Happiness Talks

Last night, Jesse and I went out and met up with a few friends. At some point, the conversation turned to the science/study of happiness. Lots of theories on what makes us happy were thrown around. We all talked about studies we’ve read, TED talks we’ve viewed, and our own personal experiences.

There are a lot of ideas out there about how we find happiness, what hinders our happiness, and how everyone contributes to the pie. Some of the theories we through around:

    • We have an abundance of choice – Choice should make us happier. Right? Having the option between an 8-pack of crayons and a 64-pack of crayons is always better, right? Wrong. Generally speaking, when we have too much choice, we become incapable of measuring marginal improvement and always feel that “the grass is always greener,” than whatever choice we made. When we’re distilled down to a few options, we end up feeling better about the choice we made. We can recognize the gains we took in our choice amongst a few. I’ve embedded a TED talk I believe I’ve posted before about this paradox in choice abundance:

What else?

  • Expectations – these are the best and worst things that can happen to a person in relation to happiness. Have them too high and you end up feeling pretty isolation and dissatisfied. Too low and you often find that you get less than you deserve. We talked about this in relation to partnerships. Should you have high or low expectations when you are dating?

I brought up a study I read about arranged marriages. As it turns out, arranged marriages often have higher happiness and marital satisfaction ratings than “love marriages”. Why is this? Lower expectations. In the U.S. we’re chronically unhappy in our partnerships for the most part. I see and hear of couples that just want the other person to change. If they could just change, that would be better. When in reality, much of happiness in relationships is accepting your partner as they are and understanding that any change they do is for themselves. Gottman argues to have high expectations in your relationships. So, what’s the right answer?

I’m not quite sure. There’s a difference between expectations of relationships (i.e. family, income, housing, retirement, etc.) and expectations of love. A lot of it has to do with our subjective experiences. We all do it; we compare ourselves to others. We look at our next door neighbors and realize we have the same jobs, the same incomes, and the same opportunities, yet for some reason, they have more stuff, or more happiness, or more blah blah blah than we do. We were just fine before we perceived their happiness as greater than ours, but now that we feel we’re being cheated out of something that we could have if only we did X.

So what needs to happen for us to eradicate these things that influence our unhappiness?

We need to eliminate superfluous choice.

  • Do we really need 800 channels on our TVs? Do we need cable at all?
  • Do we absolutely have to possess a pair of the same shoes in white, black, beige, and brown?
  • Do we need phones that can check the internet, call our moms, schedule our lives, and make us a grilled cheese?

We also need to take a chill pill on our expectations and practice a little bit of mindfulness.

  • Does our partner have to soothe all of our emotional hurts or is that our responsibility?
  • Do we have to worry about how nice our car is in comparison to our peers?
  • Is the hotness level of the person we are dating going to matter to us in 50 years when we’re old and wrinkly?
  • Is the restaurant we’re eating at right now good enough? If you ate somewhere better last week, are you going to get up and leave your table this instant or are you just going to appreciate what you’re doing in the moment?

These aren’t the only ways we impede our happiness levels, but it’s a start. I would encourage you to consider what choices you could afford to free yourself of and what expectations you’re holding on to that decrease your life satisfaction. As my yoga teacher would say, “Let go of that which does not serve you.”

We’re Self-Involved, People

Back when I was in counseling (which feels like yesterday, but was about four years ago), I would go to my counselor each week with something to talk about. Generally the theme revolved around the dialogue in my own head and the self-talk I had that was overwhelmingly negative. This went on for several weeks and then one day, my therapist very bluntly said to me, “Jen, do you ever volunteer?”

I was so taken aback, I couldn’t understand the purpose of her question.

“Um, no. I don’t really. I’m involved in a few service organizations, but nothing really substantial,” I replied.

“Well, I was just wondering about how important some of these issues might seem to you if you had something to compare them to. Don’t get me wrong, the stuff your dealing with is crap, but I wonder how it would look if you had to feed people who couldn’t afford to feed themselves.”

It felt like a slap in the face. I wasn’t really angry, but I also wasn’t happy with the comment either. Was she implying that I was selfish or self-involved? Did she think I was just a whiny brat from the suburbs?

I don’t think she thought any of those things. In fact, I know she was fond of me. I was fortunate to have a therapist that would say what needed to be said and over the next week, when I caught myself being upset about something going on in my head, some slight I perceived from a friend or stranger, or something else that caused some emotional turmoil for me, I thought about what she said.

I wondered how bad my life really was. I had become so good at romanticizing how pathetically depressing my life was from my point of view, I had almost blotted out all the other things that could make my life worse. I had forgotten that I had a job, I was enrolled in a good school, I could afford to eat, I had health insurance, and I had friends. How bad was my life, really?

Becoming a counselor has allowed me to do many things that fulfill who I am and the needs I have. Some of those needs are the desire to help others, the desire to make a difference in someone’s life, and the desire to further my education. Those are all the rosy, do-gooder reasons I became a counselor. Another one, I realize in retrospect, is that I need to be reminded that I have a wonderful life. I have spent the majority of my life looking through a lens of grim reality, instead of understanding it’s positivity and optimism that are really how we stay happy. No amount of complaining about our lives or preparing for catastrophe makes us happy. Catastrophes can and do happen to the best and the worst of us. We can sit and worry all day about it, or we can be happy in the meantime and understand that life is pretty good.

I can be self-involved. I don’t wake up and look in the mirror and go, “Darn, I’m the most beautiful person in the world,” because it’s not narcissism. It’s just me, sitting all up in my head, thinking about my life, my problems, my future, my relationship, my career, and my ambitions. I exhaust myself over-analyzing every interaction I have and think I will have. I think about the motives of others all the time. I am constantly questioning reality. It’s exhausting and I find it doesn’t solve anything! It makes me an awesome counselor when I put that energy toward assisting others in their lives, but when I do it, it’s just a bad case of not knowing when good is enough.

While I wouldn’t classify myself or any of my clients who are working on their mental health as “selfish,” I would almost across the board say that we’re all  a little too self-absorbed. We have to get out of our skulls and into the moment. We have to join with our communities and our friends and help them work on their lives. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s a common thread I have found in my work on myself and with my clients. We’re all just too self-involved.


I am the worst cleaner in the world. It’s not that I lack the skills to clean, but more so the dedication to the task. You see, I can’t just clean the kitchen. I’ll be wiping down the counter tops and I’ll think to myself, “Oh, I also need to pledge the table tonight!” and before I know it, I’ve left the kitchen, found the pledge, and begun on my next task of cleaning the table, not realizing I wasn’t done with the kitchen. I still had to unload the dishwasher and put away everything on the drying rack.

Being an adult is tough. I went through high school and college barely using any sort of organizational device. Planners were abandoned and my phone’s calendar was always blank. I just remembered everything. It’s served me well most of my life, but I’m starting to realize – especially in this move – how disorganized my method of organization is for me. Sure, I get everything I need to get accomplished done, but I end up feeling frazzled and exhausted. I must have walked up and down my steps during this move 100+ times in one day before I thought to myself, “Why don’t I just do one room at a time and work my way down?”

This may seem simple to many of you types who cling to your planners and have always written everything down. This concept is so alien to me. I had a pretty big awakening when I realized how much anxiety I have because I stress over something like a project or a dinner date with a friend looming in the future with a fuzzy date and time. More specifically, I find myself constantly catastrophizing things I need to get done in a week or more, when I really should be concentrating on the things I need to get done today.

For example, I have these things to get done before everyone arrives in town on Friday for my graduation:

  • Manicure & Pedicure (my treat to myself for graduating!)
  • Car detailed
  • Go to Lowes for some last minute clean-ups
  • Lunch with a friend on Wednesday
  • Beach Day on Thursday!
  • Maid Service
  • Carpet cleaning
  • Reservations for goodbye brunch
  • Empty car before transport
  • Laundry

That’s a list of anxiety-provoking tasks to get done in the next two days. Generally, I just kind of think about them and muse on when they will happen. I’ll get anxious about what goes where in relation to my more concrete plans (i.e. beach adventures & lunch dates) and I’ll start worrying about something arbitrary, but a necessary task nonetheless like  the box of wine in my trunk from our anniversary trip to Sonoma that needs to be stuffed with padding before we check it on the airplane.

I’ll imagine the car being loaded on the truck to be transported across the U.S. by train and me fretting and going, “Noooooo! Jesse! Our wine is in the trunk!” and then the world shattering. Or, forgetting to stuff the padding around the wine bottles and going to pick them up in the Seattle airport and having the box be wet with anniversary wine because all the bottles shattered.

See? My brain is a mess.

So, I’m doing my mindfulness thing these days. I’m using my iPhone calendar and I’m trying to prioritize to relieve my anxiety. It’s helping quite a bit. I also feel like I’ve struggled with posting lately because of this prioritizing anxiety. I tend to do much better with a rigid schedule than a loose one, which is definitely what I’ve got going on these days. I’ve got a bunch of stuff to get done, but it’s all over my days in various places. I can’t wait until I have structure again!

I feel like I tell my clients these things like they make sense and then I struggle with anxiety over making a simple schedule. It’s helped when I feel anxious about what’s coming down the pipes to just think, “What needs to be done right now and the rest of today?” Such relief.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the update and my cheesy photos documenting the moving trucks pulling out of my driveway. I was really excited. Don’t fret, The Case Files will return! I’ve got a few in mind as soon as my schedule catches up with my blogging. In the meantime, I’ll be getting my master’s degree this Saturday! Wheeeeeee!