Over the last several months, I’ve had a lot of changes and transitions. Many of those were quite positive–Husband and I moved south to be much closer to our families, both of us started new jobs, we got a brand-new baby nephew. Lots of good things! At the same time, there was a lot of stress. My health has been up and down over the last few months, as is the nature of chronic illness, and the constant hectic-ness of our schedule has meant that I found myself spending almost all of my free time crashing on the couch with a laptop and a blanket.
As wonderful as laptop internet time is (and it really is wonderful), I started noticing that by the end of each weekend, I felt like I hadn’t really done anything positive with my time. And at the end of each month, when I would try to reflect back on how I’d used my days and weeks, I started to realize that doing nothing wasn’t making me feel relaxed or refreshed, but frustrated and defeated. There’s a big difference, I’ve found, between the delighted sigh of “I did nothing this weekend!” and the unhappy realization of “oh…I did nothing this weekend.” The former is a great feeling! And sometimes it’s the feeling we really need to have, especially those of us with chronic illnesses and limited spoons. But the more days of non-activity that passed by, the more I started to realize that I just wasn’t happy with what I was doing with my time. I wasn’t happy with a lot of things.
I think I should stop for a moment and say that I wasn’t unhappy in the general sense of the world. Many things that were happening made me very happy. I have a wonderful marriage to a partner who is supportive, caring, and understanding of my needs and limits. I have a silly and adorable dog who is effortlessly able to make me smile. I do good work with my clients. I get to spend far more time with my family members than I could over the last few years. We were financially stable and secure. My life was very, very full of love and blessings. The unhappiness I was feeling was very much localized in my own activities and emotional engagement, and the changes I wanted to make were almost entirely focused on my own behaviors.
When I started to realize that I wasn’t feeling happy, I sat down to make myself a list of things that I thought would make me happier. About ten minutes into this little exercise, it occurred to me that everything I was writing down was vague and noncommittal: “more exercise”, “less screen time”, “socialize more often.” I was basing my list on a definition of happiness that doesn’t really fit what I need to make my life feel more positive. “Being happy” felt very passive to me, and it was too vague to feel meaningful.
Once this actually clicked, I started trying to figure out a definition of happiness that worked for me. Was happiness a feeling? A process? An activity in and of itself? There was a lot of variability, and I wasn’t sure how to conceptualize it in a way that made sense to me. In the end, I still haven’t quite figured out how to define happiness, but I’ve definitely concluded that happiness needs to be something that is actively practiced, not achieved. (Sidebar: I’ve had this epiphany about other things in life that are normally thought of as nouns as well, particularly marriage. Marriage as a process = constantly evolving, changing, and improving. Marriage as a noun = ALL DONE EFFORT FOREVER, GOODBYE PANTS AND SHOWERS. I may be over-simplifying, but you get the idea.)
So for me, happiness is something that you do. Great. From there, it was a matter of figuring out how to actually “practice” happiness in a way that would actually make a difference to my emotional health. Strangely enough, this was actually easier than figuring out what I wanted happiness to be in the first place–I already knew about the areas where I was unhappy, so it was just a matter of identifying what I wanted to change about those different things. In the end, I narrowed things down to a few tasks I could do throughout the days and weeks to bring some more positive engagement with life into my daily behaviors.
My plan for the next several blog entries is to write a bit about some of the different changes–whether behavioral, environmental, emotional, or mental–I’ve tried to make at home and at work to improve my happiness practice. It’s entirely possible that these reads will be extremely boring for anyone that’s not me, but maybe some of you will find them interesting, or even start working on your own happiness practice! 🙂