Sometimes, when my fantastically happy 2-year-old son Owen bounces into the room to share an amazing fact like how much he is enjoying the vanilla yogurt that is in his mouth, it feels like a bittersweet moment.
Why can’t I get that kind of simple, pure happiness back? Then I add to my woes by judging myself too harshly and declaring that I’ve been jaded.
Long gone are the days when a happy-go-lucky me turned every corner with a smile on my face. Then I worry that the same fate awaits Owen one day.
But was my childhood really my halcyon days? This psychological slight of hand tricks me every time.
Happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin writes about the myth of happiness.
“We often imagine that we’ll be happy as soon as we get a job/make partner/get tenure/get married/get that promotion/have a baby/move. (But) usually by the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’re expecting to reach it, so it has already been incorporated into your happiness. You quickly become adjusted to the new state of affairs,” she writes on her blog, The Happiness Project.
That is the main difference in the way Owen experiences vanilla yogurt versus the way I experience vanilla yogurt. I am used to the experience, so used to vanilla that I can’t help but wish for swirls of fruit or chunks of candy to be mixed in. Instead of appreciating the hint of cool sweetness hitting my tongue, I am thinking this needs to be whipped or garnished.
But that is only the half of it. What about what we commonly call looking through rose colored glasses? Am I remembering things accurately when I am thinking back on the good old days?
The things that frustrate toddlers my son’s age are nothing to sneeze at, like not being able to communicate things that he wants to do or things that he wants to say. While the taste of vanilla yogurt can send him spinning like a Sufi into the living room, without Mommy or Daddy, he couldn’t get the yogurt out of the fridge or his spoon out of the drawer.
By the time I mastered taking care of myself and created my own identity–let’s say I was somewhere in the pre-teen years–I had other concerns, like zits or big ears. In hindsight, I think back to all of the fun I had playing ball in the street or hanging out on summer days. But of course by that point I spent much of my time listening to my Walkman in the back seat of my parents’ car wondering when I would have total control over my own life.
“Arriving at one goal usually reveals a new goal. There’s another hill to climb,” continues Rubin. “In fact, working toward a goal can be a more powerful source of happiness than hitting it – which can sometimes be a letdown. It’s important, therefore, to look for happiness in the present, in the atmosphere of growth afforded by making gradual progress toward a goal.”
These days, my life is my own. While the balancing act of paying the bills and taking care of the family can sometimes be a burden, it’s one that my wife and I get to share.
The process of selling our townhouse and buying a bigger home that our family can grow into was hard, but it was progress. As my parents get ready for retirement and look forward to downsizing–possibly to a townhouse–I think back to a song they taught me to sing during long car rides.
“The bear went over the mountain. The bear went over the mountain. The bear went over the mountain, and what do you think he saw? He saw another mountain. He saw another mountain. He saw another mountain…And what do you think he did?”