THE BLOG
01/28/2015 11:32 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

A Modern Manual For Happiness

Emily Ballard

I was vacuuming my car yesterday in anticipation of not being able to drive it anywhere because we're about to get about 24" of snow. What could be more luxurious than a clean car that can't be made dirty for at least a day or two?

My fingers were on their way to becoming frostbitten (no, for real -- they killed) and I was vacuuming up the last bits of pretzel and paper scrap and KIDSwhattisthis when I thought something like, What am I DOING? Like in LIFE? I need to write a moody poem RIGHT NOW. Now, I don't write poetry, so the idea of me attempting moody poetry sounds, in retrospect, particularly adolescent in every horrible way you might imagine.

But the kids were happily playing on an icy snow pile off to the side of the car wash's driveway, and so I dictated some lines into my phone. When I got home, I edited these lines, added a few more, and hit 'publish.' The Squarespace app said, "You think I'm gonna let you publish garbage like that?" by way of making me re-enter my password, thus deleting everything I'd just written.

"Well," I thought. "That's a relief."

I started making dinner.

But then real words -- grown-up words -- started coming and so I grabbed my laptop. I set it up on the island and tried to nonchalantly type a few sentences without the kids seeing.

"YOU'RE ON A SCREEN! If you're on a screen WE CAN BE ON A SCREEN!"

"I'm writing. This is hard for me. This is my work, you guys. It's not really that fun, it's just something I need to do."

"YOU'RE ON A SCREEN! WE WANT TO WATCH TV!"

I walked away from the screen and started peeling garlic. A child who shall remain nameless (but is the only 4-year-old youngest boy kid that lives in our house) promptly closed my laptop and grinned at me.

I did not react, which means I WON YESTERDAY, and instead realized that I could actually, you know, write words down with a pen and paper, and so grabbed my journal (I have a journal. I am deep.) and started scrawling.

When I read it back, I discovered that I'd quite unexpectedly written out my Personal Manual For Happiness.

I didn't know I had one, but, lo, here it is.

A Manual for Happiness

1. Be willing to laugh at yourself. Oh my GOD, did this take me a long time to learn. When my husband and I were dating (even though dude never took me on a real first or second or third date, 'cause college kids "hang out"), I made it a point to let him know just how serious I was about myself. I was intellectual and interesting and DON'T LAUGH AT ME. Thank God he ignored me completely and laughed in my face when I needed it. Learning to laugh at myself made me like myself more; I became less tedious to be around.

One of my my husband's best friends also happens to be a good friend of mine, and I remember him picking on me one day a few years ago and following his comment up with, "Don't get mad." I remember feeling both embarrassed that he felt the need to say it, and relieved that getting mad hadn't even occurred to me.

It's okay to take some of the seriousness out of things. Just laugh at yourself. You're less tedious that way.

2. Admit when you're wrong. I'm starting with the doozies, huh? This has been harder for me to learn than the laughing-at-myself thing. I like to be right. I'm very good -- in disagreements especially -- at articulating, in clear and concise language, exactly why I'm right. I do this even when I'm wrong.

I have no idea why it sucks so much to admit it when you're wrong. But I can say -- with absolute certainty -- that admitting you're wrong as soon as you realize it is baller. I have stopped arguments in their tracks by having a flash of, "Oh, shoot, he's right," pausing, smiling, and admitting defeat. I save myself from needing to blindly come up with ridiculous points to back my weak argument, and my husband doesn't need to spend half of his Saturday morning wondering if it was really the right move to become legally bound to me for life.

You're not weak or lame if you admit you're wrong -- you're brave and self-aware.

3. Eat good food. Preferably with your hands. Swear and squeal a lot while you do it. I love food and I love eating. The people I work with at Hope and Olive laugh at me constantly over how psyched I get about the food there. Perfectly-cooked food plated beautifully that I get to eat? Come on. In the summer, my favorite thing in life (my mouth is starting to water) is hearty toast slathered in a truly unseemly amount of Hellman's with thick-sliced garden tomatoes and salt on top. If I'm really living right, I eat this while standing over the sink (to catch spills), and shove handfuls of local spicy salad greens into my mouth between bites. Oh my God, it's heaven.

There's a time and a place for watching what you eat; I'm at the beginning of another Weight Watcher's stint as I type (AND YES, I'M HUNGRY RIGHT NOW) because I somehow gained 15 pounds without realizing it. (Thanks for forcing me to eat fries dipped in aioli all the time, H&O. Jerks.) I feel better when my body is healthy. But once I get to where my body wants to be? I'm gonna enjoy some indulgent moments.

Life's too short to miss out on really, truly, deliciously, gorgeous food.

4. Accept that it's probably not gonna look how you thought it would. We know this, right? That life never goes exactly like we think it will? I'm pretty sure we all know this, and I'm equally pretty sure that most of us fight this fact like angry roosters. (Sidebar: that's not as weird an analogy as you might think, as last year, we had a rooster that pecked another rooster to death. It was intense. Roosters get pompous and angry sometimes, no joke.)

Anyway, hear this: things happen -- magical things, confusing things, tragedies we never imagined. How we respond to these things is the single biggest indicator of the kind of life we'll have moving forward. We don't always get to decide what comes into our orbit, but we absolutely get to decide how we respond.

Resistance to change or challenges is natural; they don't always feel comfortable, and we like comfort. But life often goes down exactly how it wants to. Resistance might be our natural go-to, but acceptance -- when we can muster the strength for it -- will take us where we want to go.

5. Have really good sex. Ooh! Sex talk! First, I should just be really honest and tell you that my husband's a babe. He's also a builder, and so always smells like man and sawdust and hard work. That plus his chiseled jawline makes it very easy for me to want to put my hands all over him.

BUT -- you knew there needed to be a but, right? We used to come at sex (pardon the pun) from totally different angles. I needed to feel emotionally connected in order to get in the mood, and he needed to have sex to get emotionally connected.

Huh. The difference between men and women, right? Once we finally figured this out, it was clear that just having sex whenever one of us was feeling the spark was the path -- for both of us -- to emotional connection.

The result? Really good sex that gives both of us what we need emotionally. Also? All of this regular bedroom happiness has provided the added bonus of making us feel fresh and young and new; we flirt all the time, make out in the kitchen and cause our kids say, "Are you kissing in love?" all the time.

Love-fueled sex is happy-making.

6. Cry. I cry a lot. I'm unashamed about this. I am not overly-emotional, too sensitive or any other semi-derogatory-thinly-veiled-jab-at-people-who-feel-things. I'm a fully-feeling woman in an emotionally stunted world. There are lots of us out there. And it's okay -- no, it's necessary -- to stop suppressing our emotions because they're too much. They're not too much.

They're exactly what we need.

There's so much goodness that appears when I let myself just go where my body and feelings want to go. (Don't skip ahead 'cause I said the word "feelings.") I get stuff out and make space for new stuff. Fully feeling and fully releasing -- something that often looks like tears -- is a vital part of living a full life.

Let yourself cry and don't feel bad about it.

7. Don't do anything 'til you know what to do. I like to think of this as a 'Revelatory vs. Reactionary' way of being. Old me used to hear something that made me uncomfortable ("Hey, can you not use that tone of voice? We're just talking here.") and respond with ("WELL, YOU..."). That's Reactionary. Now, I'm all about letting next steps reveal themselves; I try to say nothing until I know how to respond in a way that isn't charged with defensiveness.

Now, please note that I fail at this constantly. Just the other day, I was on the phone with my mom and we were in the middle of a conversation that became increasingly reactionary. We both had hurt feelings. Looking back, I should have excused myself from the call 20 minutes in, after I saw where we were headed. Instead, after an hour, having ignored my instincts that said, "Don't say anything you don't mean!" I snapped and hung up on her. I hung up on my mom. Reactionary, at its worst. I called her two days later and apologized, and we had a clear, civil conversation that ended with us laughing over what an jerk I'd been.

Waiting to take action until you know what to do can save you from turning into an accidental jerk.

8. Let the fact that you're going to die scare you a little bit. I've been thinking about death a lot lately. And not in the "oh, it's part of the circle of life" kind of way. It's much more like, "NO. I DON'T WANNA."

There's so much I want to do before I die. There are so many people I want to help. There are so many people I want to love. There's so much I want to figure out. And the part of me that's been freaking out about the idea of death? I'm grateful to her. That feeling of what-if-I-die-before-I-do-all-the-things! has been spurring me lately. I've been making some professional leaps before I'm ready. I've been focused on loving my kids up and simultaneously setting clear boundaries about what I need to maintain my sanity as their mom ("Let me write for an hour and then I'll make you that [impossible to clean up] corn starch goop stuff.")

It's a fact that I'm going to die. And right now? I'm kinda bummed about it. But I like that a slow-simmering fear-of-dying-before-I-accomplish-anything is forcing me to do things.

9. Accept that discomfort doesn't mean you're doing it wrong. I get it. Feeling "good" is better than feeling "bad." But why have we decided that feeling uncomfortable is bad? There's so much information wrapped up in discomfort! So much! And we're missing out on all of it because we don't like how it feels? Well, now, aren't we precious.

We gotta get over this. Feeling uncomfortable is priceless, you guys. I used to run from it, too. I washed it away with shots of tequila, so scared was I of what might happen if I let myself investigate my discomfort. You know where that got me? Back into therapy full-time. Which was a blessing, because it was there that I learned all about what's underneath my discomfort. And you know what I found under there? A whole lotta fear. That's all. I didn't find a malformed soul or a permanently wounded woman. All I saw was someone living her life led by fear.

Feeling uncomfortable doesn't mean you're doing life wrong, and investigating your discomfort won't kill you. It'll do quite the opposite, actually -- it'll let you fully live.

10. Believe that you can be happy. And that 'happy' is up to you. I know, I know... it's all New Age-y. But no one can make you happy but you. Do outside influences matter? Of course. Does day-to-day reality factor in? Obviously. But don't we control many of those things? Don't we have free will?

If there are toxic people in your life, learn to set firm boundaries. Don't like your job? Make a plan to get a new one. Wish your marriage felt better? Find a therapist to sit down with and do the work. Having the life we want -- and feeling how we want to feel -- is completely in our hands.

This used to piss me off. A lot. I didn't want to admit that I was choosing to be unhappy. "Why would choose that!?"

I was so, so wrong. I was choosing unhappiness because I was used to it. I was more comfortable with what I knew. I wanted someone to hand me a magic happy pill. I didn't want to do the work. But I gotta tell ya, the surge of possibility I felt when I realized that I get to make my life what I want it to be?

It was incredibly powerful.

You can be happy if you want to be. And it's not going to look perfect or feel perfect or be "easy" in the way we like things to be easy. But you can have it. I have it because I decided it's what I wanted.

My happy takes work. There are bumps on my path. And yet, I think I deserve to be happy.

And so I am.

You can find the original post here, where it contains copious amounts of (well-placed) swearing. You can also get new posts from Emily (which, similarly, often contain well-placed swearing) in your inbox by clicking here.

And check out Emily's Facebook page, where she tries to be funny, real, and as brave as she can be.