Happiness is Work

This last week, I had an interesting experience that highlighted the relationship between happiness, hard work and social media. Hang in there with my train of thought. In the movies, happiness looks easy. People are chipper and beautiful. Everyone wakes up with a spring in their step and a smile on their face. Life is exciting in the movies, filled with events, friends and travel. Problems are contrived, usually sort of humorous, and they are all resolved within a few days.

In real life, happiness can be hard. It takes energy and planning. Big events are accompanied by big stress. As a psychologist, I see the harm that Hollywood expectations create. Movies give us expectations that our days and nights should be filled with excitement. Social media is like Hollywood on steroids. People post pictures of their seemingly perfect lives. If you live in the real world, you know that jobs are sometimes boring, friends can be hard to find, and people don’t have a party every weekend. Life can feel monotonous, stressful and hard.

I have worked with hundreds of people with depression. Oftentimes, my clients compare their own lives to the ones on social media, and find them lacking. If you aren’t traveling and out with friends, you feel like you are missing out. This has led to increased loneliness and distress. Think of the term FOMO. The fear of missing out is so common that there is now an acronym to describe what most people are feeling. I see this all so clearly in my private practice. This week, it occurred to me that I have been practicing the exact thing I dislike.

This past summer, I got married. We had a lovely, small ceremony with only 16 people. A small, intimate gathering was exactly what we wanted. However, we knew we should follow up with a party with our friends and family. People we love, wanted to celebrate with us. Last weekend, we finally had not one, but two parties. The first was for out of town guests and family. We had a catered Spanish tapas and paella party. Saturday, we hosted a large gathering in our backyard. It was truly wonderful. As I sit here reflecting, I am realizing that I had committed all the Hollywood mistakes I listed above.

My social media reflects all the best moments from my wedding and the two parties. I posted pictures of smiling friends and family, holding cocktails and food, laughing and having a ball. The pictures are real, but they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t reflect the weekend before where I cleaned obsessively to declutter a house that holds four teenagers, two adults and a dog. There is no picture of me cleaning out the mud room and the moldy vegetables from the refrigerator. No picture shows the panic over finding a wasp nest in the backyard, days before 75 people were to be a few feet away. There is no picture of the stress of getting the bills and discussing how to cut back on certain items.

In July, we got married in Wisconsin. Our wedding pictures were the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen of our family. The setting, on a lake, gave the perfect backdrop. Once again, what the photos didn’t show was my husband’s father having too much back pain to attend the wedding, or the flu that struck the best man the day before the wedding. The pictures don’t show my stress that the seamstress shortened my dress too much so I’m barefoot for the whole event. Of course we don’t post the difficult stuff. We don’t even take a picture of it.

However, I think that there is a problem with the way we are normalizing perfection. The problem isn’t just FOMO or that not everyone can afford to throw big parties. The problem is that we are reinforcing only the good in our own minds, instead of the truth. The balance of the good and bad and realistic expectations is what makes life complete. If we weren’t looking for perfect, maybe we would all be doing more. To look back and laugh at the crazy shit that someone did at the event or to acknowledge that meaningful things are hard is so much better than simply posting perfection.

I work very hard on my happiness. I think of happiness like fitness. It has to be practiced and planned daily to really work. You have all heard my recipe for happiness, PACE, many times. Sometimes I cringe that it sounds so simple. Just add Pleasure, Accomplishment, Connection and Exercise and you will have happiness! Easy, right? No, it’s not easy at all. It’s hard to plan parties, even dinner parties for 6 people. It’s work. But here’s the catch, even though people only post the good, and even though the real story is much harder than the one we see, I still think the important thing is to throw the party. The pictures aren’t what make an event important. Showing up for your life is what’s important.

I get it. Sometimes the easiest thing is to not plan anything. It is so much easier to watch some Netflix, than to host a dinner party. It is easier to order in than to cook a big meal. It is easier to sleep in on the weekends than to get up and go exercise. Sometimes we need to rest and binge watch a show and order in. But how often? How often are you taking the easy route versus the harder one? My challenge to you is this. Push yourself to plan a little more. Even if it is more work and won’t look like it does online, work harder at your happiness. It’s worth it.

Next time you see a perfect event on social media, look at it with a new perspective. Pretend it was your own family hosting the event and think of how much work would go into it. Imagine the little arguments that took place over the budget and what to serve. Know firmly, in your heart, that the wonderful photos were accompanied by stress and fatigue. BUT, once the hard work is over, the budget argued about, and the meal cooked, you get to spend a night connecting with the people you love. You get to dress up and celebrate life. You get to eat good food, engage in real conversation, laugh and finally, relax into the thing you worked so hard to plan. You get to live a life instead of watching others live online.

My advice, is to plan more and do more that is meaningful. The cure for FOMO is not more time online, watching others live. It is to plan events in your own life that fill you up. Set a limit with your phone and television and put that time into organizing happiness in your own life. Host a dinner party. Go to that yoga class after work. Plan a night out with your friends every month. Organize a book club. Life isn’t as pretty or perfect as the pictures we all post, but when we work hard at it, it’s messy and wonderful.

You can listen to me talk through this in the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below or in the following places:

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Shannon Connery, Ph.D.

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