Happiness is a Warm Jar

As each day unravels, it’s easy to slip into complacency. I find myself doing the same thing, day in and day out. Everything feels stagnant, and while each day is different in its own right, the days remain largely the same.

On top of that, it’s hard to find what’s good every day outside of “I woke up, all of my body parts are functioning as usual, I have food and a roof over my head.” Of course, these are not to be taken for granted (I learned the power of running water when during my Peace Corps service I was denied it for an extended period of time). And really, we should be more thankful of these privileges. I remember telling a friend or two about said waterless plight and how they shouldn’t take it for granted.

“I don’t!” they said.

But believe me, they do. I do. You do, too.

A few years ago circa 2012, I learned about something called a happiness jar. Starting on January 1st of the new year, you’re supposed to write something – anything – that made you happy every day. By the end of the year, on December 31st, your jar should have at least 365 reasons something or someone made you happy.

So on January 1st, 2013, I washed out a salsa jar and threw in my first piece of paper. Sadly, here in 2017, the jar isn’t even halfway full (to be fair it’s a massive jar). I even started one during my service, only for it to meet the same fate. It’s not that I’m devoid of emotion; it’s that I don’t find interest in writing the same reasons over and over again. So now, instead of forcing myself to drop a paper into my jar every day, I add one when I am genuinely happy.

It’s a great exercise in understanding gratitude. There are some days that are so bad, I have to actively remind myself of what good happened so that I don’t write off my day as a complete waste. Those entries to the jar are most important.

My jar stares at me from across the desk every day, and I stare back. Yes, it’s only barely halfway full, but I can still find reasons to add to its collection. One day, that jar will be full, and I can finally dump out its contents to read, to reflect, and to start again.

Perceptions of Perfection

Our standards are higher than ever: we expect the best from everyone at all times, and if one doesn’t rise to the expectations of their peers, they’re criticized.

This is not a new concept. No matter what, people are going to point out what’s wrong with someone else (and will go to great lengths especially if they don’t like you), casually ignoring their own faults.

But what I’m focusing on is this strange air of professionalism that’s permeating everything we do now. This is, in part, because of the internet and how easy it is to scroll through someone’s life. People become so afraid of having their pasts used against them that they erect a massive wall and hide under the shiny veneer of perfection.

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Wipe Your Feet Somewhere Else

Once upon a time, I was an insufferable doormat.

In some ways, I still am, but thanks to time and just a hint of pride, I’ve moved past my worst moments.

Even to this day, I struggle with acknowledging my own feelings because I care so much about others’ instead. A guilt settles in the pit of my belly when I have to say no to a person or a request. I know I shouldn’t feel guilty for taking care of myself; in fact, I should do it more often.

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Ink-Stained Hands

I’ve tried journaling by hand in the past, with little effect. Blogging as an activity is easier for me if I’m typing. However, I know the healing power of a good handwritten work (even if it results in an eventual cramp).

There was a time about two years ago when I was at a really low point in my life. I was feeling hopeless and down, and I didn’t know how to approach that. I couldn’t get the angry buzz of negative thoughts out of my head. So, on a whim, I took out a pen and a sheet of paper from my notebook and began writing a letter. It was addressed to a specific person, but in reality I was focusing on myself. The best way I could figure out how I felt was if I pretended I was telling my woes to someone else. Next thing I knew, I had a stack of letters addressed to different people – letters I would never send.

Still, they served as catharsis.

I don’t know if it was a placebo effect and time did the work, but I genuinely believe writing it all out helped me heal faster. I could finally manage a slurry of conflicting emotions I couldn’t vocalize. Attempting to put them down on paper aided me in compartmentalizing those feelings and eventually, moving past them. There are even proven medical benefits to writing by hand versus typing on a screen.

Also, it’s just fun. Picking what color ink you want to use (markers, pen, or pencil?), deciding what type of paper to write on (lined or plain? colorful construction paper or thick oaktag?), or even leaving little doodles in the margins! The act of writing a letter brought me back to grade school in a way, when slipping notes across desks behind the teacher’s back was so exciting and taboo.

It made me feel better just on principle. However, I haven’t given a handwritten letter in a long, long time. I barely even scribble my name down anymore, thanks to technology.

Hmm. This blog is great and all, but maybe I should brush up on my letter writing skills…

Asking for Trouble

Recently, I’ve stepped out of my shell a little more. A few days ago, I sought advice on a project I’ve been working on. I was proud of how far I’d come, but knew I needed a fresh pair of eyes. As is the way of the internet, I posted it on an anonymous forum explicitly asking for critique. I was setting myself up for potential heartbreak, and I knew that. However, I also knew I couldn’t proceed without a fair assessment from random, relatively unbiased internet strangers.

At first, the post went untouched. Instead of waiting around for an answer, I busied myself with other work throughout the day. Finally, closer to evening, I got a nibble! The reply was brief, yet constructive. I took everything this person said to heart and applied it – even saving the response elsewhere to look back on.

Hey, this isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. Of course, this was just one reply. A few others trickled in that were kind but ultimately, they weren’t critiques I was looking for.

And then, as you can guess, I did get a critique. A short but confrontational, poorly worded one at that. It didn’t say much in the way of my project but implied quite a lot about my personal character which I didn’t appreciate. It stung, but honestly, it wasn’t the worst I’ve come across as a dedicated internet denizen.

I had to sit back for a minute or two to acknowledge how I felt, let it roll through my system, take a deep breath, and read it again.

Out of all the things they said/implied, only one was a genuine, useful response to the work I posted. Perhaps this person is bad at communicating, perhaps something got lost in translation, or perhaps they really are a sour individual hiding behind a computer screen. I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know.

I replied to them and agreed with the one good point they made. I didn’t waste my time trying to argue with them (don’t feed the trolls) and I thanked them for taking time out to respond to my request. And I left it at that.

When you put yourself out there for the world to judge, you invite both good and bad. How you respond to the bad is paramount. I could’ve argued with this person all day, and neither of us would have come out the winner – we’d just be wasting our time. On the same token, you can’t always shun harsh critique because, like in my case, there may be a nugget of helpfulness just under the surface. Additionally, there could be rivers of compliments and kind words, but not one of them will allow you to grow, only to stroke your own ego.

No man is an island, and we all need others to help ourselves mature into decent human beings. Sometimes insults are just insults. But, every once in a while, you can take the gritty sand of their words and turn them into pearls.

Defying Expectations

The biggest struggle that comes with finding yourself is teaching others about the new you. Or rather, the you you are already that you’re now more comfortable sharing with others.

Whew.

I am a laid back person by default. I don’t like to start or be involved in drama, I keep to myself, and overall, I’m an introverted individual. Introversion, however, does not mean lacking interest in diverse topics or lacking passion for various ideologies (but that’s a whole ‘nother post for another day). I am a strong believer in rooting for the underdog and working with underprivileged people to help them. Though I may not show it outwardly, I can get as angry or as sad as anyone else when faced with adversity.

Just because I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve doesn’t mean I don’t have one.

But what gets me most upset is when people – especially those close to me – invalidate my feelings or my reactions because to them, that’s “not me.” In reality, that’s not their perception of me. That’s not what they expect me to do.

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