Invest in Future Happiness

Emptying the dishwasher late at night does not make me very happy.  I’m tired.  But I do it, night after night, because when I wake up to a clean kitchen and an empty dishwasher, I feel so happy. 

“I’m investing in future happiness!” I call out to the family.  I’m picking up toys, straightening pillows, and organizing for the next day. 

I realize that when I don’t want to do something (exercise, cleaning), it’s because the payoff often comes later and not right now.  But right now isn’t always the most important thing. 

I have to remember that living with flair means we learn to invest in future happiness too. 

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How do you invest in future happiness?

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Hearty, Hearty Joy

I love mums!  We buy some at the local grocery store, and my husband transplants them.  I can’t help but smile when I look at these mums. 

Every time I pass by, I think to myself, “Hearty, hearty mums.”  They withstand the bitter cold; they love the sun; they love water.  I want to be mum-like: hearty, well-nourished, and blossoming even against the cold. 

Happy Deep Pink Mum

Welcome Autumn Season!  Let it be one of great blossoming, vibrant living, and hearty, hearty joy!

Happy Dark Orange Mum

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Journal: What about autumn makes you happy? 

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Cut Out the Unhappy

Today my friend sends me the results of a study that suggests older folks–in their 80’s–are the happiest.  The report published in the American National Academy of Sciences claims that as we age, we “become more selective with how we use our time, focusing more on doing things we enjoy and cutting out parts of life that make us unhappy.”

It seems like such a simple prescription:  Focus on what we enjoy, and cut out what makes us unhappy.

While I’m not sure it’s possible to simply “cut out” what makes us unhappy, I wonder what life would look like if we did indeed focus more on doing enjoyable things.

And what if we stopped doing things that make us unhappy?  Not getting enough sleep makes me unhappy.  Drinking too much caffeine makes me unhappy (why do I keep doing this?).  Not exercising makes me unhappy. 

And what if we learned to turn unhappy circumstances (the ones we often cannot change) into moments of flair?  

So (of course), I ask my students to tell me one thing that makes them really happy.  Diet Coke, travel, musical solos, penguins, driving with the windows down on a warm night, watching Hello, Dolly!, playing the game Angry Birds. . .

It’s a nice reminder to enjoy life today.  It’s a challenge to stop doing what makes us unhappy.  And when we cannot change our circumstances, we learn to find the flair.  Maybe it is that simple. 

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Journal:  What makes me happy?  What thing that makes me unhappy can I stop doing? 

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Give Your Life Away

My arms are sore from turning double-dutch jump ropes. 

From 6:30 PM-7:30 PM, 30 (yes, thirty!) parents and children came out to the parking lot for Monday Night Neighborhood Fitness.  Imagine a swarm of children riding bikes and scooters or playing football and Frisbee.  Imagine a car blaring music from an iPod so a group of children can dance.  Imagine moms and dads walking together and connecting in their own neighborhood. 

Imagine a little boy tugging on my sleeve to announce he rode ten times around the lot which I clocked for him as one mile.  Imagine another little girl finally learning to jump rope. 

I need more kites!  I need more cones for obstacle courses!  I want hula hoops and another set of ropes! 

Why am I so happy when I’m turning jump ropes?  It makes no sense that something like this would so deeply change my life. 

Over the weekend, I hear Larry Crabb (a Christian psychologist) talking about the goal of Christian therapy.  As someone who battled depression all those years and reads everything I can about finding happiness, I drop everything to listen. 

Crabb tells me that, typically, we think about counseling and our own happiness as answering the question, “How much can I get out of my life?”  But therapy in the truest, Biblical sense asks, “How much can I give of my life?”  In practice, I have found my own happiness bloom fully when I’m involved in tasks that serve others and let me forget myself.

I want to give my life away.  Turning jump ropes isn’t glamorous, and it doesn’t generate any revenue.  But something about this task has secured more happiness for me than anything else I’ve done this year. 

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Journal:  How is God asking me to give my life away? 

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Why We Still Need Road Trips

Interstate 99 South.  You’re only driving to another town to see a new doctor.  It’s just 45 minutes from home, but you’re all alone, and in mother time, 45 minutes is an eternity of quiet space. 

You leave one town and enter another–county after county–and when you crest that hill, the tree line looks like day-old stubble on a smooth white face of a mountain.  At the throat, a little town of houses warmed by wood-burning stoves exhales. 

You can take in the whole county in one glance. You imagine all the lives lived there.

You remember other road trips: stretches of highway promised, in the distance, hopes and dreams and greater versions of you.  You were young and fresh, and you believed that happiness was just over the mountain.

But not today.  Today, the older and wiser you holds the wheel.   You know that happiness was never outside of you.  It was never down the road in some other town, in some other life.  It was always inside of you quietly waiting its turn to reveal itself–if you welcomed it.

By the time you reach the doctor’s office, you’re already healed.

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Journal:  Is happiness something we find outside of ourselves–in our circumstances? 

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How You Know You’re Happy

A friend tells me that Oprah will feature a quiz today to determine if we are happy.  The radio also announces a seminar I can pay for that will help me realize whether I’m happy.  I also learn from a blog reader that certain countries actually try to measure the happiness of citizens.

How would we know?   What tool can measure it? 

All morning, I wonder how we know if we’re happy.  I ask my husband, and he answers that he knows he’s happy when he feels connected to God.  I nod, realizing the truth of that one word: connected. 

What if we measured happiness by how connected we felt to ourselves, to God, and to others? 

As somehow who felt deeply unhappy for so many years, I evaluated what contributed most to that state.  Indeed–and not to simplify mood disorders–my unhappiness related directly to disconnection.  I lost connection to my true self.  I wasn’t relating to God, and I wasn’t in vibrant community.  Unhappy people often describe their profound loneliness.  They experience isolation and a fractured sense of self.  

My journey to discover lasting happiness began with discovering myself and who God made me to be.  I learned to put boundaries between myself and oppressive, toxic environments or people who couldn’t celebrate or encourage the true me.  I learned to connect with God authentically–not with a false self that performed some religious ritual–but by radical honesty, frailty, and need.  I embraced my weaknesses, delighting in failure because it opened the door to grace.  

In the midst of this journey, I devoted myself to building community wherever and however I could.  Maybe it was a walk-to-school campaign to connect with neighbors or a Fitness Group to love the children.  Maybe it was a potluck dinner or a pancake breakfast with the family down the street.  

Why does that freezing walk to school increase my happiness every day? 

My well-being depends upon connection.   I have to invite folks in, enter into their story as well, and realize we belong to each other.

I also learned the forms of counterfeit connection.  Fame, prestige, and wealth create illusions of happiness, but they fail to ever fulfill the heart’s true cry for belonging.   I’d rather walk the children to school than be on Oprah today (unless, of course, we were all there together).  Or, better, Oprah could come to us.  

I guess I’ve learned that even though fleeting moments of attention seem like fun (Oprah would be fun!), they really don’t contribute to our lasting well-being. And even when I have lots of cash in my pocket, it doesn’t connect me with anyone.  It just gives me something to buy that can’t love me back. 

I’ve been happy for many years now.  It’s connection.  And I didn’t realize it until this morning.

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Journal:  Is happiness directly related to my connection to myself, God, and others?  If one of these relationships suffer, does it contribution to unhappiness?

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Layer Up

On a cold day like today, with temperatures below 20 degrees and a wind chill that takes your breath away, I have no choice but to face my day with layers.  And I’m especially cold since I’ve barely recovered from my illness.

With tights, long johns, knee-high pink socks, black boots, wool skirt, wool sweater, wool jacket, hat, scarf, and mittens on, I walk around campus.  I’m cozy, tucked-in, secured like a newborn swaddled in quilts.

I’m actually a little warm.

Layering is the only way to survive the winter.  In fact, layering will always keep you warmer than a single heavy coat.  Layering acts like insulation on the body and slows the transfer of heat.  Heat trapped between clothing layers works as thermal insulation, and I stay warm all day. 

Layering my clothing to regulate body temperature made me seriously consider the concept of other forms of regulation.  Hasn’t my weight loss journey been about layering up my surroundings with good choices–veggies, then fruits, then whole grains, then lean proteins, then dairy?  Hasn’t my mood regulation been all about layering the day with good sleep, positive relationships, spiritual practices, and exercise?

I start the day, add layers of good things,  and eventually feel the warmth of thermal insulation protecting my mind and body from whatever comes against it.   Living with flair means I layer. 

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Your Beautiful Moments

I introduce Memoir Writing to my students today, and I ask them to write down one or two examples of beautiful moments they’ve experienced. 

I’m always amazed, year after year, with the types of things we remember from our childhoods.  Without fail, a student’s beautiful moment has something to do with nature, friendship, God, travel, or overcoming a trial.  Not once, in all my years of teaching, has a beautiful moment emerged from memories of television or video games.  But the time they spend with technology (hours upon hours) would suggest that at least some tiny memory might emerge–some tangible image–that elevates the soul and provides a moment of self-discovery.  

But they don’t have memories like that with technology. 

Yesterday, I went to a parent / teacher conference for my kindergartner.  In her journal, she was supposed to draw her “favorite moments.”  She drew the swing in our front yard, the pumpkin patch, and jumping on the bed with her sister.

No favorite movies; no favorite computer games; no favorite technology experiences.  I needed to see that. 

My Sea Glass Bracelet

Just now, I visit my dear friend down the street.  Her son has a collection of sea glass, rocks, and shells from a summer beach trip.

He’s teaching himself the art of jewelry making.  He presents me with a handmade bracelet, woven together with wire.

I will treasure this bracelet.  He tells me about the beach, about finding these shells and sea glass.  It’s a beautiful moment.  And he’s made this memory into a bracelet I can wear.  It’s tangible; it’s real.  It’s the stuff of memoir.

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What I Cannot Change

The Braiding Impression

Over the weekend, I braid little braids all over my daughter’s wet hair.  In the morning, we unravel her hair.  She loves the “rock star” look.  

Notice the pink sparkle headband.

A simple thing–braiding hair–but oh the joy in the morning when those braids leave impressions all throughout her hair! That zig-zag complexity dries that way and temporarily changes the structure of the hair.

But as soon as she soaks in the bathtub before bedtime, the pattern fades and straightens.  She can’t believe how all that work (and an entire night’s worth of sleeping on braids) dissolves with water.  It doesn’t last.  It can’t.  Her root system, determined by her genetic code, trumps my skillful hand.  

Sometimes the patterns I set are fragile and tenuous, delicate and flimsy.  What seems so fixed and certain dissolves when exposed to environments that test resolve.  But I’m still tempted to believe that all will be well if I just find the right structure, the right pattern, the right technique. 

I can’t fundamentally change my life by new patterns or designs.  I suppose my daughter’s braids made me consider the limits of external applications to change internal dilemmas.  I need to get to the root, allow for God’s transforming work, and experience the kind of fundamental change that goes beyond clever techniques for happiness.  That kind of change won’t dissolve in water. 

Living with flair means I don’t limit happiness to external work.  I want the kind of mood change that’s deeply rooted, deeply true. 

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One Sure Way Not to Take Yourself So Seriously

I’m in class, teaching difficult things.  We stress, we furrow our brows, and we cramp our fingers around our pens as we engineer new thesis positions.   We sigh with discouragement as we discuss urgent social and political matters.

I lean back, cross my legs, and expose the socks I’m wearing underneath these business slacks.  Striped pink socks with monkeys on them.  A few people laugh out loud.

I’ve always worn whimsical socks.  I put them on as the last accessory before I slip on my boring (but extremely comfortable) work shoes.

The socks remind me not to take myself so seriously.  The day stretches before me: difficult, stressful, urgent.  But the subtext of the whole day–the story underneath my professor attire–calls out to me.  There’s something fun here.  There’s something quirky, delightful, and refreshing.  Even in pain, even in sorrow, I can discover a way to giggle or roll my eyes at something silly and unprofessional.  

Might there be room in my serious day for the trivial thing that delights?  And why wouldn’t that thing be a sock?  Socks provide protection, covering, and warmth.  Sometimes I need to buffer the deep and distressful with the delightful and diverting.  

Living with flair means I don whimsical socks.  Seriously fun when I’m taking myself too seriously.  

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