Lately, I’ve been thinking about happiness, because I’ve been happy. Oh, I’ve also been tired, and sometimes frustrated, and sometimes cranky. But underneath, I’ve been happy, and that’s important because as you may remember, I went through a period of depression about two years ago. Serious, going-to-therapy-every-week depression. Of course, it was while I was finishing my PhD dissertation, which made me feel trapped and miserable, so that makes sense. But my point is that I know unhappy. I remember unhappy quite well . . .
There’s a message I see quite often, particularly on blogs and posted on Facebook: it’s that we alone are responsible for our happiness, and that our happiness depends on how we perceive the world. Not on our material circumstances. And I think that is exactly . . . wrong. Anyone who’s had a bug bite that itches and itches, or can’t set the thermostat so it produces the right temperature, and is always either too hot or too cold, knows it’s wrong. There are a lot of things in our lives that depend primarily on our perception, on the way we process our material circumstances. Success comes to mind: whether or not we are successful really does depend, I think, on how we see our circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves. We can define our own success. Perhaps even contentment, that sense of overall comfort, is primarily mental. Perhaps even joy.
But I believe that happiness is different: it’s a day to day, minute by minute thing. Whether I am happy at any give moment can depend quite a lot on whether or not I am eating a cupcake. If I am eating a cupcake, I am happy. (Depending on the cupcake, of course. I mean, I’m picky.) Happiness does in fact depend on things outside ourselves, so to make ourselves happy, we need to change things outside ourselves. (At least, that’s a lot easier than just trying to be happy, which I think is a very hard thing to do. Make yourself be happy, try to produce an internal state of happiness without changing anything external . . . Much easier to buy a cupcake.)
Here are the things I do to make myself happy, and notice what small things they are, how little it takes:
1. Take a bubble bath! This is my #1 go-to making happy thing, and it’s much more cost-effective than therapy.
2. Do the dishes. No, doing dishes does not make me happy. But having done them does! And this goes for all the other cleaning, straightening, organizing things as well. Making beds, vacuuming carpets, even cleaning the bathroom. Among other things, these get rid of that vaguely guilty feeling that comes from not having cleaned. But they also provide a feeling of accomplishment. You may not have finished your PhD dissertation, but hey, the dishes are done!
3. Buying and arranging fresh flowers. I know these are expensive: I’m lucky to have a neighborhood Trader Joe’s, where I can buy flowers each week. Just looking at them, on the table, the dresser, the windowsill, makes me happy.
4. Eating chocolate. Of course, it has to be the right chocolate: brownie cupcakes from Sweet, chocolate orange hazelnut torte from Burdick, even a Toblerone. But chocolate is a happy thing.
5. Painting toenails. Gold, dark burgundy, iridescent purple. Particularly fun when you know you’re going to be taking off your shoes for airport security. It’s a small sign of defiance: you want me to take off my shoes, security person? I have gold toenails!
6. Reading books. I know, I know, this one is obvious. But I also deliberately choose books that will make me happy. There are a lot of books out there that will make me unhappy, not because they’re sad, I’m fine with sad, but because they are boring or badly written. Good books are happy books.
7. Browsing thrift stores. Also antiques stores, when they’re the sorts of antiques stores in which you can actually afford things, old silver plate and transferware. I believe in retail therapy, as long as you’re doing it in a place where you’re not going to be anxious about the prices. If I can buy myself two sweaters in a thrift store for $10? I’m golden.
8. Waking by the river. I love to walk by my river and check on how it’s doing. Are the leaves turning yet? Have they fallen? What are the geese and squirrels doing? Walking in a natural space is necessary for mental health anyway: you need the sunlight, you need the wind in the treetops. But there is something particularly magical about water. If you can, walk near water. It will make you happy.
9. Listening to music. Another obvious one, but sometimes I forget how powerful music can be. And again, I’m picky. Loreena McKennit, I’ve found, is particularly happy-making.
I’m trying to think of a tenth thing I do to make myself happy, and if I think of it, I’ll mention it later. But these are the ones I could think of, off the top of my head. What I’m looking for is something easy, something you can do at a moment’s notice. For example, spending time with friends makes me happy, but that’s something I usually need to plan for. These are things I can do immediately, when I need to, by myself.
And they work even when there is something important making you unhappy, because external circumstances can do that, in a powerful way. If you feel trapped, if you feel as though you can’t do what you want — that, more than anything, will make you unhappy. Even in that circumstance, bubble baths will get you a long way. They got me through a PhD dissertation (well, and therapy).
This is me, on a rainy day, walking around the city. Being very happy just to see the city in the rain!