Sunday, January 15, 2012

Happiness and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich

This month our book club is reading Gretchen Ruben's The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.  Half autobiography, half self-help book, The Happiness Project starts with a discussion of what happiness is and why the author wanted more of it; the remainder of the book documents her efforts to boost her natural happiness quota to its maximum limit.

When I first met Barry, he told me that I was the happiest person he had ever met.  At the time I was incredulous, but now that I have reverted to many of my pre-Barry habits I understand why he thought that.  I find myself dancing while dusting and singing while grading papers.  I am usually the first (sometimes the only) person in the movie theater laughing at the ironic parts.  When I try something new that works out well, I am triumphant; if it doesn't, I consider it fodder for future funny stories.  I have always been the person plucked from the audience to be the magician's assistant, due no doubt to the gormless expression of wonder and enjoyment on my face.  I like myself and have very few regrets about my past life.  Yes, I am a happy person.

According to Ruben, this is 50% genetic.  I am lucky that I take after my positive and happy paternal grandmother rather than the gloomy Russian forebears on the other side of my family.  Another chunk of happiness is due to circumstances, and here too I am lucky.  I am doing work that I enjoy and live in a comfortable house in a beautiful location, in touch with many wonderful friends and family members.  The final aspect of happiness is due to how we perceive ourselves and our surroundings.  Again, in a bizarre way, I have been lucky.  The day after the car accident that smashed both legs I woke up almost hysterically happy, thinking, "I'm ALIVE!!"  Because I could so easily not have been, and no matter how wonderful heaven may be, I doubt that it features film noir, paperback science fiction, and grilled cheese sandwiches, and I wasn't (and still am not) ready to give them up.  And I've never lost that perspective.  BUT...

IMHO, too much self-help literature focuses on changing the internal self in response to external stress.  Sometimes this is the correct path.  When Gretchen Ruben started her Happiness Project, for instance, she was not depressed or even really unhappy, just not as lighthearted as she wanted to be.  For many people, though, a Happiness Project that focuses on learning to stop and smell the roses is not enough.  Many of us actually do need to make material changes in the external aspects of our lives - seeking treatment for a medical condition, abandoning a debilitating job, shedding abusive relationships - in order to be truly happy.  As unsettled as I was during the breakup, I could never have been this happy had I stayed with Barry; I am just not resilient enough - or resilient enough in the right way - to shrug off the stresses of living with a victim of Aspergers.

For the time being, though, I don't need even a minor Happiness Project - just the occasional TCM movie, paperback space opera, or grilled cheese sandwich.

"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

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