This past weekend, my family and I went out to celebrate an anniversary. Twenty three years ago – August 29, 1992 – Stephen and I were married. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we were surrounded by family and friends. We’ve come so far since that day, and learned so much, so Stephen, Stella, and I decided to have a nice dinner to honor the occasion.
Nothing remarkable, really, except for the fact that Stephen and I got divorced this past June.
Apparently this is odd behavior. When you get divorced, you’re supposed to be unhappy and angry. The other person may not be an enemy, but they aren’t someone you’d actually want to spend time with, much less celebrate.
That doesn’t work for me.
Happiness is an interesting thing. It’s tempting to treat it as if it’s mysterious and intangible, something more like fairy dust than science. You either are graced with it or you are not, or at the very least, it comes and goes based on factors you cannot see or control.
Not so, says Martin Seligman, author of Flourish and the granddaddy of happiness research. Dr. Seligman came of age at a time when most psychologists preferred to focus on the treatment of depression. The idea was to take people who were not well and administer therapy to alleviate depression, the way that a cardiologist prescribes drugs to treat heart disease.
Dr. Seligman saw the world differently. His work focused on a brilliant question: how do we help people thrive so that they do not become depressed in the first place? And so the field of Positive Psychology was born.
According to Dr. Seligman (who actually dislikes the word “happiness” because he believes it’s oversimplified and misused), well-being has five elements:
By taking concrete steps in these five areas, we can enhance our well-being, and yes, happiness.
In my world, my well-being tank had been drifting towards empty for many years. After reaching a particularly low point, I did what I usually do when I confront a problem – I read everything I could get my hands on to try to make sense of the situation. After reading Flourish, I made a point to work on the elements of well-being. A few examples:
Positive emotion – experimenting with small pleasures, like different kinds of food.
Engagement – using my love of learning to explore topics like mindset, spirituality, fitness and cooking.
Relationships – spending more time with my daughter AND chatting more often with strangers and casual acquaintances. I’m an introvert, so this was tough, but even brief conversations made me feel surprisingly good.
Meaning – finding meaning at work by comforting colleagues dealing with difficult situations, and of course, creating Fit Energies to share and explore all aspects of fitness.
Accomplishment – setting several goals in the gym — for example, learning to deadlift and developing a plan to squat a plate (135 pounds), which I finally did.
With all of this work, I felt increasingly better. At the same time, I came to realize that my ex and I had serious differences with respect to numerous elements of the well-being equation. He likes to say that the relationship had become more of a source of angst than of support, and that was very true. I’m sure much of that had to be driven by fundamental differences in the ways we each pursued happiness. For example, since learning and curiosity are signature strengths for me, I’m most in flow when I’m digging into information and analyzing and organizing it endlessly. This often drove him crazy.
I don’t mean to suggest that the path to this weekend’s celebration was all smooth sailing. There were tears, frustration, and more arguments than I’d like to admit. A vegetable may have been thrown across the room at one point; I’ll never tell. In all, it took several years of soul searching, but we eventually each agreed to take responsibility for our own well being, and that was key. As soon as I finally did that, I was relieved to feel my anger and sadness lifting. There was no need for blame. I was free not only to pursue my own happiness, but to support him in his well-being work too.
Life is by no means perfect, but I’m incredibly grateful for the progress we’ve made. Stephen just moved to a beautiful new place that he loves. He’s made amazing strides with his fitness, enjoying personal records in the gym and better sleep than he’s had in years. He visits us daily to share meals and good company, which is healthy for all three of us. For my part, after a tough year, I’m once again making time for the things I love most—food, fitness, learning, and collecting ideas. Some people collect shoes, some collect snow globes; I collect information. I’m dating a wonderful man who shares not only my love of lifting (he’s a competitive powerlifter), but also loves to analyze and debate all kinds of things, which thrills me.
Win-win. What’s not to celebrate?