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.”
May has flown, and there’s so much in the chapter this month that I could just park here awhile–but I won’t! In today’s post, I first want to draw attention to the three categories of fun that Rubin identifies: 1. challenging fun, 2. accommodating fun, and 3. relaxing fun. Preparing to run a 5K with a friend would be challenging. Taking the kids to Disney World would be a form of accommodating fun (though I bristle to identify it as fun at all!). Soaking in the hot tub would be relaxing fun.
While we might gravitate toward number three, she notes that the first two bring more happiness because they are “sources of the elements that make people happiest: strong personal bonds, mastery, an atmosphere of growth.”
For now, I’ll admit that seeking forms of play has never been a challenge for me; making choices among all the possibilities has been. I will testify, though, that adding play to one’s life is enriching far beyond the effort required. That’s why I’ll keep playing music, going to author readings (with friends), meeting Traci for early Saturday morning run/walks, and helping the grandkids find every blanket in the house for their tent city in our den.
Having just said goodbye to Sandy and Frank, our Memorial Weekend house guests, I’ve born witness to how play keeps people young.
I’m curious to know how others’ choices of fun sort out. Which of these choices have enriched your life most?
I enjoy the way Gretchen Rubin slips research and statistics into her text, even though she doesn’t actually cite most of the sources. In the May chapter on play, she refers to research that shows “that each common interest between people boosts the chances of a lasting relationship and also brings about a 2 percent increase in life satisfaction.”
In her case, she is referring specifically to her “kid lit” reading group, but I’ve found the same to be true in my overlapping circles. Moving to a new city at this point in our lives could have been daunting. We had (have) great friends back in North Carolina. While we moved to Nashville to be close to family (read: grandchildren), I also knew we needed a bigger circle.
Fortunately, I still have college friends living here, and picking back up has been such fun–and the circles have grown. Here’s a “for instance”:
I have stayed in touch with my college roommate for decades. Yes, decades. She even looked after my daughter during her college years. As soon as she heard we might move to town, she had us lined up to join her supper club. Within days of moving in, we had dinner with her and her husband and another couple. The other friend invited me to her book club. New circle of friends. I invited them to a library reading. They invited other friends.
Meanwhile, another friend I met at my music camp five years ago moved to town about a week after I did. She’s helped me to find music circles, but we’ve also branched out to attend other literary events–and culinary experiences.
Tonight I attended a dinner at which I was the only woman who didn’t play tennis. I found myself thinking, “Well, maybe I could learn….” Then I found that one of my new acquaintances plays guitar and sings. Before long the whole kitchen was filled with harmony.
I’m not sure how to measure, but I suspect my life satisfaction increased by at least two percent.
It may say more about me than anything else, that I find so much to think about and write about in Gretchen Rubin’s May chapter “Be Serious about Play.” Today I’m taking look at her particular source of fun: children’s literature. Just the mention of book titles in this chapter rang all kinds of bells for me.
I have been a fan of young adult (YA) lit since the genre was identified. Some trace its beginning to S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, even though plenty of books written before that one could fit into the category better than children’s lit. In the years I’ve attended the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), I not only found myself introduced to many great works of YA lit, but to the authors as well–S.E. Hinton, Robert Cormier, Paul Danziger, Paul Zindel, Lois Lowry, and so many more.
Rubin’s explanation of the difference between children’s literature and adult literature, not merely a superficial difference, makes sense to me: these books deal with universal themes, particularly good versus evil. They deal with real human conflicts, social justice, life and death, fate and free will. No set of books exemplifies this point better than J.K. Rowling’ Harry Potter series. I know some adults who steered clear of these books because they were children’s books or because they had garnered so much hype that these readers thought there must be some trick.
I might have skipped them myself for the latter reason if I hadn’t read the first book before all the hoopla. I was as captivated by each book as any of my high school students were. I felt better about my appreciation for some of the strong messages when Gretchen Rubin admitted that she too “love[s] didactic writing.”
I have to take a note from the chapter in which she points out that we have “plenty of time to have fun!” My first reaction to this chapter is a desire to re-read some of my old favorites, especially now that I know right where to find them, having unpacked those boxes and given them a place of their own in the rooms we have furnished for our grandchildren’s visits. While I have so many other books on the figurative pile on the nightstand (temporarily displaced as we’re having the bedroom floors finished), I may have to venture back through Little Women, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Red Fern Grows. If I get industrious, maybe my grandchildren and I can read through the Little House series together, which my fourth grade teacher read in its entirety, a few minutes a day after lunch.
If I follow through with this plan, I’ll also capitalize on another point made in the chapter: “[E]ach common interest between people boosts the chances of a lasting relationship and also brings about a 2 percent increase in life satisfaction.”
The May Chapter of The Happiness Project “Be Serious about Play” focuses on adding fun to life.
Gretchen Rubin points out that experts define play as any activity that is “very satisfying, has no economic significance, doesn’t create social harm, and doesn’t necessarily lead to praise or recognition.” In fact, she notes, “people who have fun are twenty times as likely to feel happy.”
While play is distinguishable from work, she notes that those who are most fortunate find that what they do in their spare time is not so different from what they do for work.
I’ll confess that I have no problem buying into the value of play. In fact, I have so many ways to play that work tended to cramp my style. Fortunately, since I taught English, reading and writing are two things I most enjoy doing just for fun. However, my favorite forms of play don’t stop there.
Since I turned fifty, I’ve taken on several new activities. Learning to play the mandolin has been a most rewarding form of play. I can enjoy playing by myself, but I especially enjoy playing music with others. Since a mandolin is much more portable than an upright bass or a piano, I can easily have fun wherever I go. In North Carolina and now in Nashville, I found plenty of opportunities to play music with others who shared my passion.
One of the best fringe benefits of teaching at the community college was the policy that let teachers take a class free each semester. I took all the art classes I could–starting with Basic Design, and then Photography, Printmaking, and Photoshop. These classes led me to produce work that made their way to exhibit, and they introduced me to a larger circle of friends as well.
I acknowledge that Rubin is right: what is fun for one person is not fun for everyone. I could live forever without movies or television. I can’t go all day Sunday, however, without the crossword puzzle.
I’m most curious to know what others do when you have time for play. What do you do just for fun? Who knows? I might want to try that too.
Before finishing April altogether, I have to take a minute to discuss the section in last month’s chapter when Gretchen Rubin discussed “the importance of keeping happy memories vivid.” Anyone who’s known me long knows I’ve been the picture taker and album maker long before scrapbooking became popular (and so commercial). Much of my problem with getting organized back in January was hampered by my boxes and boxes of happy memories–mine and several generations of my family’s and my husband’s.
I have rows of albums for most of my adulthood, ratcheting up after children and then grandchildren came alone. I also keep boxes (cute ones from the craft store) for the various branches of our families and for friends, my own childhood family and my husband’s, college days, teaching–anything that can be categorized.
I had a discussion with a twenty-something friend this week. She listens to playlists on Spotify and keeps picture on Facebook, unprinted. I still buy CDs. (I still have 45s.) Which way is right? Either, I suppose–as long as the shifting technologies don’t eat up all our memories.
I try to heed the warning in a favorite quote from Annie Dillard: “Memory is insubstantial. Things keep replacing it. Your batch of snapshots will both fix and ruin your memory. . . . You can’t remember anything from your trip except the wretched collection of snapshots.” Recently I’ve seen people (maybe even me) so intent on capturing the shot that they missed the moment.
As I move into May when we’re advised to “Be Serious about Play” (something I do naturally), I hope I maintain balance–making and capturing memories.
One little piece of child psychology Gretchen Rubin mentions in the April chapter makes sense with any kind of human interaction: “we should acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings.” No matter what age we are, we don’t want someone else telling us how we do and don’t feel.
I’ve heard women say, in conversations about their spouses, “When I tell him something that’s bothering me, I don’t want him to fix it. I just want him to listen and sympathize.” Rubin takes this knowledge a step further and writes down her “cheat notes” for how to respond, ranging from simply writing down what her children tell her (or waving a magic wand and acknowledging that she’d LIKE to be able to magically solve the problem) to simply listening. (And yes, I did just split that infinitive.)
One of my favorites is her suggestion to admit that a task is difficult. This dovetails with my reading of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset (which I recommend to everyone!).
Finally (though now in her ordering) is one of the hardest suggestions at all–at least for me. Sometimes the best thing to do is to be quiet and listen.
In my next post, I want to take some time to discuss the section on “keeping happy memories vivid.”