More than a dozen years ago, I read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Not because I was unhappy, but because I was curious why it was a #1 New York Times Bestseller.
Rubin divided her life into categories—marriage, parenting, friendships, health, finances, work, etc—one for each month of the year. In each category, she listed to-do’s that she thought would make her happier, based on happiness research: quit nagging, take time for projects with the kids, make three new friends, exercise better, and work smart.
This is not intended to be a critique of her book, but nowhere does she mention the joy that comes from focusing outwardly, especially when we’re in a season of sorrow or setbacks.
This past week, Dan and I delivered firewood to a family, hosted guests for dinner, took a friend to urgent care because her husband was out of town, visited with a widow while Dan did some minor repairs, delivered a meal to a shut-in, and Dan spent a full day at Ochoco Camp helping with various electrical projects.
I don’t mention these things to blow our own horn, but to say that each event filled our souls with happiness.
In Ann Voskamp’s book, Waymaker, her counselor pointed out research that indicates “we’re happiest when standing before some natural wonder, like the Grand Canyon; when we’re in a deeply creative zone, what they call the flow; and when we’re deeply intimate with our spouse.”
The researchers discovered the common denominator:
In each of these instances of complete happiness—what is happening is that we completely forget ourselves.
But how do we go about forgetting ourselves? Because when we’re thinking about forgetting ourselves, that’s thinking of ourselves, right?
What didn’t show up in that particular bit of research was this: I tend to forget myself when I focus on other people around me.
Have you ever noticed a time when you had a headache, for example, but were scheduled to meet with a friend over Chai lattes? And you realized afterward that you were focused on your friend, and on the conversation, and on the steaming cup of Chai warming your hands … and you don’t remember your head hurting during that time? Weird, right?
Or do you remember a time when you were discouraged or depressed or feeling hopeless, but you had promised to help serve meals at the homeless shelter, and afterward you walked away with deep joy in your heart?
What is the explanation for that crazy phenomenon?
I think it’s something like this: When my focus is on me, I feel my broken heart intensely. I live every day in the life changes I didn’t want to happen.
Until I begin focusing outward on the hurts and needs of other people, and until I begin doing something to help alleviate their load in whatever small ways I can, the pain of my loss and my sorrow will fill the room and steal all the breathable air.
Ann Voskamp put it this way:
You’re in the zone of happiness—only when you leave the zone of self. Wildly counterintuitive, countercultural.
Every time we notice others in need and make ourselves available and invest our time in them, that ushers in happiness. Because that’s leaving the zone of self.
Do something wildly counterintuitive and countercultural this week!
I also discovered—after going for a country ride and stopping in to meet the newest addition of the Butler family—that I’m very happy on the back of a motorcycle with my husband, and when you throw in a cuddly, fluffy puppy … well, that’s over-the-moon happiness.