There are a few lessons Tim and I seem to keep learning over and over again. It’s not that we’re slow learners so much as we’re human, and part of human nature is such that some things are just very very hard to grasp for any length of time.
O N E
One of these lessons is on being happy and what a happy life looks like for us. I saw an image from a TED talk today about happiness and it really made me stop and prioritize my day.
If you follow this blog, you know how I feel about that H word. It’s elusive and forever looming like a dangling carrot for most of us. My happy is nothing like your happy, and our family definition of happiness is way different than my personal definition.
Nevertheless, I love seeing reminders like this one about the now-ness of happiness in all its forms. No matter the daily routine, it’s hard to remember that we’re in charge of how we feel and therefore how “happy” we are. As I tell myself regularly these days, “today is what we have.”
But how do we create happier lives?
It’s easier for me to attempt being intentionally content by focusing on part of my day rather than trying to muster some enthusiastic, happy vibe that lasts the whole day long. I just don’t think that exists on most days for most people without serious medication or other mind altering activity. In fact, I get kind of creeped out when people seem chipper all the time. I know some people who attempt to find their happy by focusing on the moment or the hour, but I’m not zen enough for that.
I find I can have a whole series of crappy or difficult hours and still manage to have a good day. If I focus on small goals throughout the day that make me feel fulfilled/productive/accomplished/relieved (or maybe just one if that’s all I can squeeze in), I feel good about life when my head hits the pillow at night and I feel happy and at peace. So that’s what works for me by way of personal contentment.
Tim and I also have things we want to incorporate into our life together and that gets a little tricky, as any people in partnership will tell you. It’s by no means easy to create an individually happy life, and adding another person to that (and then a few tiny people) makes for a challenging situation where the weeks and months fly by before you realize you’ve not done one thing that brings everyone joy for a very long time. We’ve been together for four years. We have not mastered this! It’s a precarious undertaking.
We’re working on it, and our approach is split up into phases. Phase One: get through winter (CHECK!), survive grad school, get into a groove with 2 under 2 with Tim working away from home. Phase Two (and the real solution attempt): create a weekly routine that incorporates the things we love to do together and commit to it. Yeah, that committing-to-it thing is a real beast. It’s easy to let weekend traveling, last minute plans, and other interruptions usurp the commitment, but the sacrifice is pretty big.
We are in the process of making our routine for the warmer months, for example. We always feel more alive and connected when we can get into nature, go to the farmers market, and encounter like-minded people. Our spring/summer family routine will have those things as our weekend priorities since that’s the time we have to make those things happen.
As a couple who has traveled to see our families terribly frequently over the last few years (until we had Silas), I will say with confidence that the cap for us is one weekend a month out of routine. Otherwise, we feel haggard from traveling, disconnected from where we live for not doing the things we love to do there, and just generally not happy with our family life. Not worth it.
For us, designing our ideal week (with some flexibility built in, like “get outside” instead of “go hiking” or “go to the park”) and then sticking to it is the only way we know how to get that good mojo feeling of looking back over the month and feeling happy about what we did and how we spent our time together. To us, that’s a happy family life. I find that a little reflective hindsight is a great indicator of how “happy” my life is, which really means it’s a great indicator of how well I committed to the things I want my life to include.
T W O
The second lesson we’re learning repeatedly with each new job, experience, and adventure: a “calling” isn’t one thing. Tim spent the better part of a decade mentally obsessing over what his “calling” might be. It was damaging, frustrating, and generally just not productive or satisfying. There aren’t neon signs, there aren’t helpful or directive notes from higher powers, and the truth is there isn’t one single thing you’re meant to do with a concise label. It took me almost three years to convince Tim that his calling is a series of attributes and passions that all intersect in different ways depending on the opportunity at hand.
The idea of a “calling” is misleading because it alludes to one right answer, which is something that not only limits our potential but also has a real tendency to make us feel like we are failing if we can’t figure out what the “right” answer is. What if following our calling means doing the thing we enjoy so much that we lose track of time when we do it? And what if it’s ok if that thing changes next week or next year or whenever we grow a little bit more?
As we get older, we try to give ourselves more wiggle room for exploring things that make us happy. If we look at life as a constant learning process, our calling is a constantly shifting collection of the things that make us feel alive, useful and content. But it requires letting go of the search for the “right” answer, and there’s the rub that we keep learning over and over again.
T H R E E
Lesson number three for the GB’s? There’s a constant allure to the “grass is greener” mentality when it comes to being happy wherever we are. Should you be able to be happy where you are? On some level, yes. But as people who have moved 16+ times each now, we also stick by the idea that it’s easier to be happier in some places than others. Again–here’s the word “happy” and it comes up not only short, but a little contradictory.
For us, being happy where we are means working on being happy with ourselves emotionally and spiritually by working on our relationship and fostering our moral purpose. Those are the inward bits of happiness that are definitely attainable anywhere. Let’s be honest and say there are also outward components of happiness like having like-minded people, places that make us feel connected and alive, hills and nature that feed our souls, and a sense of community and socialization that give us a sense of belonging. These are the things that arguably are not available everywhere we have lived, and they are things that we are finding really critical to feeling content with our week to week routine.
I love words, but sometimes language can be dreadfully limiting. It makes very complex, human struggles seem like they should have simple solutions. Words can do a huge disservice by creating unattainable and oversimplified ideals, and I think that’s the case with statements like “I want to be happy” or “I want to find my calling” or “I should be able to be happy wherever I am”. It’s just not that simple. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t attainable, which is the promise held in going beyond the word happy and getting down to the more important bits of what it really means to like your life.