The year is flying by, and I am especially eager to dig back into The Happiness Project. While Gretchen Rubin encourages readers to pursue our passions, I’m ready to take her up on the challenge. This month, I plan to participate in an online writing project with my Cuz Sandy and author Melanie Faith. I’m also working on learning some murder ballads for an upcoming Halloween project. It’s also time to get more serious about submitting poetry more regularly.
For me, the biggest challenge is using my time well so that my good intentions don’t go skipping down that primrose path (Oh yes, I went to a performance of Macbeth Friday.) I encourage you to read along to see what suggestions Rubin makes to do more than think about what we want to do–and to do it.
One of the biggest challenges for me is just to “be still and know. . . .” I fight the lie that multi-tasking is a virtue, but I stay pumped up on my own adrenaline rush that’s part of my nature. One bit of self-discipline I am employing is paying attention to the natural world–giving my full attention. Since my dear late friend Sam used to tease me about looking down all the time for four-lear clovers (I have a completely useless gift of seeing them at any distance and speed), I’ve made a conscious point to spend more time looking up.
Last week during the meteor shower, I took pillows and a blanket out on the desk and just watched (and counted, of course). Even with the city lights around, I saw at least 25 “falling stars.” It is hard to explain why just lying there is a challenge for me. I had to fight the urge to get my Playaway audiobook. Instead, I just looked and listened and reveled in the vast universe.
This week on Wednesday, I ended up at a table of folks discussing gratitude. Some of the others’ comments motivated me first to acknowledge and second to share my gratitude. One newcomer to Nashville shares her gratitude through letters to friends “back home” and she revealed that she had witnessed her mother-in-law’s lifelong practice of keeping a gratitude journal, even when hospitalized at ninety.
One of my sweet friends back in North Carolina regularly shares her own awareness of her blessings. In her presence, I always benefited from her positivity. I’m happy that she continues to dole it out across the miles.
That old song “Count Your Blessings (Name Them One by One)” should be my mantra. Remind myself. Share with others. Be thankful.
The August chapter of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project shifts from thoughts of money and the material to the spiritual. I’ll confess that I am glad to make that shift. Having just come home from my niece’s wedding, where my entire family spent the weekend together in a cabin in the woods, I am again reminded of how important my spiritual life, Christianity in particular, has been throughout my life.
Since my daddy has been a preacher for my entire life, this may seem a given. I’ve also had to put up with all the “preacher’s kids” jokes. Fortunately, my parents grounded us in our faith not because we had to, not because people were judging them by us. They introduced us to the basic principles and truths of our walk.
Without getting preachy, Rubin acknowledges many of what she calls the Splendid Truths: #2 On e of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself. #3 The days are long, but the years are short.
The shifts she points to–away from stuff and toward the intangible, away from self and toward others, away from the past or future on today–are worth practicing, no matter what your upbringing or belief system.
I plan to try some of the suggestions–the one sentence daily journal (probably using my Penzu account) or the gratitude journal–maybe a combination. I also want to remember to recognize when real life is happening, instead of trying to keep busy for fear of wasting time. Since I am so blessed to be close to my grandchildren and closer to all my family now, I want to take time to be aware of, thankful for this gift of right now.
In her July chapter, Gretchen Rubin talks a lot about what she calls “spending out.” As she notes, lots of time, we may spend a lot of time and money on some things and then turn into skinflints in others. We put off replacing something broken, even though it’s something we use often. (Confession: my blender fell apart a few weeks ago. I’ve tried using my food chopper instead. Epic fail.)
I know that when I’ve traveled overseas, I’ve sometimes opted not to buy something, feeling guilty already for the cost of travel, only to get back home and want to kick myself. Several years ago I traveled to China and had a chance to shop at the jade market. I really wanted a mah jongg set, but decided against the purchase. I did buy some gifts but when I got back to the hotel room, I realized that the entire bag of purchases added up to twelve American dollars. When will I get back to China? Probably never.
Spending out also means giving to others–not just material gifts but our precious time–without expectation of anything in return. I’ve found that letting go of some precious possessions, giving them to someone I love who will enjoy them even more, produces so much more joy than hoarding and never using.
A word of caution: Don’t simply give things away when decluttering to keep from throwing away. It’s not fair to pass one’s own clutter on to someone else–even if you know he or she will probably toss it once you look away. But we all have treasures that we’ve enjoyed for a long time but that could have a new life when shared. I gave my grandmother’s pretty little mink hat to my sister. I loved it, but it clashed with my hair. It will look great with hers.
Have I enjoyed the focus on money this month? I’ll confess, it’s not my favorite topic. Right now, with my own career somewhere between retirement and returning to the classroom, I can’t completely ignore the topic. I am ready, though, to move on to August.
The topic on which Gretchen Rubin focuses in her July chapter is one that can lead to avoidance or uncomfortable discussions: Money. She manages to tackle the old “money can’t buy happiness” cliche, pointing out that, like good health, we don’t think about money as long as we have it. When we don’t, it’s hard to think of anything else.
She also deals with the relative nature of wealth.
For me some of the most useful discussion on the book is the concept of the “modest splurge.” I think we all tend to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. We tackle the big expenses, but then we go cheap on little things that can give pleasure. Her example–buying a nice pen that gives pleasure when writing–is a perfect example. I also appreciate the point she makes that “even a modest pleasure can be a luxury if it’s scarce enough.” If we don’t give in to every whim, a small splurge can feel like a luxury.
She also brings up another area of which I’ve been more aware, the idea of saving little luxuries for special occasions. All too often, I find I end up wasting the very things I was saving. I’ve had “special” candles that melted into puddles before I ever lit them.When I moved, I found some “special” jars of sauces and condiments that had passed their “use by” date. I don’t know what I was waiting for.
I’ll confess that I don’t even like to think much about money matters. (That may explain why I abandoned my accounting degree and went back to school to teach English.) This month, though, I’m enjoying the light touch Rubin gives to a topic that has such a big effect on our happiness and especially on our relationships.
It’s July, but I need to add a postscript to June’s chapter on friendship. In the chapter, Gretchen Rubin makes some great suggestions about making friends: Smile more frequently, invite others into conversation, create a positive mood, and more (pages 158-9).
In the last week or so, after months of making new friends after our move, I’ve had time to reconnect with old friends. I went back to North Carolina for the annual girlfriend beach trip. Before I left, as I read through the guest book we’ve been signing for 16 years, I was reminded of those little details in life that make the most fun, the most laughter.
I’ve spent the last couple of days at Summer Celebration, a conference on the campus of Lipscomb University, where I attended college forty years ago. I’ve seen so many old friends, former professors, even the lady who worked in the registrar’s office (the problem solver). To add to the fun, four car loads of friends from the church we attended in Hickory were there too. It has felt like Old Home Week, reminding me that maintaining those long-time friendships is worth the effort–without question.
I didn’t need to read the research supporting the value of “strong social bonds” and interpersonal relationships in Chapter 6 of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project to be convinced of the value of friendships. I was pleasantly surprised, though, by studies that show that strong relationships not only lengthen life but that they are more effective than quitting smoking.
I’ve long known that anything potentially unpleasant is more bearable with company, and anything that is fun to do becomes more so with friends. I can walk farther when I’m not walking alone. Music or a good audiobook piped through my earbuds can make exercise time go by faster, but I know from all those years I regularly walked and worked out with my friend Claudia how time spent with a friend manages to take my mind off my knees or feet or hips (or lungs). Oh, the stories we’ve shared and the kids we’ve raised on our old five-mile treks.
In the first part of the chapter, in order to reconnect with old friends, strengthen new relationships, and to maintain close ties, Rubin decides to remember birthdays. She tediously updates her address book and her calendar in order to send birthday emails. When a friend suggests she call instead, she takes refuge in Voltaire’s advice: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” She knows she won’t make those phone calls but she will email.
For some people, phone calls are easier. Other people have a genuine gift for handwritten notes. Even with Facebook birthday reminders, I try to be more personal. I also suggest that if you have your account set to send automatic birthday greetings to your Facebook friends that you change that setting. Recently, I was dismayed to see numerous birthday wishes to a cousin-in-law who had died earlier this year. Honestly, I don’t care to get a birthday greeting from someone who didn’t actually send it, do you?
There are so many ways to keep up with people these days, even though most school alumnae records are private and almost no one has a landline, rendering the white pages of the phone book basically useless. I still maintain an actual address book (see picture above) and paper calendar (one in my purse and one on the laundry room wall.) Not only do they help me to keep up, but they are great artifacts when I finish up my scrapbooks of each year. Each time I feel the need for a new address book, I go through the ritual of copying the names and the current addresses, amazed at all the changes in just a few years’ time.
I’ve always been a big sender of Christmas cards, but I know some people who wait until January and send New Year’s cards. This has two benefits: They don’t get lost in the shuffle and you have recent contact information of people who sent you Christmas cards, avoiding unintentional omissions.
Whatever means you choose to keep up with friends and to strengthen bonds, follow through. After all, as any good Girl Scout knows, we should “Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other, gold.”