December 15, 2017 by Julia
I’ve read enough self-help books to know that there can’t be one formula for well-being, but I do like to take my favorite bits and cobble together a philosophy for daily life, endlessly tweaking it, paying attention to what works for me, and what doesn’t.
Lately, I’ve been surprised by happiness. I don’t believe that’s entirely of my own doing, but there were some realizations earlier this year, post-depression, that have changed my way of thinking for the better. Take heart, if you are depressed – things may be happening beneath the surface – you may be learning more than you think. Also: just keep on living. You might be surprised by how things get better.
A few more things I’ve learned this year:
I don’t have to feel guilty for good things happening to me. I am not actively stepping on others to succeed, I am living by my values, and caring for others. Therefore, it is okay if I find success or comfort or fun or anything good.
I don’t need to apologize for my personal struggles, or my many blessings. They simply exist, as they do for every person. I understand now that each person has both, and it is not my business to decide how they should deal with or enjoy their “stuff” – it is only my business to grieve or rejoice with others as a friend, and tend to my own “stuff.” I’m (mostly) over my guilt and embarrassment for being a stay-at-home mom with kids in elementary school. I see that I am filling my days with important things, I see that I am busy, and am working hard, and that if I do happen to get some extra free time for self-care out of the deal, then I should take it, because when I can keep myself fed, I can keep giving to loved ones, too. Whatever all this looks like from the outside is of much less concern to me, and it is very, very liberating.
A loose structure to my days works best. We all need structure to some extent. Any person who works at home will tell you that insanity is just around the corner if you don’t compose some kind of schedule for yourself. And people. Make sure you see people, in person.
Last year, I struggled with the free time that was suddenly on my hands once both my kids were in full school days. It’s one of those things that you wish for your whole life, and then don’t know how to handle it, once you get it. I imposed many routines on myself, but found that I got a little crazy about sticking to them. In other words, you don’t want to be yelling at your kid, crying with a skinned knee, “Sorry, but I’m supposed to be writing for five more minutes today!” or “This is my day to change the bedding linens, but when I’m done I’ll totally get you a band-aid!”
My anxiety tells me that if I don’t meet my daily or weekly goals I am a disgusting failure and the world will fall apart. My depression tells me that none of it matters; might as well give up. How do I balance these two wonderful, wonderful impulses? Loose structure. The looseness manages the anxiety. The structure manages the depression. And vice-versa, I suppose.
Another way to put it would be…determination tempered by flexibility, in order to be emotionally available, and in the the moment, but also dedicated to long-term goals, and hopeful that the right action always counts, even if it can only be the tiniest of baby steps on that particular day. Some days I only write a tiny bit, but I feel better about my parenting, or relationships, or the fact that I’m traveling, and getting contrast to my usual life. I would go into more detail, but it gets real boring when I do. (I tried. Even I didn’t want to read about my daily routine/coping mechanisms.)
Balance is a perfectionist goal, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try for it, and in the process, be generally okay. Every natural tendency of mine has a dark side when it is overindulged. I am a caring person – which means I overextend myself and lose all sense of my boundaries, if I’m not careful. I forget that I can say no to things I don’t want to do. I forget that I have social power at all – I feel tugged and pulled by everyone else’s desires and needs and I worry that I am offending or hurting or neglecting, and finally nothing social is fun for me at all anymore. I want to crawl into a dark hole because I can’t handle the stress. And then I get depressed, because I can’t handle seeing people. And I need to see people, because we are social creatures.
So now, I remember the power of saying no. I remember that I can set boundaries that work for me, if I just take a moment to figure out what works for me and then stay strong long enough for those boundaries to establish. That’s the hard part – once they’re in place, life gets a whole lot easier. (Until the next situation comes along where I need to set boundaries. But that’s okay. That’s life. And I expect it gets easier every time.)
It’s okay to want to be happy. It’s not selfish; it’s actually generous, to do your best to be happy. I want my loved ones to be happy. They want the same for me. Happiness is contagious. Happiness that is rooted in goodness makes the world better. So, to actively pursue happiness, like a true-blooded American, is no longer a matter of embarrassment for me. It’s a necessity for survival, and for love, in an increasingly disconnected and confusing world.
Gretchen Rubin, of The Happiness Project, has helped change my approach to daily life over the past few years. She makes me happy with her methodical, logical, self-affirming but responsible brand of happiness pursuit. She has shown me that there are habits and practical goals that can combat even the deepest pools of depression, without denying the harsh truths of life, or surrendering an ounce of my intelligence. Rather, she encourages me to use every ounce of my intelligence toward enjoying life and loving the people around me.
I’ve learned to pay attention to what brings me happiness, and incorporate these things into my life (with that loose structure I mentioned). I want to appreciate art and music and film and literature, spend meaningful time with my kids, write a novel, go away with my husband, keep a clean, comfortable, interesting home, keep track of important family memories, cultivate a relationship with a God I can get behind, get exercise, eat well, have honest conversations, travel, keep learning American history, enjoy life.
That’s as good a stopping point as any.
I wish you a delightful holiday!