On Happiness

In college, a good friend used to wear a purple T-shirt that said, “Choose to be Happy.”  At that time, being of a certain fatalist bent, I interpreted the shirt to mean that, regardless of one’s circumstances, whether plagued by bad weather or torture, one could always choose one’s attitude.  My friend, however, interpreted his shirt in a different manner–that a person has the power to make choices that can lead towards greater happiness, and should choose things that will make him or her happy, rather than favoring, say, money, security, or guilt.

At least, this is how I remember the conversation.  (If this friend of mine is reading my blog, he can correct me in the comment section.)

A decade later, reflecting on that conversation, I suppose we were both right.  But these days, I’m going with his version.

Back in college, I think I had a bit of a martyrdom complex.  More about that in a future post.  (Look for “On Martyrdom,” coming up!)  Part of that was maybe fueled by personality, part by upbringing, part environment (fervently evangelical Christian college campus).   Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to critique the idea of self-sacrifice.  But there’s sometimes a tendency for some of us (women, especially, it seems) to choose self-sacrifice when it’s not being asked, when it’s not required, maybe it’s not even useful.

Too much needless self-sacrifice can make a person resentful, bitter. Glum, depressed.  Not very nice to hang around with. Which basically defeats the point of being self-sacrificial.

This is why, in the last couple of years, I’ve decided to adopt my friend’s interpretation of his T-shirt.  I’m making choices–some small, some large–that lead to my happiness.  I don’t mean I’m going completely selfish.   At least, I hope not.   What I mean is, I’m allowing myself to do more of the things that make me happy instead of automatically assuming that I have to sacrifice my happiness for other people’s sakes.

For instance?

Okay, here’s a big one.  For a very long time I wanted to go to grad school.  I love to learn, and am good at academics.  But I didn’t think I should use so much of our family’s financial resources –including taking on debt–for myself.  I thought I should resign myself to doing housework and laundry and taking care of my husband and kids.  Because they’re more important than my dreams and desires, right?  Of course.

But here’s the thing.  I was a sullen housewife!  I would fold laundry and feel angry that my life had been reduced to this domestic drudgery, while my husband went off daily to an interesting job that used his talents and considerable creativity while paying him money, and my kids went to school and ballet classes where they got rewarded for their accomplishments.  As for me, no matter how hard I tried to change my attitude, I seemed incapable of being happy about washing dishes and mating socks. (Where on earth do those socks go, anyway?!)

Finally my husband, in desperation after yet another banal argument about housekeeping roles, insisted that I think harder about my goals and dreams, and work on pursuing them.  “I don’t care if you do the laundry, just be happy!”

What a guy, huh.

So now I’m studying fiction in grad school, and I’m mostly happy.  These days, I feel good even when folding laundry because I’m thinking about stories to write instead of, “Woe is me! how sacrificial I am.”

Everyone in the house benefits because when Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.  And as it turns out, the husband and kids are perfectly capable of matching their own socks.

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7 Responses to On Happiness

  1. Sarah says:

    Well put! There are days when I get lost of the everyday drudgery and forget that I am interesting outside of my roles as wife and mother. Thanks for saying that household work isn’t what every woman aspires to.

  2. Rebecca says:

    My heart echos your post – I, too, have added graduate school to my domestic duties, and am feeling so much more fulfilled. And most days I’m even ok with the amount of debt our family is assuming for the cause 🙂 Here’s to having goals and dreams, and seeing them realized!

  3. Jennifer Jo says:

    One of my favorite quotes (butchered, most likely): If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. I adhere to it religiously.

  4. Kristine says:

    I’ve been reading backwards from your Parallel Universes post, and this one really caught my attention. Esp. this bit: “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to critique the idea of self-sacrifice. But there’s sometimes a tendency for some of us (women, especially, it seems) to choose self-sacrifice when it’s not being asked, when it’s not required, maybe it’s not even useful.” I’ve found myself starting to leap into the unnecessary gap (a chasm created by my own false expectations about being married and what I can/should do as a new wife) as Daniel and I set up house this fall. Thanks for your honest reflection and the forewarning! I’m glad you’ve found your happiness again. =)

    • admin says:

      Anna Maria here (don’t be confused by the photo of Steve–I have to figure out how to change that!). Thanks to each of you who commented here. I’m glad these thoughts meant something to you. Rebecca, I know what you mean about assuming debt. That was hard for me, too. I think the investment will pay off in the long run, though, because we’ll probably find more rewarding careers eventually, which will pay back the expense. (It’s not like we’re buying fancy cars or crack! ha.) Kristine, I know exactly what you mean. Early in our marriage, I tried to hard to be “the perfect wife” and fulfill expectations that Steven didn’t even have for me. He’d say, “I don’t want you to be perfect, just be a human being!” He’d continually remind me that he liked hanging out with me, liked the mix of gifts and flaws that was me–that he didn’t marry me just to have a housekeeper! Over these ten years, the same issues crop up time after time, and we’ve both learned skills that improve the way we deal with them. Seems like I should just learn the lesson and be done, but instead it’s like a never-ending spiral or nautilus shape–going back over what looks like the same territory yet again, though over time it creates something beautiful.

  5. Luke says:

    How fun to revisit this conversation from long ago. You got my old philosophy dead on, though I think now I might have more empathy for those with far fewer choices in life and a lot more responsibility, ie kids.

    My worldview at the time, and probably now, is that our creator intended us to reach our fullest potential, and to have a world filled with people who are ALIVE and passionate. Folding socks or not.

    Having my first child recently, this is a good reminder to keep living, albeit with shifted goals, and not become complacent.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for chiming in, Luke! Your daughter is lucky to have for a father someone who is fun and passionate, who’ll encourage her to live a full and happy life.

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