Six months ago I started a small happiness project, and now it's coming to an end. Today I'd like to look back on the project, see where I succeeded and where I didn't, and what lessons I can carry forward.
The first thing I have to admit is that I didn't put nearly as much energy and focus into the project as I'd intended to or wished I had. Theoretically I was committed to the project, but in truth I wasn't. I see two main reasons for that: 1) the overwhelming fatigue of my third pregnancy, which hit me harder than I could have anticipated after my first two pregnancies; and 2) one of the motivations for starting it when I did was to have fodder for this blog—ideally, writing about my happiness project once a week would provide one reliable blog post topic every week and help me to fill out my editorial calendar. Now, that's not a terrible reason to do something, but it's also not a great one. It meant that writing about the project was almost more important than doing the project, a fact which did not help to provide the daily inspiration and motivation I'd need to get me through. (The death of my father and the devastating election in the US also had significant negative impacts on my project.)
That said, all wasn't for naught. Not only did I genuinely enjoy and derive happiness from some of the things I resolved and followed through with, but I also read some interesting research and opinion pieces which challenged me to think more deeply about my life and my place in my community. For example, I wrote about meaning here and also here, and about a more expansive definition of happiness here.
Three things stand out to me as having the greatest impact on my happiness and well-being over the course of the project. The first was focusing on community and tradition in December (just rereading this post makes me so happy!). The most important thing I did that month was to make a conscious effort to cultivate relationships, especially with our neighbors. Now, nearly three months later, the kids have become so close to them that they usually prefer to go to the neighbors' house after preschool; some mornings, the first thing Leif says when he wakes up is, "Go to Haneta's house now?" (both of the kids seem to have combined Henrik and Agneta into Haneta). They have been incredibly helpful as we prepare for Bing-Bong's arrival, and the kids have grown to love them. As parents, we love that the kids have other involved, caring, engaged adults in their lives, and we love that they speak Swedish with the boys, essentially reinforcing it as a second home language.
The second thing that made a big impact during this happiness project, and the easiest to effect, was remembering to be mindful enough to say, out loud, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is" in the midst of pleasant moments. I did that a lot while we were in Spain, though I haven't said it out loud since we returned. However, I've spent a LOT of time sitting (moaning) on the couch in the last few weeks, usually while watching the kids play (except when they're at the neighbors'!), and have been filled with awe and wonder at these little creatures building, dancing, running in circles, and snuggling against me to read books. There are at least several moments every day when James and I look at each other, then look at the kids, then look at each other again with that quiet, satisfied, amazed look that parents of young kids get. That look that says, If this isn't nice...
The third thing I did during this project that had a great impact on my happiness was taking a watercolor painting class on Skillshare. The month was focused on learning, and I spent time practicing piano, reading Swedish, and learning the very basics of Photoshop (also on Skillshare). But the watercolor class has been the most rewarding, and I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have bothered to get started with it if I hadn't set it down as a goal for my happiness project. I have spent several hours playing with water and color and shapes, and it has been wonderful. It's meditative, creative, challenging—and I have something to show for it at the end of each painting session! I haven't even finished the class yet (I have one assignment left to do), but already I feel like I've picked up just enough knowledge and technique to be able to tinker around with my brushes for a couple hours and be quite happy doing it.
As I've quoted before (here and here), one of Gretchen Rubin's foundational principals (which she calls her First Splendid Truth) in her writing and experience of happiness is, "To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth." In The Happiness Project, reflecting at the end of her own year-long happiness project, she writes:
What had surprised me most about the First Splendid Truth was the importance of the final prong, the atmosphere of growth. I hadn't ascribed much weight to it, even when I'd identified it as the fourth element of happiness. My happiness project had proved to me, however, that the atmosphere of growth was a huge contributor to my happiness. Although my instinct was to shy away from novelty and challenge, in fact they are a key source of happiness, even for an unadventurous soul like me. In particular, I'd seen how the atmosphere of growth provided by my blog had become an enormous source of happiness. My successful mastery of that skill had given me feelings of gratification and mastery that in turn had energized me to push myself even harder.
Although this happiness project has ended, I've got a new one coming up any day now (when the new baby arrives)! While I wasn't as dedicated or successful as I would have liked, I still find great value in the idea of doing a happiness project. When my head is above water again and we've recovered from the sleeplessness and shock of the newborn months, I might try a more informal approach to pursuing happiness, choosing a focus area in the months when I expect to have the energy and time to dedicate to it, or when I feel like a habit or behavior needs addressing. I'm curious to know if you have any ideas about ways to slip the pursuit of happiness and meaning into life other than by doing a formal happiness project. If you do, please let me know!
While I won't be doing a formal happiness project again soon, I want to keep thinking and writing about happiness here on Dear Sabrina. I'd love to know what you'd like to see more (or less) of. What have been your favorite happiness posts I've published? Least favorite? What haven't I addressed that you think I should? Leave comments below or send me an email.
I don't update it as often as I should, but do check out my page for happiness links, and you can always send me your suggestions.
Photos by me.
I love reading what you have written. The learning about your neighbors and finding new friends (family) really struck home with me. Especially with the challenges ahead of me in regards to my husband. I find that most of my neighbors work, so it is harder to get to know them (other than the occasional hello or quick chat) so I looked elsewhere. I started to going to a Veterans support group for help learning how to get around the VA' and now, six months later, I am making friends and offers of help. Some ask about meeting Jeff and maybe becoming friends. Sorry for the long rant, just wanted to share.
I love reading and seeing all about your kids (I truly love kids) and all those little memories that you will have forever.
I want to thank you for sharing your life and stories with me.
All my love,
PS I love the Jellyfish painting! It would look great in my new bathroom. 😉
Aww, thank you Beth. I'm glad to hear that you are finding a community to participate in and who can help you! I'm very sorry to hear about your husband, though. And I'd be happy to send you the jellyfish painting, if you really want it!
Uncle Rob Elliott
Your Happiness Project reminded me about a paper Bill wrote in high school. Its topic was happiness, and that "man" is constantly seeking happiness with everything "he" does. Your project brought back that memory from about 1965, and I thank you for that. Miss him and think about him often. Enjoy reading your posts and blog site, and wish you and James the best as your new one arrives. Kids are looking great!
Love, Uncle Rob
Thanks Uncle Rob. Now that you mention it, I have a vague memory of reading that paper once, when I was in high school. I should see if my mom still has it somewhere. And I'm very glad that you enjoy reading the blog!
Hi Jodi, I see how you are a seeker, exploring life and trying to get at its essence (your essence?) through family, community, arts, nature. I think some of us are seekers by nature, and maybe in the seeking we find happiness. I don't have an answer for finding happiness, or even a definition of "happiness". I find it's pretty elusive. But it strikes me that when you notice a moment when as you put it, "if this isn't nice, I don't know what is", that seems pretty close to my definition of happiness. It's not a jump up and down joy, but rather a sense of peace and contentment. For me, when I am able to be mindful of the many ordinary daily moments when I feel this kind of contentment or gratitude, I feel better in general. I get the sense that you think you have failed at the happiness project because you didn't reach a particular goal. It looks to me like your project was a success because of all that you discovered in the process. In my own life I have to keep reminding myself to treasure the process rather than trudging along to achieve an often unconcious goal - a goal which I have often imposed on myself because of what I think I should be accomplishing. I just ran across a book, "Let Your Life Speak" by Parker J. Palmer. I think you would like it.