Happiness in the Meantime

I have a tendency to wallow. I suspect academics are even more prone to this than the general population: the impulse that drives the desire voluntarily to camp out in a library for days on end is not too far removed from the impulse that drives the desire to sit on the couch eating ice cream for days on end. This blog, in fact, is the result of an intense period of wallowing, in which I decided I needed to do something constructive about my situation, even if that was just writing about it.

In general, it’s helped. I feel like I’m coming up with a plan, even if it’s still a really nebulous one at this point. And the semester is winding down, bringing with it relief (and also exhaustion and piles and piles of grading, which continues to be my excuse for not blogging), spring weather, and the prospect of summer travel. All of this has helped my mood tremendously. But I’m also aware that I don’t want my mood to be entirely dependent on external forces: with the ever-present backdrop of loneliness and frustration, I’m particularly susceptible to things like a bad class, or a rainy day, or my dog’s finicky mood wrecking my calm. I’ve got to put in at least another year in this job and this place (most likely), and it’s not all going to be sweetness and light. So another of the things I’m doing is trying to build in happiness.

In the past, I’ve relied on friends and family to help me escape from wallowing. And it’s not as though I don’t still have that support network, but now they’re all long-distance, which makes it harder to call them up to get a coffee. I’m making acquaintances in the new place, but they’re all work colleagues, which severely limits how honest I can be with them. (I love Jung’s definition of loneliness: “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.” Yup, that about sums it up.)

Recognizing that I’m working without my usual net in this place, I’m trying to be more intentional about building in other elements into the everyday structure of my life that promote happiness and discourage wallowing. So far I’m working on the following:

1. Exercise, exercise, exercise. Sounds obvious, I know, but it’s also something I’ve struggled with doing very consistently, really, since I quit playing varsity sports in undergrad. But I’m really trying to get back in the habit of making it a regular thing.

2. Eat well. Same obviousness and same problems as the exercising. When I’m busy, it’s just so easy to do pasta and sauce from the jar, or cereal for dinner, or whatever. But life always looks better with vegetables.

3. Pick up the phone. I have this network of beloved friends and family, and I need to be better about keeping in touch. What if I plan to talk to some of the people I talk to every couple of months more like every couple of weeks, for instance? People know and love me, unorthodox theology and career doubts and all, and thanks to Skype and my cell plan, it’s never been easier to get those reminders.

4. Laugh at the Doggess. The Doggess, bless her, did not have the easiest start to her life, and she still has a lot of issues stemming from the shelter and whatever came before that. And though I love her dearly, I’m far too liable to get stressed out about what she’s doing wrong, to want to turn everything into an obedience project, and to worry excessively about whether she’ll ever overcome her various problems. But she’s also this goofy, hilarious, beautiful, cuddly ball of awesome, and it’s all the latter that I need to focus on.

5. Work on the exit strategy. Because it’s so much easier to face life here when I know things are finite.

6. Be mindful of the things I do enjoy here. I’m living in an area of the country where I’ll probably never live again, and in terms of landscape and general ambiance, it’s an area I really enjoy. So I do want to enjoy it. I want to appreciate the beauty of this place, from the everyday scenery, to the parks and hiking trails I haven’t done yet. I want to take the time to stargaze out in the country, because I haven’t seen stars for a decade, and they’re glorious.

7. Take every reasonable opportunity to travel. There’s the tricky balance of time and expense and all that, but the worst wallowing of the year was when I didn’t go away for spring break because I decided I needed to catch up on work and save money. Catching up on work and saving money are both good things, but often a trip is a very good investment of both time and money.

What about you, gentle readers? Any suggestions for being happy in the meantime?



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4 responses to “Happiness in the Meantime

  1. Great list! I would add two things:
    1) Volunter work. In grad school I volunteered with economically disadvantaged kids and it put a lot of things in perspective for me–especially the frustrations of academia. Gave me a healthier outlook, which made me a healthier person.

    2) A non-academic hobby can go a long way toward maintaining sanity, especially if you prioritize making time for it. Cooking (would help with the eating better goal), Running (same with the exercise), Painting, Knitting, Gardening, Bird watching, whatever. Even better if the hobby is social or involves taking a class/lessons–that gives you an opportunity to make non-work friends, which is key.

    • Yes, the exercise is more of a hobby that I hope will also lead to non-work friends. Once I get into better cycling shape, the plan is to join the local(ish) bike club. But right now I can’t keep up with them! 🙂

      Volunteering is a great idea and one that I haven’t really done much of lately. The trick in this environment would be to find a good way to do it that isn’t connected to some kind of church “ministry” thing, because I’m not interested in that, but that seems to be the only kind of volunteering anyone I know does. Probably I just need to widen my frame of reference!

  2. Yes, great list! I created a similar one sort of by accident while reading Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider. I posted about it a while ago:

    To add to your list: I’ve found that reading about other people’s struggles,career/life transitions, mourning periods, etc has been similarly cathartic/helpful. It may not stop me from thinking about my own “stuff” but it often gets me thinking about it in a new way. I found that reading lots of memoir (not my usual genre of study/choice) has been a great way to turn off my lit crit fiction brain and tap into something new.

    I guess it’s part of my make-up that reading is always a form of healing for me.

    • I really like this idea, thanks! I probably should have put “read for fun” on the list, because that’s something I’ve been slowly getting back in the past year or two since finishing, and it needs to be nurtured. I was so afraid that getting a PhD in English had ruined reading for me, because for a while it appeared to have done so. Fortunately, it is coming back, but I find that as I’ve moved from research-heavy grad student life to teaching-heavy professoring life, I’m in some ways struggling more to turn off the “what if I wanted to teach this?” brain, even when I’m trying to read for fun. I have found myself reading more non-fiction–including memoirs, but not exclusively so–as a result. But I really like the idea of deliberately cultivating that kind of reading as a kind of healing and catharsis.

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