The other night I had a conversation with my daughter about happiness.
The conversation came about because school was set to resume the next day, and she didn’t want to go. The holidays were very busy for us, and chances to just sit around and do nothing had been thin on the ground. Add to this the fact that all the best toys came at Christmas (after which we were the most busy), that her computer had been down most of break and was just now back, that her father had the upcoming week off free and clear—well, I had a very unhappy nine-year-old.
"It’s not fair," she complained. "I don’t want to go to school." She even dared a defiant, "I’m NOT going."
Dan talked to her, empathizing and saying he frequently didn’t want to go to work either, that we do a lot of things we don’t want to do, and we just have to do them anyway. I listened to all this from my office. I agreed with him, of course, though a part of me raised an eyebrow and thought, "I don’t imagine that’s going to make her feel a whole lot better."
"Well, of course," the sage and adult part of me argued back. "Of course she won’t like it. That’s the way life is." A whole host of platitudes rose up, ready to explain why it was important for our child to accept that, despite her desires, a lot of life was meant to be things we don’t want.
And then I realized how much of my own philosophy this was bucking. I called bullshit, stuffed the adult back into its cubicle, and headed into Anna’s room.
Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t any happier than she’d been before the crisis had begun. I listened as she told me the same stuff she’d told Dan, and I nodded, and I even repeated some of what he’d said. But then I said, "Do you want to know the big secret about life?"
She was in full anti-establishment mode by then, and unsurprisingly just sort of went "Hmmpf!" before folding her arms and turning away. So I shrugged.
"Sure. You don’t have to hear it. It’s okay. But if you really want to know, I’ll tell you."
We played the game awhile, and once Anna had established that she didn’t have to listen to this, that really, she was just humoring me, and once I was sure she was listening, I told a story.
"The thing is," I said, "when we’re little kids, we think all of life is about being happy. And then we grow up a little, bad things happen and we don’t get what we want, and we become adults. And we hear that we just have to do the bad stuff, that life is about helping other people, or being good, or about following rules, or whatever. There are a lot of things, but basically they boil down to, ‘I know you want to be happy, but you really have to do this other thing. When you’re grown up, you’ll be okay with that.’ But do you know what?"
I paused for effect. Anna gave me a look that, had she worn glasses, would have been over the top of them.
I tried not to laugh and leaned forward. "This is the secret part. Are you ready?"
Anna glared a little bit harder.
I said in a stage whisper, "The little kids are right."
This, as I had hoped, won me some points because of the surprise factor, though she was now very suspicious as well. She smelled a metaphor or some other Mom-babble thing, which was fair. But she was still listening, so I went on.
"The problem is that the little kids think it’s all about the world making them happy. And sadly, a lot of adults think that too. So when the world doesn’t make them happy, when nobody shows up to throw a party, they get sad and pouty and bummed out, and they start making up crap about how we need to follow rules."
I totally had her attention now. Especially when I said "crap." I might have even said "shit."
"The thing is," I continued, "is that we are supposed to be happy, but WE have to do the happy-making. There are things, yes, that you have to do. Your dad doesn’t want to go to work. He just wants to listen to music and watch TV and be with his friends and play games. Just like you, really. But if he doesn’t go to work, he doesn’t get any money, and we don’t have a house, or music, or a TV, or games. So he actually goes to work so that he can be happy."
I’d gained some ground here, I could tell. But she was still looking at me skeptically. "I still don’t want to go to school." Implied in her tone was that nobody was giving her any money, and she was still waiting to see how going to school made her happy.
I nodded. "Yeah. School is one of those things you just have to do. The law says you have to go. You could stay home and do school with me, but I think you’d really hate it. There’d be no other kids, just your impatient mom who still has lots of other work to do. You’d still have to do schoolwork. So you have to go to school." I paused. "You could refuse to go to school. You could pitch a fit and hold onto the door, or stand in the hallway at school and refuse to go into the classroom. But a lot would happen because of that. We’d have to get you to a counselor really fast, and the principal would talk to us and ask why our child wasn’t at school, and you’d get a lot more attention than you want. Not freedom to go do what you want."
I was getting glares again, so I started talking fast.
"The thing you need to focus on," I said, "is not what you don’t want to do but still have to do, but what you still can do. So you want more time to play games? Organize your time better. Get up earlier, get ready without dawdling, and then head straight to the computer or the Wii or whatever it is you want to do. I’ll even reward you. You do really well with accepting school and being organized and not complaining and whining about your bedtime, and I’ll give you a half an hour extra for Valentine’s Day. Forever. Bedtime will be 8:30 on school nights from now on."
Dude, I so had her attention now.
"It isn’t the world’s job to make you happy. It isn’t even my job. It’s your job, Anna. And when you can’t figure out how to be happy, I can help, but you have to try. And this goes for more than just not wanting to go to school. It goes for friends and when plans go awry and everything. This is how you learn, too. Sometimes the best gifts in life are the brick walls. Sometimes when we learn the most and end up the happiest is because there was this big thing in our way we had to figure out how to get around or over or work into our plans. And you want to know another secret? You can’t lose in trying to figure out how to get around it. You can keep trying as long as you want, and there’s no wrong way except to stop trying. And sadly that’s a lot of people in the world. Especially adults. There are a lot of people sitting in front of their brick walls pouting, and when you walk up to them and ask why they’re not happy, they tell you it’s the wall’s fault, and they’ll stand there forever complaining about it. They don’t even try to get around it or anything. And they aren’t happy."
Now I got a frown. "I guess I’m one of those people, then."
I do have glasses, and I totally looked over them. "If that’s what you want, I guess. Except I thought you were pretty smart. My kid isn’t a stupid kid. My kid is smart and clever and strong. You can sit and pout if you want, but I thought you’d be one of the ones who wanted to be happy and kept trying. Suit yourself, though."
I kissed her goodnight. She was mad awhile longer, but the furious tears had stopped. I could tell she was thinking. I hoped I’d gotten through somehow, but that’s the thing about being a preachy mom. A lot gets tuned out. So I just kept on, hoping something stuck, already mentally editing to see if I could rephrase another day.
The next day she did go to school, and it turned out to be not as awful as she’d thought. Also, that day her dad and I had cleaned out part of the basement, and I’d found a computer game that I loved, and I told her about it. (Pharaoh. Totally awesome game.) My excitement was contagious, and after dinner, I installed it and showed it to her. Half an hour into it, she turned to me, gripped my arm and looked at me with naked zeal.
"I love this game."
I smiled; I love the game too. The night whizzed by, and all of a sudden Dan came in asking why Anna hadn’t gone to bed yet, since it was 8:20. Both parents braced ourselves, ready to hear whines and complaints. Surprisingly, there was only disappointment, and then came the shock.
"I’m going to get up at six-thirty tomorrow," she declared, "so I can play."
And she did. She’s gotten up early every day since, in fact, perfecting the art of task management and figuring out what order is best to maximize her time. She’s extended this to after school as well, and applied it to other things. There has also not been a single "I don’t want to go to school" and absolutely no "it’s not fair" complaints.
I don’t think for a second this utopia will last forever, and I don’t think my child has now found the Zen of happiness, either. It’s my damn philosophy, and I have a hard time with it. Because of patterns from earlier in my life and because of what life taught me, I have a hard time doing something that doesn’t at least smell like work. It’s hard for me to do absolutely nothing, or to do something just for pleasure. If I take an afternoon to watch movies and am not sick, I feel the time was wasted. Even watching The Daily Show should happen while I do exercises. The idea of my life being built around my own happiness is fine for my daughter, but for myself it seems very selfish. I honestly feel panic when I’m experiencing naked enjoyment with no work component. Surely something or someone will come take it away from me because I’m being bad.
But really, why? Honestly, do we really have to be alive only for someone else? How fair is that? And with no instinct for it, no hammered out plan? Even the Bible or any other prescriptive rule book contradicts itself and gets warped by human interpretation. Why is the idea of living to be happy so foreign to us?
Right now as I write this my husband is downstairs in the TV room slouched in an easy chair, feet on an ottoman, tucked beneath a blanket watching documentary after documentary on DVD and Roku. He’s in his pajamas. He has coffee. He has a space heater. He could go back to bed if he wanted, or drive to Des Moines and window shop. He could walk all over Ames. He could play Wii or surf the Internet or do just about anything, but this is what he’s choosing right now. Because it makes him happy. He’s read two books this break. Because it makes him happy.
Sunday I sat on the couch and watched the entire first three discs of Season One of Battlestar Galactica. When I get done with this, I’m going to take a shower because company is coming, but then I’m going to settle in and watch The Daily Show and not do any exercises. Because it makes me happy.
Next week Dan will go back to work. Later today he will fix doorknobs and light switches with his dad. Later we will do a bit more work on the basement. Later I will make dinner. Later I will do the damn housekeeping on my website and fold laundry. Later I will go and do exercises so my body doesn’t hurt. There are a lot of things we’ll do because they need to be done, and there are a lot of things we won’t do because we don’t have the money for them just now.
But I’m going to be selfishly happy too. I’m going to read books for fun. I’m going to play Pharaoh with Anna. I’m going to play with the cats. I’m going to look at stupid websites to make me laugh.
I’m not going to expect the universe to make me happy. I’m going to work with what I have within the universe, with what I know and understand, and I will try to increase my happiness. I will do it so that I can learn and grow.
Mostly, though, I’m going to do it because, I have to admit, deep down I just want to be happy. I’m going to do my best to not let that make me feel panicked, to just admit it, take a deep breath, and smile.
And then go play more Pharaoh.