But I think the key to being happier for anyone, no matter what her unique life circumstances is actually thinking about it: what makes YOU happy? What does happy even look like for you? Are you sure about that?
I’ve been doing A LOT of thinking about this recently. In fact, I ‘m even taking a couple of weeks of leave from my job – which is kind of a scary thing to do – to focus on this, among a few key issues that needed some of my focused mental and emotional attention.
After losing a child, particularly in a way for which I and many others blame myself in part or in whole, I have really questioned my whole reality. When a child dies, everything in your life that you thought you were doing right or at least sort of right now looks questionable, and the things that once seemed dependable, sure and solid become soft and scary and kind of sketchy looking.
This is not a happiness inducing state in which to exist, and when you combine grief and just flat out MISSING your child, longing for his company with this state of existential uncertainty, the idea of happiness as you once knew it seems totally elusive.
Or at least, that’s where I find myself these days.
So I have recently decided to stop battling the uncertanty and just lean into it instead, giving my entire life a Socratic once-over, a critical review. If I am going to be so uncertain of everything anyway, it seems like a good time to just ask myself all the hard questions I can possibly think of, and then be rigorously honest in facing the answers.
So one of the first questions I have been asking myself is what happiness looks like to me. I am not talking about the fleeting, euphoric happiness that pretty much anyone can achieve with specific one-off activities or chemical enhancements, but instead the kind of day to day, week to week, lifelong sense of general well-being and satisfaction that says “life well lived” to me.
And the “to me” part is important, because your life well lived may look very different than mine. But for me, it means a healthy family, a strong marriage, interesting work that supports us financially without too much money stress, a welcoming and cozy home, and the ability to make a positive, real difference in the world in a way that reflects my core values. That’s what happy looks like to me.
My definition of happy doesn’t mean never feeling sad or blue for a day or a few days. It doesn’t mean everything always goes perfectly. But it means that most of the time, in most ways, I feel at peace with my own behavior, choices, actions and thoughts. It means I am fundamentally satisfied.
After having Henry die, getting back to that place will be a choice for me. It’s no longer something I can just assume will happen. I have to make a “stay or go” decision with regard to living the rest of my life – surrender to the very real potential for grief induced madness and depression that often overtakes parents who lose a child, or consciously live every day in a way that staves the madness off to the greatest degree.
I choose the latter.
As part of my current life review exercise, I just re-read Gretchen Rubin’s bestseller, “The Happiness Project,” and I have been trying some of her exercises and tools for identifying and practicing happiness enhancing actions.
One of the first things she recommends is drafting your own “Happiness Manifesto,” in which you start by coming up with your own “Happiness Commandments,” of which she explains:
Consider phrases that have stuck with you.
When I look at my Twelve Commandments, I realize that five of them are actually quotations from other people. My father repeatedly reminds me to “Enjoy the process.” A respected boss told me to “Be polite and be fair.” A good friend told me that she’d decided that “There is only love” in her heart for a difficult person. “No calculation” is a paraphrase of my spiritual master St. Therese (“When one loves, one does not calculate”), and “Act the way I want to feel” is a paraphrase of William James.
Aim high and fight the urge to be too comprehensive.
I’ve found that my commandments help me most when I review them at least daily, to keep them fresh in my mind, and to do this, it helps to keep the list short and snappy. I suspect that Twelve Commandments is too much. Maybe I only need two, “Be Gretchen” and “There is only love.”
Think about what’s true for you.
Each person’s list will differ. One person’s commandment is to “Say yes,” another person’s commandment is to “Say no.” You need to think about yourself, your values, your strengths and weaknesses, your interests.
So even though I tend to shy away from exercises like this, I decided to give it a go, and create my own actual, written-down list of Personal Happiness Commandments. I have now been pondering and rewriting my list for over a week, and I think I have them where I want them – for the moment anyway, and I thought I would share.
Remember that these are highly specific TO ME. They aren’t meant to be applied directly to anyone else, or be taken as some kind of life advice.
So here goes. Be gentle with me, folks.
KATIE’S PERSONAL HAPPINESS MANIFESTO: 15 Fundamental Truths To Live By
(Just click the arrow to the right of each photo to view the next one in the series)
Stick With Your Clan 1 of 17I'm lucky to have a clan of family and very close friends - "chosen family" around me. We stick together and stick up for one another, and I am raising my kids to have that same fundamental respect for clan bonds. They are exceptionally close to their siblings and cousins, and that makes me happy because I know that as adults it will help to make them happier as well.
Don’t Let the Perfect Get in the Way of the Possible 2 of 17I am a weird kind of perfectionist, which may surprise some who have seen me miss a deadline or promise something I didn't deliver. I am not the kind of perfectionist who will work ceaselessly until something is right in every detail. Instead I am the kind who will fail to even START something if I am not sure i can do it exactly the way I envision it. This has held me back over the years from trying many new activities and it leads me to overthing work projects into unhealthy (and sometimes undelivered) paralysis. I am really working on this trait in the past year or so, telling myself to just do what's possible and not become hyperfocused and fixated on the ideal. When I am able to let go and do that, I am much more productive and have a great deal more fun.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want 3 of 17This is a biggie around our house, where many a whining child has heard me ask, "Now what does Mick Jagger say?" (They all know the answer, even when they don't want to hear it.) I am still struggling with the fact that I had the ultimate "can't always get what you want" life experience in the death of my child. I wanted him to be okay, and to get well. But he didn't. Because you can't always get what you want.
Work When You’re Working, and Play When You’re Playing 4 of 17I am the ultimate multitasker, and my netbook, iPhone and iPad have made it even more possible to mix up my work and my play. But as time has gone on, I have realized that my work is suffering and my play has become non-existent. Now I am reminding myself to set clearer boundaries around work and play, with each getting my full attention when I am "there," and no mixing them up. Maybe eventually I can loosen this guideline up again, but for now, observing the distinction between the two is helping me in my quest to be happier and more productive.
Pick Your Battles 5 of 17This is - ahem - a constant battle for me. I want to get myself involved in every cause or movement that interests me, and I very often want to fight other people's battles even more than they seem to want to do it themselves. Obviously, this is not sustainable or healthy for me, so I am now trying to choose what battles are really worth my time and energy. I will never stop fighting for what I believe is right or fair or just in the world, but I can't take it all on myself - at least not all at once. It's hard for me to do, but I am trying make myself realize that some things - no matter how wrong or disturbing or even downright evil - just have to be ignored in order for me to be sane and happy enough to take on the things that matter most to me and my family.
Don’t Invite Drama Unnecessarily 6 of 17My real life has enough authentic drama without adding any extra and pointlessly draining dramatic flair. Now, before I say/write/do most things, I ask myself whether it's likely to invite this fluffy but ultimately meaningless drama. If the answer is yes, I go in another direction.
They Can’t Eat You. 7 of 17This is something my mother and father always used to say about life in general. It's another way of asking the question, "What's the worse that could happen?" It helps to put things in perspective, and now that the worst HAS happened to me, this happiness truth has even more impact for me when I am considering my actions, time, energy and interests.
There’s No Money Unless You Go Earn Some. 8 of 17After my divorce became final in 2004 - after 14 years of marriage and 2 years of separation - I was seriously, SERIOUSLY broke. And I hated it. It was exhausting and disempowering. I've always been a hard worker, but since that time I have become increasingly comfortable making my ability to earn $$$ to support myelf and my family a priority on a day to day basis. And anyone who doesn't respect that I have this responsibility and that it requires time, commitment and focus on my part ultimately doesn't respect me. That's how I feel about the issue now, and getting okay with that internally makes me happier.
It’s Healthy to Say 9 of 17This is a tough one for me - with my children, with my friends, with my coworkers... Somewhere along the way I picked up a very unhealthy "yes" habit, and it's caused me much stress and unhappiness over the years. I have always been afraid that if I said "no" too often or to o comfortably - without apology - people wouldn't like me. And I REALLY, REALLY want people to like me. But y'know what? When you never say "no," you end up letting people down because nobody can live up to meeting every single ask that anyone ever has of them. It's just not possible. And y'know what else? Even if you ALWAYS say yes, sometimes people won't like you anyway. In fact, they are less likely to respect you. So there's no upside. Saying "no" with some regularity and with confidence makes me happier. I know this now.
Things Change 10 of 17My children have already had so much change and so many losses in their young lives. In some ways this makes me really sad for them, but on the other hand, they've already learned what it took me 20 years of adulthood to understand: things change. They just do. That's life. My own childhood was sort of bizarrely idyllic and frozen in time, and while it seemed lovely at the time, it didn't equip me very well to deal with changes and evolution as an adult. It took me years to accept that change isn't de facto a bad thing, and that it doesn't always mean "the end" of something. Now I get that, mostly. But reminding myself regularly that "things Change" makes me happier.
Buy Clothes That Fit NOW (And Get Rid of Ones That Don’t) 11 of 17This imple truth was a revelation to me. When I got divorced in 2004, I had been wearing the same baggy overalls for the 4.5 years since my last baby had been born (yes, I do wonder if maybe that played some role in why I ended up divorced!) because that was all that fit and I was unwilling to buy any new, slightly larger CUTE clothing because it seemed wasteful when I knew I'd eventually get back to my size 8 jeans. Well, I dd eventually get back to my size 8, but two babies and a 9 years later I am now back in a size 10-12. And you know what? I have jeans that fit. I got rid of the outdated size 8s from my last year (2010) at that size but will buy new ones when I get there again. My closet is cleaner and I feel happier.
Try To Be The Person Your Children Already Think You Are 12 of 17This is just a good guiding principle for me, day in and day out. Like, if I am at Target and I am feeling too lazy to return my cart to the stand where they want you to return it, and I instead consider just leaving it in the middle of the parking lot for some underpaid employee to deal with in the rain or heat or cold, I always stop and ask myself what I would advise my kids to do in that situation, and what they would expect ME to do, because I am supposed to be their model for being a good person. And so that spurs me to walk the extra few hundred feet and put the cart back where it belongs. And then, having done the right thing, I feel happier. Make sense?
Lists Make Everything Work Better 13 of 17I can very easily track my day to day happiness level by how conscientiously I am using my to-do list system. When I fall off the list wagon, I feel scattered, guilty and stressed. When I am keeping up with my list system, I just feel happier, even if the day goes all to hell and I don't actually get much done. At least I can see clearly what NEEDS to be done. And that's soothing for me.
Everything Is Not Your Job 14 of 17Oh, how I struggle with this one - at my office and in life. My onderful boss is constantly reminding me to focus on my OWN job and not worry so much about everything else that looks interesting or like it needs my input ("Look! A bright shiny project!") And he's right. I have a job description and it isn't anyone else's. Thus, my mission should be clear. And when I am productive and achieving well at work, I am happier in every area of my life. This is a Personal Happiness Truth that's getting some intense attention from me right now.
No Matter How Hard You Try, You Can’t Make Everyone Like You. 15 of 17When you are raised in a relatively happy family, surrounded by a nurturing and encouraging community - as I was as a child and teenager - you leave that nest as a young adult falsely assuming that everyone else you meet will like you just as much as your family and close friends always have. I mean, what's not to like, right? That's what happened to me. I've spent he last 20 years - and way too much time lately - wondering what I can possibly do to make certain people LIKE ME. I appease. I apologize. I endlessly question what's wrong with me, and I attempt to reason with people who don't like me - whether that's an ex romantic partner or the commenters online who believe I am crazypants for pursuing criminal justice in my son's drug overdose death. But this is an exercise in unhappy. I am not universally attractive to all other human beings - physically, behaviorally, creatively, physically or ethically - and that's absolutely okay. I can't fix this and shouldn't worry about it. I know this in my head but still sometimes struggle with it in my heart. Accepting it, though, makes me much happier.
Don’t Give It Away 16 of 17I have always tended to give myself away far too easily - my trust, my trust the second time around, my friendship, loyalty, love and energy. And as a professional, I tend to give my time away too easily, undervaluing what I am worth. Lately I am trying much harder to let people come to me and make the case that they deserve all the various parts of me that are up for grabs, rather than being too afraid to wait for the approach and instead rushing up to others to offer what I have. I can sit and wait, and the worthwhile exchanges will happen when the time is right, and when the value proposition works fairly for me. This is another tough one for me. I am definitely in a learning curve on this particular Happiness Truth. But when I manage to do well at it in any given day or week, I find that it contributes demonstrably to my happiness.
Me: A Work in Progress 17 of 17I have been pretty stuck in a lot of ways since Henry died. That was the right way to deal then but I recognize a need to grow now, so that's why I am taking the time away from my job this summer, and why I am thinking hard about what actually INCREASES my happiness and what undermines it. My list will certainly continue to evolve and grow over time as I do. Because, as one of my happiness truths notes, Things Change.
Now tell me; what are YOUR personal happiness truths? What does happiness look like to you? Do you have t now? Have you ever had it? What are the behaviors or thought patterns that work against your personal happiness? I’d love it if you shared your thoughts on all of this in the comments below.
READ MORE FROM KATIE OVER AT MAMAPUNDIT (HER PERSONAL BLOG)