On Growing Happiness

Recently, I have admitted to you how chaotic parts of my life have felt as I have dealt with loss and serious medical conditions with those whom I love. I’ve been struggling to keep balance in my life, to feel happy. The other day my brother, Chuck, emailed a Time Magazine January 5, 2023 article “The Daily Habits of Happiness Experts.” Eager for more answers, I studied the article. It pointed out that “we must do the work every single day of deciding to be happy.” It is a different twist than I had ever thought of: Putting in the Work. It got me to thinking about what exactly is the “Work” necessary to grow happiness?
The article listed the experts’ daily habits: a healthful diet, getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night, regular exercise, practicing a hobby, and spending significant amounts of time with friends outside of the work environment. Certainly those habits are part of the Work. They agreed that having a sense of purpose and living in gratitude are also core habits. My own studies have also taught me that a certain level of complexity in one’s daily life can yield a sense of excitement about feeling alive.
All this got me pondering. I woke up in the middle of last night thinking that life is sort of a balancing act, like being on a teeter totter. I shared that idea with Ken about happiness coming from being in balance. He could not have disagreed with me more! He said, “Balance is boring! It is the rush of pushing upward to the top of the teeter totter that yields that kick to one’s heel, that zesty thrill of being in the world.” I responded, “But too much downward push can leave us feeling stressed out, or sadly, bored or lonely.” I know America is suffering an epidemic of loneliness and anxiety and that youth and seniors are hit the hardest; we also have a generation of workers stuck at home working through Zoom and the computer. What is that isolation doing to them? It can’t be a positive condition.
With that in mind, how exactly do we pull in enough adventure, new situations, and new people to bring us joy without stressing ourselves out? The evening news just had an intriguing segment. It was about a high school teacher who dared to have his students put their work and phones away. He then directed them to talk to one another for the last ten minutes of the class. They were bewildered as the teacher usually required quiet. That made the news! The teacher is concerned that we are forgetting how to talk to one another face to face. Could it be that our instant capabilities to silently communicate are messing with our heads? Could these new technologies be cutting us off and weighing us down toward isolation? Is our tech driven world of email and texting making it too easy to isolate?
Last week three different people approached me for help. They were hoping for ideas about how to get back in their lives, how to feel some of the old joy from their youth, how to feel happier. Their drive to feel happier forced me to think more fully about doing “the work” to create more happiness. Our conversations kept coming back to daring to step out of our comfort zones, having enough courage to push the teeter totter up, and exalting in the trip down. I thought about my husband Ken’s high school girls’ wrestling team, how he frequently has to coach them not just about strategic moves but about stepping out into the unknown onto the mat in front of others, being bold enough to go for it. Some of them, unfortunately, cannot face that risk and leave wrestling, others suck it up, anxious and scared, and become accomplished wrestlers enjoying the benefits of trying something new; participating in fresh activities, belonging to a team, making more friends.
Across my life I have had to force myself out of various comfortable cocoons. I’ve never shared with you that one of the reasons I taught for so long, 45 years, was that I was more terrified of trying to create a new life outside of teaching, than continuing in my same known routine. My mind imagined me at home sitting alone at my computer in the fog of a Fall day. I hated that mental picture. Eventually the 70 miles a day commute, and being well past retirement age, was beginning to look silly. I had to become brave and figure out a new life. One year I made up my mind, I would retire! However, I could not go through with it. I told myself that I would miss my students too much. I taught for several more years. Translation: I was afraid of the unknown. You are probably laughing at me right now. What a ninny? It does, however, speak to the emotion involved in keeping the upswing of the teeter totter.
Once I made the move and stepped into retirement I discovered a wonderful new set of risks and challenges. I began getting better at putting my angst aside and going for it even though it is scary. I think you know that Ken recently gifted me a 2014 Corvette for my 80th birthday. Within a few days I was loading groceries into the back of it at Von’s when a stranger rolled by me, asked about the car, and invited me to join his Corvette club. I thought it over for a few days. I looked it up online, filled out a form, and received a call inviting me to the meeting. I was going.
So on January 5, 2023, I put my arms around myself, took a big breath, got into my car by myself and drove into the great unknown. I was pretty nervous. I arrived at the meeting place, a restaurant, with my stomach full of butterflies. I checked in with my contact, sat with him and his wife. That was the beginning of what is turning out to be one of the most unique and joyful experiences of my life. This generous and friendly couple metaphorically wrapped me up in their welcoming embrace and introduced me to others. I was a stranger in a strange place but they made me feel at home. I decided to join. A month later I found myself taking part in something I had never in my wildest imagination dreamed of doing. I was showing my car at the San Juan Capistrano Rotary Car Show along with 400 other car enthusiasts!
What I have learned is that if We DARE TO STEP INTO THE UNKNOWN, sometimes magical things can happen. I had forgotten how much I love cars, that I was actually a lifelong car enthusiast, that there were new friends waiting for me, that new activities would present themselves. I had NO idea. That is the thrill of the unknown, of the upswing of the teeter totter, we don’t know until we try, and the down swing can be enjoyed as an interesting change as well.
So I am interested in you. What have you been contemplating doing? Are you secretly thinking about taking up something new? Going on an adventure? Joining a new group? You might need to step out of your usual routine. It’s possible something marvelous is waiting for you. I’d love to hear from you. My best, donna