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Miranda: What makes you happy?

Do you know — and can you list right now — the things that really make you happy?

I recently read Gretchen Rubin’s interesting bestseller The Happiness Project. In this self-described “stunt” book, Gretchen spends a year systematically working to become a happier person and to understand the nature of happiness. Gretchen frames her journey in a way that facilitates the reader’s self-reflection without becoming a workbook. At the end of the year, Gretchen decides that she is in fact happier — and perhaps, most importantly, has become more aligned with her #1 Personal Commandment to “Be Gretchen.”

In addition to her Twelve Personal Commandments and her secrets of adulthood, Gretchen arrives at Four Splendid Truths. The first Splendid Truths is: To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

I gave this some thought. Gretchen points out that we often fall into the trap of subscribing to things that make other people happy, thinking that those things should make us happy, too. Many people love good food and dining out, for example. Gretchen doesn’t. Accepting this truth is important. Why invest hours in a doll collection that is “supposed” to make you feel happy when in fact nothing about dolls resonates with you? Or taking your kids to the zoo when you really hate zoos?

I enjoyed Gretchen’s book a lot, although I found myself frequently wondering how she managed to read as many books as she did and where her children were while she worked. Her older daughter was in elementary school, but her younger daughter seemed to be barely a toddler when Gretchen started her project — and while Gretchen spent many hours reading, researching, blogging, thinking, and writing, I never figured out where the little one was during that time. Babysitter? Daycare? Of course, as a blogging writer/mother, I was eager to know how these logistics were taken care of. At one point Gretchen decides to take her older daughter out for an occasional after-school one-on-one adventure, although she struggles internally with giving up the work time. So it sounds like there was fulltime coverage for the little one. Not sure why, but given the level of detail that Gretchen shares about how she accomplished her project, I couldn’t understand this oversight. (Maybe I just missed where Gretchen spoke to childcare — if you caught something, please share!)

Naturally, Gretchen’s story prompted me to think about my own desire to be happy. While I don’t seek happiness so much as contentment, I started thinking about what kinds of things really make me feel good, bad, and right, “in an atmosphere of growth.” The growth part is important, because sometimes you have to push outside your comfort zone in order to find something new that makes you happy. The trick is being able to figure out which initially uncomfortable pursuits lead you away from being yourself, and which might end up bringing you closer.

So, what makes me feel good? What are the things that I can actually DO that make me feel good? When I first sat down to make the list, I was a little taken aback when I could only come up with 3 or 4 things. Since then, however, the list has grown:

  • Reading books
  • Reading blogs about creativity and motherhood
  • Reading about time-management and domestic organization
  • Reading most anything (lol)
  • Taking photographs
  • Making things
  • Doing crossword puzzles
  • Writing poetry
  • Blogging
  • Being outside
  • Dancing
  • Baking
  • Doing right by my children
  • Reading aloud with my kids or my husband
  • Making connections between other people
  • Feeling prepared (planning, organizing, anticipating, thinking through the details)

I can’t help but notice that writing — as in, working on my novel and my nonfiction book project — isn’t on the list. What does that mean? Does that kind of writing just feel too much like “work” to make me feel good? I could say that it feels good when I’m writing and the words are really flowing and I’m not in control, but putting “visits from the muse” on my list seemed too far afield of anything actionable. You’ll also note that “running” isn’t on the list, even though I ran a half-marathon last year and subscribe to the transformative power of running. The truth is, I have never been excited about running, even though I have come to see it as a necessary evil.

What makes me feel bad?

  • Domestic chaos (this is a big one for me — chaos makes me very unhappy)
  • Being late (which I often am)
  • Feeling like I let my kids down
  • Being disconnected to my husband
  • Taking on more than I can handle (uhm, yeah)
  • Letting too much time elapse between creative stints
  • Eating sugar
  • Being overdue for exercise

When do I feel “right”?

  • Choosing to be vegetarian even though it isn’t always convenient or fun
  • Deciding not to share something gossipy even though the sharing might seem like connection-building
  • Biting my tongue when I’m confident that I’m “right” about something factual and the other person is wrong (no point in arguing about something unimportant, is there?)

What about you? What makes you feel good, bad, and right? Where do creativity and motherhood fit into your lists? Are you able to do those things on a daily basis?

I’ll be writing more about The Happiness Project, and about living a life of intention — which is my latest objective. I may not be able to control the way life unfolds, but I can apply my intentions to whatever happens. In the broadest sense, for me happiness lies in honoring my intentions. This requires real clarity on what those intentions are. (Hence my new planner.)

Learn more about Gretchen’s project at her blog. You can also start your own happiness project.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great piece, not just on Rubin’s book, but on the predicament of being a creative mother. (I love that your blog addresses this.) I find that the biggest struggle of all and decided to stop writing for a while so that I could be more present as a mother. In a way, it hasn’t worked. I think there will always be stuff clogging our heads and taking us away from either the children or the work. It had seemed to me that the two creative endeavors (motherhood, writing) were dueling. But not so. I agree it would be very important to know how Rubin handled the complexities of childcare, psychological and otherwise. I also wouldn’t have put writing on a what-makes-me-happy list. The why of that, such an interesting notion to contemplate. Thank you.

    March 5, 2010
  2. … great post …
    … i read the blog … haven’t read the book ….

    i’m usually happy … i actually think it is genetic …. but at the moment i feel like i’m in survival mode … treading water … hanging on …. making do …. i haven’t done well making the time for art and writing, so i just don’t fit it in …. if i don’t prioritize it, it barely happens … it puzzles me when i’m like this … but doesn’t exactly make me unhappy ….though i know once i get on track i will be happier ….

    an interesting thing in my happiness path is that i now know that all i have to do is DECIDE … like, don’t yell at the boy any more… ever … i decided it, and it has been so for about six weeks …not a yell … not a fuss …. some oh-my-gosh-stay-calm conversations .. but no yelling … and when i am really ticked i write a note … which then i decided i needed to counter balance with notes of niceness too …. just so he doesn’t come to loathe my handwriting! …. i have other things i’ve decided to … for happiness … they are like mini resolutions … and tend to work well … probably cause they are mostly little things ….

    March 5, 2010
  3. really interesting. thanks for this!

    March 5, 2010
  4. Thanks Miranda for once again opening yourself up to us all and being boldly honest. I didn’t think the idea of this project resonated with me at all, so I’ve ignored it, but your lists prompt me to think again. I think that demarcation of what makes us happy versus what makes the rest of the world (who have more avenues than EVER to tell us all about it and makes us think we’d surely be happier if we had a piece of that!), is a great one.
    I’ve always fancied myself reasonably good at that skill, but I too fall pray to the doldrums when I can’t find Toni – she can get lost thinking about what she’s NOT doing and miss out on the good that sounds her/me…(where did I go there?)
    To that end – I just read a book called “Without Child” by Laurie Lisle. For mothers and non-mothers I found it a fascinating read on how our culture expects us to parent or not; as in literally “you should or shouldn’t be procreating” – and America isn’t as democratic about it as we like to believe. Historical context always surprises and comforts me.
    I’d really felt strange after the “Committed” Elizabeth Gilbert thread here a couple of months ago and happened upon Lisle’s book at the library. It was published in 1994 and I would love to see another edition with updates, because I’m certain there are new pressures. Nonetheless, we have our own desires for happiness or contentment, and sorting those out from the culture we live in isn’t always evident.
    What I want to know is, what to do with an elderly shut-in who has my number on speed dial (wait, make that two shut-ins), my Jack Russell terrier who is obsessed with driving off squirrels, almost complete strangers seeking marital advice (?!I’ve never been married ladies), um, well, that was this week…I want day care for them…when you aren’t married with children, EVERYONE else thinks you live to serve them…Can’t wait to sort out that one.

    March 5, 2010
  5. oops: “surrounds her/me.”

    March 5, 2010
  6. i like this post a lot. i think, esp since connecting with the others here and hearing what you all have to say about happiness, etc, i’ve made a very deliberate conscious choice to do what is important to me and my family in so many aspects of my life, number one of which is to laugh with more and appreciate more about my family members, individually and collectively.

    unlike e, i do still yell, but there’s an element of necessity in our house for that, as in to be loud is about the only way to gain the attention of a particular family member because of his special needs.

    i think i’m constantly examining what works/doesn’t work, makes happy/disintegrates and do what i can to change to the positive.

    I have been more of a list maker in other times in my life, but i find, when i am, i tend to get too attached to the results of the list, then no one is happy. after all, my list isn’t necessarily any one else in my home’s list. lol!

    it’s a constant juggling. as always, the scales tip in one direction or another, and just being aware of that has been a huge help in letting go of needing immediate results, except to relax and breathe and communicate more positively.

    as for the creativity part, i’m with you, miranda, in writing poetry makes me happy, writing the novel, is more like work. i think it boils down to the immediacy of poetry vs the longer bigger investment in the bigger work. i felt so good when i finally finished my first draft of the novel, it was really a high, but it also had the crash of a crack addict. going through the editing process is a lot more ‘work’ – show up and do it- that it’s easier to leave it and go play with the toddler instead. i was extremely grateful for my writing retreat to knock out the the really detailed editing- grammar, etc and by the end of the weekend i was writing in new scenes, but i just don’t have that level of quiet and uninterrupted intensity in my day to day.

    maybe when toots starts preschool in the fall…

    March 5, 2010
  7. Thanks for all of your comments, dear friends. Just what I needed to read at the close of a trying weekend.

    Martha, I’d love to hear more about your own experiences. Thank you for your kind words.

    Elizabeth, I agree that sometimes it only takes “the deciding.” I’ve decided a lot of things in recent weeks, and sometimes it really is that simple. I’m very interested to hear what you, the Queen of Happy, has to say about Gretchen’s book. I suspect that you won’t much like it, but I shouldn’t lead the jury.

    Toni, I can only imagine what other people try to foist upon you in the name of “Oh, you single gals must be LOOKIN’ for things to keep you busy! Here, take a few things from MY list!” Believe it or not, I often have people trying to toss things my way, too — maybe it’s just that some people have no sense, plain and simple.

    March 7, 2010
  8. great post, Miranda. i’m playing catch up as usual. i’ve heard of this project, but haven’t read anything on it yet. i tend to be a pretty happy girl overall as well (though i know i have my moments, usually a hot soak in the tub with a good book tends to take care of them). i still have a hard time at times with my daily juggle of full-time job outside the home, plus motherhood, plus my creative business, plus just creativity time just for the sake of play and not business. but i know that juggle isn’t going to change anytime soon so i try to just make the best of it and squeeze in those happy moments wherever possible.

    this weekend, i spent very little time online and lots of time with the girls. that filled my well back up….although i must say my well was already pretty full after my artful journey trip! (i’d love for you guys to read about my adventure. just search “artful journey” in the blogger search bar on my blog, top left) i came back from that trip with a renewed sense of purpose. as you all know, i’ve been wanting to make some changes for a while, and that trip really crystalized some things for me. i’m now working on plans to further expand what i want to do on the art retreat side of things (my own offerings) and i’m doing some things that will help me put those in motion. that makes me happy. my girls had a friend sleep over this weekend and i used the three of them as guinea pigs for some things i’d like to do and we had a ball. i am a teacher, always have been, and now i’m really starting to see where i can use that skill along with my creativity to really make a difference in the lives of a younger set. i know i’ve made a difference in the lives of many of my college students, but i think now that i’m a mom and have little ones of my own, i really want to shift that emphasis to a younger set…girls in particular.

    and yes, i also agree that “deciding” to be happy is a very big thing. happiness IS a choice. perhaps we can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. and we can choose to make lemonade out of lemons, as the saying goes.

    March 8, 2010
  9. I had “forgotten” that I had this book on my shelf until you posted about it – reading (or should I say collecting) books is on my list of things that make me feel good.

    Interesting about the two things that showed up on your list and the things that did not. About three weeks ago, I did a form of this exercise in Julia Cameron’s book “Finding Water” and I found the same things. Forms of “teaching” kept showing up and writing seems to never show up. For me, blogging ‘FEELS’ less like writing.

    I will start reading this weekend and look forward to hearing more insight.

    March 12, 2010
  10. I read that Toni read my 1994 book, “Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness,” and felt she wanted some more recent information. Can I be helpful in answering any questions?

    March 12, 2010

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