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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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Happiness

Welcome to 2015!

My 2013 was horrible for the most obvious reason (mother’s death, for the uninitiated) but last year really blew for many of my friends, and for Malaysia’s aviation industry. There were quite a few good-riddance-to-this-rubbish-year posts on my FB news feed, and I’m glad for them, at least, that we have reached 2015.

For us, 2014 was largely a calm year. A winding down from the emotional roller coaster that was 2013. There were a few points for anxiety – the sale of my mother’s home being one, haggling with financial institutions on two continents, being another – but on the grand scheme of things, they proved paltry compared to the addition to our family. Atticus signaled a new chapter to our family life in late November — and a welcome focal point. We rounded off the year largely sleep deprived while being surrounded by family, and feeling older, slightly melancholy and stressed, but not sad. And after the sorrow of 2013, being not sad was a great step forward.

There was a study on “workplace happiness” conducted in Singapore between April and August last year. And the grand reveal was that Singaporeans are Under Happy – that vague, lukewarm, non-committal, soggy middle ground between the state of being Happy and being Unhappy. Under Happy was last year’s Meh, and the punchline for many Singaporeans still secretly seething about being ranked the Least Emotional Country in the World in 2012.

And it got me thinking. Although I had many things I’d been grateful for, and felt largely content with my lot in life, there was still a lot of Meh left in me last year. I’m wondering if it’s a self preservation thing, or the natural trajectory one follows after being shot out of the Emo canon that was 2013. Numbness is comforting. It allows one to function well and to even feel episodes of muted happiness. But although a bland life can be a happy one, happiness isn’t blandness.

I know this is a blog largely about my children and a little about my personal life. But some of the things I keep circling in this blog seems to be Life organisation and finding the Happy – whether it’s about some habit tracking app I find useful, or whether it’s about reflecting on my list of gratitudes every Thursday. I know I probably appear to be overthinking things, or maybe I’ve reached some kind of 40%-life crisis that induces me to contemplate my life and purpose. Perhaps I’m still trying to define myself, since I’ve currently parked my Career Woman persona. Or my cousin’s and mother’s early deaths have shaken me to the very core, and what you see here are the aftershocks.

Or perhaps, if I can indulge in some hubris, my soul resonates with the likes of W.H. Auden, who observed that “between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are…”

I don’t know. I just know that I’m searching for… something. Every New Year, I pounce on the chance to reinvent myself to some extent, and this year is no different.

I had started out last year reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, and then got sidetracked. I had planned to explore my year like she did with a theme for each month, but that intention got seriously derailed by January, when I decluttered the house (just like in her book) for our anticipated move (which didn’t happen), only to pack her book in the process in one of 70 boxes now sitting in a storage unit four suburbs away.

Oops.

Anyhoo, I’ve gotten hold of an electronic copy and I’m trying her book out again. This is my Eat Pray Love, except I don’t have to leave my husband and children, and swan off to India to learn how to meditate. I’m still plotting my game plan for 2015 in between innumerous breastfeeds and rocking and shushing and diapering and cleaning and cooking and soothing and playing and including… so wish me luck.

What are your New Year resolutions, by the way? Made any this year, or cannot be bothered?

New Year Resolutions 2014

I love big beginnings. Maybe it’s the project manager/event organiser in me, but there’s nothing like sitting down with a blank canvas, drawing out a programme of work and determining The Approach. I’ve spoken before about past New Year resolutions, and I am a little late (as usual) in finalising this year’s list. But before I launch into this year’s idealism, let me go through a short (by my standards) review of last year’s effort.

Review of 2013’s resolutions

I had split last year’s resolutions into 3 personal mottos (“Be my own mum”, “Live in the moment”, “Glass is half full”) and 5 everyday goals (“Monday Meditation”, “Attend writers’ meetings”, “Write, Write, Write”, Weekday Devo” and “Read 10 books”.) And this approach has worked surprisingly well over the year, given all the crazy interruptions.

I attended meetings at the Writing group I’m part of, until I was no longer physically able to because I was in a different continent. I also started reading books again, but didn’t get anywhere near 10 books. I think I’ve read 5 books halfway. So really, that was a 25% success rate – not impressive, but it got the juices going anyway. The writing goal was the hardest to achieve, not only because of the packing and unpacking I did all year, but also because all willpower dried up – and with it, inspiration. I didn’t even feel like blogging, partly because I was Tupperwaring most nights towards the end of the year, but mostly because I didn’t want to bore you or myself with my grief and negativity.

But the biggest surprise to me was the success of Monday Meditations and my weekday devotions. Didn’t do it the whole year through, but there were stretches of months when I did both consistently. And then I’d lapse into one or the other, before going into it again. Most of all, it was always there at the back of my head as something I want to do and need to do. And then when my mother died, all that desire to reconnect with God really came rushing in. Even if it’s so I could whisper, “Tell mum I said Hi. And that I miss our chats. Would you?”

On the personal motto front, I forgot about the “Be my own mum” one a lot – chiefly because it didn’t matter to me that much anyway. My role as Daughter came into the foreground a lot more last year, and any brush of Momsy competition with another got quickly squelched by the weight of my apathy. (“So you never let your children watch television because you’re not a lazy parent. And you’ve never let them eat cheese toasties because of the sodium levels in bread, ham, AND cheese. Well, good for you.”) Probably not the desired outcome in terms of attitude, but it did mean that I breathed my own version of motherhood a lot more freely.

“Glass half full” was snorted at a lot last year. And yet, I did count my blessings even in the darkest of moments. But I wasn’t feeling up to the pop psychology of Being Positive all year round, and so I ignored that one, really.

“Live in the moment” proved to be my favourite, and I whisper that to myself a lot. It’s a wonderful way to shut down the million voices jostling for my immediate attention. “Be present” is the shorter version, but means the same thing. There is vacuuming to be done before visitors arrive, dishes to be washed before dinner, and Tupperware deliveries to be checked and repackaged by tonight. But my daughter just pulled out a box of jigsaw puzzles, and this is supposed to be our day together. There is a reason I quit my job. Drop everything else. Do the jigsaw. Be present.

Happiness: the 2014 project

Part of the reason I took up Tupperware was to distract myself every evening. I had reached a point after dinner and when Tony went off to his study nook, where I’d sit in my soi disant work room and feel the dark creep in. I have to say I ran a lot on adrenaline last year. The practical aspects of being the sole executrix of someone’s will, of being the main instrument in deconstructing a person’s life were a fabulous crutch I could use to gallop along from one important thing to another. Tupperware was another way to extend the busyness. It isn’t rocket science, fairly menial, and pushed me to meet new people and take an interest in the world around me while allowing me flexibility to take care of house and home.

But I think I always knew that eventually, I’d have to address the sadness properly. Which was why I had bought myself The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

As a Christian, it seems almost counter-intuitive to buy a secular self-help book on finding happiness, when we tell ourselves that the bible should suffice. The bible does suffice. It says a lot about what joy is, and it does make a distinction between worldly happiness and Godly joy. I’m not about to discard the Good Book. (Actually, the Good BOOKS, since there are 66 of them.) But I am experiencing some technical difficulties.

It’s like the concept of self-control, where we are told to pray for it and desire it and wait for it to be given and exercise it. We are told what it looks like, and what it doesn’t look like. We are told the consequences of not having any. But I think it’s also useful to know how self-control happens, in the most base and practical of ways. Like how your body needs glucose to help your brain control impulses. And that insufficient sleep impairs your brain’s ability to absorb glucose. And that you could try waiting the recommended 10 minutes for the wave of temptation to dissipate. A 10-minute wait  – the practical form of spotting sin and then fleeing from the devil.

Likewise, I’m trying to work out how to develop gratitude and happiness through concrete actions. I’m not going to stop meditating, and I know that my joy comes from the Lord. But I also know that shaking oneself out of a funk often requires faking it till you’re making it. Happiness is a side product of love in action. I need an action list.

The Happiness Project has a chapter for each month, and all Gretchen does is talk about what she decided to do for herself. Her January was about research on energy generation – feeling pumped enough to even want to be happy. In practical terms, she resolved to

  • get decent sleep for a month,
  • to get out of the house for some form of exercise 20 minutes a day (even if it’s just walking),
  • to declutter her house, and
  • to tackle her long-term to-do list.

And that’s what my January resolutions have become. PERFECT approach for me, because I do have a short attention span most times, and a month is long enough to form a habit, but not too long that I get discouraged by the interminability of it.

I’m also continuing my mottos from last year, and they now are:

  • Be present
  • Choose kindness
  • Keep records

So yes – wish me all the very best. If you’re the praying kind, then pray that I’ll learn to be kind – for that is one of my biggest struggles. And for those of you who have resolved to do better by not doing worse, I salute your effort. I salute your will. I salute your desire to be a better person.

Sparkly nail polish

I’ve always found false optimism in the workplace grating. I consider myself a fairly upbeat, energetic person but there’s something about faking the rainbows that gets under my skin like nails on a chalkboard. I get highly suspicious when everyone rushes to embrace the upside of an idea, without taking the time to poke holes in the approach first and see if it still holds water after a few inevitable trials.

Yet, I’m not wholly convinced my attitude is a result of a whole-brained approach to problem solving. I think a part of me also wonders if I’ve grown more cynical over the years. And then I watch an episode of TED Conversations, and wonder if I’ve somehow lost my innocence.

My Thursday’s Three Thank-Yous have fallen by the wayside. Partly because I haven’t been blogging much at all… but mostly because I’m not feeling overly blessed or happy of late. Cerebrally, I know I have plenty to be thankful for. The fact I’m able to stay home with Arddun. The fact that I have most of my health, apart from this dastardly cough and cold that won’t go away. The fact that Arddun’s one year old and still alive. The fact that Tony has a job and is well-respected where he is.

The fact that we see double rainbows on Flemington Road when the rains hit the sun.  The fact that Canberra has real Winters and Summers and the most gorgeous Autumns. (I don’t really care much for its Springs. Too windy and ridden with hayfever hazards.) The fact that the sun, the moon, the stars, the planet are still working. The fact that we haven’t completely destroyed our eco-system. Yet. All that.

But I’m wondering if the cynic in me just cannot bring myself to be thankful for the seemingly mundane and natural. That summoning gratitude for ten fingers and ten toes is bordering on the desperate and false. And most of all, how CAN I profess to such gratitude when my own mother is suffering still from toxic, worrisome, potentially fatal cancer, and I cannot, CANNOT feel happy about that?

It feels like I’m pretending I’m happy for sparkly nail polish when I’ve lost my whole foot. Anything before the bit about the foot just seems ludicrous and hollow.

And yet, I know I must press on. And I know I still have things to be hugely grateful for. And I know I have a little girl in my life who makes me laugh every day. And a loving husband who rushes home at day’s end and makes sure I take my medicine. All that.

I just wish the attainment of happiness was as easy as Shawn Achor makes it out to be.

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