Tuesday, July 12, 2011

And Again She Dwells on the Happiness Project...

Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project fascinates me. First of all, it proves that I'm not crazy...at least one other human on this planet thinks about happiness obsessively and feels compelled to share her thoughts with the world, and given the popularity of the Happiness Project, lots of other people obsess about it, too. Fortunately, Gretchen is even more obsessive than I am so she provides amazing research and resources in her book and on her blog to promote the idea of happiness as a worthy pursuit.

One theme in her book that resonated with me was her resolve to Be Gretchen. She decided to pursue interests that truly represented her...not the interests she felt she should have. A recent post on her blog explores this idea as she processes her new-found, extremely obsessive interest in smell.

At various times in my life, I've pursued knowledge because I thought I ought to, not because I truly was passionate about it. A perfect example of this was my desire to major in science. Despite the fact that I was reading at age three and never went anywhere without a book, I felt like I should be interested in science because a woman scientist told me that women were discouraged from pursuing the sciences. The surest way to get me to do something is to tell me I can't do it, and I felt outraged that women were under-represented in the sciences because men thought they couldn't do science. Hmmph. I could fix that.

Fortunately, my intellectual hubris encouraged me to take organic chemistry my first semester at Duke University...where half the freshman class declares pre-med as their major. Pride goeth before the fall. Courses like organic chemistry serve as "weeder" courses, designed to weed out those who are not really prepared for medical school, and thus are made to be extremely difficult. Most students wait until junior or senior year to take organic chemistry, but there I was, a 17-year-old freshman, in way over my head.

When I flunked an exam, I was forced to admit that my drive to be a chemist didn't play to my strengths. A very kind aunt pointed out that the world would not end if I quit running down a path destined to kick my ass.  In short, she gave me permission to be myself instead of someone I thought I wanted to be. Instead, I changed majors to a subject that welcomed me with poetry and metaphor and litotes and all things medieval.

I included litotes in the list because it's hopelessly obscure and highlights how weird and wonderful my interests are...at least to me. Litotes, the deliberate use of understatement, appears often and interestingly in Anglo-Saxon literature (think Beowulf), but one of my favorite examples comes from Samuel Johnson: "To write is, indeed, no unpleasing employment."


I've already written, not unpleasingly, about my passion for medieval literature, but my pursuit of that obscure branch of literary brilliance never dampened my love for all sorts of reading, from the highest levels of artistic merit (think Joyce's Ulysses) to the least (think People Magazine).

Grandma always had Reader's Digest in her house; I grew up reading it. So when I got a call from the Special Olympics last year to subscribe to Reader's Digest, I did. George is baffled by this. "I just can't imagine you enjoying Reader's Digest." He remembers only too well my years as an intellectual snob. I've gotten over that and am back enjoying a much broader range of reading, including Reader's Digest. So what if Reader's Digest is not PMLA or Medium Aevum or South Atlantic Quarterly. None of my readings in those peer-reviewed scholarly journals ever made me laugh or tugged at my heartstrings like jokes and stories in Reader's Digest do.

While immersed in the academic world, I didn't read Reader's Digest because I was too busy reading Medium Aevum and the works of Dante and Chaucer. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day. I was writing scholarly essays, participating in scholarly conferences, and teaching college classes. Life eventually took me out of university, and after a while, I realized that the artificial narrowing of interest I experienced in graduate school no longer applied.

Life moves on. My passion for medieval literature stays with me, but it's not all-consuming anymore. While part of me is a little sad about that, the majority of my synapses are quite thrilled to pursue new interests. Science still fascinates me, and that has come in handy while trying to deal with the whole autism thing. Children's literature delights me as much as Chaucer and Shakespeare ever could, and Mental Floss introduces me to subjects I didn't even know existed.

The world is no small place, and it's positively bursting with amazing, fascinating, miraculous stuff. Why would we ever think that any part of it would be unworthy of our attention? Why would we suppress our natural interests and inclinations because somehow they seem a little weird or not sophisticated/smart/popular/cool enough?

Why do we try to be who we think we want to be instead of who we are?

This wonderful quotation popped up recently on Pinterest, and it speaks directly to this theme.

Screw the critics--especially the ones that live in our own heads. Pursue what you love, what interests you, regardless of what others might think. Doing so can increase your happiness.

Be you, and see what happens.

Please share your thoughts in the comments. Is there any passion in your life that you pursue despite others thinking you're weird? Is there a passion you would spend more time on if you weren't afraid it would make you look odd to others?


  1. I've finally learned some of the same lessons, only after losing my way in a self-directed writing degree at an engineering school. For me, it was learning to embrace the quirks of ADHD instead of fighting them that has helped me find happiness. I have work that gives me flexibility and I've given myself permission to pursue my fleeting passions. There's a perception that you must be dedicated to a single thing for a long time to appreciate it, but I find that incredibly limiting.

  2. The more I act as me, the more people think I'm weird, LOL!
    I have done things that I felt I should do, but didn't really have the heart for, including finishing things that I discover are "not me" halfway through! I am hoping I have learned to permit myself to let go, even if something is unfinished (ah, the horror of leaving something hanging). I have a very useful, but unused, degree in Teaching - the natural progression from a Bachelor of Arts in History and Music. My MBA was much more useful, and used, when I discovered a passion for Business later.
    I persist in "being me" with my music choices - totally eclectic and pleasing to me and mystifying to others, and I WILL burst into song whenever and wherever I choose. :-)
    Thank-you for the quote from Kathy Kendall, I needed that today. My Negative Committee is deeply connected to my perfectionism and insecurities, which require regular reality checks.


  3. Funny, I was just thinking about this. I love to read trashy romantic novels (some of them are terrible, but some are just delightful) and stuff like Stephen King. I know that Mr. King is sneered at by a lot of people, but it is their loss as he is a terrific storyteller.

    I have a penpal in Chicago, a woman I have known for years but who is famous for being very rudely outspoken. She is also a total literary snob. As a penpal she is great, but in person a lot harder to take. So I make passing references to a book I am re-reading for the tenth time and when she asks about it I don't say anything - even though the book is Stephen King's Rose Madder (which I can't put down once I start, every single time) because I don't want her to judge me.

    Well, screw that. If she wants to judge me, then she may. I'm sick of pretending that I don't enjoy what I enjoy very much. Life is too short to not read for pleasure.

  4. Sarah, you make a very good point about fleeting interests. Why not give them the time the deserve?

    Michelle, Your committee and my committee must get together and have little parties...perfect little parties with crustless cucumber sandwiches and rose pattern tea sets and doilies. I wish they'd just get drunk, pass out, and leave us the heck alone.

    Nicole, read whatever you like, and don't apologize to anyone, especially famously rude people. I re-read Anne McCaffrey's dragon books periodically and enjoy every single minute of them!

  5. I don't think it's my interests that make me "weird." I am more often considered "weird" for my lack of interest in things many of my peers are passionate about. I have gifted kids but I'm not a competitive parent. I won't force my kids to participate in activities they're not interested in for the sake of advancing some real or imaginary social advancement agenda. I can't stand cruises, dislike big box chain restaurants with "themes," and I'm not a fan of guided tours or carefully packaged experiences. I hate going to the mall, and I don't like to shop. I don't watch television. I'm not a gardener, I'm not into antiques, I don't follow any sports, and I don't like to entertain--trust me, in the South, this is a BIG aberration for a middle-aged woman. Ha ha ha.

  6. Pretty much everyone I know who is NOT a paper crafter thinks I'm weird: "Must be nice to have that much time on your hands!"

    I've never had a problem doing what I want, not what I think I SHOULD do. Another example: Even though I'm an English teacher, there are many novels in the canon I despise...& I'm willing to tell my students that, too!

  7. V, I hear you. My DH isn't into sports (other than triathlon and bike racing), yet every other man in our neighborhood follows football obsessively. They can't talk about much of anything else. Kinda hard to make friends when your eyes are glazing over at all the football talk.

    Ann, I've got one name for you...Hemingway. Blech. I know he's brilliant, I know his style was ground-breaking, I know I ought to love his stuff, but dang, I want to dope-slap his characters.

  8. Hi Susan. I've been reflecting on this topic a bit lately (a consequence of mindful maturing). In fact, I've written about this in my non-craft blog in a post entitled, On Bliss and Passion. It answers the question you pose above perhaps at a meta or macro level. If you follow the comment threads, one of my replies refer to an article that mentions Rubin and her happiness project - interesting reading.

    I'm sorry to hear about your blogging vacation and hope you get better soon.

    best regards,


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!