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I Cut Out Every Unnecessary Thing

Happiness interview: Rebekah Sanderlin.

Happiness interview: Rebekah Sanderlin.

I “met” (virtually) Rebekah through a mutual friend, and I was thrilled to read her post yesterday, on the New York Times blog At War, about how Happier at Home was helpful to her during reintegration: Finding home again after deployment.

I don’t have any personal experience with this kind of happiness challenge, and I was gratified to hear that the book was nevertheless helpful.

Rebekah writes a lot about the special challenges (happiness-related and otherwise) faced by military families. She’s a writer, married to a soldier, with three children, and her writing is both hilarious and thought-provoking.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Rebekah: Making my bed makes me happy — but I want to be absolutely clear that I’m am not at all OCD. The rest of my house is usually a mess, in fact. It’s not the act of making the bed that makes me happy — I actually hate doing it — but seeing the bed made means that my day has begun. Everything around me can be in a state of total chaos, but a made bed makes me feel like I can tackle the day.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Happiness isn’t always obvious and you don’t always realize that you’re happy in the moment. Sometimes it takes perspective, the kind only gained through hardship and pain, to realize that you’ve been happy in the past. At 18 years old, I hadn’t really experienced enough sadness to appreciate all the times I’ve been happy.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

I am always late. Always. I get absorbed in some other project and lose track of time, then I get stressed and embarrassed about being late — again.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

“Keep advancing the ball.”

When I was a senior in high school, only one girl tried out for my school’s golf team. The school was going to have to forfeit the season. The golf coach was my Ecology teacher and he told me that he would teach me how to play if I would just agree to be on the team, so I signed up. (My grades were bad and I hoped he’d slide me a few points.) I was horrible at golf. The first few times I tried to hit a ball off of a tee I missed the ball completely. Then, once I started hitting the ball, it would only go 10 or 20 feet at a time. I hacked the fairways to pieces. My coach was patient, though, and he just kept saying, “It doesn’t matter how far it goes, as long as you’re advancing the ball.” That has become my mantra. I don’t have to be great at everything, I just have to continually make forward progress.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?

I talk to my sister on the phone. She’s just 14 months older than me and has always been my ‘partner in crime.’ It takes very little for the two of us to riff off each other and come up with outlandish projects and dreams. Talking to her always cheers me up. Once we wrote a pop song over the phone called “Last Call for Booty” — we even found a singer, rented a recording studio and had it made into a demo. We intended it to be the cheesy last song nightclubs play before they turn on the lights. It has yet to become a hit.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

People who surround themselves with positive people, not necessarily happy people, but people who are proactive, seem to be happier. Conversely, people who surround themselves with people I call “joy suckers” can easily get their own happiness zapped. Unhappy people tend to be drawn to upbeat people, but then instead of one person’s happiness lifting the other’s sadness, the sad person tends to drag the positive person down. Once you’ve achieved a positive state, you have to guard it carefully.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

My happiness level has been in a state of dramatic flux for most of the past decade, since I became an Army wife. My husband and I dated long distance and then got married on March 8, 2003; I moved to the Army town where he lived two days later (I’d only been there once before); I started a job at the daily newspaper there on March 18; the Iraq War started on March 19; and my husband deployed on April 1. We’d been married for just 3 weeks. Needless to say, I got my first taste — but certainly not my last — of clinical depression shortly thereafter.

For almost a decade our lives have followed this pattern. He was home for just three weeks after the birth of our first child before deploying for nine months. He’s been deployed eight times during these 10 years of marriage, and so many times now we’ve experienced the amazing highs of a homecoming, followed by the amazing lows of trying to live together again and saying goodbye again.

The worst time, by far, was in 2008. My father was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and given just six months to live; I found out I was pregnant with our second child; two doctors agreed that a spot in my mouth was probably lymphoma but couldn’t biopsy it until after the baby was born; and then my husband deployed for the third time to southern Afghanistan, where the fighting was especially bad. I moved home to be with my dad and spent months watching him die, all the while talking to my husband on the phone most days and hearing about the horrible things he was seeing and enduring. After my father’s death I moved back into my house in North Carolina — just in time for hurricane season. My husband was still deployed and, wouldn’t you know it? I went into labor in the middle of a hurricane and made it to the hospital just minutes before my beautiful daughter was born. Add in five months of five-hours-a-day-crying-colic, and it really didn’t seem like the year could get much worse.

That year I was literally in survival mode. I had lost my dad, I was very aware that I could lose my husband and I had every reason to believe that my own life hung in the balance. So I did the only thing I could think to do: I handled each problem as it arose. My husband likes to refer to this as “aiming for the 50 meter target”, by the way, meaning that you “shoot” the target that’s closest to you before shooting the targets behind it.

I made plans and drew up legal documents for who would raise my children if my husband and I were to both die. I enrolled my three-year-old in full time day care, even though I stayed home every day, simply because I needed the breaks. I accepted every offer of help anyone made and I learned to ask, beg even, for more help. Finally, I cut out every unnecessary thing and every person who did not add value to my life. I kept only the things in my life that brought me strength and joy. It was a horrible year, but there were some very good times, too. And, I did finally get the biopsy and learned, thankfully, that the spot was benign.

I think sometimes life throws impossible situations at us — times when all of our normal coping mechanisms are doomed to fail. I think these situations exist for two reasons: 1) to make us grow and 2) to make us rely on things outside of ourselves. For me, my faith in God and my friendships carried me through that year. I would never want to repeat that year, but I’m actually grateful for all that I went through because of the lessons I learned and the strength and sense of accomplishment that come from endurance and survival.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

I have a wall of framed photographs of beautiful places that I’ve taken on trips; haunting landscapes, churches, street scenes and sunsets. The pictures are carefully curated, printed to 11×14 size and beautifully framed. I love looking at those pictures. They are eye-pleasing and bring back wonderful memories, but I also take pride in knowing that I was the photographer who took them.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Marriage and parenthood both shocked the hell out of me! I thought marriage would be like a never ending sleepover with my best friend, just non-stop fun. And I thought parenting would be just days and days of cooing over a perfect little version of me. I was not at all prepared for the many trials that followed! Both experiences are much more rewarding than I ever dreamed they would be, but I was completely unprepared for all the difficult times.

Also ...

  • If you could pick just one picture book to give to every child at birth, what book would you pick? For me...tough choice...but I'd have to go with Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. I wrote about this question for the New York Times blog Motherlode. What book would you pick?

  • If you'd to join my book group, sign up here. Each month, I recommend one happiness book, one children's-literature book, one eccentric pick. I have great ideas for next month, can't wait!