would do with a single-minded focus. And tunnel vision. See, I still hadn’t broken out of my fog. I’d just… expanded it a bit. Until the fateful yoga class (thank you leaking-firehose-breather for keeping my mind present and helping me to find my moment of clarity).
I still don’t know how to define happiness. Is it writing this right now? I can’t say that dissecting all of my flaws and past mistakes is an exercise that makes me happy. But it makes me feel better. And isn’t that kind of the same thing? Does working on a manuscript or reading my book make me feel happy? Yes. But they’re also distractions, and habits I fall into very easily when I don’t want to focus on what’s going on right in front of me in the present moment. So I have to be careful there. Yoga makes me happy. When it’s done. Not typically in the moment unless it’s aerial. Usually, I’m too busy thinking Would you just please shut up and tell us to get out of this pose from hell? to be happy in the actual moment.
All of these things, and many others, make me happy in the temporary, and all of them help to make up parts of the whole of who and what I want to be. And probably, that’s the key to happiness. Finding all of the small things that work together to form a big, messy, complex picture. I’ve decided that like Mrs. Rubin, I’m going to start my own happiness project – as I mentioned before. But mine’s going to look a lot different than hers. As it should, considering we are wildly different people.
First, I’m going to focus on the things I feel I fail at the most. Self-care. Real, honest and open communication with my kids and my husband. Being present, even when it’s painful. Those, I believe, will be the next three post topics. Because each one is worthy of a deeper look. And because I spent seven years -missing out on all of the great my life has to offer because I couldn’t see past the bad. I couldn’t see past my own failures, even when those closest to me looked and saw only success.
Because that’s what depression is. A constant state of steaming failure. And that’s what is going to help me walk away from it Because that’s what success is. A constant state of accepting your perceived failures and trying again anyway.
Today, we are celebrating our country’s independence. And today, I will celebrate my own independence from a miserable existence of only doing what is necessary to get by. I will sit on a picnic blanket in a park with my family, and I will enjoy every moment. Even the miserable ones. Because I can. Because being present, even in the miserable moments, is true freedom.