About a year ago, I found myself in a funk. I was suffering with homeschool burnout from a tough semester of academic “catch-up” after a summer and fall of extensive travel. The return to regular life was proving to be a bit of an anti-climax. Perhaps it was actually a symptom of too much success; I had almost everything I had ever wanted, and I’d failed to set some new goals. And I’m sure it had absolutely nothing to do with the arrival of my 40th birthday. Whatever the cause, I felt adrift. One afternoon, I found a book in the marina lounge by Gretchen Rubin called The Happiness Project (Harper Collins, 2012). By some crazy coincidence, my new friend April was listening to the audiobook, so we began to bounce ideas off of each other as we sought to be more mindful about our attitudes and goals.
The book is one I highly recommend, if for no other reason, than that it instills hope—that you have a lot of control over your own sense of contentment and satisfaction. The book helped me think through what things make me truly happy—and how to work more of those things into my life. The author helped me come up with a road map for the coming year: instead of making—and breaking—new year’s resolutions, she suggests that we set a goal for each month, with specific and achievable objectives, and let the new habits become accumulative. My plan for December was to Assess Goals and Make Some New Ones, so it seemed like a good time to evaluate and write about the outcome of my little happiness experiment.
The first thing I discovered was that thinking about what makes me happy actually makes me happy. It’s a way of counting blessings. The second thing I discovered is that measuring progress motivated me to keep going. And though I am a perfectionist, one of my “rules to live by” (a sort of personal set of commandments) is to be content with improvement, so instead of looking for failures at the end of my project, I was counting the things I accomplished, which always makes me happier. Lastly, though very little about my day-to-day existence has changed, my outlook has changed considerably. Despite my tasks being incredibly circular (cooking-laundry-dishes-school-housekeeping), I have a greater sense of linear progress. I feel like I am searching for, and finding, something I lost when I got married and had five kids—who I am outside of the roles and routines that I currently inhabit. I’m benefitting now (better mood), and putting something in the bank for later, when the kids are grown.
Here are some of the things I felt inspired to do this year as a part of my personal happiness project: I finished our DC scrapbook; helped Sarah sew a birthday quilt for Rachel; edited my cookbook; helped to plan the sailing trip we’ll take this year and started thinking about an American road trip we’d like to take someday; formed a good habit, flossing every day, something I’ve never done with regularity; made a plan to exercise every day, which meant my kayak saw a lot of use this past year; made morning quiet times and praying a priority, especially focusing on saying “thank you”; began a book project and gave myself a deadline for finishing a manuscript; went through our stuff and made donations; planned weekly date nights with Jay; made a course syllabus for each of the boys’ first year high school classes; bought flowers; did some drawing with pastels and pencils; wrote poetry; grew and cooked with fresh herbs, and started learning to play the ukulele.
It might seem like all this focus on my happiness would result in my becoming self-centered, but actually, most of the things that make me happy revolve around other people. And, anyway, my happiness affects everyone else; you know what they say, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” In this light, I consider the experiment a success, and am planning to repeat the exact same project in the coming year, with revised objectives based on things I still really want to accomplish from last years’ list. Going into a new year, I feel happier, less burned-out and overwhelmed, and more connected with the people around me. For anyone who’s interested, I’ve concluded with my own Rules to Live By. I made ten, since the limit of my working memory consists of the number of my fingers.
I. Love is the most important thing.
II. When in doubt, do nothing. Wait until you know for sure, then act decisively.
III. Always tell the truth–in love. You can be honest without being brutal.
IV. If you need it, ask for a hug. Give one if someone else needs it.
V. If you can’t be nice, be quiet. Or, go to your room!
VI. Always do your best. Shoot for perfection, but be content with improvement.
VII. Tell yourself the truth—don’t be ruled by emotions.
VIII. Leave things better than you find them.
IX. You get out of something what you put into it.
X. Fake it until you make it: look on the bright side, smile, and be thankful even on the bad days.