Happiness is not right around the corner, though I know so many who feel that it is. For this to be true, life must be a journey of sorts. It is not. Instead, it is an almost infinite series of moments, strung together so finely so as to give the illusion of oneness, of one straight, measurable line. We are not walking a line. We are living a series of moments.
I recently read a wonderful piece by Sara Robinson entitled Why We Have to go Back to a 40-hour Workweek to Keep our Sanity. In it, Robinson shines a light on the destructiveness of an all-consuming work life. Like any great truth, though, this thought process can (and must) be applied to every other corner of our lives.
The American Dream has deceived us. What began as a seedling with limitless potential to bear fruit has become a thorny, tangled mess, luring us in through the promise of beauty, and ensnaring us in its prickly branches. The American Dream says this: that if you work harder than everyone else, you will one day have a beautiful home, family, and career. You will have a fine house, a beautiful car, an impressive job, 2.5 children, and a loving spouse. What’s never mentioned- only deceitfully implied- is that happiness is part of the package- that once you possess (so to speak) these things, you will be endowed with joy- that, as soon as you turn that corner, you will see happiness, gift-wrapped and waiting just for you. The illusion only works, however, if you don’t see the series of moments passing you by, only seeing the illusory straight line. And if you’re keeping yourself busy in the pursuit of The Dream, you’ll only ever see the line. To see the moments requires one to slow down, to reflect, to look. Do you see those little moments? The bedtime story with your child? The satisfaction you felt the last time you created something? The last time you did something you’d never done before? That walk you took a few months ago to clear your head? Keep looking. You’ll see them. Once you do, we can move on.
If Happiness is not to be found in The Dream, where, then, is it to be found? You may be surprised to hear that I have the answer. In short, there is no answer. At least, not a universal or objective one. It’s the most relative and subjective of all questions, in fact. You alone can answer it. There are a few tips and tricks that might be learned, of course: the man who blurs the line between work and play is generally a very happy man. (In fact, lest you misunderstand the above paragraph, note that I'm not discounting the value of hard work; on the contrary, in fact: few things leave one feeling as satisfied.) The woman who’s learned to perfectly balance work and home life can say the same. Finding an adequate amount of personal time amidst the hustle and bustle of your obligations will certainly help. Ultimately, however, only you can know what makes you happy. Truth be told, though, discovering what makes you happy is the easy part. The next phase is quite difficult: doing.
This is where Robinson’s advice comes in handy.
Control- the Gift and the Curse
On one hand, if happiness is so individual, you’re the only one responsible for your own happiness. That’s quite the burden to shoulder. On the other hand, you’re the only one responsible for your happiness. The meaning of your life is yours to create: do with it what you will. There is, I think, no greater freedom than taking full control of your future.
Robinson delves into the idea that, until very recently, limiting your employees (or yourself) to a forty-hour workweek was considered the only healthy way to do things, both in regards to personal health and a company’s profit margin. A truly healthy company- and its employees- recognize the importance of well-rested and mentally nourished employees. The same applies to all of us in our personal lives.
Task lists and busy lives are not the goal- they are, in fact, an obstacle. Being busy for the sake of being busy accomplishes nothing. Most of us realize this, however- and dismiss it out of hand. I’m not busy for the sake of being busy. I just have lots of very important things to do. Therein lies another problem. None of us want to be told, least of all by ourselves, that the things that we’re doing aren’t truly all that important. If we’re honest with ourselves, though- if we take a good, hard, brutal look- we realize that our priorities, by and large, are all mixed up. The result is that we convince ourselves that we don’t have time for trivial things like relaxation, the right amount of sleep, or enriching our social prowess by reading. The truth is that these things are crucial to a well-lived life. Just like at work, burning ourselves out in our “spare” time by not having any spare time leads to an unhealthy you, and an unhealthy you gets less done and lives a less joyful life. Want proof? If you have kids, there's an easy test to administer. Ask your child if he or she would rather have fifteen minutes of your undivided attention 1) sandwiched between two typical day-to-day tasks or 2) after you've just returned from a peaceful walk.
One great technique is this: instead of saying that you don’t have time to relax, or to read your child that bedtime story, tell yourself that it’s simply not a priority. You’d be surprised how often this is true: would you really rather iron a shirt than take a walk? Watch the latest episode of The Killing or learn another language? We all have the same amount of time in a given day. The hard truth is that you’ve created your busy day and you can take it back again.
I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.
Most of us can trim up to a couple of hours of free time per day from our busy schedules. Even if it’s only an hour, imagine what you could do with an extra 365 hours a year. Once you find this spare time, you now have the luxury of filling it. Fill it with extra sleep, meditation, a good book- whatever makes you feel whole again. These are the keys to a joyful life. Outside of work, you are your own boss. If you’ve been working yourself overtime, scale yourself back to the metaphorical forty hours, and live, laugh, and love again. You'll be a better person for it.