I would love to say that I have come up with all the answers, but let's face it, if I had all the answers I would live in a chaos-free home, wouldn't struggle to pay the electric bill and would spend an occasional night out with the gals sipping margaritas and discussing the philosophical differences between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre. Alas, my life looks more like a haphazard survival show with shenanigans on par with Michael Keaton's Mr. Mom.
This brings me back to my question, what makes a happy life? Is it a life where you sail through and nothing bad happens to you? A life where you find your dream job, do it for a prescribed number of years and then retire in relative luxury? Or is there something else there? Something more real, more textural.
I decided to start small. I Googled "making memories" only to be greeted by page upon page of scrapbooking websites, vacation planners, photography studios and other craft oriented websites. But, that wasn't what I was looking for. I wanted to know HOW you make memories. Memories aren't the objects we buy, the trips we take or the pictures we take to immortalize them. No, I was talking the creation of the memory itself. The idea or feeling that those things are held on to in attempt to recreate. Some trips do create memories, but many family vacations just end up on the vague recollection pile, so the act of vacationing itself didn't seem to be key.
My next step was to Google "The secret to happiness," because, you know, it makes total sense to get your spiritual guidance from a random search engine. So the very first link that popped up was, The Best Kept Secret to Happiness: Compassion. I read it as soon as it popped up, "Ah yes, I thought, how true, helping others helps you. Well, that much is obvious." So, I moved on to the link underneath it, WebMD promised an intriguing piece of writing, At last! All the secrets of HAPPINESS explained! I wasted no time linking up in breathless anticipation of having the meaning of life and the pursuit of happiness explained to me in 12 easy steps. While I found definite clues there, I would hardly argue that it is a roadmap to satisfaction. I like the idea of optimism, love, spirituality, altruism, humor and purpose. But other things like good health, security and sense of choice struck discordant with me. After all, there are plenty of people who are very sick, and still happy. There are plenty of people who struggle financially, wonder where their next meal is coming from, and still find satisfaction with their lives.
Link three stretched my mind a little as it was expounding on finding what you like and focusing on it in order to bring pleasure into your life (a worthy goal to be sure), however the source of this wisdom definitely challenged my own world view as it came from the author's deceased brother who spoke to her in visions after he became deceased. But, I am always game to keeping my mind open and the lesson seemed to make sense. It didn't tell me what I wanted to know though. Why do some memories stick with us, good and bad, and how do those construct our perspective on our life.
I found the link that came next to be amazing. There is actually a site dedicated to the secret of happiness, as in thesecretofhappiness.com, Now how super cool is that?! What an amazing website. It was full of books and testimonials and explanations on how to be more happy. In fact, I was so enthralled I ended up wasting an hour cruising around reading, getting ideas and adding more must-read books to my books list (You know the one we Moms all make for that elusive day when you have time to actually read something for yourself).
These ideas are all great; compassion, thankfulness, filling life with things that you like, finding a purpose. But, this was still not what I was looking for specifically. I wanted to know, what made a memory, well, memorable. Why can I remember the name and face of the bully who slammed my hand in the kindergarten door causing injuries so severe that I nearly lost part of my finger, but I can't remember my 12th birthday? Why can I remember my first kiss which was part of a play and didn't mean a thing, but my whole first relationship is fuzzy at best? And what I really wanted to know, is how do families create memories that will last the test of time? I Googled that too, but mostly got photography studios. Clearly there is the feeling that you need to capture the memories in visual form in order to preserve them, a sentiment clearly carried by the millions of people who arrive at their children's performances, fighting to get front row seats, only to proceed to enjoy the whole thing through the lens of a video camera or Iphone. What happened to being present in the moment? Or are we too busy capturing it lest it be lost to time?
Lastly I Googled, "why we remember" and came up with TONS of interesting articles. I found the science of how we form memories and a detailed explanation of types of memories and how they work. All the articles I read were very interesting, albeit some were a tad over my head. I extrapolated that in order for a memory to become long term it has to be relevant to someone's life, have a strong emotional reaction attached to it, or in other words be extremely visceral. And lastly, it needs to have a strong sensory component to it; a smell, a taste, a sound, a memorable image, a tactile feeling.
So, now I know HOW to make long-term memories. Now I want to learn to apply that to my own life. If a happy life includes compassion, thankfulness, optimism, love, spirituality, altruism, humor, filling your life with things you like and purpose, then how do I give that to my family? That should be my purpose. I want to look for ways to give those long term memories to my children, or at least fill their lives with rich moments that have the potential for becoming life long memories. Because more than being successful in their life, what I really want my children to be, is HAPPY.
So, with that in mind. Here is a list of ideas for things I am thinking about doing with my children over summer break to incorporate some of the ideas discussed above. Each activity seeks to plug in to relevancy to their lives, teach compassion, thankfulness and optimism, and incorporate sensory images.
- Cook with them. (In all fairness I do this already, but I feel very strongly that cooking with your children gives them a sense of community, family culture, purpose, healthy view on food and its preparation as well as being a reading and mathematical tool for education. In my opinion cooking with your kids is the single most enriching thing you can do for them. It is messy and can be stressful for sure, but the benefits far outweigh the struggles).
- Volunteer (I am not sure where I plan on doing this, but now that Raindrop just turned FIVE *yikes* and Snowflake is seven I think they are old enough to start with small, age appropriate opportunities. I am hoping this will teach them thankfulness for what they have, optimism in the human spirit of giving and compassion for those who are struggling).
- Take time out for family outings. I don't know if we will go to the lake, bike ride, hit the museum or the zoo, go put putting or just spend the day with our feet in the creek, but I know that I am looking at putting a premium on getting out at least 3 times a month for quality family outings. No screens, phones, or other distractions. I do know I am going to look for unusual places and sensory rich environments.
- Fill their lives with things they like. My kids are at the age where they are still discovering what they are all about. I am going to spend the summer really seeking what brings them joy by exposing them to as many different types of experiences and projects as possible. Who knows, maybe I can make this the summer of self-discovery, for them and for me.
- Chores. Ok, I know it sounds weird, but if purpose is a key component to happiness, than it would make sense that instituting a job system would provide purpose to children who otherwise might not feel valued as productive family members. Isn't this why preschool classrooms everywhere incorporate classroom jobs, to give kids a sense of responsibility, accomplishment and purpose? If completing a difficult task that requires hard work and perseverance provides a sense of accomplishment and pride, than I need to figure out how to up my children's difficulty level. I realize we are too easy on our kids when it comes to comfort and ease of life. Perhaps we are actually doing them a disservice. To change this I am thinking of creating a job system, a challenging project, working together on a home improvement project, or maybe just upping our expectations a notch.
Obviously this idea is a work in progress. But, I think it is a project that is worth pursing. Only time will tell if it helps create more long-term positive memories for our kids, but in the meantime it gives me purpose and provides a place to focus my energy that has threatened to become self-consuming lately. Ultimately I am seeking to improve their lives, but in the meantime I hope it will help me turn my own frown upside down.