I am a frequent protestor of magazine headlines that offer promises to “Be Happy Now” and list “Top Ten Ways to Be Happier”. The sources of my irritation are many. For starters, the advice begins with the assumption that you are surely miserable and urges you to be your best self, fulfill your destiny, capture joy and otherwise sets the bar ridiculously high. Secondly, the lists are rife with examples that are out of reach for most women -- “I quit my job as a paralegal and started a vineyard!” Worst of all, that there many of us (including me) willing to spend the $4.95 and passively expect to be granted the headlines’ promises rather than simply taking action.
With that said, I concede that I am living a fortunate life at the moment and my own particular experience may not be duplicable by many. I work for a company that granted me a six-week paid sabbatical and helped me to build the nest egg I needed to pursue my Vermont farmhouse renovation dream. Still, I will be bold enough to suggest that there may be “happy lessons” to be learned from my recent sojourn from the daily grind.
The main goal of my time off was to work on the renovation. Progress was good but nowhere near my expectations. And, that’s just the thing: expectations. Whether vacation plans, self image, or life goals, somehow we always fool ourselves into believing that our expectations for the feelings and things we desire are easily met. Well, certainly this is the case for everyone in the magazines ... so why not us?! Buy crocodile booties that Patti Hansen wore in More Magazine only to realize that it they aren’t really helping you look or feel as tough and sexy as she. Buyer’s remorse is simply the collision of reality with a set of expectations built from fantasy.
I learned this the hard way during my sabbatical. With expectations to completely reboot my priorities and set a foundation for the next chapter of my life in just six week, I planned to get outside every day, learn to play guitar and to knit, begin a regular yoga practice, read my entire Edith Wharton library and the Tao Te Ching, blog daily and search through my journals and scraps of paper for the book I would outline. Oh, yes and tick off about 20 items on my renovation checklist. Seriously, this was my list. At the end of four weeks, I was miserable.
So I offer this advice to you, with no presumption that you aren't perfectly happy without it:
Ten Ways to Be Happier (by lowering your expectations)
- Planning is essential Carpenters have a saying: “measure twice, cut once.” Cutting and nailing and painting are fun! Measuring, budgeting, setting schedules, inventorying materials and measuring again are not. Less fun though is running out of money, managing chaos, and doing the same thing over and over again without satisfying results. Do you see where this is going? Whether it’s building a bathroom or living a secure, peaceful and gratifying life … you can’t just wing it.
- Do the work. Planning is critical, but it can’t last forever. Stop looking at Pinterest, searching for just the right font for your business plan, re-organizing your tools, and making lists. It’s time to do the work. A friend of mine recently told me how her husband fulfilled his dream to be a full-time tennis coach. He took jobs stringing rackets; he got certified to be a line judge; he volunteered to teach tennis at a summer camp. He did everything he could think of that involved tennis. Today, he is the head coach of a successful New England university team. (I’ve been thinking about this example a lot lately with regards to my writing and love of vintage stuff ... stay tuned to learn if I take it to heart!)
- Protective equipment may be required. At the farm house, we ended up taking unexpected safety precautions after encountering a motherload of mouse shit behind every surface we demolished (see Hanta Virus). I remembered thinking that Genevieve Gorder always worked in bare feet on Trading Spaces. But in real reality, the work is not always going to be glamorous or easy. How many times do we see a “Top Chef” contender nearly slice off a finger or one the designers on “Project Runway” have a massive meltdown. There will be mouse shit. There will be mistakes. And, hardest to take of all, there will be criticism. Posting pictures of progress on my Facebook page has resulted in two near “de-friendings” when comments pointed out mistakes or advised what we “should” do, instead of just clicking on “like”. Whether respirator or thick skin – get one.
- Any progress is progress ‘Stop beating yourself up’ are words most often pointed at me by those who fail to understand why I feel the need to get. it. all. done. right. now. And now, I point them at you… ha! And for goodness sake, don’t let the fact that you really won’t be able to do it “all. right. now.” be a reason to do nothing. People ask me if I am having fun picking out things for the new bathroom. Well, I thought it would be fun. I thought it would take one trip to the “kitchen and bath store” and then … well, and then I came face to face with reality. Do you know the difference between sub-floor and underlayment? Did you know that you have to carefully choreograph the sequence of framing, flooring, insulating, electrical, plumbing, sheet rocking – and it takes weeks (not 48 hours like on HGTV)! And, do you have any idea how many different types of toilets there are?!!! Three months after purchasing the house, I now celebrate the simple accomplishment of getting a reply email from the electrician.
- Nothing beats the satisfaction of a job well done. Take this bit of advice along with our new definition of progress. While taking a shower in my new bathroom will be the ultimate gratification, there is also nothing like the sound of debris hitting the dumpster. Kerplunk, thunk, and crash are the sounds of your efforts taking shape. The piney odor of a room covered in new plywood underlayment (which goes over the subfloor!) is the smell of success! In other words, revel in your progress. Men sit back and drink a cold beer after mowing the lawn. We women are more likely to finish the job and fret that we should have planted a smaller garden that the garage needs painting, and we totally need a pedicure.
- It takes patience to get the best results. Oh, this is a hard one. Once we’ve made our plan, we want to get to work. And yet it seems that, to completely misquote Thomas Edison, good results require 90% preparation and 10% perspiration. Take painting. Picking the color is traumatic enough it’s the cleaning, spackling, sanding, taping, priming, and cutting in that require the greatest investment of time and energy. The final coat is the easiest of all and the one that delivers the most satisfaction. Unless, that is, you skipped steps 1-6. In which case, every bump, crack, and drip will taunt you for years.
- Start on the inside. This one is so obvious I almost did not include it for fear of condescension. However, when it comes to my Vermont renovation, this has been one of the biggest lessons. I knew the house was challenged in many ways, but had set my expectations on quickly achieving a cool shabby chic sort of look and living in bohemian-like comfort in no time. Yes, we’d work on the systems, but we could do that quickly or even concurrently with other projects. Reality came in the form of an out-of-control mouse population; an electrical service at the whims of dead tree branches; not one of four chimneys capable of safely supporting a heating systems, and the mysterious decision of a former owner to remove a load bearing wall supporting a great majority of the house. Desires to create a vintage farmhouse feeling were quickly put in check with the realization that all of the cosmetic work would be meaningless, if I didn’t fix the supporting systems that made the house safe and sound weren’t done first. I spent three days clearing mildewed insulation from the dark, damp, cobweb covered basement and the majority of my Phase One budget on Fred’s Plumbing and Heating. No one else will probably ever see it. But it is now my favorite room in the house. See? Obvious.
- Learn to trust. Did you know that I am not always right? Came as a shock to me too. I’ve also learned that I am not the only person capable of doing (or hiring someone else to do) a job correctly. Shocking! I hope that a certain someone reads this with a chuckle and knows (without question) that that it isn’t faith that I lack, it is the ability to let go of the rains. I think women have been taught – through early feminist treatises (“a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”) or more likely at the school of “I Trusted This Asshole” – that the only person to truly bank on is their self. True only to the extent that we are responsible for the choices we make. Sad, if we can’t let go long enough to benefit from others’ experience, wisdom or kindness.
- You must compromise. All those expectations? … the fantasy of owning your own business, writing a book, marrying Prince Harry … probably not going to pan out just the way you envision. My fantasy tile shower will realize itself as a $500 acrylic unit from Lowes. The six foot vanity now measures in at just 36 inches. The extra 10 sq. feet of space? Gone. But compromise is not failure (see #4 and stop beating yourself up). I will have a brand new bathroom in my Vermont farmhouse … and I get to keep my ceramic tile floor and stone top for the vanity. If in the future, when showing guests this bathroom, I preface each tour with a “well, it’s not what I planned, but…” then shame on me. You wouldn’t introduce your husband with a “well, I really was holding out from Prince Harry” or your new business venture by saying “it didn’t quite turn out the way I planned” … would you? Compromise is part of life; celebrate that you are able and capable of making the best choices.
- Simplify I couldn’t not include this advice, especially since it is a choice that has come up at nearly every decision point in the renovation project. It goes something like this: I pull open my Pinterest boards and excitedly present my ideas for the next project. The response is invariably “yes, we can do that.” Ha! Forget what I said about compromise … I can have it all!! And then, “it will cost $$$ much and take another two weeks.” (it’s always two weeks) Wait! I don’t have that much money and I want to be done faster. “So”, the response continues …” what is it you really want?”