These past few days have been a reality check about life in unemployment and that reality has threatened to overturn what little progress I’ve made in increasing my happiness quotient.
But I’m pleased to report that, using some of the techniques in “The How of Happiness” and sticking with my happiness resolution/commandment to “look for the good” I’ve successfully fought off (most days) the negative feelings that push in on folks who are either depressed or unemployed or, most likely, depressed about being unemployed! I have slipped a little, but I haven’t fallen, proving, IMHO, that one can become happier with some effort. (As we from Texas say when someone has a revelation like this, “Well, spit in the fire and call the dogs!” I don’t know why we say it, and I’m not even sure what it means, but it makes you smile.)
It all started when I looked at our checking account online and discovered that we had not one, but two, overdrafts. Potential happiness killer. Luckily, we have 1) overdraft protection and 2) a savings account with money in it to cover the overdrafts, a fact I keep reminding myself of in an attempt to remain calm in the face of panic. (Score one for practicing happiness.)
However, it was still a shock. The last time we had an overdraft was about 15 years ago.That’s because for the past 15 years we’ve had the semblance of two incomes. For two-thirds of that time the second income was from part-time freelance work, but it was steady and covered all the extras (vacations, fun stuff for the kids, Christmas gifts, occasional golf for my husband or manicures for me) while my husband’s income covered necessities such as keeping a roof over our head and getting a college fund started for the four kids and repairing our ancient van – over and over and over again.
But prior to the Tucson Citizen newspaper closure, we were spoiled rotten because for two years we lived in nothing short of income heaven. (Can you hear the angelic choirs?) Not only could we pay the bills, deal with our part of the college expenses, cover random medical expenses and car repairs, we were able to sock away a good chunk for emergencies. And, best of all, we could, for the first time in 27 years of marriage, go out to dinner if we didn’t feel like cooking or splurge on day-trips with one or more of our kids during their visits home. We didn’t have to worry about spending because we had money coming in every week, not just every other week with my husband’s salary. This was steady money. Good money. Extra money.
Not so anymore, and while going from two incomes to one sort of qualifies as an emergency, we’ve been doing everything we can to avoid touching savings because what if a real emergency comes (dismemberment, death, my husband losing his job before I find one, one of our kids – gasp! – getting married) and we don’t have the savings?
The second threat came in the form of our priest asking the congregation for contributions to a scholarship fund that helps UA Catholic freshmen go on a weekend retreat. We’ve given to that fund a couple of times, and, normally, such a request would be met by me pulling out my checkbook. This Sunday I didn’t pull out my checkbook, and for someone who is fairly generous to my parish and other charities, that was hard. That whole afternoon I felt, well, cheap, and, to tell the truth, scared. Why was I so worried about taking $60 out of savings to help some kid?
The third and final threat to my happiness project involved my car and my sewing machine. Somehow, either through just bad juju or someone desperately needing it, a hubcap on my car went missing. Normally, I would just go get another one. But now, we have to wait until pay day, pay all our bills and see if there’s anything left. I’m fairly certain there won’t be, since I’m the one who pays the bills and I know how far my husband’s check goes.
Niether will there be money to repair – if repair is even possible – the 50-year-old sewing machine that the dogs (!) knocked off the table this week when I stepped away from working on my son’s quilt (being made, frugally, by scraps from other sewing projects). Unless… we go into the savings account. Again, the feeling of desperation, the feeling of “not enough” pushed in on me and – especially after the sewing machine incident – I lost it.
But because I’ve been practicing the resolution of looking for the good, I found my brain automatically looking for the good in the situation and what could have been an entire evening of feeling sorry for myself was limited to a 5-minute pity party. I actually thought, “You just don’t have time to waste on feeling bad about this situation – you’ve got to brainstorm how to fix it.” And I picked up my How of Happiness and started reading and before long, I made a list of my options and the next thing I knew, I was peaceful.
And the really, really cool thing about this was recognizing that, like various books claim and like the Happiness Project exhorts, happiness really is a choice – no matter what your life circumstance. I can choose to focus on how our finances are strained right now, or I can focus on all the amazingly good things that I’ve done this week (pitched a couple of editors with story ideas, finished my Web site, cheered up both my friend and my brother in their unemployment woes, got reacquainted with yardwork, enrolled in Pima Community College’s post-bac teacher-prep program) and trust that everything will work out to the good if I just keep on keeping on.
It is when we let the negative overwhelm us that life turns into a burden and when we chose to ruminate on the bad things that we become joy-killers. Being happy draws happiness to you; being sad does the same. At least that’s my story for this week, and I’m sticking with it. How about you – have you increased your happiness this past week? If so, how? If not, why not?
Postscript: RIP for Donald, the duck we raised from a baby when the no-longer-allowed high school biology project on imprinting produced chicks and ducklings for said biology class. My daughter wasn’t part of the project, but rescued Donald from the hands of a student who wasn’t caring for the duck properly. We kept the duck till fullgrown and then, thankfully, were allowed to bring Donald to a farm outside Tucson that had a couple other ducks, lots of horses, goats, dogs and chickens.
Donald, who started laying eggs there about six months after we dropped him off, making us realize he was a she, lived there happily for a couple of years but we were just informed by the farm’s owner that both Donald and one of the other ducks went missing in July. All they found was a severed duck wing, so foul play is expected but since the dogs didn’t bark, no one can figure out exactly what happened. She was a good duck and, in spite of the upkeep when she got bigger, she really did bring us a lot of happiness. Here’s a photo of her when she was a baby, eating her favorite thing: mashed strawberries.