A few thoughts on happiness

by Kathy Larson

Feb. 16, 2022

I just finished reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. This wasn’t a book I sought out on my own. It was given to me by my sister-in-law, Connie. She said it was okay; I said I’d give it a try.

From the beginning I was a little skeptical about someone writing about trying to bring more happiness into their life, or, more specifically, about them trying to determine if they were happy in their life. I thought it would just be another one of those painful self-awareness books exhorting us all to be our best selves!, or live our best life!, topics for which I have very little patience.

In hindsight I think that could have been a clue.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I didn’t have a clue about whether I was happy or not. I thought I was happy, but was I? Really?

Certainly, life had not turned out the way I had imagined it would some forty-odd years ago when I was a 21-year-old bride staring into a future that seemed to stretch on forever.

We think we know ourselves when we’re that age, think we know EVERYTHING, and think there is nothing we can’t do. Then life happens and before you know it you’re struggling to keep up, struggling to change with every new day, every new challenge. You’re learning that you don’t really know who you are, don’t really know anyone, for that matter, and it scares you. Luckily, you also learn how to grow up, to face your fears, to meet your challenges, and, even if the results are not always what you thought or hoped they’d be, you learn to accept them and ready yourself for whatever comes next.

Then, forty years go by. One day you look at yourself and wonder who you are. Wonder who the man you married is. Wonder where the people you thought you were went. You start reading a book on happiness and your mind is flooded with questions. All of them leading to one single question: Am I happy?

If I rate myself according to Rubin’s Eight Splendid Truths I would say I am semi-happy. I try to make others happy by being happy myself; like most people, though, this is tough to do ALL. THE. TIME. I try to focus on things in my life that make me happy. This one is even tougher to accomplish, because I tend to end up feeling guilty and selfish if I spend too much time focusing on things that only make me happy. Then, I don’t feel happy anymore. Catch-22 anyone?

Her Fourth Splendid Truth states that ‘you’re not happy unless you think you’re happy”. Huh? I’ve tried going about my day telling myself ‘you are happy!” over and over again, but when there is evidence to the contrary floating all around me I end up feeling silly and beleaguered and resentful. Anything but happy.

I won’t go through all the Splendid Truths, just suffice it to say that they boil down to something we all know and have heard a million times – you alone are responsible for your own happiness and no one else’s. You can make people happy by being happy, but, no one can make you happy, and you can’t make someone be happy if they choose not to be.

Generally speaking I’d say I’m a reluctant optimist. I believe that things will work out — eventually — and I accept that they may not work out exactly as I’d like. I believe that most people are good at heart — even though they may do things that would seem to prove otherwise. Though the glass is half full for me, I’m extremely careful about where and how I set it down — in case it spills and I’m left with nothing. My proven strategy to getting through life is to expect the best and prepare for the worst.

Perhaps not the best recipe for happiness, but it’s gotten me this far.

After finishing The Happiness Project I immediately began contemplating starting my own happiness project. Because it’s apparent that I could stand to be a little more happy. The problem is that thinking about getting started has made me feel very unhappy. At this particular time in my life I’m dealing with a whole lot of stress and uncertainty and though it sounds counter-intuitive, taking time to focus on my personal happiness just seems impossible.

So, I’ll keep doing what I’ve always done — take each day as it comes — and approach it every morning with a positive attitude and the belief that today will be a good day. Maybe it won’t be a particularly happy day, but it can be a good day.

I liked Rubin’s book; it gave me a lot to think about. In the end, though, I think it’s as simple as this: Happiness is a choice — you can choose to be happy or you can choose to not be happy. Maybe choosing happiness is the harder choice, but it’s also the better choice. As the Grail Knight says to Indiana Jones: Choose wisely.

June 14th

Day 166 — Spent a quiet day just recuperating — again, some more, still.  FINALLY, finished A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon.  A huge lug of a book.  The first I’d read of these Jamie Fraser/Outlander stories.  Pretty sure it’s going to be the last.  Way too bloody long!  1439 pages!  Christ, she could have written 3 half-decent novels in that amount of pages, instead of this one over-long, over-blown compilation of scenes from a television series.  (I don’t know if these stories have been adapted for television, but, man, she sure writes like they are.)  The disappointing thing is that I wanted to like the story, wanted to like the characters, but in the end they are all just so manufactured.  Ah, well, I had to do something to occupy myself while I was sick.

It’s late on a Saturday night. . .

Just a quick post to review a book and a movie.

First, the book:  Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

This was an okay book.  I was more than a little disappointed in it, because I had heard such great things from others who’d read it.

It should have been a wonderful story, but, for whatever reason it lacked real emotion.  The truest parts in the story take place in the nursing home where the elder Jacob recounts his tale of life in the early 1900’s working for a travelling circus.

The story has all the elements of a great story — love, betrayal, hardship, cruelty, mental illness, circus life, depression-era trials and tribulations, animals — it truly has it all.  None of it, though, ever connected with me.

And, I think, after having a couple of discussions with other people who’ve read the book, the reason is that it was written with a screen option in mind.  It doesn’t say that on the dust jacket, but while I was reading it I would come across a scene and immediately I’d think:  Well, won’t that play out well on the screen.

Call me jaded, cynical, harsh, whatever you want, but I find this to be true with a lot of the books being written today.  Anything popular, that is.  It’s like the authors are giving us the outline of a story, they’re providing a bunch of scenes that are loosely connected, but they lack any real art.

I find it very difficult these days to find books that really grab me.  Even The Hunger Games (which I recently reviewed), good as I thought they were, were obviously written with a movie in mind.

Gruen’s writing is solid, though I found it seemed to plod where it should have sung.  For some reason I can’t fathom she chose to throw in various sordid sex scenes — usually portraying grotesque or deviant behaviour.  These were rather jarring and other than acting as a contrast to the ‘pure’ love Jacob feels for Marlena, I couldn’t discern any reason for including them.

For me, this book, which should have been so full of life and emotion, fell flat.  It began with an anti-climactic whimper; and ended on an absolutely improbable and ridiculous notion; it was, when all is said and done, about as second-rate as the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth was.

I’d rate this book:  2.5 stars

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Now, for the movie:  War Horse by Stephen Spielberg.

This is a lovely movie.  I was afraid to see it because it deals with: war, and horses in war.

I did not want to see animals suffering; I just can’t stand that.  And, I can’t stand movies about war — I can’t stand thinking of humans suffering.

So, usually, I do my best to avoid both those themes in movies, but, I had heard how good this movie was and had been assured that it wasn’t very graphically violent.

It isn’t.  The worst part involves the Germans’ treatment of the horses, how they used them til they died in the hauling of heavy artillery.  But, thankfully, that is a very small part of the movie.  The British are shown as being far more compassionate towards the horses, but I think there just might be a little historical bias involved.

The hero of the story, a horse named Joey, is a ‘miraculous’ horse.  He was raised and trained by a young English lad who treated him with kindness, intelligence and love.  Those traits were imprinted on Joey and when he goes into service as a war-horse he continually demonstrates a depth of character that astounds all those (save the evil German in charge of getting the big guns up a steep hill so that he can shell the peaceful French community below) he comes in contact with.

While I was watching this movie I couldn’t help thinking of stories like The Black Stallion, My Friend FlickaBlack Beauty and Beautiful Joe.  All great stories about the plight of much-loved animals who because of unfortunate circumstances suffer mightily before they finally find peace and protection with people who love them. It took me back to the days when I was a girl and couldn’t get enough of the Famous Dog or Famous Horse Stories compilations.  (I used to make my mother crazy because I’d either be blubbering about the horrible treatment the animals I was reading about endured, or, I was wandering about enraged and fraught with righteous indignation because of it.)

I know this movie was a play before it was a movie, and you can easily see how it would play out on a stage.  Whether or not a make-believe horse would have the same emotional wallop as a real one though is something I’d have to debate.

It’s a beautiful, heart-felt story, something big and lovely and innocent.  It made me cry and it made me smile.  What more can you ask from a good story?

I’d rate this movie:  4 stars

Friday, March 23, 2012 The Hunger Games Review

Okay, so I’m going to attempt this again.

Big drum roll, and. . .

. . . the CUPE convention is done.  I only have a half day of a parliamentary procedure class to get through tomorrow and then I’m on my way home.  Yay!

Now,for The Hunger Games.

I finished the trilogy about 3 weeks ago.  I enjoyed the series, though got through the first two books a lot faster than the third.  This was for two reasons:

1.  the first two books are better
2.  I didn’t have as much time for reading with the third book as I did for the first two

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed these books.  Because they’re written for young adults I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Collins, though, writes quickly, clearly and with definite purpose.  And these books aren’t all about girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl finds boy again, girl lives happily ever after — Collins deviates from that formula just enough to make these books smart, intelligent and gritty.

I found myself really liking and caring about Katniss Everdeen, her friends, and family.  Collins creates a female protagonist who is very real; she’s got definite problems and they don’t just go away because a boy comes along.

The books are incredibly violent and deal with some pretty deep themes, which given the age they’re written for might seem surprising, but, if you stop to think about it, maybe not so much.

After all, Collins’ audience is one that watches movies like Saw, Hostel and the like, and that also plays some of the most violent and gruesome video games ever made.  These kids have been raised on this kind of material.  What Collins does do, though, is provide a backdrop of psychological terror and consequence that the characters in her stories must suffer as a result of the world they inhabit. It’s not just about who is stronger, and characters don’t get the living shit kicked out of them and then stand up victorious with barely a scratch to show.  And I think this is the real genius of her tale.

Katniss’ world is one of horror and hardship, but it’s a world she’s used to; she’s not looking for a knight in shining armour to come along and make it all better for her.  Despite her many problems, all she’s had to endure and all the horror that awaits her after winning the Hunger Games, Katniss survives because she thinks for herself.  Collins gives us a young female character who is fiercely independent, flawed and resourceful.  She is often wracked with self-doubt, as most girls that age are, but she never gives up on herself.

I hope that girls everywhere get that message.  The world is a messy place and you better be prepared to handle it on your own terms.  Bad things happen, but you can rise above them — and you don’t need anyone to hold your hand while you do.  No one makes it out of life without scars, it’s how you wear those scars that determines who you are.

Now for the nitty-gritty about the books themselves.  The first two were an incredibly fast read.  Book three, not so much.  It felt, as it does with most trilogies, not including The Lord of the Rings, that by the third book Collins was beginning to run out of steam.  It seemed rushed, like she just wanted the story to be over.  She does a credible job of ending it all, without the usual trite, happily ever after baloney, but I found it left me feeling a little flat.

Because these books were written specifically for a younger audience I often found myself frustrated by the lack of depth regarding secondary characters.  I found this especially troubling when it came to President Snow.  I wanted more — more history, more detail, more reaction.  It often felt like Collins took an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ approach to her characters.  Still, in all, the books captured my imagination, and not once did I ever think ‘oh, get on with it, will you!’

Was I sad when they were finished?  No.  Did I wish they hadn’t ended?  No.  Did I find myself entertaining thoughts of a fourth book?  No.

If I were to use a star rating here’s what it would look like:

Book One, The Hunger Games — 5 stars
Book Two, Catching Fire — 4 stars
Book Three, Mockingjay — 3.5 stars

Wed. Feb. 23 — The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo — short book review

For Christmas, the teacher I work with gave me all 3 books in Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy.  The first of these is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

It took me about 3 weeks to read — I don’t have tons of time to just sit around reading — like I often wish I did, so I read it mostly in 15 minute to 1/2 hour snatches of time.  I did manage a couple of times where my reading was uninterrupted for about an hour, but mostly I had to read on the fly.

I had high expectations for these books, because I’d heard so much about them.  Steig Larsson, who I know nothing about, comes off as some kind of wunderkind, or literary folk-hero because he died so abruptly and left behind an unfinished fourth book that has something to do with this series.  It is tragic that he died, but before these books and movies hit the big-time I had never heard of him.  That said, he is, in my opinion, a good writer, not a great writer.

I enjoyed Girl, but it took almost a third of the book before I did.  In fact, I was about ready to call it quits — I’ve said before that I can’t waste my time reading something that is boring or seems to be going nowhere — and that is what this book was like in the beginning.  I’m glad I hung in there, though, and I realized once I got past that dull first third that everything Larsson had bored me with was essential to the story that was coming.

It’s easy to tell that Larsson was a journalist — it comes across in his writing — and really shows in the parts of the book where he is describing the world of financial journalism — I tried not to let this detract from the rest of the story as I read.  The plot, setting and flow of the novel is cleanly and clearly laid out, you can see how he must have written each part separately and then seamed them together.  This, more than anything, (once you get past the first third of the book) is what makes this book a fast, easy read.

Although there is a large cast of characters in this novel, the two main ones, Mikael Blomkvist (I stumbled over that last name each time I read it) and Lisbeth Salander (somehow I always thought ‘salamander’) are never lost, though it takes a long time for us to get to know Lisbeth.  Which was weird for me seeing as she is the girl in the title of the book.  I don’t quite know why Larsson chose to center the books on her, as it seems to me most of the story was about Blomkvist.  Lisbeth was secondary — she is drawn in, eventually, to help him in his quest to solve a decades-old crime and clear his name after a libel conviction.

I can’t say I ever came to really care for either of these main characters.  They’re too, oh, I don’t know, character-y-ish.  Mikael is good-looking, normal, hard-working, full of integrity.  I imagined George Clooney.  Lisbeth is quirky, conflicted, haunted, edgy, border-line psychotic.  I imagined a young Juliette Lewis with hair dyed black.  Though I say I never came to care about them, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested in them.  Larsson puts them in some pretty scary predicaments and gives enough background about them that you can’t help wanting to know what will happen to them, but, in the end, they never felt like real people to me.

And, though the title says she is the girl with the dragon tattoo, we never get to know the reference behind that.  I guess it has something to do with her toughness and fiery determination — but that sounds like too much of a cliché.

Oh, and something else about these books — sex.  It’s like Larsson wanted us all to know how crucial sex is to one’s ability to have a healthy, meaningful life.  And that European’s are not all hung up about sex the way North American’s are.  It’s okay to have multiple partners, and open marriages and bisexual relationships. And anytime you’re not feeling quite right — well just hop into bed and, though problem not solved, you’ll just start to feel better after some good ol’ wholesome sex.

All in all, I would say that these books, at least the first one, are a good read for the beach or during a week-long holiday.  I’m reading something else before I pick up the second book The Girl Who Played With Fire. I need a break from all those Swedish hard-to-read, harder-to-say names.