Monday, October 3, 2016

Happiness as an Environmental Design Challenge

My sister and I both adore the self-help books of the wise, witty, and wonderful Barbara Sher. We've practically memorized whole stretches of her first book, Wishcraft, published in 1979. What makes Barbara Sher such a brilliant life coach is that she doesn't encourage readers to try to change themselves: "All I'm going to tell you right now is that you won't have to change yourself because, one, it can't be done, and two, you're fine the way you are." Instead, she offers practical advice for how to create an environment in which somebody like you can thrive on her own terms.

That is to say, our task is one of environmental design: what do I need to be the best version of myself? Once we answer this question, the rest is all just logistics.

Lately I've been doing a lot of detective work to sleuth out the parameters of an environment in which I survive and flourish. I already knew that I require, on a daily basis, what I call my "four pillars of happiness": writing, reading, walking, and friends. The beauty of these four pillars is that engaging with them is something almost entirely within my control: I can choose to spend my time this way, or not. They cost me nothing, at least in terms of money; they do take time, but it's time spent doing what I love best. So whenever I sense my life drifting off course, I remind myself of these four elements that for me are the foundation of everything.

I also need at least one hour a day to work undisturbed. Lately that's been hard to find, so my environmental design challenge has been to find that time. I wrote about this in a post back in June. Since then I've located a near-perfect solution, as my adorable but distracting resident two-and-a-half year-old now attends the world's sweetest little preschool on MWF 8:30-2:30. It doesn't give me an hour a day, exactly, but it certainly gives me an abundance of just-me time every week.

Now I'm coming to realize that I also need a few days a month when I'm elsewhere altogether. Not too many: I was desperately homesick for the first five months of this year when I was a thousand miles away from home, teaching in Indiana. But three days away from home a month is bliss. Or two, or four, or five. Six starts to feel a bit too long - but only a bit.

So now I have my new environmental design challenge: to find a way to absent myself from home for a short stay each month. The challenge comes with these conditions: The trip can't cost very much. Ideally it would cost nothing. Ideally I would not PAY to do it, but GET PAID  to do it. Added bonus: I'd get paid to do it in a way that would advance my writing/scholarly career AND be fun AND involve seeing old friends AND take me to some place beautiful. My trip last month to South Carolina met all of those criteria.

I do have a trip lined up for November, to give some talks at Carleton College in Minnesota. In December I have a family gathering to which I'll travel in a nephew's car and stay at a niece's house, so a low-cost getaway. I have two work-related trips in February, one to D.C. and one to Missouri, and another one to Missouri in March. One I have to pay to go to (tax-deductible); for the other two I get paid - hooray! Now I need to put on my thinking cap - or rather, my environmental engineer's hard hat - and figure out delectable outings for October, January, April, May, and for every month for the rest of my life after that.

Luckily, inspired by Barbara Sher, I love environmental design challenges. Bring 'em on! What better use of what's left of my brain power than to create a life in which I can be the happiest me that I can be?

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