Saturday, January 26, 2013
A few weeks ago, I wrote about enchiladas and inspiration found within the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble. I acquired a sack full of new reading material after that trip (aka, grocery shopping while hungry), and have been enjoying spending a few minutes of every day with my nose in a book (and most days, it really amounts to a few minutes). Right now, I'm reading Gretchen Rubin's best-selling book, The Happiness Project, the kind of book that requires a highlighter and a pen for note-taking. I've spent many nights thinking about the act of happiness as a philosophy, an art, and even a science. For a year, Rubin goes on a systematic quest to cultivate more happiness in her life, not because she was unhappy or dissatisfied, but as an experience to make her more aware and more in tune of the things that brought her happiness, as well as new ways to discover happiness in her future.
I often wonder why this book is so popular. It sat on the number one slot on the New York Times Bestseller List for weeks after its debut in 2010, and has since been sold to editors in 31 languages. People are obviously drawn to the idea that one can control the amount of happiness in their life; however, few people can take the risks involved with major transformations, spending splurges, or travels abroad that usually make for novel-worthy material. I think that's one of the ironic things that makes this book so appealing. Rubin doesn't pick up her life and spend a year strolling the streets of Italy or Bali like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, or become a Mother Theresa, spending her years performing amazing acts of service for people less privileged than her. No, Rubin is a normal working mom like so many of us, trying to keep the boat afloat at home while balancing all the hats of motherhood with a smile on her face and heels on her feet. She's just so normal, and the tasks she resolves in order to find more happiness are small, easy to incorporate into one's daily life, and have the potential to be so powerful in terms of self-improvement and well-being.
Aside from being a book that can apply to so many, I also hope this book's popularity has something to do with counteracting all the negativity and unhappiness in this world. The news is filled with far more bad than good, the TV channels are full of reality shows that attempt to portray people at their absolute worst, and even blogs that tend to focus on the positive side of things often get ridiculed and criticized for appearing fake or sugar-coated, as if to say that someone who writes about unhappy things is apparently more 'real' than someone who doesn't. A fellow blogger friend recently wrote about this very thing in a post titled, 'You Like it When I Cry.' After tracking her ratings, it was obvious that her stats peaked during times when she wrote about struggle. Or that Kelle Hampton's rise to fame happened shortly after she wrote about being at her lowest after giving birth to Nella, but now gets bouts of criticism for not appearing sad enough. It is criticism like this that leads to beautiful posts like this one, where she fights to defend her positive outlook on life. There's something really backwards when people feel called to defend their happy.
The other night, as I was stirring spaghetti noodles with one hand and checking my Facebook feed with the other, I came across a status from another mom that said something along the lines of 'I'm busy and stressed and unable to find time to wash my hair, let alone have a hobby,' fair enough because Lord knows we've all been there, but then went on to seemingly attack mothers who did have hobbies, or friends, or time for anything beyond being mothers to their children, whatever that means. The feed got quite a response, mostly from other moms who patted this person on the back, saying things like, 'those moms who work and still have hobbies obviously don't take the time to be with their children,' or 'instead of being selfish, I play with my children instead.' Reading this as a working mom with interests of my own, I immediately felt the attack. At first I got defensive, as if that very post was directed at me, but as it sunk in later, I felt a feeling far worse than defense, and all too familiar for any mom.
The guilt slowly crept in, no matter how much I tried to let defense and anger take over. Was I a bad mom for making time for hobbies? Did I spend enough quality time with my son? Am I being real to myself?
These thoughts of inadequacy are fueled by the negative, as well as the positive, and are hard to escape in a world that puts everything out there for people to see. But what I've been learning the last few weeks is this juxtaposition between the perceived ideal of this world and the tension of the reality that we live. Anyone living in this world knows that there is no such thing as an 'ideal.' We are all broken people, who face struggle and make mistakes and hurt people. And as we live in this tension, this imperfect reality, the only people we can change is ourselves. It's one of the things Rubin repeatedly writes about in her book. That as much as she wished her husband would do little things that would make her more happy, it was her who had to change how she was looking at things. In fact, her eight 'Splendid Truths' all permeate around this very idea. Number 5: "I can build a happy life only on the foundation of my own nature." Number 6: "The only person I can change is myself," and Number 1: "To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, feeling right, all in an atmosphere of growth.
Life sucks a lot of the time, and I know as well as anybody else, that sometimes it just feels good to know that when we are having a crap day, other people are, too. But sometimes I wonder what our world would look like if everyone in it would go on their own quest of happiness. Knowing that living in this tension means there is a lot we can't control, but the one thing that we can is ourselves. Being there for people when they are sad and struggling, but celebrating with those who aren't, too, no matter what side of the coin we are currently living.
I know the Facebook comment probably had little to do with me, and that the personal attack I felt deep inside happened because I'm vulnerable. But I'm learning over time, that unlike guilt and defensiveness, vulnerability is important for growth. Brene Brown says that, 'Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable.'