In addition to Tuesday, today is…Read More
the clearest benefit to living in New Jersey is the Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act, which makes it illegal to pump your own gas in the Garden State. thanks to the law, residents remain in the driver’s seat while someone else pumps it, letting everyone add “getting gas” to the list of “Errands Accomplished in America While Sitting Down.”Read More
[FYI: i struggled so much with this post. like, five-paragraph, high-school-English-essay levels of struggle, where so many slightly-conflicting ideas floated through my brain, i just wanted to format the entire thing in bullet points so i could finish.]
i’ve had this quote tacked to my corkboard for years, along with this one.
several weeks ago, almost without thinking about it, i studied the scrap of paper for the first time in a while, plucked it off the board, grabbed a pencil, and added “WITHIN REASON.”
i found the quote in 2006 inside an issue of real simple. at the time, the advice sounded prudent and almost poetic. six months earlier i’d graduated from college with no idea what to do for the rest of my life. and that’s exactly how i was looking at it—a vast expanse of who-knows-what waiting to be filled in some mysterious way. it was not the best of times.
i was weak in spots i thought this advice would fix. now its focus on self-diminishment strikes me as stereotypically british. but i also have two important bones to pick with its message.
bone 1, the limitations to human happiness business
it’s blatantly a blanket statement, which probably comforted me back in ‘06. i imagine i thought, ‘see, julia. you aren’t happy because you reached your limit. move along.’ like a variation on the classic trix cereal slogan—silly rabbit, trix are for kids!—silly julia, happiness is for others!
trix are for everyone, depending on your definition of trix. the only limitations on human contentment are the ones we set.
the most empowering and bulletproof form of happiness comes from lowering the bar on what you enjoy. once you’re paying attention to little stuff you find more and bigger sources of pleasure emerge.
some examples of what regularly delights me include flowers in bloom, a satisfying work day, and adorable dogs (bonus points if they're being read to by school kids).
while we may not waltz with glee through every day of our lives, happiness is not distributed in quotas measurable in bar graphs.
bone 2, the only real and abiding pleasure business
this one’s intense!
first of all, why are you outsourcing your pleasure? what if your plan for the bliss of others fails? then how will you feel? disappointed. annoyed. self-righteous. resentful.
you’re limiting yourself and setting up for disappointment if you make your good humor contingent on outside circumstances.
and what about the intention behind your action? are you purposefully trying to please someone in order to attain a specific result? if i flatter this woman she’ll give me a job, if i ignore his chronic pot smoking, which he knows i hate, he’ll never leave me…
“but we’re supposed to make sure people around us are happy. it’s our duty,” you might object. or you might think satisfying others brings us joy. that’s undeniably true.
however, a miserable person attempting to engineer joy in others is doomed. you can’t give what you don’t already have.
instead, cultivate your own joy first, to the point where you’re bursting with it and can’t help but share. you be ebullient and optimistic, and if others are open to it, awesome. if not, maybe your upbeat nature will eventually rub off on them.
still not persuaded? read on.
years ago, Andrew Weil, the holistic doctor, gave an example of self-care each of us already owns. “each time the heart beats, it first pumps blood to itself, then to the rest of the body. it has to work this way in order for us to stay alive.”
he continued, “the same is true for us as human beings. we have to take care of ourselves first, so we can take care of others.”
go ahead and share that endless supply of trix. within reason.
Paul Dolan,* a professor at the London School of Economics and the happiness scholar interviewed for the essay says, “happy people pay attention to the everyday experiences that give them pleasure and purpose, then organize their lives so that they are doing more of those things.”
consider me guilty as charged. i practice yoga like it’s my job—every day, including during grad school and while working full-time. it isn’t easy and i don’t always feel like going, but i do, because the net positive—feeling amazing—outweighs any invented excuses.
Dolan prescribes a two-step solution:
- perform a “happiness audit,” where you choose one day weekly or monthly to observe yourself. pay attention to your activities and your feelings about them.
once you’ve done that,
- make it as easy as possible to routinely do the things you like. for example, set up a recurring date with friends so you don’t need to plan every outing.
Dolan notes, "there’s this belief that anything worth having has to be effortful, but really the opposite is true.”
i tend to agree, but i think a lot of people get paralyzed if they perform the audit and realize aspects of their lives aren’t generating the joy they once did.
that’s a scary acknowledgment. what’s going to fit us now? when will it arrive? where will it come from? it’ll probably feel better to stay with what’s familiar, if unpleasant, but that’s a short-term “solution.”
you need to get honest. this is your quality of life we’re talking about. in the end, all life improvements are based on awareness and willingness to change. most people are inclined to avoid both.
this article reminded me of the great quote by Seneca, a Roman philosopher from the mid-first century A.D.:
“it is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”
isn’t that simultaneously humbling and inspiring?
* the Paul Dolan link is to an article in The Guardian about what makes him happy.