The Keys to Happiness… Are In This Blog Post

Do you ever ask yourself if you’re happy? Have you figured out what happiness is in the first place? Do you believe it to be achievable?

Ostensibly, happiness is what everyone wants, but there’s a lot of debate about what that looks like, and whether it can last, and how you know when you have it, and whether you even appreciate it when it’s there for the taking.

Niagara River

Sean and I have talked a few times about when/whether we’re happy. Not in terms of our marriage – we know we’re happy to be a unit. And not in terms of whether we should be happy – we are so fortunate in life, we surely have access to all the puzzle pieces needed for happiness. But day-to-day, in general, are we actually happy?

Perhaps the more pertinent questions are: what are those puzzle pieces? and which pieces really count?

You’ll be glad to know that I found the answer for us all – at the donkey sanctuary.

Here they are, the keys to happiness! YOU’RE WELCOME.

Essential Requirements for a Contented Life. Right there on the wall of the Learning Barn, complete with grommets.

Looks like a simple enough list… but I’ve been pondering it and I’ve come to see that it is actually profound.

You see, I’ve been fretting as summer comes to a close, because of a feeling of incompleteness. I’m a teacher – I get more time off than any other profession – how could I possibly be discontent?? What kind of ingratitude is that?

I had a fun summer – spent two weeks staffing at Camp NeeKauNis (with kids), visited with family and friends, picked berries, cleaned out the garage with Sean, purged a bunch of stuff, visited Story Book Park and Wild Waterworks and the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada with the kids, visited Niagara-on-the-Lake with my hubby to celebrate our 13th anniversary, attended my school board’s two-day Learning Fair, took an Elementary Choral Conducting course, painted my son’s new bedroom…

Very productive, with lots of fun things in it. So WHAT IS MY PROBLEM?

I think the problem is my mindset. As you know, I have a robust guilty conscience. Naturally, I feel guilty about my teacher’s summer, since my husband gets the same ridiculously insufficient amount of time off per year that most Canadians in the workforce get. So I feel the need to get tonnes of sh*t done every day, to justify my summer… And also to make less for him to do, so that he feels at least a little more relaxed.

It ends up that I don’t feel relaxed – except for the times that I schedule in relaxing activities. And as you may have noticed, I did not blog all summer – for the second summer in a row. Why? Because it never got to the top of my To Do list. Because I feel weird about prioritizing it. Same goes for the other artistic projects I have started in the last three to six years: they don’t ever get to the top. Even though I know they provide me with happiness, on a deep-heart-level.

This makes me bananas.

I mean, I’ve read Big Magic. I know in my brain that I’m supposed to DO CREATIVE THINGS, unapologetically. That it’s valid to make time for art, even – or especially – when life is crazy. And nobody likes that person who works constantly and suffers on purpose and then complains about it. It’s just that… there’s so much other stuff that needs doing.

When we went to see the donkeys on Labour Day weekend, it was a beautiful, peaceful day. Those donkeys, although they’ve been through hardships, are great at chillin’ and soakin’ up the love at this point in their lives. Happiness is all around. We feel it and it makes us smile. It’s time to learn from their paradigm.

I’d say this is the Poster Donkey for happiness.

What was on that list again?

Adequate food

“Do I have enough of the right kinds of food to eat?” Hmm. The “right kinds” of food, they say. Am I eating stuff that’s actually food, or is it actually modified/hydrolyzed/hydrogenated/blah blah blah? The more I pay attention, the more I see that what I eat affects my mood and energy level dramatically. (It’s amazing, in fact, how many of us ignore this direct causal relationship.) Sean and I are eating mostly plant-based nowadays, and we both feel a lot better when we’re on that track. And yet I still ignore it quite often. Silly human. So, Dilovely: eat what makes your body happy (as well as your mouth).

Adequate shelter

“Can I get away from wind, rain, sun, and snow?” Yes, our home is more than adequate. I can’t deny that there were moments this summer where my productivity suffered due to our lack of air conditioning… But not many, considering. And in the winter, I think every day about how lucky I am to have coziness as an option, thanks to my home.

Adequate water

“Do I have access to fresh, clean water to drink, even on the hottest and the coldest days?” YES. I’d like to take this moment to express my gratitude for the water. I am so, so thankful that I live in a place where water comes right out of the taps and is safe to drink… And this same place has countless beautiful rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams that support so much life. It is an abundance of riches that we ALL need to protect… Because water is also the most important thing. Period.

Space to move and exercise

“Do I have enough space to move around, in keeping with my biological needs?” To me this says: GET OUTSIDE. Run around. Get some fresh air like your mama toldja to. We never regret having gone outside, especially to get some exercise. Our biology needs it.

Freedom of choice

“Am I allowed to make choices about how I live my life each day?” Whoa. This question is deep. Have you ever read a book set in a place where citizens are super-oppressed and/or fear for their lives? And then looked at your own life and marvelled at how you can freely go to the grocery at 10:30 pm or meet friends for coffee wherever or have a university education and a job even though you’re a woman or take your kids to the park without worrying about gunfire? It’s good to be acutely aware, sometimes, of how free one’s life is.

But also. On a daily basis, I (and I’m sure many many others) box myself into a state of near-constant obligation. I brought myself here by freedom of choice, but if I were making thoughtful choices about how I live my life each day, wouldn’t I, I don’t know, blog more than once in three months?

Of course, lots of us, a lot of the time, have a lot of things happening in our days that we wouldn’t choose, but still have to deal with. In that case, I’d argue that the other points become even more important.

Proper social context

“Do I have the opportunity to live with my own kind, and relate to them as I would in my natural environment?” Humans are social animals – we need to have peeps. We need to be with them, relate to them, in person, authentically present. And for the introvert animals, we also need to have times without so many peeps. Neither of these things is too much to ask.

Mental and physical stimulation

“Is there variety where I live?” This one makes me think, too. Do I do the same thing day in, day out? I know Sean and I both have those moments when we feel that drudgery – although Sean perhaps a bit more than I, because my job is never boring. We need to exercise our brains, do different things, challenge ourselves, get into the flow, feel alive. This also is not too much to ask of our modern, civilized lives.

Boom, there you go, the contented life in a nutshell. Do you have one?

Dear lovelies. I’m afraid this blog post is not as thoroughly-crafted as some… it doesn’t have the cohesive arc I wish it to. Probably because I’ve been trying to get it done for over a week, ha. You’ll have to forgive my rustiness; it’s been a while.

But I do like what this list does. It makes me think about what is ESSENTIAL in life, and what I already have to be grateful for. Donkeys don’t do any unessential crap. If we humans could cut down on activities that are both  A) unnecessary and B) don’t make us contented or bring us happiness, then we’d be living more like the donkeys. That’s an idea worth pursuing.



16 thoughts on “The Keys to Happiness… Are In This Blog Post

  1. Auntie CL says:

    Well, an interesting ponder, dear Sunshine. I spent most of my child-rearing years guilt-ridden, less creative than I wanted to be, and guilty when I indulged my creative side, over-committed, over-responsible, etc, even though I had two fantastic children whom I loved and a safe home, enough of everything and more than enough of a lot of things, and safety and good health, etc – and I was not at all ungrateful for these treasures. But a lot of the time I couldn’t have said I was truly happy.
    Now all the externals of my life are different, but I still have a fair number of responsibilities, self-imposed tasks and burdens, some guilt that clings to the edges of everything, and I am never as organized as I wish I were, nor as nice, nor as active – but every day I am grateful for what I recognize, for myself, as real, deep-down, fulfilled, loving and loved, satisfied, contented HAPPINESS.
    Take heart, dear one, all ‘this’ can lead to ‘that.’

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Thank you, Auntie! It’s funny, I think of myself as happy, because overall that’s how I feel about my life… but I’ve had to have some hard conversations with Sean about whether that’s actually how I operate on a daily basis. Because if I seem grouchy, or treat my family in a grouchy way, then I feel that my inner attitude doesn’t count for quite as much. And my outward attitude fluctuates a lot.

      • Auntie CL says:

        Di, I realize that my rep;y cold have been read to compare my situation to yours – I totally did not mean to imply that a sea change could be the answer – it was only so in my life. I just meant that those years are trying, and it can come out ok.
        However, It is true that day-to-day mood can be not reflective of one’s inner condition, when externals pile up to make things stressful. Try to be kind to yourself. I know you appreciate your blessings and the loving healthy families you came from and created. Be sure to take care of yourself, and to cut yourself some slack. If blogging is one of your joys, you should make time for it *if you can*, but if you don’t find time for it, it shouldn’t make you guilty! Remember that something that hasn’t managed to be a plus is not necessarily a minus.
        I know i was cranky with my children a great deal, and I can never go back and give them a different childhood. I’m lucky they still love me! Yours will still love you even if you are grouchy. Gramma Sue always advised for the rough patches to “live above it.” I wasn’t good at that , but perhaps you can be.

        • dilovelyadmin says:

          Auntie, I didn’t read your comment as a comparison – but of course I made a comparison myself since I have a lot in common with you at the same stage! And I definitely am cranky more than I’d like (and my kids do always forgive me).

          You hit the nail on the head with “make time for it *if you can*, but if you don’t have time for it, it shouldn’t make you guilty!” Also “something that hasn’t managed to be a plus is not necessarily a minus” – BRILLIANT. Thank you. There are those things that no-one needs to worry about but me, and I should definitely lay off feeling guilty for stuff that doesn’t hurt (or even really affect) anyone else.

          I am going to ruminate on what Gramma Sue’s “live above it” advice could look like…

  2. Beverly Shepard says:

    Good advice! I like this, and I think it’s well-crafted. People who are excellent writers, like you, and know they could be SUPERB, sometimes don’t recognize when they’re just very good. But others do. And there you go — you’ve worked up to an excellent new slogan (better than Nike’s): “Live Like a Donkey”!

    As for happiness, it’s a learned skill, for sure. I think I’m reasonably good at it. (except for the basement) One can’t be much good to others if one doesn’t take care of one’s self; that’s just trying to do good work with worn-out tools.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      You’re right about the worn-out tools. (In fact, the last of the 7 Habits of Happy Kids is “sharpen the saw” – referring to self-care.) As you know, it’s tricky when your mood is affected by the tidiness of your home (true for me but even more so for Sean). And I definitely think of you as a happy person. I know it was hard on you, being super-mom to all of us, but you have always been so full of, and receptive to, joy and laughter when opportunities arise. <3

    • Auntie CL says:

      Bev: “One can’t be much good to others if one doesn’t take care of one’s self; that’s just trying to do good work with worn-out tools.”
      You are so right, and I was very slow to learn that – I didn’t feel I had time to take care of myself or that I deserved to.

  3. Mary Snow says:

    Hey, Di! Glad you had a great summer! I took the kids to the Donkey Sanctuary this summer and they were sadly a bit “Meh” about it. They used to love it so much more in the past. Guess nothing compares to Minecraft anymore. 😉

    I AM happy and it IS a mindset – for sure. I haven’t always been and there have been some pinnacle moments in my life where I intentionally made some shifting decisions. Not so much huge life changing actions, but more so about how I think and feel about things. That’s the secret. I think a lot of people look at my life and think it’s easy, but as you know with most things, it takes a lot of work to make things look easy!

    I’m currently loving “Big Magic!” Thanks for the lend!

    I’m curious about your “robust guilty conscience.” I think this area might need some more exploration if you struggle with guilt getting in the way of your happiness. Where does this come from? Why do you let this affect you? What triggers it? Why doesn’t it ever go away? Has it EVER served you well?

    Welcome back to the blog!!

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      OMGoodness, Mary, I worry regularly about real life not “measuring up” to video games! (In fact, there’s a post brewing about that – started this summer but never finished…)

      Like you, I have always believed that, once you have your necessities covered, happiness is a mindset. As a younger person, I prided myself on optimism and equanimity. Guilt was a part of my life back then, but motherhood and teacherhood have both intensified it. They’re both occupations that you could spend infinite time on and never do perfectly – and ones in which it greatly matters how you treat the people involved.

      Thanks for encouraging me to examine the guilt thing… I obviously need to do this!

      I know that part of my guilt problem is simply being super-reluctant to give up any of my commitments. This has always been an issue (I had a deep philosophical struggle with the decision to give up piano lessons at age 9, after three years). But I get satisfaction and often joy from each of the things I invest time in, so… What to do?? Also, guilt has strands that interweave with empathy and humility, both of which are really important to me. So although I can’t say that guilt does (or ever did) serve me well, I do see value in consistently considering other people’s perspectives, even if that means I feel pain.

      So… that seems to be me, making my bed and lying in it… 😛 I think it may need more pondering!

      Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful comments. xoxox

      • Mary Snow says:

        Di, I feel like we could talk forever about so many things!!

        The video game thing: I’m not going to stress about this one too much (yet!). Mike and I monitor and limit their gaming, and to be honest, I am quite impressed with the things they can create in Minecraft! The thing that happens is that when they get off screen, they really bring those inspirations to real life play. For example, Naomi will replicate the things she built in Minecraft with Lego or clay (and her creations are amazing!) or Ronan will go outside and live action play Roblox or Minecraft with my little gardening tools. It’s quite the cutest thing. Once they start wanting to play first person shooters or other types of games, we’ll talk again!!

        The guilt thing: I grew up in a household and religion where guilt was paramount!! I have a lot of history with this emotion. I agree whole-heartedly with you that empathy and humility are very important and so needed in this world!!! As well as the consideration of others’ perspectives (believe me, I understand how painful this can be, especially when trying to manage groups of people). My question is: do those emotions NEED to be interwoven with guilt?? Guilt by definition implies that you feel like you did something wrong. Your piano lesson example – what good did guilt provide for you in feeling bad about stopping it? Maybe guilt can be useful in that it might propel you into a corrective action, like a deeper commitment to a hobby? Do you need guilt to exercise humility and empathy? I’m not expecting nor do have yes or no answers, just providing some other questions as you ponder this topic! I’m sure you’re familiar with her, but Brene Brown has some amazing talks about shame (which I think is guilt’s twin sibling) which helps puts these emotions into perspective.

        • dilovelyadmin says:

          Mary, I know!! Dance class definitely doesn’t allow much time for philosophical discussions. 😉

          My kids also take a lot of inspiration from video games, especially E. He does a lot of art based on them… and I’m pretty certain his love of geography was born when he played Horizon Chase and wanted to find out where all the international cities are (where the races take place)… He started perusing the atlas during free choice time at school (!). And of course there are skills they’re building at the same time. Video games definitely have benefits. (Haha, I love picturing Ronan with your gardening tools! <3)

          The part that makes me worried is the addictive nature of it - and how it's designed to be that way. That factor means that A) my kids' coping skills go way down post-screen time (especially for games that have a time limit or other stressor) and B) it trumps other things. Like we can have a lovely day doing something we all enjoy out of the house, but if we get home and it's too late for their screen time, it's a TRAGEDY and we forget all about the fun we had. We're still figuring out how to navigate all that.

          In terms of guilt, funnily enough, our family's spirituality growing up (and now) was Quaker, which is not at all guilt-based - but very humanitarian, so the compassion develops early (and can be hard to manage, when you're a little kid with even a partial concept of how much suffering happens in the world). (I didn't feel guilty about the piano lessons, but it was an example of me hating to quit ANYTHING.)

          Thank you for this sentence: "Guilt by definition implies that you feel like you did something wrong." You're absolutely right - I think it would help me to focus on this. Because usually the "something wrong" is not actually WRONG, but is more along the lines of disappointing someone. And I don't think I NEED it to practise empathy or humility - it just follows me around. Maybe it's a habit more than anything. And luckily, shame is not something I usually struggle with (love Brené Brown, though!). As someone with a lot of history with it, do you also feel that guilt is a choice?

          Thanks for this great conversation!

  4. Beth Lopez says:

    I was taken on a spirit quest and found that my spirit animal is a wild horse. My job has been to find out what the horse has to teach me. It’s taken me a while but I learned two lessons that I try every day to follow. First I learned to live in the moment. To pay attention to whatever I’m doing in the moment. I tend to work at one thing while planning out all the other things I have to do when this is done, and I don’t really notice the thing I’m doing. It’s still hard but I am more aware and try to push out the feelings that this job is taking to long, that I want to get on to the next thing. I haven’t mastered that yet, but I’m working on it.
    The second big learn was about responsibility and guilt. I spent my life living from crisis to crisis – bad relationships, being a single mom, teaching (you deserve those holidays, teaching is one of the most stressful jobs of all. You don’t have 1 boss, you have a principal, 20 + students and their parents and the public who are always watching those teachers.) But now I’m retired, my kids are grown up and doing very well, I have a great marriage and my husband doesn’t need looking after. My time is my own. And I realized that I go looking for responsibilities because I don’t know how else to live my life. How can I function without deadlines and jobs I MUST do. So, my resolution for the new year (my new year always starts in September – school starts and I have a birthday) – is to let go the MUSTs, not take on responsibilities. I will read, meditate, walk and look after my health and create. That’s it. And I will not have deadlines for my creations. If I make something for someone, they will get it when it’s done, not on a birthday or Christmas, but when I’m satisfied with my creation.
    I know that I did not have the luxury to do this when I had real responsibilities like young kids and a job, but I also know I created more responsibilities than I had to.
    Donkeys are a great example of living in the moment.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Your spirit animal is a wild horse! (My) Arwen would be so envious!

      I relate to both of those things you mention. In fact, I think that it’s a huge problem in our society right now, the difficulty of being fully present in what we’re doing (due in a large part to the way our devices fracture our thought processes). That’s a really great point about the feeling that “this is taking too long”… We’re all in such a rush, it seems. I’m going to try to be more mindful of that too.

      It’s wonderful hearing you describe your life now, especially that magical phrase “My time is my own.” I’m so glad for you. I like to think I’ll be great at retirement, because there will be so many things I’ll have time for… But then, who knows what our circumstances will be at that point? Better really enjoy the joy now – just in case – right?

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