Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Happiness Project--Choose Joy

An atheist, a Lutheran, a Hindu, and a Buddhist convene their book club meeting to talk about Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project.

Now you're waiting for a punch line, aren't you?

But there is none. We actually did that on Tuesday. We talked more about our ideas of happiness and its place in our lives than we did the book (I liked the first part of the book better than the second part, and I'm not sure that I like the book better than the blog).

Oddly, our resident atheist had the most rigid Protestant work ethic. Happiness is the reward that you get when the work is done, and you can turn your attention to the activities you enjoy.

Some of you already know the problem with this mindset. The work is never, ever done. There are always surfaces to be scrubbed, paperwork that demands attention, the gaping maw of familial need.

Why is it so hard to carve out a bit of time? Even if we can't carve it out each day, surely we could find an hour or two a week?

I'm the Lutheran who spent a great deal of time in the middle 90's figuring out what I wanted, what society said I should want, what outcomes deserved which amount of effort. I was living in a communal household, with competing agendas of housemates and husband and self (all of which seemed reasonable), trying to balance a teaching/grading heavy job at a community college, while not losing my artist self. I spent a lot of time writing morning pages, creating collages, and taking a constant inventory: "Is this what I want? Does this activity fit with my goals and my values? If I had only myself to consider, what would I do? If I was selfless, what would I do?" It seemed endless, but it really helped.

I was overweight and trying to get healthy when I came across this quote in the first edition of Christiane Northrup's Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom: "Mary Catherine Bateson's book Composing a Life documents that the presence of a man in a household increases the workload significantly--not because he leaves that many more dirty socks around but because of the expectations that he has of those around him and that those around him have of themselves" (emphasis Northrup's, page 569).

Read that last bit again. I found it shocking when I first read it, and I was sure I had avoided that bit of socialization, but as I moved through my weeks, I realized how many activities I did simply because I thought that's how grown-ups--wives in particular--behaved.

I'm luckier than many people in terms of the expectations I must meet. I don't have children, and I have a fairly capable husband who isn't a sexist. But I still have some deeply ingrained expectations of myself, partly societal, and partly from the fact that I've been married almost 22 years. For example, I've almost always been the one who does the grocery shopping, and thus, some internal voice tells me to feel guilty if I can't do it. But I'm married to a grown up who is perfectly capable of doing the grocery shopping.

If I had children, I'd have a tougher struggle carving out time for the art which brings me joy. Children have needs which they simply cannot meet themselves, at least not when they're very young.

It's interesting to discuss our notions of culture and socialization and the approach to happiness. I tend to think that once we realize that our attitudes are a result of our socialization, we can work to overcome it. My atheist friend thinks that cultural messages are just too tough for most people to overcome. We both have degrees in Sociology, although she has a Ph.D., and I stopped at the B.A. level. Does she know something I don't? I suspect it's just because of our different experiences.

Our Hindu friend has a completely different view of happiness and joy. She says that her religious tradition mandates that she find as much joy as she can in each day. That idea just astonished me.

I've spent two days thinking about how our lives would change if we felt we had a mandate to experience joy and happiness, as often as we could, each day, day after day.

As I worked my way through graduate school, I had a photocopy of a bumper sticker above my desk. It said, "Anything is possible," and I wrote down the impossible things I accomplished along the way: "even writing a thesis," "passing comps," "writing a dissertation." Later, I adopted the mantra: "Magic happens." I saw that as a statement about making a way out of no way, even when you aren't sure how to do it.

Now I might have a different mantra: Choose joy. I haven't been doing enough of that lately. That may be my motto for the rest of the year. Choose joy.


Chum said...

I think it's perfect. I've found myself going in this direction too--learning (slowly) that life really is about attitude. We choose joy/happiness, or we choose to hold onto pain and anger. I think a lot of that is living in the moment and being aware. Here's hoping you choose joy/love/happiness as much and as often as you can. In my opinion, you've always been pretty darned good at that.

Dale said...

I love this injunction as a mandate, and I think it makes deep moral sense, when you think of what joyful people leave in their wake, as opposed what to joyless ones leave.