“Isn’t this amazing?!” my ex-boyfriend shouted, the wind flattening floppy brown hair against one side of his head, a dried saltwater crust over the part of his face not currently drenched in spray.
Shivering, nauseated, and wetter than a penny in a fountain, I looked out over the side of the sailboat and replied, “Yeah, it’s really great. Like, beautiful and stuff.”
I spent the first three decades of my life on a wild goose chase, attempting to track down happiness using directions that had worked for others. I tried road trips. Fail. Movie marathons. Fail. Lazy Sundays, cooking, spontaneity. Fail, fail, fail.
Then I gave birth to a baby who spent most of the day writhing in pain. In and out of Seattle Children’s Hospital her first year, I would have done anything to make her happy. So I did. Since the only place she smiled was the aquarium, we moved to be closer to the fish. I let go of “shoulds,” and just followed her joy.
Attempting the same with myself, I started doing the stay-at-home mom thing my own way. Scheduling. Socializing. Busyness. Color-coding. When we greeted friends at Toddler Time every Tuesday morning at 10:25 A.M. (green square on the calendar) after a trip to the gym (red square), I felt utterly content.
But I still wondered what was wrong with me. Why do I need to feel productive, even lying on a beach? (“That’s two books in two days,” I’d smile, finally able to enjoy the sun’s kiss and sand’s scratch.) I ached to be like the characters in novels for whom all noise fades, the sunset speaking to them with greater clarity than human language allows.
My jealous gaze followed a pair of moms who jumped off the train and headed for Puget Sound on a whim. I even envied those who paid a high price for their fun. How wonderful would it be to say, “Heroin? Sure! Why not?”
I’m a Californian after all: why can’t I be happy hanging loose?
Then a message from above — well, technically, across — showed up in my Facebook feed. Humans of New York quoted an NYU professor explaining:
Happiness [is] a mixing board with several different dials: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Everyone’s mixing board is set differently. There’s no one way to be happy and there’s no wrong way to be happy. I may draw my happiness from relationships, while somebody else may need to be constantly engaged in the pursuit of a goal.
Just as it was when I read about introverts recharging alone and extroverts recharging together. I’d always thought people who didn’t want to hang out during downtime secretly didn’t like me. I also felt thoroughly defective after my introverted mother asked, “Why do you need company every minute of every day?” That is, until I read that I’m just built differently, and that’s okay.
In “Year of Yes,” Shonda Rhimes summarizes:
It may be different for you. Your happy place. Your joy. The place where life feels more good than not good… My producing partner Betsy Beers would tell me that for her that place is her dog. My friend Scott would probably tell me that for him it is spending time being creative… It’s different for everyone.
We all spend our lives trying to follow the same path, live by the same rules.
I think we believe that happiness lies in… being more like everyone else.
That? Is wrong.
There is no list of rules.
The University of Pennsylvania’s “Authentic Happiness” website would seem to agree. It offers questionnaires that use positive psychology to try to help individuals thrive. According to one of them, the things that fulfill me are learning, planning, critical thinking, diligence, creativity, and socializing. In other words, thinking about stuff and getting stuff done—preferably with other people.
So no, I don’t want to take my kids to the beach this afternoon. If we organize it a week ahead of time, read about the history of changing water levels, enter a sand castle competition, and invite friends, then I’m game.
That doesn’t make me a stick in the mud. I am one type of stick among many. And I’ll be happiest if I luxuriate in my favorite blend of dirt and water, rather than wallowing in someone else’s.
Since the same is true for my family members, the key to thriving relationships can’t be just pursuing my bliss with others in tow. So I’ve stopped trying to make my kids and husband happy the way I think they should be. Instead I observe their reactions and moods, take mental notes when they’re most engaged, and try to replicate those conditions — playing from their mixing board rather than mine sometimes.
Now that my oldest is in school full time, leaving only afternoons to reconnect with me and her two siblings, that means skipping the fish and other recurring outings. Instead we play each day by ear, usually staying in to construct fairy traps and make mini-s’mores (or, more realistically, to whine over who got the fanciest trap or most graham cracker). As long as I pencil in “unstructured time at home” (purple square), I can work with that.
We all find joy disparately. Accepting that fact is what enables us to be happy together.