Thursday, January 21, 2010

Working at happiness

"We tend to think of happiness (and by happiness I also mean health or overall well-being) as a gift, and sometimes it is, a pure gratuity. But most of the times it comes about because you've done the work, prepared the ground to allow it in or tended it carefully once it arrived. You have to practice happiness the way you practice the piano, commit to it in the way you commit to going to the gym. You don't do it most of the time because it feels good to do it. You do it because it feels good to have done it."--Norah Vincent, from Voluntary Madness

Some of us (myself included) reach an age where we realize that we've been walking around with a sense of entitlement. I deserve this or they should give me that or why can't I have it? My generation likes to complain that the younger generation are the ones that feel entitled, because their parents doted on them more than ours did, and everyone got a trophy at the spelling bee. But I think it's more cultural than it is generational. Those of us who grew up in fairly stable homes, or even those who had difficult childhoods and think that the world now owes them--we don't take enough ownership of our destinies. We wait for things to happen to us, including that wellspring of happiness that we think will keep filling us up.

Other cultures don't necessarily think this way. Other cultures don't expect to be happy or always get what they want. When people immigrate to America, most have to work hard at menial jobs just to survive here. They're not welcomed by a committee who shakes their hand and gives them a new house and car. Often they are not even welcomed at all.

I read a book recently called Factory Girls, about young women in China who set off from their poor and rural hometowns to make it as a factory girl in big cities like Dongguan, where there are lots of jobs and opportunity if you work hard (or if you're tall and speak English.) And these women work very hard, sometimes with only one day off. And after work they often take English language classes, including one where all the students shave their heads to show their commitment to their studies.

I grew up in a middle-class suburban home in NJ. I got some of what I wanted, not everything-- like a real Cabbage Patch doll (I had a knock-off from Poland) or a new car at 17. But I know I had it good. We never had a boatload of money, but my father worked hard to assure that my family had the little perks like yearly vacations and dinners out and big Christmas parties. When I was 17 I got my first real job in a chain bookstore. I wanted to make my own money--in fact, my father recalls that I would never show my parents my paycheck because I didn't want them to know what I made, and then ask for some of it! This was a very different attitude than when my father was growing up in Bensonhurst and he had to hand over every paycheck to his father, who then doled out a couple of dollars to his son to take my mother to the movies.

Work has always been important to me, a big part of my identity. I think that's true of a lot of people, and why the current unemployment situation is causing so many people to feel the sting of their identity lost. Yet over the years I must admit that I've developed a sense of entitlement when it comes to being rewarded. I expect that I will get a good job that I love and do well, I expect that I'll automatically get a raise after 18 months. I expect to earn the respect of my co-workers because of my skills and experience.

In my personal life, I expect that married life will be nothing but trips and restaurant meals and shopping sprees and lots of affection without the conflict. I expect to have the same freedoms I had as a single woman except now with a partner-in-crime who will catch me if I fall. But that has not proven to be the case, because everyone knows you have to WORK on your marriage. You have to constantly compromise and weather the ups and downs of your financial, romantic, and work lives--which are often in flux.

And then there's happiness, which I thought would come from having a good job, a kind husband, and a nice home. But that's not the end of the story. Nothing lasts forever, nothing is permanent. You have to work on steering the ship or else you'll float out to sea, lost.

So work hard. Push yourself to do better. And for god's sake (and now I'm addressing myself here), do it now.


tammie said...

Couldn't agree more. Thanks, Jennifer, for sharing.

Levi said...

I love your list of expectations around marriage, shopping sprees and lots of affection. I could have that!

Right now is all we have, right.