You know the feeling: I’ll be happy when I finish this project. When I solve this financial challenge. When I have the job/house/partner/child I’ve always wanted. My mother calls this “happy-when,” but it actually has a fancy name: the arrival fallacy.
Whatever we call it, it’s a favorite tool for many of us in our battle to avoid being happy. Agreeable external circumstances can certainly make it easier to be happy: some things, like money or health, are well documented to effect us mostly by causing bad feelings when we don’t have them. But we all know that they aren’t sufficient — who can’t think of someone who is unhappy with an outwardly delightful life? — and what’s more, exactly zero studies show that beating ourselves up because our lives are great and why aren’t we happy yet is a helpful strategy.
Sometimes, happy0-when is actually a heads-up that we’re having negative feelings around something: if I’m feeling disheartened by something at work, I might say “I’ll be happy when I get a new job.” Getting a new job might be a perfectly good plan, but it will help me find the right one if I can figure out what’s disheartening me and not pin the blame on, say, my commute or salary.
Other times, happy-when is a clue to our real desires. When I find myself pinning my happiness on a particular thing I try to imagine what it will be like when I have it. How will I feel? And is there anything I can do to get more of that feeling now? Sometimes I think things like “if I had a partner, I would feel loved.” Certain kinds of indulgences make me feel loved, too (bubble baths, anyone?), and some of them are things I can provide for myself. People cheering when I do well also makes me feel loved, and I can make more of an effort to share my accomplishments with friends, or with my parents, who are uber-reliable cheerleaders for anything I am delighted about.
When I think of happy-when as a literal prescription, I feel stuck. Treating it as a clue or a treasure map pointing to the qualities I want to embody, though, feels helpful. How about you? What are you waiting on to be happy?
I love this game. We play it because sometimes, feeling grateful seems like too much, especially when everyone is telling you to feel grateful. And also, holidays have all kinds of personal and political complications. So we just think of things that don’t completely suck. Like these! (Feel free to play in comments or elsewhere. Or not!)
1. The sky
3. Also books!
4. Like Brené Brown’s beautiful one on vulnerability
5. Or Susan Cain’s ode to the superpowers of introverts
6. Or anything by Anne Lamott
7. Also, superpowers in general!
8. The internet
9. And people who use it for good!
10. Like my new love, Rebelle Society
11. Or Thorn Coyle
12. Or Havi
13. Which reminds me: Shiva Nata
14. And Rally (Rally!)
15. The wall of art I made after Rally (Rally!)
16. Those little keychain LED flashlights
17. Twilight Covening
20. Occupy Sandy
21. And Rolling Jubilee
27. Also, acupuncture. I love acupuncture.
28. In fact, generally having tools to help myself when things do completely suck
29. Resources: physical, material, emotional, mental, spiritual
30. Justice (resources for everyone!)
33. Really comfy shoes
34. Walking! Still awesome, even years after the two-years-of-broken-foot debacle.
35. Living in a place where there are things I can walk to. Many!
37. Coffee. I adore coffee.
38. These cupcakes
41. Having a practice.
42. My bed. It is a really great bed.
43. Also sleep. It makes everything better!
44. And hot showers.
46. And the technologies that help me stay connected to them and to far-away friends.
47. Ebook apps for my phone. I have books! In my pocket! At all times.
50. Seasons. I love living in a part of the world that has them.
51. Hoodies. I wear them a ridiculous number of days. I even have grown-up ones that are sweaters!
53. And my sister who is one!
55. And the amazing things they have given me in all sorts of ways.
57. Really great pens
58. Refrigeration. Seriously, it makes a lot of things more awesome.
61. Boston and environs. It is where I am from, and so gorgeous.
63. Teachers: formal, informal, accidental, and all the rest
66. Prime numbers (of which this is not one)
67. The President
68. Swishy skirts
70. Having an interfaith friend!
74. The earth
76. Being part of this huge, beautiful universe together
The sneakiest assumption ever is this: other people are like us.
It’s sneaky because most of us are pretty aware that it’s not true in a wide variety of ways. We know other people don’t always look like we do, think like we do, or believe what we do. We understand that maybe when we say something is red, what we’re understanding “red” to mean might not be what you’re understanding it to mean, even! But still, we tend to assume it in subtle ways. I assume that if someone raises her voice, she is about as angry as I would be if I were raising my voice. I assume that other people will feel sad, delighted, angry, or hopeful about roughly the same sorts of things that I feel those ways about. With people I am close to, especially, I tend to assume that I know what they mean when they make indirect statements, like “it would be nice if someone would do this task.”
But I don’t have any way to know if these things are true, most of the time. So something happens: I make the assumption, act on it, and then, before anyone knows what happened, we’re on a boat riding down the Reaction Rapids towards some very sharp rocks!
One way out of the sneakiest assumption for me is to try to separate two parts of how I understand the world. On the one hand, there are things that aliens watching a video of an interaction could agree happened: She closed the door loudly. He said “Are you sure those shoes will be comfortable for the walk?” And on the other, there are all of the things that I assume were meant: She closed the door loudly because she was angry. He asked about the shoes because he doesn’t trust the other person’s judgement. Notice how my reasoning becomes suspicious once I start speculating about reasons?
Another way is to stay curious. In this, I am inspired by Byron Katie, who uses four questions to bring our stories to light. The one I find most useful is the second question: can I absolutely know that this is true? Even the act of wondering this makes a crack in our assumptions and invites in the possibility, however slim, that it could be another way. Into that crack, we can slip all kinds of things: delight, openness, hope. I recommend it.
Earlier today, I wrote to a friend:
You know that thing where you are so tired and you make bad choices just because you don’t have the energy to do anything else, and then it turns out that those choices didn’t help because — surprise! — they are bad? That is happening here.
And that was about where I was when I wrote it: having done too much, just tired all the way through. But then I got home, and instead of falling into bed, which was the one thing I wanted to do, or pushing myself to go to the gym, I made my best offer to myself: I would eat a delicious, comfort food dinner, even though it wasn’t the most nutritious option, and then I would go for a walk. So I did. I saw a kid balancing on top of a wall and a woman with a bag so pink it practically glowed in the dark. And those earlier words came back to me, suddenly reminding me of Rumi: What was said to the rose that made it open is said to me here in my chest. Whatever put eloquence into language, that’s happening here.
Of course, I thought “Really? Can that really be true? How on earth could this help a rose to open?” But maybe it helped, a little. And then I walked by the mosque, and on the outside, it says “We sent you as a mercy to mankind and all that exists.” And I hoped that “you” didn’t, in this case, mean me, mean all of us, but I am pretty sure that it does.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Some changes are easy and fun, delightful little journeys of discovery. But a lot of changes can feel hard and scary. It’s easy to get why we’re afraid when these are big changes that cause a lot of stress in obvious ways, like moving to a new town. But when little changes push our buttons, it points to something deeper.
Even the most flexible person in the world — someone who, I should note, is not me — fears change at some point, because even that person has an idea of who she is. And that idea is something that can be threatened, and that can make us feel as afraid as we are of threats to our physical well-being.
One of my first teachers taught me that a sign that this idea is being threatened is thinking or saying “But I’m not the kind of person who ______!” Once I notice this, usually a whole world unfurls. I’m not the kind of person who forgets appointments, because in the secret world of my fears, that kind of person is also the kind of person who cannot be trusted, is fundamentally irresponsible, and will end up alone and without resources on the street. And this is the line that I am subconsciously feeding myself every time I panic about having forgotten something. It doesn’t matter if that thing is coffee with a friend I’ve known for ten years, someone who would forgive me far greater sins than flaking out on a coffee date.
Facing down those fears directly is hard, so let me instead recommend one of my favorite stratgies: sneaking around through the back door. The back door is other changes, ones having no apparent relationship to whatever’s going on. Change your toothpaste. Change which leg you start with when you put on your pants. Change the route you drive to work, or what you have for lunch, or your yoga routine.
Little changes like this are like running a butter knife around the edge of a cake pan. They don’t get the cake out, but they loosen it. They start to whittle down that list of the things we “have to” do in order to be ourselves, and they do it relatively easily, because these aren’t the parts we’re most deeply attached to. But gently, subtly, deeply, they also begin to give us the idea that maybe we don’t need those things. If we can do twenty little things differently and still be ourselves — and let me assure you that we most definitely can — maybe we can do some big things differently too.
We have known each other a long time. You have been a difficult mirror for me: all the ways that I couldn’t or wouldn’t show up, all the things I feared from you, my willingness to walk away rather than face you some days.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that this is also your strength. You are unflinching, and to be present and in relationship with you, I must be too. When I was 21, I knew I should do this, but didn’t know how. And this past year, I’ve learned that painful events still sometimes drive me towards you and the pattern we’ve built together over the years, and sometimes away. There are still things I am afraid to face but know I won’t be able to avoid in my practice.
But I also know some things now that I didn’t know then. I’m a lot nicer, for one thing: to other people, I hope, but also to myself and by extension, to you. I have many more tools for staying with myself when things get tough, and so I have more ways to stay with you, too.
Maybe this is your lesson right now: there are no circumstances under which I don’t have to stay with myself.
The other day, I was talking with a friend about her aging parents. She recited a litany of tiny tasks she had done for them: cutting toenails, tying shoes. That’s what love is, we said, and it’s true. A thousand tiny, daily things. Ordinary things. Of course, love is special and wild and overwhelming and beautiful and heart-shattering. And it’s tying someone’s shoes. Putting dinner on the table. Listening to the story of an ordinary day.
Love, I think, is a lot about showing up, and this is another thing you’ve shown me. I don’t have to be perfect every day. I don’t have to be ecstatic to show up, even. I just have to be there, laying down the pattern that will carry me when I need it to, choosing to do what I can. That’s what it means to love you, and myself, and the world.
Let’s keep doing it.
I just bought a book with this title, written by Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame. The bookstore clerk enthused about how much she loved it, despite sharing my dubiousness about the “self-help industrial complex.” The store gives you a bookmark with every purchase, and she quickly paged through and stuck it in. When she handed it back to me, she said “I put your bookmark at a really important part.”
Q: If you had to give one piece of advice to people in their twenties, what would it be?
A: To go to a bookstore and buy ten books of poetry and read them each five times.
A: Because the truth is inside.
Q: Anything else?
A: Be about ten times more magnanimous than you believe yourself capable of being. Your life will be a hundred times better for it. This is good advice for anyone at any age, but particularly for those in their twenties.
A: Because in your twenties you’re becoming who you’re going to be and so you might a well not be an asshole. Also, because it’s harder to be magnanimous when you’re in your twenties, I think, and so that’s why I’d like to remind you of it. You’re generally less humble in that decade than you’ll ever be and this lack of humility is oddly mixed with insecurity and uncertainty and fear. You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.
I don’t know that this exactly describes my twenties, but certainly it’s a tiny beautiful thing. Thanks for the reminder, bookstore clerk! Let’s be warriors for love.
Whatever you’re stuck on, whatever incomprehensible problem is twisting your knickers in a knot, you probably know what you need to know in order to solve it.
You already have all the tools you need. So when you reach for that new technique, the better teacher, the perfect practice, pause: are you trying to keep yourself from knowing what you know?
If you are like me, you do this all the time. Most of us do! And, in truth, there is nothing wrong with it. There is only so much we can stand to know at a time, only so much clarity that we can enact when we have twenty-four hours in a day and all sorts of things and people we choose to tend. But see if you can notice when you turn away and what you turn to. Then, if it turns out that later, you want to know what you know, you’ll know what to find it hiding behind.
It is that time of year! The one where we play 77 Things That Don’t Completely Suck. Why? Because sometimes everyone telling you to be grateful makes you feel annoyed or uncomfortable, and sometimes we have mixed feelings about holidays for political or social or personal reasons. Also because it’s fun!
Play with me in comments, or by posting your own list somewhere and sharing a link.
My list, in no particular order:
2. And fake sunshine in the form of daylight lamps. They make northern winters so much better.
4. And the way it smells today
5. My gym
6. Having become the kind of person who can lift really heavy things
8. Cheesecake with bourbon in it (I know!)
11. Having a sister who is a rocking librarian
12. Family, blood and chosen
13. The internet!
14. But also, sending things in the mail
15. This page of collective nouns for animals (a shiver of sharks!)
16. Dishwashers, which in my household double as promoters of domestic peace
17. Having art on my walls!
18. Being past the tattered-posters stage of life and on to the framed-art one
19. Wise teachers like Andras and Deirdre
20. And Karina
21. And Moira
22. And for all of my past mentors, many of whom were ostensibly my teachers in some specific subject, but all of whom had an impact far deeper than teaching me how to diagram a sentence or play a musical phrase.
24. Social networking, in all of its varied forms, which allows me to stay in touch with many more people than I could otherwise manage
25. Propane stoves, which can be lit even in the midst of a power outage
26. Kung fu!
28. Material abundance in many forms: plenty of food, clean running water, a beautiful place to live
29. The will and desire that everyone have these things
31. The Occupy movement
32. And all kinds of people striving to do a little bit: my mom volunteering at a food pantry, my friends doing charity races for medical research, my neighbor raising money for a Tibetan orphanage
34. Board games for grown-ups
35. Very old traditions
36. And creating new ones
37. Reusable grocery bags that fit in my purse
38. The possibility for change
39. Farmer’s markets
40. My iPhone. I love it unreasonably.
41. Bluetooth, which is the magic that makes my podcasts come out my car speakers. I have no idea how it works!
42. Other people’s kids
43. And the extremely goofy, wise, silly, sweet things they say and do pretty much all the time
44. Footie pajamas
45. The little gadget on my car that pays my tolls by magic
46. My new favorite mug, which says “Make yourself proud.” Right on, mug.
47. My great-great grandfather, who was smart enough to buy this land in upstate New York, which I adore
48. Long swirly skirts
49. Really great coffee
50. My orange kittens
52. Hot showers
53. Having a room with clouds painted on the ceiling. Clouds!
54. Feeding people, especially when they like being fed just as much
55. Getting as much sleep as I need
57. That moment when you’re pissed off and then something softens into compassion
58. Kris Delmhorst
59. Taiko drumming
61. Pyrex. Whoever invented that stuff was really, really smart.
62. Ghiradelli dark chocolate with caramel and sea salt. Mmmmm.
63. Living a life where running into people’s -isms surprises me every time.
64. Young adult novels with plucky female heroes. I am a sucker for that every single time.
65. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
66. Airplanes, which make the world a lot less big in some pretty amazing ways.
67. Duct tape. Highly useful stuff, duct tape. Especially in leopard print.
68. Accepting that I am never going to be a basketball star, ballerina, competitive figure skater, or chemist, and being okay about that.
69. Which I strongly suspect is another way of saying “being okay with who I’m turning out to be.”
70. Rosemary shampoo
71. Making my own laundry detergent
72. My bed. I adore my bed.
73. Amazing friends, near and far, even those I don’t see nearly enough
74. Butter. It is seriously one of my favorite things.
75. The Earth
76. The stars
I am going to tell you a secret about tribbles: they often travel in groups. Or, more precisely, in lines. You think you’ve sorted a tribble out, and then you notice that behind her is her sister.
The way it works is pretty simple: once we’ve given ourselves a reason for resisting something — that is, we’ve named the first tribble — we tend to believe that reason. We’re not wrong! That reason is definitely a reason. But sometimes we let the tribble convince us that it’s the reason. (Tribbles are notoriously self-important.) Or sometimes it just seems easier to try to do one thing at a time! So then we focus on the tribble who is right in front of us.
When I don’t want to do my practice, I usually see You-Don’t-Have-Time Tribble first. You-Don’t-Have-Time Tribble is a gal with valid complaints about my schedule, and for a long time, I totally bought her story. I don’t have time! Once I noticed that she was telling a story, we had some chats, and when she moved out of the way, there was But-What-If-I’m-Really-A-Giant-Mess Tribble! Maybe you are. If you slow down, I bet you’ll find out you’re really a mess, and then you’ll feel bad, and you’ll end up not wanting to get out of bed for six months and eating only bonbons and die of malnutrition and sloth. Whoa.
The reason I’m telling you this is that I want you to see it for what it is: you’re getting better at this. Finding one tribble hiding behind its sister can feel discouraging, especially if you’re not expecting it! But what’s happening is that as you get clearer about who your tribbles are, their old tricks don’t work as well, and they have to pull out bigger and bigger stops, showing you deeper and deeper layers of your fear until suddenly, you’ll notice that somewhere back there, you came out the other side.