Starting my own ‘happiness project’?

I’m not a huge fan of happiness as a concept, to be honest. Just thought I’d get that out there from the beginning. Happiness is a fleeting moment in time, an emotion that goes hand in hand with its opposite, sadness. Joy and sorrow. We can live our lives in ways that create more space for happy moments, but ‘happiness’ isn’t really a state of being.

Instead, in 2014, I’m going to start my own ‘healthiness project’. Healthiness is both more tangible and something that you can actually work on. Healthiness can be body, spirit, mind, community, family…all that good stuff. And a lack of healthiness, overall, is definitely what I’m feeling right now.

With that in mind, I’m going to use Gretchen Rubin’s questions from her happiness project book to kick start my own project.

1. What makes you feel good? What activities do you find fun, satisfying or energising?

Reading for pleasure, whether curled up on the sofa under a blanket, or in a cafe with a warm chai, or in bed where I just want to have one more chapter. Going for long walks outdoors. Lying on a beach, with a book. Going to the cinema with my kids. Baking with my kids (when they’re not pestering me to lick the spoon). Going to the pub with friends. Cups of tea with friends after school. Mentoring junior colleagues. Working on strategies, whether for growth or for doing things better. Sitting in a sauna or steam room. Eating out in new countries. Cuddling. Taking photos. Blogging. Writing in my journal.

2. What makes you feel bad? What are sources of anger, irritation, boredom, frustration or anxiety in your life?

Having way too many things on my to-do list and not having good enough systems to cope with them. Feeling rushed in the morning or feeling distracted at bedtime. Not having time to sort out a budget. Being late. Missing birthdays. Never having time to go out with friends. Being surrounded by idiots. Clutter. Knowing my diet could be much better and my weight lower. Feeling more aches and pains than I should at this age. Email. Meetings that have no point and, seemingly, no end. Yelling at my kids. My kids yelling at each other. Being too tired for sex. Being pestered for electronic time.

3. Is there any way in which you don’t feel right about your life? Do you wish you could change your job, city, family situation, or other circumstances? Are you living up to your expectations for yourself? Does your life reflect your values?

Professionally, there are aspects where I’ve achieved much more that I ever thought possible at this stage, especially given the two maternity leaves I’ve had. But I’ve not published nearly as much as I should’ve (or could’ve), and I know that I need to write another book soon. My weight and overall health aren’t right. I give next to no thought or time to meals or scheduling exercise, even though I know enough about nutrition not to make really bad choices. But I’m not making good ones either, and I tend to rush headlong into carbs without thinking because I’ve not planned. I sleep later in the morning than I should, which leaves me rushing and grumpy with the kids when they dawdle. I’m distracted. I only read at bedtime. I’ve not written in my journal for months and haven’t written in it with any consistency for a few years. I play with productivity tools rather than being productive. Financially, I haven’t worked out a budget that’s equitable; though I make much more than my husband, I have larger student loans…but I still have more spare cash than he does. I don’t manage to budget every month, and we’re not saving. I’ve not seen some of my friends for months. One of my friends’ dad passed away, and I didn’t know about it. My parents need to hear from me more often. My husband and I don’t spend enough time alone, and I often go to sleep after him when I’m too tired for sex. I snap at the kids too easily. Basically, I feel like work takes up so much of my waking time and thinking that there’s very little left for me or people I love.

4. Do you have sources of an atmosphere of growth? In what elements of your life do you find progress, learning, challenge, improvement and increased mastery?

[kind of hard to write about this while being pestered by a teary 9 year old whose life is being ruined by not being allowed to play on the ipad…]

My new role at work gives me tremendous opportunities for growth…possibly too many opportunities! I’ll need to be strategic and selective. My new administrator is about to start work, which will hopefully ease some of the more mundane burdens. I don’t need to teach for the next 3 years, which means that I’ll have much more flexibility and freedom. Once this current very busy patch ends, and the new funding contract is secured, I’ll be able to take my foot off the pedal a little bit (famous last words?). I need to ensure that I don’t fill any time that’s freed up with yet more work.

At home…that’s where I’m not so sure. It feels like for the past 6-8 months, I’ve put so much into building this new research centre that there’s been nothing left. I guess…I have physical space to write, and I should make more of that. I have tremendous friends who make me feel grounded, and I need to find time for them. I’m able to budget enough for healthy food choices and have a husband who loves to cook. My kids are, more often than not, good company and increasingly independent. They’re at school all day now, and if I plan my day out right, I can find time during the day for exercise or for reading or writing.

I need to think about the next step, which is developing concrete resolutions, but it seems to be not all that complicated really. I seem to be a pretty simple soul, made happy by pretty easy things, but I’ve let work take over my life for years now. I haven’t placed appropriate boundaries around it. I love my work, and aspects of it are fulfilling and necessary for my well-being, but it’s not everything. My systems have broken, and I’ve not yet figured out what new ones should look like. I’ve not given enough priority to my own health, which impacts on the energy I have to be a productive academic, a loving wife, a gentle and fun mother and a fulfilled person. The trick will be in identifying clear resolutions, breaking these into very concrete tasks and then, for once, following through with them. The latter is not my strong point*, but I’m not getting any younger.

[* In a recent team building exercise, where we did personality tests, I scored 0 under ‘Completer/Finisher‘ (I’m a Resource Investigator/Shaper). How is it possible to score a 0 for this?? No wonder I have a house full of half-finished projects and a lifetime of broken resolutions!]


So what’s in an adjective?

Adjectives I’d like to people to be able to use to describe me in a year’s time – radiant, vibrant, ageless, light. I’d settle for ‘looks great for her age’, mind, but these would be nice!

Cozy mystery leads to rediscovery

My sister has just written her first novel, a romance novel set in medieval Scotland.  We’ve been discussing genre writing, and she introduced me to the concept of the ‘cozy mystery‘. I love crime fiction, but I tend to like my protagonists flawed, my settings dark and my crimes a bit twisted. I love novels that have a political message and reveal something of the human condition. My favourites by a long shot include Andrea CamilleriJo NesboHenning MankellMaj Sjowall & Per WalooArne DahlGianrico CarofiglioMichele Giuttari and Ian Rankin. I do occasionally read books that fall under the ‘cozy mystery’ banner – by Alexander McCall Smith or Colin Cotterill, for example – but most of the books I read in this genre are blisteringly dark.

rebusmontalbanonesbo (from Heather's Macbook Air)

When I sit down to write something non-academic, though, I can’t write like this (and not just because I have barely a whisper of the talent that these writers have!). I get through my ‘darkness’ through my academic writing, which is about the darker side of state-society relations, and when I’m off-duty, this girl just wants to have fun. And so my sister introduced me to the cozy mystery.

moon spinners

I read very little American fiction nowadays, despite having spent the first 25 years of my life in the US, and I don’t have any favourite US crime writers. I toured the cozy mystery section of Barnes & Noble as a complete novice, sure only that I have my limits when it comes to ‘cozy’. I definitely didn’t want Christian and cozy. I didn’t want peach pie baking and cozy. I didn’t want poodle-breeding and cozy. I mean, seriously. I finally settled on Sally Goldenbaum‘s Seaside Knitters series. Set in the North Shore of Massachusetts, just south of where I was born and where I lived very happily for five years before moving to the UK, the series follows a group of women of a range of ages who meet up once a week for a knitting club and end up solving murders. (yes…I am perfectly aware that there’s the finest of lines between knitting books and pie baking books…) I like all of the characters, and the murders are often pretty dark, if not graphic. But the cozy comes through in the setting, which takes me right back to my own time living in a little cottage on the North Shore. The characters are fairly affluent, and so there’s an appeal in their gentle, middle-class lifestyles, filled with good food, original art, charity work and beautiful wraparound decks for drinks parties, particularly as – in good New England fashion – no one is very ‘showy’. And then there’s the knitting. Sometimes the knitting metaphors get in the way and have clearly been placed in order to fit the genre, but I closed the first one that I read (‘Moon Spinners’, third in the series) and went straight away to get my plastic tub full of yarn from the garage.


I like crocheting, not knitting, but the effect is the same, at least in terms of well-being. In the last month, I crocheted a scarf for my daughter, and am about a quarter of the way through an absolutely gorgeous blanket. Instead of spending the last couple of hours at the end of the day in front of the tv flicking around on my iPhone, I’m crocheting my beautiful blanket, something that will hopefully become an heirloom. I’ve made my way back into the local yarn shop, and I’ve not been able to resist buying yarn already for my own winter scarf, which will come after this blanket is done. As far as hobbies go, crocheting is tactile and soft and warm and colourful and soothing and, let’s face it, cozy.

I may be no closer to penning my own first novel, but at least if I do continue on with it as a winter project, I’ll be able to do it lying under my own handmade and very cozy blanket.

Why 2014 may be the year of the ‘happiness project’ for me…

Heathrow hell

I’ve spent a lot of time in the air recently, in airport lounges, in restaurants and at hotel breakfasts. For the past seven weeks, I have spent four of those overseas, which is a lot for many people, but it’s especially a lot with two fairly small children. Much of that time I’ve spent in the company of two of my colleagues, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about what’s important to us. It’s what you do when you’re together more than you are with your respective spouses!

One of my colleagues (and dear friends) seems to have many things sussed, not by accident but by design. He’s a long distance runner, in better shape in his mid-thirties than when I met him in his early twenties. He is organised, calm, gentle, side-slittingly funny, deep. He’s also dad to a two-year old and a loving and sharing husband. We’ve had a lot of time to talk about what’s working for us and what isn’t, and he swears, among many things, by Gertrude Rubin’s ‘The Happiness Project‘. So in between long-haul flights I picked up a copy of her book for myself and fell in love with the concept.

I worry too, like Rubin, that focusing on my own happiness may be a bit indulgent. Certainly, blogging about it may be. But I have just spent a long weekend with my parents, people who have never put their own happiness first, and they continue to pay for it. They pay for it in ill health, in stress, in not saying ‘no’, in weariness. I love them, but I don’t want to be them someday. I feel galvanised; life is too short to have it slip through my fingers in the rough and tumble of a busy everyday life. My husband and I feel, for a number of reasons, like 2013 is a year that has barely registered; where good times outweigh the bad but they don’t outweigh the times we barely remember. I want 2014 to count.

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