Being married to a happiness researcher has costs and benefits.
Costs come from knowing the research and being fully aware when one or both of us is not living it. For instance, it’s hard to get away with luxuriating in cataloging all the reasons why you can’t be happy when we both know it’s a choice. Finding fault and deficit thinking in arguments are off-limits because both of us realize those behaviors are not helpful. Positive psychologists know all the tricks! And when we are at dinner parties meeting new people, they inevitably assume that two happiness researchers living under the same roof and raising a child together will result in the happiest kid on the planet. Therefore if Leo happens to be crying, they must think those researchers don’t know what they are talking about. (No pressure there!)
But the benefits way outweigh the costs. We are intentional about crafting an environment at home that promotes well-being and joy. When people hold us up to a higher standard, they actually encourage us to act on our best intentions. And most importantly, since we go through experiences together, we are often more likely to see patterns that can help us create more happiness. That is exactly what happened when we went through our own happiness course this past fall.
It might seem odd, but in October of 2014, we decided to be students in our own class. The previous summer we had teamed up with the Oprah Winfrey Network to develop an online course on happiness. When the course launched, we decided to enroll along with thousands of other students. We did the same positive, habit-building exercises and homework assignments as everyone else, including fostering gratitude by writing down three new and unique things we are grateful for each day for 21 days. About 14 days into the course, we noticed a new pattern. Almost all of our moments of gratitude revolved around imagination or play: Playing Play-Doh with Leo at home. Hide and go seek at the park and jumping out from behind trees. Building ramps for toy cars to jump over Duke the stuffed dog. Pretending to be a penguin at the aquarium. You get the picture. When we started to look at the kinds of things we were grateful for, they were often the same: We love to play! It’s something neither of us had fully realized in the midst of our fast-paced lives.
The practice of gratitude acted like a roadmap for us, helping us see ways to consciously add more moments of play (with and without our son) to our day. The day after we realized how important play was to our lives, instead of grabbing lunch together to talk about our latest research study, we went to shoot hoops at the gym, which we normally never do. We had such a great time! We acted like kids playing during recess. (Important note from Michelle: I crushed Shawn at HORSE. Important note from Shawn: I crushed Michelle at HORSE.) One additional benefit to this new round of gratitudes is that our list became a “heads-up” of the type of moments to be more conscious of and savor as they are happening. If you know a certain experience is likely to be the high point of your day, you can make sure to be more present and aware of the joy you feel as it is happening.
Once we noticed the pattern, we observed there were criteria for play: It did not fit our normal pattern of what we considered “productive,” we didn’t get paid for it, and it was novel. We love reading nonfiction, but we are so immersed in it at work, that for our downtime, we both turn toward the opposite: fun fiction. (Important note from Shawn: Team Jacob. Important note from Michelle: Team Edward.) Just like with work, we are trying to carve out time for play: a twice-a-week Latin fusion hip-hop dance class (Michelle), a new Batman video game (Shawn), and lots of park time and exploration for Leo. Time is a precious resource. Moments to recharge don’t take long, but they do take intention and a better understanding of what makes us happy as individuals.
Happiness is a practice, not a destination, and if we take it too seriously, we miss it. And that makes us excited for an entire lifetime of exploration into the best ways to fuel long-term happiness. If you want happiness, get some play into your life.