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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Come On Get Happy, Part One

I had a terrible time in grad school. I wanted the degree, but I wished I could take the classes while sitting under Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. I came into the program sad and a series of situations kept me in that emotional space for over three years. Which is not to say that I was never happy, but I think we can all look at our life much like the picture on the left: there is an underlying colour that serves as the background and there are fleeting colours serving as momentary markers. My background was sad and it was broken up by moments of happiness that came and left without leaving an impression. If you asked me how I felt during that time period, I would sum it up as being sad--that was the constant--though I know there was happiness in there too.

Infertility and loss have a way of feeling like torture. While it's happening, it's so painful and all you can think about is that future moment when you won't be feeling this intense amount of pain. And I think we all believe that the key to happiness, the key to ending the torture, is to parent. I think the torture begins lessening when you get that positive test or you receive your match/referral. But I think we're all focused on that day when the child is in our arms or in our house and we are parents. And part of that is true.

But then how do we explain the fact that infertile women are four times as likely to suffer from postpartum depression?

I think a lot of it is a lack of release valves--we seal them off ourselves because we're too worried what turning them on means. Complaining and venting is a resource that non-infertile women use to get through the stress of pregnancy or the stress that comes with new parenthood. But we think we can't complain because that means that we're not grateful. We're scared to complain to our support system--usually other infertile women--because we know they would trade anything to be in a between-ultrasounds panic rather than a two-week-wait. We're scared to complain to our friends or parents for fear that they won't understand and say, "but you wanted this."

I think the other reality is that we make parenting the goal that will lead to happiness rather than making happiness the direct goal. Does that make any sense? I think we equate parenthood with happiness therefore, we drop happiness from the equation and aim for parenthood. When we get there and we see that parenthood isn't necessary the same as happiness, we're confused. And that's not to say that parenthood isn't a happy space. But I think that regardless of situation, you have a background colour--a colour to your walls, let's say--that doesn't necessarily change regardless of what you bring into the room. If my walls are red, they are going to remain red whether I bring in a brown sofa, blue sofa, or white sofa. If I don't have happiness, I don't think bringing a baby or child into the house changes that.

Children are sort of like money in that regard. Not having them brings a lot of stress. But having them brings stress too. And when you don't have children, you think that the stress that comes from having children is more manageable. Just as you can't really imagine the problems of the rich are that bad. But parenthood is stressful. While I wouldn't trade it for anything and I'm obviously willing to do anything/everything to parent another child, I am also appreciative when someone is complaining to me about the sleeplessness or the lack of privacy or the infinite changes that take place with parenthood.

So what is a person to do? Aim for happiness itself rather than goals that we think will bring us happiness?

There has been a glut of positive psychology books on the market. And I'm lumping Daniel Gilbert in there even though he doesn't call himself a positive psychologist (he calls his study prospection--the ability to predict what will make us happy). They seem to keep swirling into the Colbert Report studio. It feels like they were all waiting until I started to come to my tipping point, where sadness was repainting my walls a dim grey--becoming my background colour--to release their books. Because I have been sad lately. I've been angry lately and jealous lately.

Once I started hearing about this glut of positive psychology books from my two sources for news: the Daily Show or the Colbert Report, I was interested in seeing how they differ from the self-help books that flood the market. I picked up two of these books: Happier by Tal Ben Shahar and Stumbling to Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. The first is a "workbook"-like text that brings the information provided in Ben Shahar's popular Harvard course to your living room (I keep calling out to Josh, "I need to go do my homework since I'm now a Harvard-of-the-Living-Room student." Not that I have Ivy League envy). The purpose of the book is to make you happier by shifting how you view happiness or how you structure your life. The other book is another psychology text that looks at why we're so terrible at predicting what will make us happy. Both of them are my project for the fall. And I'd love it if you followed along and became happier with me.

I started with the Tal Ben Shahar book first and I'm only a few pages into it. While it would rock if you picked it up and read it too and everyone got into a huge love fest over the blogosphere*, you don't need to read along in order to participate. I'm going to throw my thoughts out there as I read and you can respond too with your own thoughts to his "workbook" questions. Regardless of post titles, this is not about the Partidgeification of Happiness where we all talk ourselves into being happy and run through imaginary fields of flowers and dance under rainbows. This is about taking an extremely stressful situation and trying to paint the walls a brighter colour in our lives so that happiness becomes the backdrop we walk into once the external stressor is lifted. That external stressor doesn't have to be parenthood. Leaving that external stressor could be taking control and walking away and living child-free. But regardless, the "end" of the torture even if the memory of the torture remains.

This is getting a bit long, so I'll start the first exercise in a separate post. Each time I'm writing about happiness this summer/fall, I'll put the icon at the top of the post. And I'll bold the exercise so you can do it too. And feel free to take the questions and run with them yourself in your own blog post. I would like to keep an ongoing list with my posts and your posts in one space so anyone walking into the discussion at some middle point can go backwards and see everything. So it's a good idea, if you end up writing your own post that day, to leave a comment on my post too with a link to your post so I can add it to the list and other people can jump there as well.

Back to the picture at the top: during graduate school, I had two offices. I had one in the English building. I had another that was actually a reading room with a locked door afforded to graduate students in the school library. I spent most of my time in the second office and even met with students in the tiny space. No one could understand why I wanted to be in this tiny locked room rather than the more prestigious space inside the English building. But my library room had a blueish-purple carpet the same colour as the picture above. It made me happier to look at it. It was such a small thing, but being in that space brought more peace than my grey-tiled office. So I went with the ultramarine.

Back then it was ultramarine--now orange and yellow are my favourite colours. And again, it is such a small thing, but wearing the colours or being in a room painted those colours makes me happier. And knowing that, it seems silly not to take advantage of it. So I'm going to try to repaint things a bit this fall. Not literally--we already have pumpkin-coloured walls in our house--but figuratively. Regardless of the outcome of this journey, I need to be in a space where I'm happy. So I'm going to try to take myself there.

* Tal Ben Shahar begins his book calling for a happiness revolution. He writes in the preface: "I believe that if enough people recognize the true nature of happiness as the ultimate currency, we will witness society-wide abundance not only of happiness but also of goodness" (xiv).

Seriously, as the chickie who keeps nudging you with the Lost and Found and Connections Abound, do you honestly think I could walk by that sentence without thinking, "yes, he's right. Get everyone on board and the happiness will create a sea of goodness as well. There will be people helping others achieve happiness and those people will receive support as well." And community continues.

So I hope you'll read along and play along from home and get this discussion started. And have real happiness grow from the discussion and its subsequent action. Plus, I've designated it my fall project so... I don't want to do my homework alone. Join me?


Anonymous said...

Recently I posted something along these lines. Each year I would say, "next year at this time I'll be a mom" and time and time again it hasn't happened. But this year I'm just saying "next year at this time I'll have better days." My thought about this is that by expanding the profile I'll have a greater chance of it coming true. If the goal isn't necessarily to be a mother, but rather to be happy, perhaps there is something in addition to parenthood I can attain.

Good work Mel. I'm game.

Anonymous said...

Count me in, Mel. I think this idea will really be of benefit to those of us who aren't quite certain how, or whether, to resolve childlessness. I recently read "Stumbling on Happiness" and found it very applicable to dealing with infertility.

Lori Lavender Luz said...

I had never linked the PADS (post-adoption depression syndrome) I experienced after my 2nd (and last) adoption to IF.

Hmmmmm. I'll have to think about it in the context of a pressure valve...verry interesting.

You always make me think.

SarahSews said...

I think you are right Mel, that a lot of us along the way create a shortcut in our heads where parenthood = happiness. And sometimes after we do that, we aren't happy with anything short of parenthood. I certainly was guilty of it. It haunted me for a long time. Until I decided I was going to be happy anyway. And I am. We aren't planning to be child free forever, but we'll be happy anyway. The shift in perspective really really mattered.

And Jenna, I also lived the "next year at this time I'll be a mom" thing for a long time. I finally turned it off and asked others (particularly my dear hubby and mother) to do the same. Instead of ruining my holidays by forecasting, I get to enjoy them just for what they are now.

Dang that got long. But I'll play along.

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right about the assuming happiness comes with motherhood. We have tried to remain happy and have a life in the present, but it is so hard when you happiness seems to be pivoted on one thing.

Jess said...

I'm game!

JJ said...

Word. I need some happy thoughts and goals=) Im on board!

bonniekay said...

I love the "children are like money" analogy. Very true. Our toddler has brought endless joy to our lives, and yet...parenting is hard, and when I'm needy myself, it would be easier (I think?) without him.

andrea_jennine said...

Sounds intriguing!

ms. c said...

I'm in. Can't wait to be happier...

Grad3 said...

This reminds me a lot of my thinking earlier how I need to apprecaite my journey for what it is, mine. I need a lot of help remembering that in certain moments of my life. Perhaps it will be easier if I can be happy.

I'm in.

TeamWinks said...

I didn't expect to have this post of all posts you have written to hit me so profoundly. I never realized I too thought that parenthood was the direct link to happiness. I had tunnel vision. No surprise there. I'm on board with you Mel.

Yeah So said...

One thing I noted about happiness when we started the adoption process, was that I forgot how to process happiness. I had been beaten down so long, and so accustomed to having to deal with disappointment, that I forgot what it was like to actually experience joy. So when you talk about things like post partum depression, perhaps it is due to some of what I describe. When I was first told the month in which I would travel to get my son I sobbed and refused to believe it..the poor woman from the agency thought I lost my mind...

RBandRC said...

Wow, what you said is so true. When I thought about it before reading the first word that popped into my head when I thought about happiness was peace. This whole IF journey has brought me to a point where I am just longing for peace. Peace with IF, peace with myself, peace with the possibility of not having kids. But I agree with what you've said here and I know that happiness is the goal in my life, regardless of whether or not I become a parent. Though, that would be nice too! :)

Ashley said...

Sounds great! I am in!