The Tired, Overcommitted Woman's Guide to Happiness
A long time ago, a wise man named J.D. Salinger wrote that "the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid." This is wonderfully accurate metaphor, of course, but the result of it is often to make us long for—and only for—joy, mostly because when you compare the two qualities, both happiness and its analogy, solids, seem a little staid. Salinger seems to imply that we want to go for joy, for a feeling that's fluid and cool. Liquids, however, also run right through your fingers when you try to hold them.
Which is why I suggest we treat unsexy, dependable, solid happiness with equal reverence. Joys will come; they always do: Babies are born, romances discovered in the line at Kinko's. But happinesses come more often. They plunk down in your life—a deviled egg at lunch, a friend who crank-calls you on your birthday every year for 21 years, a dog who will sleep by your feet on freezing winter nights—and never lose their appeal. You can even make them happen—for example, by buying yourself a huge bunch of peach blossoms and walking down the street.
2. Don't Detonate the Sleep Grenade
There's something incredibly detrimental to our contentment that so many of us do just before bed—open the email in-box that one last time. It doesn't matter if you get a scathing order from your boss or an excited missive from your friend who just can't wait to see you at the music festival next weekend! When it comes to sleep, thrilled is the same as upset, stressed or nervous. You're going to feel as if you've got to do something that can't be done right now, that's got to be first on the agenda in the a.m. Which only means you'll stay up until the a.m., waiting to get started. And remember, in the dictionary of life, "tired" is a synonym for "unhappiness."
3. Change Your Color Scheme
It's a little-known fact, but Gayle King uses the color yellow in her life as much as possible." Why? Because "It's impossible to see yellow and not feel happy." She's painted her kitchen yellow, wears yellow shoes and buys yellow picture frames. But you don't have to do any of that to believe in her maxim. Look at a daffodil. Look at a little dish of melted butter right before you dip a crab claw into it. Look at butterscotch candies. Why else would generation after generation of grandmothers carry these particular sweets around in their purses just in case they meet a random crying child on the street?
4. Kill Every Single Damn Germ
Nobody wants to be that crazy lady squirting herself with antibacterial lotion every two seconds. Then again, nobody's very blissed out when they've got a cold.
5. Indulge in Mindlessly Learning
I used to think that there was only one way to get through boring, repetitive chores like folding laundry, chopping the pesky ends off green beans and driving long distances to see in-laws—music so loud and bass-heavy it physically compelled the molecules in my muscles to keep moving whether I wanted to or not. Now that I'm older, I have a new strategy—podcasts that teach me a little something I'm not really trying to learn. In other words, subjects about which I want to know more but for which I’m just not willing to do the work and suffering so requisite to total mastery. For example, Italian. Listening to rolled R's and graceful alloras while preparing the kids' school lunches makes you feel just the right level of minor but satisfying self-improvement. After one mindless early morning session, you can say thank you for everything you've got (even the jar of creamy peanut butter) in another language—or better yet, fantasize ordering a latte at a café in Rome, where you are served the sandwich. On a plate. With a napkin.
Next: The one thing everyone needs
"Help!" (After some practice you will no longer need that pesky exclamation point after it.)
7. Plug into Blue-Sky TV (But Only for an Hour)
Everybody knows about junk TV. We all love it, we all feel bad about loving it but tell ourselves not to feel bad—rinse and repeat. But let's talk about the junk of the junk, the fluffy cream inside the Twinkie of small-screen watching: blue-sky TV. These are shows where the sun shines literally and figuratively. No matter what the problem—murder, a deadly virus, a marital fight—all is resolved with minimal heartache, usually on a beach or a sun-drenched sidewalk. Once you notice the blue-sky phenomenon, you will see it everywhere. The Hard-Hitting Drama About Handsome Cops Who Drive Ferraris...in Miami. The Serial Soap Opera About the Beautiful but Wronged Young Heiress...in the Hamptons. The Heartwarming Family Saga Where the Whole Extended Clan Argues but Eats Dinner Together...Outside on a Picnic Table in California. The Zombie Show Where Dead People Eat Live People...Under Pastoral Puffy Clouds. Tired women do NOT need realistic gray skies and atmospheric real rain. Most of us can shut our eyes and see that going in our heads. Plugging into a fictional universe where not only are the threats to happiness candied but the weather comes bottled in corn syrup is a little like falling into a drawing from kindergarten, when everybody drew stick pictures of people holding hands.
8. Do the Boring, Bare Minimum
Everybody has one or two practical things they know they need to do to not get depressed, things that are guaranteed to improve our mood. These things are not always fun. They are things like working out, eating five fruits and veggies a day, practicing your mediation, doing your bad-back stretches, working on your poetry, which makes you feel good but also makes you feel scared that you can't write poetry. It gets harder and harder to do them especially if you are one of the tired, overcommitted women whose only free time is at 5 a.m. or 11 p.m. My thinking is that we need to do things to keep ourselves from slipping into a dark blasted pit of the blahs, but...we don't need to do them all that well. We can slop through the 20 minutes on the elliptical trainer or stuff the nutritious banana down right before bed. This approach, of course, means violating the number one belief that all tired, overcommitted women base their lives on—excellence at all costs. (Why do you think we're tired and overcommitted, anyway?) But happiness, thank God, is not something that requires excellence. You can be slap-dash happy. You can be lazily and incompetently happy. The emotion, in fact, improves under such conditions.
Next: The activity that wins over all others
It doesn't matter the battle—sleep versus exercise, sleep versus résumé writing, sleep versus novel reading, sleep versus nooky with husband—sleep wins. Just for a while. Later, when you are a well-rested, overcommitted woman, we can revisit this idea.
10. Waste Valuable Time on Smile Porn
It's a little admitted truth, but it is possible to force temporary bliss. For me, it's as easy as looking at a photo of a wildly excited goofy dog swimming underwater or an ad featuring an artsy-lookingwoman striding confidently down the street carrying a vintage lamp past storybook antique shops or a listing for a little town house with green shutters that is too small, too far away and too expensive...but so darn romantic. Sometimes, when it's late at night and I feel especially dark about the fact that I both made the dinner and washed the dishes, plus put the kids to bed by myself—again, I resort to websites featuring photos of baby sloths. These kinds of obscenely lovable or quaint images are what I think of as smile porn. Just about everyone has their version of it, and the effect it produces on your face (vacant, dopey smile) and your emotional state can easily be confused with blue-sky TV, except that blue-sky TV whisks you far, far away from your life, while smile porn usually taps into something all about your life, for example: the hopes you have of living in a historic house one day or pulling off knee-high argyle socks with pumps or even visiting the sloth orphanage and snuggling one of those cuddly big-eyed babies and feeding it an orange slice. Which is why smile porn is so effective. Whether you want it to or not, it reminds you of what you want to do and how you want to live—in an exaggerated, dreamy way that requires you to do absolutely nothing at all.
Find Leigh Newman at @leighnew on Twitter.
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