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The Merry Month of May: Focusing on Play

May 11, 2016

11200917_10205068095966103_6551643218359250248_n10485997_10202978212280317_3774038956504391750_oThe 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.

Making Memories: April’s Lightening Up Leads to May’s Play

May 5, 2016

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.

Happiness Project Book Club: Responding to Feelings

April 22, 2016

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.”

No Foolin’: You Don’t Have to Be a Parent to Lighten Up

April 10, 2016

imagesIt’s no secret that I love April because it’s National Poetry Month, and I love celebrating. Starting out with April Fool’s Day adds to the fun, too. I love coming up with pranks for others to play, although I have a hard time keeping a straight face long enough when I play them myself.

At first glance, Gretchen Rubin’s focus on Parenthood in her April Chapter entitled “Lighten Up” might be off-putting to readers who have no children, but she makes so many valid points that anyone can put to use.

In this post, I want to focus on the idea she presents of “fog happiness,” that intangible kind of happiness you can’t quite put a finger on, can’t define or quantify. In her case, she defends the idea that having children increased her happiness, even though on a day-to-day basis it may be hard to convince others–or even herself.  I always think back to a piece by Dennis Prager, “The Secret of True Happiness” I read in Reader’s Digest many years ago, distinguishing between happiness and fun.

She gives examples of other activities that didn’t feel like happiness while she was in the middle of them but that produced feelings of happiness, ranging from contentment to exhilaration. She mentions a friend working like a dog throwing a party who said her fun begins afterward, when she recalls the party. This may seem contradictory in light of her March discussion of the “arrival fallacy” in which we miss the pleasure of the moment when we’re so focused on the destination. In the case mentioned here, some of the work, discomfort, displeasure is mollified by the potential end result.

Now that I’m a grandmother, with the different perspective that affords me, I remember older women telling me, “Enjoy those little ones. They don’t stay little long.” They were right. In retrospect I recall lots of fun I wasn’t relishing at the time. I do remember deciding that no matter what else was pressing, I had time to tell a bed time story, to read a poem (or ten), to listen to their prayers, to sing a few of their favorite songs. I’m glad I did.

The Happiness Project: Enjoy Now

April 5, 2016

doctorow quote

Of writing, E. L. Doctorow said, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Before I jump into April, I want to look at one point in the March chapter on work, which Rubin entitled “Aim Higher.”

While setting goals is necessary for actually reaching them, it’s so easy to fall for what Tal Ben-Shaba calls the “arrival fallacy.” We sometimes miss the joy of doing what we love because we’re convinced once we finish, we’ll have achieved a bigger measure of happiness.  It’s human nature to live for the weekend, for spring break, for the end of the semester, for graduation. Postponing our own recognition of the joy along the way can result in disappointment. I’ve arrived. Now what?

We can’t always be engaged in vocations or avocations of our choosing, but when given the choice, choosing to do what we love makes sense. I know that even when I despised the endless marking of essays, I always loved teaching English. I knew I was in my element, working with students I loved teaching in a discipline I enjoyed and valued.

Finally, I appreciate Gretchen Rubins’ suggestion to make the most of small increments of time. If I wait until I have enough time to finish something I want to do, I’ll never start.  This past weekend at the Gathering of Poets in Winston-Salem, poet Joseph Mills pointed out that even writing five or ten minutes a day can produce a poem, a story, eventually even a novel. This works with almost any endeavor.  Why else are FitBits so popular? Being able to see how steps add up makes a person want to find ways to keep moving, even when walking a mile or two is impractical or even impossible.

A perfect analogy for me is reading a good book. When I’m caught up in a story, part of me can’t wait to reach the conclusion and another part doesn’t want the story to end. Either way, I’m always eager to pick up the next good book.

March Madness: Aiming Higher without Hoops

March 21, 2016

I love the serendipitous nature of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project for me because each month, I run across reassurance or prodding that I need just where I am. Since I launched this project just before I had any idea our house would sell and we’d be moving from North Carolina to Nashville, my location and activities have changed, but my basic nature has not.

Even though the sub-subtitle of this chapter is “Work,” I’m only beginning to think about what I’m going to “be” next. For now, I’m thinking a lot about what I’m going to do next, and I’m thinking of today or this week, not the fall or next year.  In the chapter, Rubin mentions that “challenge and novelty are key elements to happiness.” I love that combination.  I kept this quote on my classroom wall during my years teaching high school:


I reminded my students of a truth I need to remind myself occasionally: We are most proud of things that require us to work hard. That’s why learning to play the mandolin (and not starting until after I was fifty) has been so rewarding. I also love novelty. I think I thrive on change to some extent.  Even when I taught the same course semester after semester, I was motivated to change up my syllabus. This kept me from getting bored and helped me to learn along with my students. It kept me fresh.

Another point the author makes in this chapter is the importance to being true to oneself. In her case, she was challenged to start a blog, but she got all kinds of advice about changing the title and about subject matter that didn’t fit what she wanted to do. How liberating to realize that every life decision doesn’t take a majority vote. If she keeps reminding herself of the first of her Twelve Commandments: Be Gretchen, then I also need to give myself encouragement to Be Nancy. That entails finding ways to pursue my wide variety of interests without neglecting my responsibilities and without getting so fragmented that I don’t finish anything.


I have a room filled with boxes, most of them my books or my art and photo projects.  My garage still has enough boxes of things we aren’t quite sure what to do with that we still have to park outside. I have the house to myself, a list of things I want to do. There is also a cardinal sitting on the planter just outside my window. I think I’ll watch a few minutes before I tackle my next project.


And you? Be yourself today. Surprise yourself by trying something new, even something difficult that you’ve always wanted to attempt.

March: Work

March 10, 2016

While I should start by apologizing for my sporadic posts, despite my announced goal of posting every Monday and Thursday, all I can say is this:  I moved. I’ll spare you the photograph of the garage (aka “the box repository” or my office (aka “the box room”). Meanwhile, some of you have offered similar apologies (or alibis or excuses) for not getting totally into this online project. Give yourself a break!

Remember:  Anyone’s happiness project needs to be rid of self-inflicted guilt. This is a very loosely organized book club. We have no regular meetings. No one has to bring cake. We have a whole year to read through the book. If that doesn’t work, you have next year. Jump in where you feel like it.

Ahhh! I feel better now. Let’s look at March.  I should feel odd discussing work since I’m either retired or unemployed, depending on my view of the future. But I’m ready to talk about this chapter anyway. If you get through the first two or three pages, you’ll see the discussion of choosing the right work for you. When Gretchen Rubin mentions her epiphany about the logic of choosing a career that lines up with how you choose to spend your free time, I remembered an article from this part August in the education supplement of The New York Times. The entire supplement was focused on college freshmen, and I shared several of the articles with my class at the time.

One in particular came to mind, “How to Live Wisely,” in which the author Richard Light described activities he led in a noncredit seminar class called “Reflecting on Your Life.”  He asked students about their goals and followed by asking what they were doing to reach them. Then he asked how they spent their spare time. One student trying to decide between studying science or government was taken aback when he asked, after she described how she spent her spare time, why she didn’t mention labs. Labs? In my spare time? she wondered. Then the light came on for her.

Most of us are not choosing a college major.  Instead we may be considering retiring or, as my friend Steve calls it, “rewiring.” Others are thinking about changes big or small.  Doesn’t it make sense to consider how we choose to spend our time when making decisions that affect at least half our waking hours.  It’s worth considering, isn’t it?


Leaping out of February: The First Splendid Truth

March 1, 2016

As February, the short month that feels so long, comes to an end, I’m looking back over the “Remember Love” chapter and homing in on two points Gretchen Rubin makes that stick with me.  First, “You manage what you measure” (65).  During the moving process that has dominated my life since the first of the year, I find myself darting from one project or job to the next. I decide today’s the day I’ll get the kitchen organized, moving out all that doesn’t belong here. That includes all the extra kitchen gadgets, the duplicates, even the boxes that just got set down in the kitchen and have stayed there.

I find that as I take something where it needs to be–or at least to be stored–I find something there that captures my attention. I stop and begin a new project.  At the end of the day, I see what I didn’t do, not what I did. I have decided to set a goal for the day and to find someway to acknowledge reaching that goal.

I also watch the formation of “The First Splendid Truth: To be happy, I must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an attitude of growth.” That’s a mouthful. I’ve decide particularly to focus on the aspect of growth.

Finally, by the end of February, I am particularly glad that this move is not a solo project.  My husband and I have made an adventure of it. We’ve moved furniture together–and then moved it somewhere else. We’ve hung pictures, shopped the home improvement store, made the most of the storage space at hand.  Downsizing–one of our goals–presents a big challenge: what to keep (where to keep it), what to give away, what to throw away, what to store. I think we’ve worked well together.   He also gets me to sit down and do something other than unpack occasionally.

Finally, I’m even recalling the challenge in January and trying to get a little more sleep–much easier since we’ve finally survived the horrible cold and cough that had us jarring each other awake.

Now I’m peeking over into March, when we’re all going to think about work. I think I’ll take a nap first.

February 14-20: Random Kindness Week

February 17, 2016

UnknownIn the February chapter on love, Gretchen Rubin has a section entitled, “Give Proofs of Love,” in which she quotes Pierre Reverdy, who said, “There is no love; there are only proofs of love.” This reinforces the idea that love is an action verb, not a feeling.

Again, she inserts research that claims that hugging relieves stress and that 47% of those surveyed felt closer to family members who expressed affection.

I also took to heart her point that “if you want to know how people would like to be treated, it’s more helpful to look at how they themselves act that what they say.” In other words, if someone who never misses a birthday and who always gives thoughtful, personal gifts says, “Oh, I don’t need anything for my birthday,” don’t take that seriously. This may be the other side to my observation that we tend to give people what we want to receive. (I scratch your back where mine itches, hoping you’ll get the hint and scratch me there.)

Probably the most important point she makes, one I could use, is to do something nice not in order to get credit or gratitude: “Do it for myself.”

Directly and indirectly today, I’ve been reminded that this is “Random Acts of Kindness Week.” I heard accounts of other people on the receiving end, and then the woman in front of my in the drug store (where I was loading up on cough medicine) asked the clerk to pass her $10 credit on to the next customer (me!) Without giving too much away, I’ll tell you that I was part of a group last year doing some secret acts of kindness this time last year, swearing each other to secrecy. The results were so much fun, we found another opportunity to act on an even bigger scale at a time when the people around us needed a boost.  Hearing the response and the guesses about the source of the surprises was much more fun than credit or recognition.

Try it for yourself–and mum’s the word!

February: Learning to Fight Right

February 12, 2016

When I first saw the title of this section about fighting right, I was tempted to skip right over it.  I tend to avoid conflict, yet I’m suspicious of people, particularly married couples, who claim they never fight. My own grandmother loved to boast that she and my grandfather never had a fight.  I suspected that sometimes she just didn’t listen.

As I read, though, I found several interesting points to consider. One thing I enjoy about the book is the way Gretchen Rubin uses research, rather than simply relying on her own hunches or personal experience. In one of my favorite funny novels, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, the protagonist relies so much on rationality that he even approaches finding a mate by using research. In this part of the February chapter, I learned the following tidbits based on research:

(1. “Couples who fight right tackle one difficult topic at at time.” Sure enough, as tempers flare, it’s easy to bring up tangential irritations instead of focusing on solving the problem at hand. It’s rarely productive.

(2. “It takes at least five positive. . . actions to offset one critical or destructive action.”  The simple math then suggests that it pays to focus intentionally on producing positive action.

(3. Women perceive face-to-face interaction as more intimate; men prefer side-by-side. Awareness of this difference might just make it easier to interpret situations.  I’ve always suspected that we tend to give what we want for ourselves.  If my back itches in one particular spot, that’s where I scratch his back.  If I prefer chocolate for Valentine’s Day, that’s what I get him. When I was in elementary school, I always gave my family writing utensils for Christmas gifts, not just because the only shopping I could do when they weren’t watching took place at the school bookstore, but because I liked cools pens for myself.

(4. “[T]he most reliable predictor of not being lonely is the amount of contact with women.”  This, she suggests, is true for both men and women.

Some of my takeaways from this section include adherence to Rubin’s Ninth Commandment to “lighten up.” I also share her “particular bosom enemy: snapping.” Sarcasm, clever but hurtful repartee, comes easily but can cause lasting damage.  I learned years ago not to say those barbs that pop so easily to the tip of my tongue, but I still slip up and blurt. Often it is in my own best interest to shut the bathroom door, say them to the mirror, and then let it go.

With moving day coming up soon, I will make a resolution to focus on the positive as we survive the second half of the moving experience. If we can come out of that experience amicably, not just civilly,  we’ll certainly up our happiness quotient.