Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Choosing Happiness, My 10 Personal Commandments

I'm tired of fighting, nagging and feeling exasperated at home, mostly with my kids, but also sometimes with my husband. No, it's not all the time, but it feels like it's far more often than it should be. Inspired by The Happiness Project, I've been working on a list of personal commandments to help with this. These are different, and far more general than my original list of things that I wanted to change over this year (my "original" resolutions from the first blog posting, like losing weight, eating healthier and getting more exercise). These new commandments are more like inspirations for ways to live. For now, here's my list (BTW, I hope I am not just blatantly stealing too much from Gretchen Rubin, but I have found her approach quite inspiring lately):

1. Act how I want to feel-
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
-Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh

In my mind, "Act how I want to feel" has two meanings; the first connotation being that I can empower myself to act happy, which will in turn help me to actually be happier, and the second being that I should treat others how I want to be treated myself.

Let me clarify- I don't think that unhappiness has no purpose, and that you should repress your true emotions in order to "make" yourself act happy. I think if you're feeling unhappy about something, it's worth examining those feelings in order to determine what changes can be made. I mean, that's what prompted me to start blogging in the first place, and to resolve to make changes in my life. But sometimes, you really can just "choose happiness." It's been shown that simply smiling has actual health benefits, such as boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, releasing endorphins and reducing stress, not to mention helping to improve your mood and being contagious to those around you. So, why not practice smiling, if it's good for me and can actually make me happier?

The second meaning of "Act how I want to feel" is little more than The Golden Rule of "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." I'm not talking about this in the sense of being a good Samaritan, but more in terms of my own everyday relationships. If I want my marriage to be sweet and romantic, then I must make an effort to do the little things that make it so. This doesn't come naturally to me, but I'm trying to be more thoughtful and anticipate needs. When Chris took the red eye to Canada, I surprised him with a travel pillow, wrapped up and put in his backpack with a little note. Yesterday, he was home sick from work, and I downloaded the new Jack Johnson album to add to his iPhone play list. (Okay, that one's also for my benefit, but still, Jack always makes me feel better.) This morning, it was apple pancakes for breakfast. These little things are important, maybe more important than the "big" events like birthdays- people enjoy unexpected treats more than expected ones. But I find it harder to do the little things on a daily basis. I mean, I feel like I do a ton of things for our entire family- cooking and cleaning and laundry and taking care of the kids. All day, every day. But those are definitely not the things that romance is made of. Sometimes it's hard to find the energy for anything more, but I think it's important to try. Hopefully being more thoughtful on my part will inspire others to reciprocate, but I must try to do it without keeping score (see Commandment 3).

2. Accept others for who they are-
"We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color."
-Author Maya Angelou

In theory, I am all for celebrating diversity, and valuing the uniqueness of each individual. So, why then does it drive me crazy when people don't act the way that I think they should? I get frustrated, or even angry when people (like my husband and children) don’t do what I want them to do, when I want them to do it, and how I want them to do it. It drives me crazy that Chris does everything so slowly, and not how I would do it! He's always late for everything, and can't estimate how long anything is going to take him. He doesn't make decisions quickly, when I want an answer immediately. Even stupid little things like not being efficient in how he gets ready in the morning, or not changing lanes when he's driving. Or the worst, when we're playing back a TV show on the dvr and he doesn't get the commercial skip just right. ;) Why do these things drive me crazy, and why to I still try to change these things about him, even after almost 11 years of marriage?

I have a couple of theories about why these things irritate me. One, I can be a bit of a perfectionist. I would rather do everything myself than have it done not up to my standards (and my highest standard always seems to be efficiency- if something is done well, but slowly, it still drives me crazy). But I also get frustrated about "having to do everything myself," even though I know that it's my own fault. I think it really boils down to a need/desire for control.

The second theory is that the things which we don't like in others are often a reflection of what we don't like about ourselves. I'm not sure if this fits very well in my description about what drives me nuts about Chris, except that I am holding him to the high standard of efficiency to which I hold myself. Let me give you another example with Jake. He's bossy. When he wants to do something at preschool lately, he doesn't ask the teachers (and give them the opportunity to say, "no" or "not right now"), but instead tells the other kids that it's time to do it, like turning on the hose and starting water play. Yes, I can frame this in terms of the positive, and be grateful for his leadership qualities and his great ideas. And I am really proud of him. But, I also get frustrated when he thinks that he gets to make all of the rules and decisions, and doesn't automatically listen to the adult who is in charge. Am I really concerned about Jake, or am I more concerned that his bossiness is a reflection of my own?

Either way, accepting others for who they are is a really difficult thing for me. And that difficulty definitely leads to some of the nagging in our house. I know that I cannot change Chris to do things more efficiently and to be on time, as people can only change themselves. I can continue to feel exasperated, or I can laugh and say, "That's who he is." And more importantly, I shouldn't want him to change, as I should be able to accept my husband and kids for who they are, and and love them unconditionally. In the end, I can only change myself (and the way I let it affect me).

3. Don't keep score-
"When one loves, one does not calculate.”
-Saint Therese of Lisieux

In my head, I am always thinking things like, "I cooked dinner and did the dishes, the least Chris could do is take out the trash without me needing to ask." Or, "I took care of these kids all day long, HE really should be able to put them down to bed without my help." But do I ask him to help with something specific? No, I just get mad when he doesn't automatically do it, or resent him for not doing it as well (or quickly) as I would have.

On her Happiness Project blog, Gretchen writes about "unconscious overclaiming". Here's how it's explained: "It turns out that we unconsciously overestimate our contributions relative to other people's. Because we know and value our own contributions, we exaggerate how much we've contributed and undervalue what other people do. In one study, when business-school students in a work group estimated their individual contributions to the team effort, the total was 139%." I'm trying to use this info to remember that I probably do a lot of unconscious overclaiming, or maybe don't even notice the things that Chris contributes (as I'm sure he doesn't always notice all that I do). I will try not to "keep score," and to remember that we each contribute in different ways. And if I feel like I need help, ask nicely.

4. Say thank you-
"I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder."
-Writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton

I'm trying to remember to say "thank you" for the little things, and to remember to actually BE thankful (mentally). Doesn't it feel good when someone notices something that you've done and said thanks? It's also something that I've learned in parenting, that if you want to reinforce a certain behavior, it helps to give very specific praise. So, instead of saying, "Good job" when Jake cleans up his toys, I can say, "Thank you for picking up your toys. The house looks much cleaner, and now I'm not stepping on toys when I walk through the living room." Or telling Chris, "I really appreciate that you took out the trash tonight. It was starting to bug me that it was overflowing, and you allowed me extra time to answer emails. Now I'm ready for us to spend time together."

Remembering to say thank you also reminds me of how much I have to be thankful for. I've recently started a Gratitude Journal- writing down the little things that I appreciate each day. You know, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, something funny that Jake said, an old favorite song that randomly came up on shuffle. Just thinking about those things makes me feel a little happier, and writing them down gives me something to  reflect back on later as a reminder. It's also a reminder that life is not about being efficient, multi-tasking, and checking things off my to-do list. I need to slow down, look around, appreciate beauty and live in the moment.

5. Practice active listening-
“The first duty of love is to listen.”
-Philosopher Paul Tillich

It's easy to only half listen, especially to my children. I can be so busy trying to do everything at once- cooking dinner while cleaning up the kitchen as I go, or checking my email while letting the kids play in the bathtub- that I don't take the time to really listen to them, while Brody's telling me that he's hungry or Jake's telling me about his day at preschool. And then what happens? That's when they start splashing in the bathtub to get my attention, or arguing over having to share toys. Or Brody starts pulling all of the dirty dishes out of the dishwasher and throwing them on the floor. It's a reminder for me to stop what I am doing, and come down to their level. To listen to their words and observe their body language. To "listen" for feelings and reflect them back ("Wow, it sounds like you were feeling really frustrated about that."). To ask for clarification, and show empathy. And to figure out what it is that they are really trying to express- whether it's a need for connection (my attention), independence (he wanted to be able to do that himself), or choice (he wanted to eat something else for dinner). Sometimes, especially when my kids are having conflicts with one another, it's easy to quickly skip to trying to "solve" their problems, when sometimes all they really need is for me to listen while they express emotions. Instead, I should be trying to do a better job of asking questions and encouraging them to talk. It's amazing how competent they can already be in solving their own problems.

Active listening is something that I need to do better in my marriage as well. Chris doesn't often talk about how he's feeling or what's going on at work. Usually, he says that he has too much stress at work and he just wants to forget about it by the time he gets home. But, there are times when he's grumpy and I know that he's thinking about work. And I've also noticed that I go into "problem solving mode" the infrequent times that he does talk to me about work. I really just mean to be helpful, but it's quite presumptuous of me to imply that I could solve his work problems. And I think what he really needs is just to be heard, to "get it off his chest." I need to remember that active listening is not about solving problems for someone else, but just about hearing the other person and reflecting back their feelings.

6. Get outside everyday-
"Today I have grown taller from walking with the trees."
-Poet Karle Wilson Baker

Maybe some people are happy to stay home all day in their pajamas, but I have come to realize that I am not one of those people. Since I am not working much, it would be quite possible for me to stay at home almost the entire day (until picking Jake up from preschool). But it doesn't put me in a very good mood, and I find myself running errands just to get out of the house some days. What I've recently realized though, is that it can really improve my outlook to get outside and spend a little time in nature. Walking. Getting some exercise. We live in such a beautiful part of the world, where I can visit the beach, pier, boardwalk, mountains, parks, all within just a short drive. I need to remember to take advantage of the perfect-almost-everyday weather of Los Angeles, and head outdoors.

7. Lighten up-
"Dance like nobody's watching; love like you've never been hurt. Sing like nobody's listening; live like it's heaven on earth."
-Writer Mark Twain

A good way to have more fun is to act more fun. It definitely works with my kids. If I'm laughing, they're laughing- whether we're wrestling and tickling, blowing raspberries, or making funny faces and sounds. Sometimes it's hard to remember to play everyday. Act silly. Play music (loudly) and sing along. Dance. I want to be the mom that plays in the sand, jumps in the puddles, and does cartwheels in the grass. Much has been written about the importance of play in child development, but I think it's just as important in parent development.

8. Do it now-
"One of these days is just a day of the weak."
-Motivational Speaker Greg Hickman

I don't consider myself a big procrastinator. Not that I don't ever put things off until tomorrow, but I do prefer to tackle things on my to-do list sooner rather than later. But there are some things that I just ignore, somehow thinking that they will fix themselves. Like sleep training the baby. He's sleeping better through the night (most nights), but it's still so difficult to get him down to sleep in the first place. And I've been saying forever that it's time to do something about it. But there's always an excuse- he's sick (or seems like he's coming down with something), we have people visiting, or we're about to go out of town. But the reality is, I'm afraid that if we change anything, it will actually get worse for awhile, and I just don't want to deal with losing more sleep (even if it's only temporary). He's now 15 months old, and if we had started sleep training months ago, this would be a non-issue, and we would have saved so many more hours of sleep for him and ourselves in the long run.

Another example: the curtain rod. The walls of our house are made out of plaster. Which, it turns out, is very crumbly. When we screw something into the wall, we have to use anchors to make it actually stay, and even that doesn't always work well. We have a curtain rod in our extra room that is starting to sag. It's just not well anchored into the wall. To the extent that, if one of the kids yanked on the curtain, the whole rod would probably fall down on his head. And almost everyday, I see this and it annoys me. But it's been weeks, and still I have not gotten around to fixing it. The problem is that I'm not entirely sure how I'll fix it, without removing the whole thing and drilling new holes in different places. If I had just taken care of it weeks ago, it would no longer be an issue, but instead, it's something that bugs me almost every day.

One website that I have found very helpful is, a site that offers support and advice for decluttering, establishing better habits and routines, and maintaining a tidier home, especially for people living in "CHAOS" (can't have anyone over syndrome). Sometimes, the task seems too overwhelming, and those of us that are perfectionists don't ever both to start since we know we won't have the time to do the task to our standards. FlyLady encourages "babysteps" to start slowly and establish new routines. She also maintains that you can do anything for 15 minutes, so set a timer to get started, and when the timer goes off you stop, even if you didn't finish the task. In all likelihood, you'll realize that there's a lot that you can accomplish in a short amount of time, and even if it's not perfect, at least there is progress. Perfectionism leads to procrastination, and there's no time like the present to get started.

9. Get enough sleep-
"Sometimes the most productive thing one can do is to sleep.”

Most adults don't get as much sleep as they need on a daily basis, and numerous studies have highlighted the health problems associated with a lack of sleep. (See a recent post from my friend Vince which discusses the importance of sleep.) A study from the University of Michigan found that getting more sleep can also improve your happiness. “Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night,” according to study author Norbert Schwarz, PhD. Almost anything is easier when you've gotten enough sleep- including practicing active listening, being playful, or tackling an unpleasant project. My difficulty is in getting myself to go to bed at a decent time. I can be yawning and ready for sleep at 7:00, while I'm getting the kids ready for bed. But later, my second wind comes, and I don't want to go to bed.  It's hard to give up that time of night when the kids are asleep, and I can choose for myself anything that I want to do, uninterrupted. But I definitely pay for it the next day.

10. Choose happiness-
“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.”
-Novelist Sidonie Gabrielle Colette

Yes, I realize that I kind of already covered this in my first commandment, "Act how I want to feel." But I think it's the most important one, so it's worth putting it out there again. And, I like that it rounds out the list for a nice, even 10 Personal Commandments. Even if I forget all the others, I just need to remember to "Choose Happiness."

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