let it go (or, THP: Chapter Four)

(This is part four in a series about The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin.  To start at the beginning, click here. )

Gretchen’s fourth task was ‘lightening up’ her parenting approach.  Even though I’m not a parent, I knew I could use some of her advice.  (Everyone who knows me is emphatically shaking their heads in agreement.)

One of the first things Gretchen wrote about, ‘fog happiness,’ really resonated with me.  She gives the example of asking a host at a dinner party if they were, in fact, enjoying the party.  The host responded that no, not at that moment, but they would “have fun when it’s over.”

I totally get that.  I LOVE to have people over, especially with our new deck and patio, yet find I spend most of my time running around like a chicken with my head cut off instead of enjoying my guests.  It’s only that last hour or so, when some people have left and everyone has finished eating that I can really sit down and relax.

Gretchen says having children is like that.  In fact, there are lots of activities that would fall into this category, such as writing (gasp!) or giving a presentation.  In the moment, many activities aren’t ‘fun’ or may even produce stress or anxiety, yet the finished product/overall experience brings happiness.

Further down the same page, she says that she “was so focused on checking off the items of my to-do list that I forgot what really mattered.”  Story. Of. My. Life.

Raise your hand if you could use some ‘lightening up.’  Both of mine are high in the air right now.

The first thing Gretchen vowed to do was, ‘sing in the morning.’  For her, that meant making an effort to start the day right with her girls, such as singing, making jokes and ‘reframing’ how she thought about things.  I’m not working right now, and I can’t even tell you how much it cheers me each day to be able to make the bed after Andrew goes to work, because I get to see a tidy room for the rest of the day whenever I open the door.  A lot of my ability to ‘lighten up’ comes from having TIME to do the things that I need to do and want to do.  I’ve started adding the phrase “but I have the time” after each complaint about cleaning the toilets or vacuuming the floors.  For that I am thankful.

Perhaps the biggest parenting eye-opener I read was the importance of acknowledging the reality of peoples’ feelings.  She said she got this gem from a book entitled How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.  It’s simple, really.  We, as grown ups, don’t realize how often we discount the feelings of children, simply because they might not make sense.  We reply, “How could you be hungry?” or “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” to a child’s request for a snack after dinner or hesitation at doing something new.  Instead, a simple, “I understand you’re a little scared because you’ve never done this before,” shows a child you heard them and understand their feelings.  Gretchen said this strategy was ‘astoundingly effective.’  According to the book (and experts), denying bad feelings makes them worse, while simply acknowledging them helps good feelings return.  Don’t we all just want our feelings to be validated??

Another way Gretchen used to ‘lighten up’ was to create happy memories.  She realized that all the photo-taking and album-making wasn’t for naught, and made it a point to e-mail updates and photos to the grandparents as well.  She even created a file box for each girl and sorted items by year, such as their birthday party invitations, selected school projects and their yearly ‘Christmas’ card (which is really a Valentine’s Card, for reasons she explains earlier in the book), so that one day they would have a box of ‘happy memories’ themselves.  I recently spent some time organizing our photos and albums, as well as the plethora of greeting cards Andrew and I have given each other, and I can tell you that it was, indeed, a happy experience looking back on earlier years.

She also points out the importance of traditions, and how they increase happiness by helping people anticipate the event.  I often get chided for how much I value the traditions I insist we observe each year.  (I don’t know why, as Andrew is often the more sentimental of the two of us; see ‘plethora of greeting cards,’ above.)  It’s true, I’ll turn just about anything into a tradition if you let me.  Perhaps it’s my way of creating structure in an often chaotic life (especially that of my childhood–it’s hard to have traditions when you come from divorced parents, move a lot and didn’t grow up in one of those ‘lovey-dovey’ households).  Whether it’s hosting our friends the Nyes for St. Patrick’s Day or new jammies and a ‘Happy Birthday, Jesus’ cake on Christmas Eve, if it’s something that brings us joy and makes sense to repeat, I say the more the merrier.

Lastly, Gretchen ‘took time for projects.’  Lately, I’ve been taking A LOT of time for projects, although most of mine have been of the cleaning-and-organizing sort.  (Although my happiness even in those tasks cannot be discounted, as I often find these jobs cathartic and bring me immense joy upon completion.  Those photo albums?  It brought me such a sense of satisfaction and relief to have them labeled and in a proper home.  Those old greeting cards?  They are now arranged by year in a pretty box, and the trip down memory lane was worth every minute.)  I loved the example she gave of her daughter absolutely agonizing (in a good way) about what type of cake she would choose.  Instead of pestering her daughter to ‘just choose a cake!’ she allowed her to enjoy the process.

One project I haven’t even started that is already bringing me happiness is the landscaping I’ll do once our fence is in.  Gretchen writes that there are four stages to happiness: anticipation, savoring, expressing and then recalling.  I have been dreaming of a fence (and landscaping) since we bought our house six years ago.  Last summer, we started the fence, and we’ll finish it in the next month or so.  I have been anticipating this moment for years–my chance to landscape once the fence is in.  Each time I look out at the backyard, I imagine what it will look like when it’s finished.  Any time I’m at a nursery, I scan the plants for ideas.  I’ve researched and drawn (to scale!) and am *so close* to breaking ground.  I can barely stand it.  I know that the project will take days of hard (OK, really hard) labor, but I will enjoy the process.  I will also enjoy telling anyone who will listen all about my landscaping project, and about how much hard work it is, but also how much fun I’m having.  Lastly, when it’s all said and done, I’ll think back on the project with a huge smile on my face, knowing I did it.

So, have I ‘let it go’ since reading this chapter?  For sure.  I leave dishes in the sink overnight sometimes and can watch TV with Andrew at night (although I’d rather read) without worrying about what I *should* be doing.  However, it’s more a (happy!) side effect of not working full-time, rather than deciding to chill out.

My recent full-time employment showed me just how much I value how I spend my time, and how detrimental the lack of it becomes to both Andrew and myself.   When I have time, our home is cleaner and therefore a more restful place for me to be.  When I have time, I can tackle projects that bring me happiness, like sorting photos or creating a space to work. When I have time, I can exercise the way I want to, volunteer where I’d like and handle the menial ‘household tasks’ that keep our life running smoothly.  While I do dream of a ‘career’ in writing, I’ve realized whatever I do must allow me to have time for the other areas of my life that bring me happiness.

I think for me, happiness is a clean house, a fit body, satisfaction in my relationships and (like Gretchen says), being in a ‘growth mindset.’  Two of those things are, arguably, less important than the other two.  But I disagree.  Over the years, the state of my house (i.e. the amount of dog hair and items left strew about) has caused more stress than any other single thing in my life.  I need my house to be peaceful in order to recharge my batteries, and if it’s chaotic, dirty or in disarray, it simply adds to my stress.  Same with a fit body.  I don’t mean that one has to be ‘thin’ to be happy.  Rather, when my body feels good, when I have the energy to exercise, when my clothes fit well, it means that I’m eating good food that’s contributing to my overall health.  When my body isn’t fit, it’s a sign that I’m overeating, or not exercising, or making poor food choices due to lack of time or stress.  Health (both physical and mental) is incredibly important to being able to have good relationships with others and to challenge yourself.





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