Sun and Shadows

I’ve read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, and I check her blog fairly regularly.  We think alike, I think, and I am drawn to her methodical ways and her “make a list and get it done” attitude.  I am nowhere near as methodical or productive as she appears to be (books and blogs are good at hiding her dust bunnies), but I do take inspiration from her work.  One piece of advice, I can’t remember if it came from the book or the blog, was to make the bed every day.  Since reading it, I have adopted it, and it really does make me happy.  It sounds so insignificant, so trivial, but airing out the bedroom and making my bed each morning helps me set the tone for the day.  It takes seconds, but it gives me a feeling of accomplishment.  It may be the only thing that gets done that day, but at least the bed is made.

And that’s kind of where I begin to falter, because, truly, on some days, that really is all that gets done, and the rest of what gets done is half-assed and graceless.   Sometimes, my days are more about surviving than living a meaningful life, and when I am in survival mode, the happiness crap makes me want to spit nails.  It makes me crazy to think that millions of women are managing to succeed and thrive and be happy, and all I can think is “Sixteen more hours until bedtime.”  I say those words to myself and feel the awful burden of the happiness imperative.  On some days, it’s not the ordinary stresses of being a mother of three boys that wears me down, it’s the fact that I’m not in or actively pursuing a state of bliss.  I feel like I’m failing when I am failing to feel happy.  Where have I gone wrong???

Well, of course, I haven’t gone wrong because happiness, like despair, is a transient state, and you can’t have one without the other.  “The stronger the sunshine, the darker the shadow.”  I can say that to myself a thousand times a day, but I still can’t shake the glossy appeal of Happy.  It’s like the insidious appeal of home decor or fashion magazines: we can all agree that the images on those pages are fiction, what we see is not real.  What is not real, is, by definition not attainable, but we still strive, don’t we?  We still measure ourselves against the glossy fictions.  Sometimes, the happiness advice that is doled out in column inches on the pages of national papers and magazines begins to feel like the anorexic model to me.  It is not healthy to aspire to that kind of thin; it is not healthy to aspire to constant happiness.

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6 thoughts on “Sun and Shadows

  1. I need to be happy. I demand it like a petulant child. And I think I found new motherhood so difficult mostly because the reality of that life meant that I wasn’t happy, and I hated that. I remember a day when Harriet was about 7 mos and I realized that I was finally happy more days than I wasn’t, and it was such a relief, like the sun coming out again. But I mean by happiness isn’t a glossy fiction (and in fact, in general my own despair is usually more fictional than my happiness is, brought upon as it is by hormones). It’s a way of seeing what’s around me and acknowleging the goodness, doing my best to magnify what’s already there. It’s knowing what I can control and what I can’t, with emphasis on the former so that I can clear a space inside each day where loveliness can prosper. Basically, by doing the things I like to do and not bothering much with what I don’t. My mother calls this selfishness, but I’m too happy to care…

  2. At one point in my life, I would have disagreed with you. But I’ve come to accept there are periods of life where survival is the best you can do, with just enough moments of bliss sprinkled in to keep you going. But those end, and the unattainable happiness seems attainable again, until it all starts over. Today, I’m counting hours till bedtime too.

  3. It’s about luminal moments for me… If I can grab ahold of those solitary moments that leave me feeling uplifted, I can recall them on darker days (because, yes, as you write our psyche is like the yin and the yang: we must have both to understand the emotions that are not as comfortable).
    I have recently gone through training to be a coach for Girls On The Run here in New Jersey and one of the lessons they went over — as the organizers of the not-for-profit thought it of utmost importance — is the one centered on emotion, and how no emotion can ever truly be construed as good or bad. There is comfortable and uncomfortable, but there is a reason we feel a certain way, and the best thing to do is to consciously understand that emotion before reacting.
    Nathalie, I like you have three children. My freedom is not exactly boundless at the moment. There are times I feel like scratching at the door to be let OUT, and MUST have a bit of help every week to run free. That is the way I can maintain a certain level of happiness. because of course, a basic human need is freedom, isn’t it?
    Thanks for your post.

  4. Nathalie, I don’t read glossies as a rule, but I am addicted to the bloggy world of equivalent domestic bliss. Although they can make me miserable with inadequacy, on more even days I will see why I read them. It’s not for the spotless glossiness (or earthenness as the case more often is with me), but a certain equilibrium in managing the highs and lows. I’ll probably write about/around this on Friday.

    For the record, on the off days (today is one), my preferred chant is ‘this too shall pass’.

  5. Thanks, everyone. This really is such a huge topic, and I know that I have not done Rubin’s book justice (she does not say that happiness is the excited state of bliss, but a more calm state). I think the point I really wanted to make was that there is a fine line between the media of happiness projects, etc, that want to promote self-actualization, and the sense of pressure to be striving for that happiness 24/7. As a friend said to me, happiness should be the by-product of other things we strive for, not necessarily an end in itself.

  6. I hear you. My cynicism has historically made me shy away from books like this, but I am curious about this one. I, too, find my mental space just a hair more serene if the bed is made each morning… Maybe I would be more responsive to this book if it was called “mitigate the insanity” instead… I have come to appreciate the slivers of the sublime in the midst of my frustrations and anxieties. Also, the last thing we need to *worry* about is being happy, right? A (wonderful) creative writing teacher of mine, a father of a large family, once told me, “I finally learned to let go of always checking in on myself to see if I am happy. If you worry about being happy you will never be happy.”

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