There’s No Place Like Home

Military brat (U.S. subculture)

Destined to wander? (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been thinking a lot about home lately, and apparently I’m not alone. My friends Victoria and Maggie have both blogged about this in the past couple of days.

Victoria lives aboard her sailing vessel with her husband and two young children, the realization of a dream she and Tucker have had for many years. She expected that once she was on her boat, anywhere she sailed would be—and feel like—home. But on a weekend excursion down the coast to Monterey, she was surprised to find herself homesick for their little slip in the San Francisco Bay, which led her to reflect on the nature of home.

Maggie is three months into a year-long trek around the world. Her most recent stopover is Bulungula in South Africa, where she seems to feel a strong connection to both the geography and the culture. “And, of course, there’s that lovely backdrop — scenery that stuns the eyes, holds the heart and inspires you to leave your own home behind,” she writes. “Yes, I could live here.” She doesn’t say, “This feels like home,” but rather that she could “leave her own home behind” and “live here.” Is there a difference?

Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss talks about the phenomenon of travelers for purposes of business or study—anthropologists, reporters—“going native,” that is, abandoning their professional objectivity and the home of their birth to immerse themselves in an adopted culture. How does one know home when they find it?

I grew up a Navy Brat. We moved about every three years. All of our moves were in the United States, and I’ve only left the country once when I went to Toronto with my high school band. I’ve never even had a passport. All during my childhood, I had a craving for “home.” The thought, “I want to go home,” would come to me, but upon further reflection, I could never identify where home was. The closest to home I felt growing up was when we’d visit my maternal grandparents in Ohio each year. Their home was a central gathering place for my mother’s seven siblings and their children. Everywhere we went, I was surrounded by people related to me. In the town where my parents grew up, it seemed cousins of various degrees were everywhere. Grandma and Grandpa had a garden, and even now I think of them when I work with my own tomato plants. There was a spooky basement with an old refrigerator that was always filled with glass bottles of pop, that, when empty, we would return to the grocery store for money in what seemed a kind of alchemy. There were pickled eggs in large jars, grape juice that we drank out of jelly jars, hulless popcorn, late-night horror films on TV, and the tandem bike I rode with my aunt. In the summer, we’d watch the Fourth of July parade come by the house, and we’d collect the candy they tossed from the fire truck before we walked up to the high school for the carnival. One year I won a goldfish by tossing a ping pong ball into a small fish bowl.

When Grandma died, this all began to change. Then Grandpa sold the house, and there was no longer a central meeting place. The close-knit feeling of the family faded, as did my sense of home. For years, I’ve still felt the “I want to go home” sensation, but it’s not been connected to any particular place. As adults, my husband and I continue to move every few years, trying out different locations, looking for home. I’ve lately come to fear that the looking has become such a habit that I won’t even recognize home when I find it.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve begun to dream of Ohio. In my dreams, it is home. It is the place I’m longing to be. I see the rolling, green hills of northeast Ohio and yearn to belong to them. When we visit, I love driving out into that farmland and imagining a little house amid those green hills. But I wonder if it would still feel like home if I actually lived there. When I was in college there, I couldn’t wait to leave. I hated it there. I couldn’t stand the overcast skies, the decay of the post-Industrial Revolution, the culture of depression and helplessness. It feels different looking at it now from a couple thousand miles and a decade away. Is Ohio truly my home, and I could only recognize it by leaving? Or if I lived there now, would it soon feel as oppressive to me as it did when I was 20? How long would it be before I went in search of my next home?

I have a suspicion that my longing for home isn’t actually a longing for a particular place, but rather a longing for a feeling. This feeling is one of belonging and of being loved unconditionally. It’s an escape from the alienation I often feel as someone who is carving her own path through the world. I made an off-hand remark to my husband last night: If you’re going to rock the boat, you’d better not get sea sick. Even though I have a consistent need to rock the boat, I seem to experience perpetual seasickness. I want to find my sea legs. I want to be myself but still feel like I belong. Even more than happiness, I want to feel wholeness. I suspect that this feeling is something I need to come to on my own, and if I don’t find it, no place is going to feel like home.

September: Self Care Month in Review

Self care month began boring, turned ugly, then finished nice and smooth.

I had 4 resolutions for September:

-Get more sleep (go to bed by 10:30)
-Take a daily 10-minute walk outside
-No sugar or alcohol
-Veggies at every meal

I successfully avoided all alcohol and sugar, which was surprisingly easy to do. I don’t really even miss them at this point, and I think I might just continue avoiding them indefinitely. I also succeeded in eating veggies at every meal, something I will definitely keep doing. I feel less hungry, more energetic, and I just really love the flavor and variety of the vegetables I’ve been eating. It’s kind of a pain to wash and prepare them, but I think I can build in a few more efficiencies that will make that part easier.

The daily walk outside hasn’t become a habit. I have focused more on spending time outside, which has led me and the kids to play outside more and to do more outdoor activities than we otherwise were doing. We’ve been hiking as a family every weekend, which has been a wonderful time and a chance to get together with friends while exploring the Wasatch Front. I’ve also begun sitting outside with my tea or coffee and watching the sunrise. I don’t get to do this every morning, but I’ve been doing it at least three times a week for the second half of the month. Having this quiet time outside really helps me feel ready for the chaos that comes after the kids wake up.

The sitting outside in the wee hours has been facilitated by the earlier bedtime I finally managed to keep for the second half of the month. I don’t always make it to bed by 10:30, but since I started going to bed earlier, I’ve made it to bed no later than 11:00, except on the nights my daughter was ill.

Like with my mindfulness practice in August, I found that during September, I once again kind of hit a wall about two weeks in, at which point I had a little crisis and then turned a corner into a more comfortable place. The more sleep thing turned out to be wonderful once I finally started doing it. It also helped to start getting better about keeping my mindfulness resolutions, which I’d kind of set on the back burner for the first couple of weeks. Breathing and being aware of judgments has really helped me keep things in perspective.

I’ve learned a couple of important and new things. One is about the value of self care when things are going well as a way of building up reserves to be able to cope when things become more challenging. When my daughter was ill last weekend, I was pleasantly surprised at how calm I remained and how energetic and capable I felt. I don’t know how long those reserves would have lasted had her illness been longer than it was, but they got me through a few late nights and restless sleep.

The other thing I’ve learned is that I don’t think my goal with this project is really happiness, per se. I don’t have a problem with being happy, and I do hope that making these changes will help me get more joy out of life, but I don’t feel that my endpoint is “happiness” anymore. I want to increase my awareness in the moment so that I can have richer experiences. I want to improve my ability to express my emotions—including happiness—and share them with my children in a constructive way. And I want to build up my life and deepen my connections in such a way that my life is more peaceful and fulfilling. I think the likelihood that these things will lead to happiness in the long run is fairly high, but I don’t think the short-term result is always happiness. I don’t want to use happiness as my goal in each moment because I think that might lead me astray.

For example, Wednesday night I felt tired. We spent a lovely afternoon with friends at Red Butte Gardens, walking around in the sun, playing in fountains, sharing a picnic lunch. Wednesday is also the day I’ve got planned to visit the gym and do my little workout. After all of our fun, I found myself thinking that feeling so worn out would be a reasonable excuse to skip my gym visit. I wanted to hang out at home and read my book and get up-to-date with my favorite blogs, maybe check my blog stats every five minutes.  But I chose to go to the gym. When I returned, I was still tired, but I felt relaxed, strong, and content. I don’t think I would have had as positive a feeling after spending the evening in front of a computer screen or even curled up with my book, as lovely as that would have been. And I have the added satisfaction of putting that healthy habit in the bank so I’m ready for those days when I need a little extra energy. Had I looked only at “happiness” as my goal, I don’t know that I would have made the same choice.

Another example is facing emotionally painful situations. In my experience, when confronting unresolved trauma, disagreements, or just negative interactions, things get worse before they get better. If I went for happiness only, I may decide that I have enough happiness already and choose to cut my losses and avoid the painful situations rather than working through them to find greater meaning.

I’ve read a number of books this month. The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore, The Search for Fulfillment by Susan Whitbourne, and The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. I’m also about halfway through Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which so far is blowing me away.

Tomorrow I start a new month! Check back for the plan for October. I’m excited and cautiously optimistic.

Happiness is Like a Butterfly

There was a poem on my bedroom wall when I was a child. It was something like,

Happiness is like a butterfly;

The more you chase it, the more it will elude you.

But if you turn your attention to other things,

It will come and softly sit on your shoulder.

This theme has been coming up for me again and again in the past weeks: If you strive for something, you can’t reach it.

The other day at the gym, I listened to an interview about writing with Lynda Barry on To the Best of Our Knowledge. Barry teaches writing classes and was discussing with interviewer Steve Paulson the methods she encourages her students to employ. Every task she gives them is designed to silence their inner critic. She wants to get her students back to an attitude of playfulness about their writing. Paulson asked her, well, at some point, though, you want to produce something good, you want to be a successful writer, right? Barry said that, if she thinks about whether her writing is “good” or not, it’s after it’s finished. If you start out writing with the idea that it has to be good or that you want it to make you a success, you’ll not be able to get anywhere with it. But if you write playfully and for no purpose but that of creating, you may well find success. I think it was Anne Lamott who talked about this in Bird by Bird, the phenomenon in which a second novel is a lot longer coming than a first, simply because now you’ve got something to live up to and that desire to be good—or to be better—gets in the way of creativity.

When I first read and followed the activities in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I became annoyed because so little of it seemed to focus on actually working on projects. What on earth could a daily walk have to do with writing? Writing was one thing I absolutely couldn’t do while walking. And what was all of this about making collages and writing three pages a day that I’d never look at again? How would I have enough time to write if I did all of this stuff? At the time, I sort of took it on faith that the professor who recommended the book to me had done so for a reason, and I just trudged through the activities. But now, years later, I think I’m finally starting to understand the sneaking up on creativity that Cameron was trying to lead her readers to.

This has been showing up in reference to happiness, too. I saw it in a comment on Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project Facebook page. I read it in Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss, in which three groups were asked to listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The group given no instructions found the music more enjoyable than the group told to monitor their happiness while listening or the group told to “try to be happy.”

I stumbled upon it while perusing my friend Rebecca’s blog:

I did on [sic] the work once on “I should be happier”. In a nutshell, I realized that this belief actually moves me away from happiness because when I am not happy and I believe this thought, I judge myself, compare myself, feel broken, etc. I lose sight of all happiness I have when I believe that thought. Without the thought I am free to be happy or not, but free – and much more likely to be happy, because there is nothing to fight against, no guilt, etc.

Like I said, this is coming up for me everywhere now. When I first think of these things, the first thought that comes to my mind is, “Oh, crap. And here I am doing a Happiness Project.” But then I take a step back and a deep breath and remember that all I’m doing is trying to set the stage for a peaceful, meaningful, joyful life. I don’t tell myself, “I will be happy. I must be happy. I should be happy.” (Or at least I don’t set out to say these things. Sometimes they just kind of pop in there.) Happiness isn’t the goal; it’s a guiding principle by which I judge my actions and resolutions. I look at my life and see that there are many things that hinder my mood and my relationships, especially with my children. I’m grouchy when I’m tired. Well, let’s see what happens when I get more sleep. I feel annoyed and even fearful when I find myself wishing the moments away during the day. OK, so I’ll take a deep breath and be in the moment, and see how that changes things. I do hope that, by doing these things that are kind of tangential to happiness, I might just find myself feeling happier. But if not, I’m still eating healthier, sleeping more, yelling less, deepening relationships. These are things worth doing regardless of the size of the payoff in bliss.

I’m reminded of Isaiah 58:9-12 again-

If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking of wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.

If you do x, y, and z for the purpose of receiving good things in return, you’ll be disappointed. You do these things because they’re the right things to do, and if you do this work in that spirit, you just might get even better things in return than just a transient elevation of mood. I’m looking for something deeper and broader and longer lasting than my own happiness. I’m looking to “raise up the foundations of many generations” the only way I can: by working on the things I can reach.

At the beginning of this project, I found myself hung up on the idea that happiness results from virtuous action. I think I’m starting to understand this concept a little better. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl tells a story about working with his fellow concentration camp prisoners out in the bitter cold with inadequate clothing and no subcutaneous fat to help insulate them. They would look forward all morning to the time they would get to spend a few minutes warming themselves at a small stove. When the time came, their pleasure at this small amount of warmth was immense. They were practically joyful, even in the middle of such brutal and miserable circumstances. But there were guards who seemed to derive equal pleasure from denying the prisoners this comfort. Not only would they not let the prisoners warm themselves, sometimes they would knock over the stove and scatter the coals through the snow.

While virtuous action leads to happiness, someone who appears happy has not necessarily become so by engaging in virtuous action. It’s like how hard work can lead to material success, but material success isn’t always the result of hard work. The best bet appears to be focusing on the virtuous action rather than on the happiness. But what’s the difference, really between the two types of joy, that derived from an appreciation for the relief of suffering and that derived from the infliction of suffering? The sense I get is that the latter type involves a bitter core of experience. It’s not a joy originating from the soul, but one that lays on the surface, protecting the person experiencing it from opening themselves up and exposing their inner selves to the light. The former is a simple joy, but it’s an honest, transparent joy. Clearly, for Frankl it was also a sustaining joy.

More Thoughts on Gratitude

A few weeks ago, I posted about a study that Ariel Gore wrote about in her book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. For those few of you who have not committed my posts to memory, the study found that people who kept a gratitude journal for six weeks reported an increase in happiness and a decrease in depressive symptoms. They experienced some improvement in as little as three weeks. Since reading this, I’ve been mulling over the idea of incorporating a gratitude practice into my Happiness Project, but I’ve yet to decide what form this practice will take.

In Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss, I found another twist on the idea. Weiner writes about a study at Kobe College in Japan. Psychologists divided college students into two groups. One was the control and didn’t do anything different for a week. The other group counted the number of kind acts they performed during the week. They weren’t asked to do any kind acts, just to count them when they did them. (This reminds me of Roger Rabbit when he said (paraphrasing Elizabeth Barrett Browning), “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand…”) At the end of the week, the group that counted their kind acts had a significant increase in their happiness levels compared to the first group. The researchers concluded, “Simply by counting the acts of kindness for one week, people became happier and more grateful.”

This may well have had a different result in a more individualistic country than it did in a more collectivist culture like Japan’s, but I still found this study compelling. The idea that I could feel happier simply by dwelling on the kind things I do every day is an interesting one to me. Knowing that memories are formed by laying down neural pathways, and neural pathways are reinforced by repeated use, it makes sense that traveling mentally back to the scene of a kind act could hardwire it in more firmly and make it easier to call up later on. If one has a clear sense of herself as someone who performs kind acts and is a helpful member of her community, I can see how that could lead her to feel more joy in her life.

So, which might work better for me, recording things for which I’m grateful, or counting the nice things I do? Or should I just cover all of my bases and do both? (Actually, in one of the links below, Randy Taran suggests they’re actually two different things, so it might make more sense to do them both. But would that be adding too much at once?)

Or I could just vacillate a little longer.

Book Review: The Geography of Bliss

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the WorldThe Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Weiner’s writing style. Not only did I have fun while learning a lot about happiness as it relates to geographical location, but I now feel inspired to finally get a passport and go traveling. How long this plan will actually take to put into action is yet to be seen, but the desire to travel abroad feels delightfully unique to me.

I really enjoyed reading about the paths to happiness different individuals and different cultures have taken. It’s given me a lot to think about (and post about on my blog).

View all my reviews

Icelandic Happiness

The Satisfaction with Life Index. Blue through red represent most to least happy respectively; grey areas have no reliable data available (Image via Wikipedia)

In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner travels around the world in search of the secrets of happiness. Everywhere he goes, he asks the people he meets if they are happy. When he asked this question in Iceland, one person’s reply was, “Yes, but I cherish my melancholia.”

Another Icelander agreed. “You nurture your little melancholia, and it’s like a buzz that makes you feel alive. You snap yourself a little bit, and you feel this relief of how fragile life is and how tremendously fragile you are.”

Weiner asked, “So you can have this melancholia and still be happy?”

“Absolutely!” was the reply.

Weiner continues:

Modern social science confirms what the [second Icelander] says. The psychologist Norman Bradburn, in his book The Structure of Psychological Well Being, describes how happiness and unhappiness are not opposites, as we often think. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are different coins. It is possible, in other words, for a happy person to also suffer from bouts of unhappiness, and for unhappy people to experience great moments of joy. And here in Iceland, it seems, it is even possible to be happy and sad at the same time.

This is a partial answer to a question I’ve been asking these past two months: What does it mean to be a happy person? This piece of the puzzle suggests that one can be a happy person and still feel sad sometimes, and that one can be an unhappy person and still feel happy sometimes. I wonder, which am I? Happy with bouts of sadness, or unhappy with bouts of joy?

Another piece of the puzzle, also from Weiner’s book:

Martin Seligman, founder of the positive-psychology movement, discovered that happy people remember more good events in their lives than actually occurred. Depressed people remembered the past accurately.

I have a suspicion I’m one of the people who remembers her life accurately. But I’m not certain that “depressed” is the opposite of “happy”. Gretchen Rubin certainly doesn’t think so, and says so explicitly in The Happiness Project. “I came to another important conclusion about defining happiness: that the opposite of happiness is unhappiness, not depression. Depression, a grave condition that deserves urgent attention, occupies its own category apart from happiness and unhappiness.”

Is Seligman using a different definition of “depressed”, or is it Weiner’s word, and I can substitute “unhappy” and the basic claim is still the same? I suppose to some degree it’s irrelevant. My aim is to feel happier, so doing things that happy people do is working towards that aim, regardless of what all of those unhappy or depressed people do.

I’m not sure if I prefer to delude myself about my life in the interest of feeling happier, but I could certainly try to place more emphasis on the happy things and less on the unhappy things. Yet another argument for a gratitude practice of some sort. And also an argument for reframing my experience of unhappy events. I’m getting ready to read Man’s Search for Meaning, in which Viktor Frankl talks about logotherapy, which involves changing one’s attitudes about one’s life experiences. Maybe I can get some more ideas from Frankl about how to embrace my melancholia as they do in Iceland.

Ebb and Flow

Last week, I wrote about “flow,” the feeling of ease and contentment that comes when one is engaged in an activity in which there is a balance between challenge and skill. While experiencing flow, a person loses track of time.

I think what I’ve been feeling for this week could be called, “ebb.” Things feel effortful, halting. Time is not flying.

Renee commented the other day, “is our life just a bunch of happy or unhappy moments? does this all collectively make us happy or not?”

It seems logical that lots of little happy things would coalesce into an overall state of happiness and result in a Happy Person. But whether I’m happy or not doesn’t seem to be linked all that closely with what’s going on in my external environment. The same things that made me smile yesterday don’t make me smile today, and something that irritated the heck out of me yesterday doesn’t bother me today. This would suggest that the origin of my happiness (or lack thereof) is internal, someplace not touched by the things going on outside.

This is rather disheartening, because the inside stuff is so hard to change, but it’s not a new idea. Marshall Rosenberg in his book, Nonviolent Communication, talks about how we often say something “makes us feel” one way or another. He encourages people to change their phrasing and to say instead, “When X happens, I feel Y.” This, he says, helps us take personal responsibility for our emotions and gives us a sense of control over them. He notes that the same event, when experienced by two different people, can elicit two very different emotional responses. How then could that event have “made” either of them feel the way they did? The event wasn’t the origin of the emotion, but rather the emotion originated within the person and the event was just a catalyst.

While I appreciate the semantic distinction, I don’t find it terribly helpful in determining what course of action to take to feel happier. On the one hand, it’s encouraging to think that, no matter my life circumstances, I have the ability to feel happy. On the other hand, it’s not so much fun to know that, no matter my life circumstances, I have the ability to feel unhappy.

According to Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss, even the experts in the study of happiness have trouble determining which circumstances lead to happiness. There are apparently many contradictions when they look at the origins of happiness. Another argument in favor of the “happiness comes from within” hypothesis.

*sigh* Just my luck. At least I know that, in the fullness of time, this “ebb” will move back into “flow” whether I figure out how to make it happen or not.