"I Wish I'd Let Myself Be Happy"

4 years ago

I've read more books and articles I can count about how the brain functions, how negative thinking becomes a very real rut, how worrying doesn't do anything but give you serious health problems. I became convinced that my stress reactions were more harmful to my health than French fries and adjusted accordingly. I'm very interested in being a happy person. It's a personal goal. I'm very goal-oriented, just work with me here.

I read somewhere people are happiest while exercising and something else of course I can't remember. I decided they were happy while exercising because when it's burning you can't think about all your problems -- you're concentrating on breathing through the effort. There's just not time to be sad. Or maybe it's endorphins. I don't know, I just make sure I exercise four or five times a week. 

Credit Image: Diganta Talukdar on Flickr

I read about how when you're younger, you equate happiness with some sort of ecstasy or emotional high, a very RAH RAH LET'S GET CRAZY AT DISNEYLAND kind of happiness, and when you get older it's more let's sit on the deck and chat over a bottle of wine happiness. I look for moments when I'm relaxed in my day. In the summer, it's the drive back from dropping my daughter off at summer camp. The air is fresh, the windows are down, I haven't fully switched into work mode yet and the day seems very full of possibility. 

Earlier this week, I was up for two hours in the night with my daughter and found myself a puddle on the floor the next day. The day after that, I was fine, having had my seven hours of sleep. It's truly shocking how much being tired or hungry or hot or cold or in pain will do to my mood. Part of happiness, I think, is alleviating physical discomfort so I don't concentrate on it -- or even if I don't concentrate on it, it seems to find its way into my mood without my realizing it -- so part of happiness is tending to my physical needs just like you would a toddler's. Eat regularly, sleep regularly, stretch sore muscles, take headache medicine, layer.

Once my physical needs are met, "happiness" is really "interested." I might be relaxed during my leisure time, but it's not really super satisfying unless I feel like I'm learning something or pondering something or hearing a new story about someone or having a good conversation. Watching boring TV can actually make me cranky, because I have so little free time I hate to waste it on something stupid. I realize how snooty that sounds, but I am pretty demanding about plot when it comes to entertainment. Realizing that has saved me hours of Real Housewives watching.

Last night I fell asleep in my daughter's room after we read together and she shut off the light. When I woke an hour later, groggy, my plans for writing seemed doomed. I sat at the table and thought about what I wanted to do. My husband is traveling most of this month for work, so I have a unique opportunity to really focus on my writing in the evenings. 

I bemoaned how tired I was. I really didn't want to write. I wanted to couchmelt and watch TV. I did that the night before, though, and I thought how once when I bemoaned that I would be twenty-eight when I finished my master's degree (I know, I know), my husband pointed out that I'd be twenty-eight someday whether I finished the degree or not, and it's shaped my writing life ever since. I wanted to couchmelt, but I also wanted to have written, to be moving forward on my new novel and be closer to seeing the story emerge from the depths of the well. 

So I took out my notebook and closed my eyes and pictured the scene. I told myself to just get two handwritten pages. Then the scene became a little clearer and I knew I wouldn't write the whole thing, but I would write to a natural stopping point in the action, and I did, and it was nine and a half handwritten pages, and I was happy.

This morning I saw this article about the most common regrets of the dying, and once again, happiness as a choice came up. 

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."

I ended up staying up later than I meant to. I'm trying not to get mad at myself for not being perfect -- not eating perfectly, not drinking perfectly, not going to bed on time perfectly, not having my house cleaned perfectly or my yard mowed perfectly. I've found I can't be interesting and perfect at the same time, because doing all those things I just mentioned perfectly takes a tremendous amount of planning and effort. If today were my last day, I wouldn't regret having eaten a peanut butter-slathered bagel for breakfast (which I did), but I would regret it if I didn't write last night. It's the one thing I did all day that was all mine, just for me, and creating something original does, in fact, make me happy.

Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel The Obvious Game & the deputy editor of BlogHer.com. Find more at www.ritaarens.com.

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