In the days leading up to my birthday last week, there was definitely an aura of funk in the air. That kind of funk born of the frustration that I mentioned in an earlier post that is so hazardous. Am I moving in the right direction? Am I doing the right things? Why can’t I get this blog going? Why can’t I seem to [insert measure of success here]? Seeds from an earlier blog entry “I have enough; I do enough; I am enough” lay like dust in my fallow blog.
The funk was so palpable, that a friend asked me if I had read The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. “Yes,” I immediately answered. Upon further discussion, I revealed that by “yes,” I had meant that I had read a few of Gretchen’s blog entries, but never the actual book. This scene unfolded much like it had the last time she asked me if I had read it, which explains the audible sigh and appearance of the book, as a gift, on my Kindle.
As a birthday present to myself, I decided I would give Gretchen’s advice a test drive. First, on my birthday, I had to play hooky. There were no meetings, no deadlines, and I had plenty of annual leave. (Let’s save the debate as to whether taking annual leave really equates playing “hooky” and throw me that bone.) With leave secured, I selected my first bit of advice to follow:
Recalling Happy Memories
Studies show that recalling happy times helps boost happiness in the present. When people reminisce, they focus on positive memories, with the result that recalling the past amplifies the positive and minimizes the negative.
– Gretchen Ruben, The Happiness Project
Before going to bed, I picked a specific song that would help me start the next day recalling a happy memory.
It was my last year of graduate school. I was frazzled as hell because it was finals time, but on my birthday that year, my niece was born; the first grandchild in the family. In the midst of frazzle, there was this serene, sweet joy. I remember holding her as a baby, rocking her to a really adorable Lyle Lovett song, If I Had a Boat, covered by the folk group Eddie From Ohio. On a live recording, singer Robbie Schaefer explained the background of the song:
Lyle Lovett was talking to a little kid and asked him if he could have anything in the entire world, what would it be? And he said, “Umm…..a boat….uhh….and a pony.”
If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean.
And if I had a pony, well, I’d ride him on my boat.
And we could all together, go out on the ocean.
Just me upon my pony on my boat.
(No offense, Lyle, but Robbie’s version is better.)
The song has resonance with me beyond the happy memory. There’s a reason that I loved it years ago when I rocked my niece to sleep to it. It captures the essence of our inner child, as yet untouched by self-censorship and criticism. I want it all – a boat! And a pony! And there’s no reason the two couldn’t go together!
It reminded me of the Blank Canvas Day that I wrote about back in January. That day, our small group was asked to imagine ourselves at eight years old and that tomorrow, school is cancelled. Do you know what you would do? Then we compared that to our adult selves, with the situation changing to work being cancelled. Would you know what you would do? Many of our answers were much more lame for our adult selves than our kid selves.
On my birthday, I felt lucky that I had developed a long list of things that I would do as if school had been inexplicably cancelled. I took a few of them, borrowed a frame in the form of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, and that’s what I set out to accomplish for the rest of the day.
Lighten Up and Sing in the Morning
Over a leisurely coffee, I took on another of Gretchen’s happiness commandments to “lighten up.” I giggled over internet cuteness that on an otherwise busy day might prompt me to roll my eyes in impatience. I giggled at 13 Simple Steps to Get you Through a Rough Day, and Animals Who Are Extremely Disappointed in You, and then finally clicking on the link that said “tiny adorable animals that will make you squee.” (Note: they did.) This jump-started another bit of her advice to “sing in the morning.” The happy dance commenced in the middle of the living room floor.
Tackling a long-delayed chore
It wasn’t all fun and games. I had to take advantage of the time to get at least one thing off of my list of things to do. Gretchen said so.
An important aspect of happiness is managing your moods, and studies show that one of the best ways to lift your mood is to engineer an easy success, such as tackling a long-delayed chore.
Having been humbled by reading the Atlantic Monthly article Hacked!, I decided to get serious about password management. It had been on my mind for a while, as I fumbled with password over password. At some point, I started going down the rabbit hole of the to-do list, and I stopped myself. The day was getting too serious, and it was time for my next activity.
Be Generous. Make Other People Happy. Give Proofs of Love.
I called my mom, and thanked her for going through all that hard work so many years ago. I love you, Mom!
Oh, to climb during lunch! Normally, this dream is unrealizable, since I work at least 45 minutes away from my climbing gym. On this weekday at noon, the parking lot was deliciously empty. My climbing partner and I had the gym practically to ourselves. As we climbed, I thought about how the sport has really challenged me over the past several years. And it’s one of the first things I decided to do on my day off. In the happiness project, Gretchen noted two things that resonated with me:
One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish. Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened.
She also said:
Enthusiasm is more important to mastery than innate ability, it turns out, because the single most important element in developing an expertise is your willingness to practice.
Climbing has definitely been one way in which I have expanded my self-definition. When you’re a workaholic, that’s pretty much a one-dimensional character. If you’ve based your sole happiness on things always going your way in that one dimension, yes, that’s pretty threatening. Climbing seized something in me, and my enthusiasm for the sport keeps me practicing at it several times a week. I’ll never be a climbing expert, but every time I go, I have an opportunity to aim high, to challenge my body and my mind. And I always have the honor and pleasure of being a part of my climbing partner’s success as well. On this day, my energy was a bit too revved up for my own solid performance. But my climbing partner gave the most difficult and focused performance he’d ever done, which was super fun to be a part of.
We also got to meet a minor celebrity. There’s a particular route setter at my gym whose routes flow gracefully and unlock some dormant intuitive connection between my body and my mind. Because we were climbing at lunchtime, he was there, setting a route. We told him how much we both enjoyed his routes. I told him about my blog and how I often write about climbing. Audaciously, I asked if he would name a route in honor of me playing hooky on my birthday. Which he did:
Bring People Together
Finally, the time came for happy hour with friends from several corners of my life. I had reserved a spot at my favorite, local, low-key watering hole and invited all who could make their way after work. My greatest joy was seeing people who had never before met hitting it off, conspiring together, and generally having a good time.
The beauty of the day was the intention I brought to it. It was the mindfulness of putting a name and context around an activity that I would normally do. The joy was the love and friendship I was given in return from the people who dig me. You know who you are and I dig you right back. It was the poetry of my favorite route setter writing “Sustainable Birthday.” Because this could mean celebrating your birthday like this every year (which I highly endorse). It could mean celebrating your half-birthday or un-birthday this way, just because.
One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself. – The Happiness Project
If you ran your own experiment, sprinkling a bit of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project advice throughout your day, I’m pretty sure it would feel like a sustainable birthday. Give it a shot and let me know how it goes!