I’m still reading Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” having had it returned to me by my Year 11 student who had borrowed it for help and inspiration for his Speaking and Listening exam (he got an A by the way – a huge improvement from his usual E grades). The title of today’s post comes from “November”.
I know I don’t have to explain the significance of the title of this post to you – you’re probably reading it because the quotation did the same for you as it did for me. It shocked, surprised and possibly saddened you in equal measure. There is something truly delightful about a child’s laughter but why should adults lose this ability to laugh aloud by themselves?
As I have reached chapter “November”, I have finally caught up with Rubin’s year in project terms and I think that, perhaps, this presents the most food for thought. That said, I have learned lessons already. I highly recommend that you read this book, if you haven’t already done so. You don’t need to be unhappy to need more happiness in your lives.
Laugh Out Loud
“It’s easier to complain than to laugh, easier to yell than to joke around, easier to be demanding than to be satisfied.” Yet another truth. Being cheerful and finding things to be happy about in stressful circumstances isn’t easy. But we must try. Opportunities for joy so often present themselves and we owe it to ourselves to take them.
One example of such an opportunity is my period 6 class. The usual school day ends at 3pm but for Year 11, we go on until 4pm and sometimes 5pm, providing extra classes just for that year group, to try and get them the best possible chance of success. It’s exhausting. The children are tired and resent being “forced to be there”, we resent them for resenting it, and generally things are quite negative. On a Monday, after teaching five lessons, doing catchups and parental phone calls at lunch, having meetings at 8am, period 6 is the last place I want to be, particularly with grumpy teenagers. We have set lists of students who are invited to attend and attendance is mandatory.
For the past three weeks I have had some gate-crashers.
Did I see this as a positive thing? No! These children had been boisterous in class, had been the source of months of angst and hours of phone-calls to parents, not to mention hours of my free-time being given over for detention. I didn’t recognise their gate-crashing for what it was until just this Monday. I saw it instead as children who wanted to wait for their mates to finish period 6 but didn’t fancy waiting down in the hall. It was this Monday, when I was resignedly watching the fog thicken outside my classroom window, feeling resentful that I was there and would have to stay until 4pm so my drive home would be more hazardous, when the truth hit me. My two gate-crashers, students from my own class, had arrived on time and dutifully got their Literature exercise books out. Suddenly, a bit of eraser hit L in the back of the head. “Oh FOG OFF!” he yelled. I couldn’t help it. I smiled. The boys were delighted with this: “Oh for fog’s sake, L, watch your language!” quipped J. I laughed. I knew it was wrong, I knew I should be reprimanding them for being off task, but they were so full of fun and so pleased with themselves, I just couldn’t stop myself. They continued making as many puns as they could and I just sat there in fits of laughter. “Did you hear that one, Miss?” said L. “Nah, she didn’t,” replied J, “She MIST it!”.
I could so easily have become cross with them, have put them into detention, or told them to leave the class (as technically they had no right to be there in the first place) but it was wonderful and I realised, finally, that their gate-crashing was because they actually cared about their work. L, after all, was the student who had taken my book and then got an A in his exam.
As adults, it seems that we don’t laugh often enough. We have so much to stress about: bills, jobs, relationships. We tell children “enjoy it while you can” and “don’t be in too much of a hurry to grow up” because we believe that the time for joy and happiness will disappear when we reach adulthood. But why should it?
How many of you remember a time in your childhood when you longed to grow up, so you could eat jelly and ice-cream for breakfast and set your own bedtimes? How many of you made grand plans to travel the world, or have bouncy-castle parties? Why did children look forward to growing up? Because they can take charge of their own lives. Children see the world in a simpler light, but isn’t it arrogant of us and self-defeatist of us to assume that they are wrong. We are in charge of our own lives and we should take charge for the good, be true to ourselves and recognise our right to happiness.
For those diehard grownups among you, let me illustrate scientifically the importance of laughter: it can apparently lower your blood pressure as it helps you to relax. It is a way to bond socially and it also softens stress within relationships. DH has quite a dry sense of humour and I am, as my Mother used to point out regularly, like light-blue-touch-paper (whatever that is). This month I have spent time trying to laugh and see the humour in what DH is saying and our evenings are more relaxed and happy as a result. In work, I’m sure this can be useful too.
Being able to laugh relies upon a reduction in negative tendencies and behaviours. Teenagers love sarcasm and they find it brilliant when their teachers indulge in the odd “burn” but surely this is actively creating a negative atmosphere and environment? I’m choosing to ban sarcasm in myself and will enlist my students’ help to make them and me more mindful.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
On Friday I spent three hours painstakingly preparing chunked spellings of key words for my bottom set Year 11 class. I broke each word down into syllables, cut those syllables out by hand and mounted them onto coloured card. I made a set for each child in my class but got them to do the final slicing into individual cards. One student, C, cut them out so that you could no longer see the coloured mount, which had been picked for her due to her visual impairment. Seeing three hours worth of work being undone, I cried: “What are you doing!?” Then stopped myself. It’s a minor detail, easily fixed. She was taking pride in her work and her snipping. I should have praised her, not stressed about a bit of coloured card. I reassured her it was OK and then the LSA, an absolute angel of a woman, set about fixing it with C.
Before you react, stop. Ask yourself: does it really matter if the wrong dinner-service has been used? Does it really matter if the toilet-roll hasn’t been placed on the holder? Is it really that big a deal that, in trying to help, your other half or children have unwittingly gotten in your way or made a mess? Be grateful that you have a dinner-service, that your children are using new toilet rolls rather than the alternative, that you have people to help you.
You don’t have to fake it to feel it.
If you’re reading this, wondering how to make yourself laugh more, then please don’t. You don’t have to force yourself to laugh. As my Year 11 proved on Monday, it’s all a matter of perspective and slowing down can really help you to listen and appreciate this. Instead of leaping to tell L off, I took a moment and lost my composure, laughing aloud. It was one of the most enjoyable P6s I’d had and we probably got more work done than we usually did with all my cajoling!
The Vulnerability of Happiness
In order to laugh in situations when you would usually feel hurt, or cross, you have to make yourself vulnerable. Often it’s laughing at yourself along with others and that can be tough. I don’t take criticism well at all and this is the bit of this month’s challenge that I’m really concerned about. I don’t honestly know whether I’ve got what it takes, when I’m the sort of person to store up people’s criticisms or throwaway comments and torment myself with them later that day, week or even month. I’m thinking about trying something like a gratitude journal, where I actively seek something to be happy about in each day. Has anyone done something like this? Does it work? What advice would you, dear readers, have for someone like me in this situation?
Pursue A Passion
DH says that if you see, read, hear or experience something that you then cannot stop thinking about, that you find yourself thinking about randomly at other points days, weeks, or even months later, then it’s a sign that whatever that thing is was exceptional and of high quality. This revelation came about when we’d watched “Gosford Park”. A self-confessed action-drama junkie, I was amazed when DH picked it up in HMV one day and pronounced it a “brilliant” film. Gosford Park is a period drama about family relationships – he actively avoids anything like that normally. The thing is, having watched it with him, I understood. Weeks afterwards, I found myself thinking back to the film. Rubin’s resolution to Pursue a Passion did just the same for me. I include it here because I don’t see a better way to ensure that you laugh more than this.
What is the thing you enjoy doing most? For me, it’s knitting and crafting. I follow The Patchwork Heart, both via her blog: http://www.thepatchworkheart.co.uk/ and her Facebook page. I actually have set her updates on Facebook to be my top priority so that when I log on, any pictures she’s uploaded are the first I see.
Her photos bring me a little joy and a lovely feeling of contentment. The combination of pretty china-ware, craft and flowers inspire me. However, recently, they’ve also made me a little sad. The reason? Because I would love nothing more on a Saturday morning than to be sitting with a cup of tea and some colourful crochet and I can’t because I’ve got too much work to do.
Rubin has shown me that that’s rubbish.
Why should we deny ourselves our pleasures? Surely part of being good at our jobs and our responsibilities is time-management. Larkin wrote a poem, Afternoons, which illustrates this further:
Summer is fading
The leaves fall in ones and twos
from trees bordering
the new recreation ground.
In the hollows of afternoons
young mothers assemble
at swing and sandpit
setting free their children
Behind them, at intervals
stand husbands in skilled trades,
an estateful of washing,
and the albums, lettered
Our Wedding, lying
near the television;
before them, the wind
is ruining their courting-places
That are still courting-places
(but the lovers are all in school).
And their children, so intent on
finding more unripe acorns
expect to be taken home.
Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
to the side of their own lives.
Now, Larkin wasn’t the most cheerful of chaps, but that final pair of lines resonates with me. How often do yu feel that you don’t have time for what you love? Or that you can’t do what you love? That you don’t deserve to because you haven’t done the ironing?
How can you be expected to laugh out loud when you deny yourself the opportunity?
Rubin recommends starting to see these things that you love as an integral part of your day. You should MAKE TIME for the things you enjoy, that matter to you. Another important part of this is to stop criticising your own inclinations. Why should you feel that your hobby or passion is inferior to another? I am an English teacher and have a huge pile of books beside my bed that I feel I should be reading. I also have a pile of books that I really want to read but feel I shouldn’t because they’re not good enough. How insane is that? I’m denying myself all the pleasure of my passion of reading because of the ironing and self-imposed snobbishness. Don’t do it.
The final piece of advice which cements this is: FORGET ABOUT RESULTS. The ironing is measurable. The jobs you have to do provide results. If you try and measure what you get out of reading, or sewing, or watching a film when it’s just for you, it’s easy to see it as worthless and push it to the side of your life and the bottom of your priority list. This is a grave error. If it makes you smile, if it makes you feel happy then it’s worth a lot. To say your own passions are unimportant is akin to saying you are unimportant. From bitter experience I know that prioritising all the “should be doings” over the “want to be doings” makes me unhappy and I resent my DH when he takes time to sit and do something he enjoys. When I resent others, including DH and even The Patchwork Heart, for making time for things they love, I get crochety. How ironic considering crochet is what I would most like to be doing! I snap and am irritable and I don’t laugh.
Making time is something I’m trying to do this month. Previously, blogging was something I had to earn but today I’ve blocked off my morning to research and write this post because I enjoy it. This week I’ve been really strict about finishing work by 7.30 (I bring a lot of it home) and then having dinner at the table with DH and then watching something we both enjoy on TV while I knit or sew. At 10pm I take myself off upstairs, lay out my clothes for the morning, clear a hot-spot (see references to FlyLady), and settle into bed with a book that I enjoy (at the moment this is Rubin’s Happiness Project). The difference in my mood is remarkable. I have rediscovered my joy in seeing the posts and pictures from the crafting community. My husband is happier, we have fewer spats. We rarely really argue but a snapped sentiment can be just as damaging. I laugh more.
Don’t count how many times you laugh a day, but make sure you take advantage of more opportunities to laugh, and therefore love and live!
Oh, and please do let me know your thoughts about gratitude journals and how to adjust stinking thinking patterns!