Except for Paying Bills — Otherwise, Be Happy
don’t know where we got the idea that our happiness isn’t important. I’m watching other adults adulting and wondering what the hell they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Do we even question how we live, or do we just live by rote?
But maybe I’m a different sort of human. After all, I left a family funeral not vowing to spend more time seeing family members. I left thinking that I need to spend more time being happy rather than doing things out of obligation.
To be clear, going to a funeral wasn’t a joy, but neither was it an obligation. I showed up because I needed to be there for my grandmother — and for myself in grieving her passing.
But I’m over obligations.
I think many people have this existential crisis of seeing someone they love pass away and decide that they want to spend more time seeing the people they’re related to before they run out of time. If that’s what they value, I fully support it. I just have a slightly different take on the same existential crisis.
I want to spend more time investing in my own happiness.
Doing obligatory things that cause me great personal stress and drain my energetic resources is not something I want to keep doing. Unless I’m going to enjoy an event or function, I’m going to start taking a hard pass on participating. Why do we go where we don’t feel respected, valued, or appreciated? Why do we continue to sit down with people committed to misunderstanding us or trying to make us change?
Which isn’t to say that I don’t want to take time for family and for building or repairing relationships. I’m happy to do that — if it makes me happy. In fact, it was a joy to see so many family members that I haven’t seen since childhood. It wasn’t the time or place, but I wanted to know more about them and hear their stories. I would be perfectly happy to spend more time with the people I enjoy.
But I don’t subscribe to the idea that we have to make time for the relationships we don’t enjoy just because we’ve known someone forever or share a family connection.
Why do we do that???
There are certain parts of adulting that we can’t really opt-out of without dire consequences:
Prioritizing our children’s well-being.
Working to pay the aforementioned bills.
Do you know what that list doesn’t include?
Working a job we hate.
Sacrificing self-care because we’re parents.
Spending time with people purely out of obligation.
These aren’t actual things we have to do. We think we have to go to jobs we don’t love just to pay the bills. We think hostile work environments are something we have to endure to make ends meet. We think we have to work longer and harder to accumulate more rather than appreciating what we have and adjusting our lifestyles by our values rather than by status.
We think we have to sacrifice our own care and interests for our children. We throw self-care aside and commit our entire schedules to live vicariously through them. We do without things we need so that they can have more than enough.
We opt-in to obligatory activities and then complain about them rather than declining to participate in the first place. We spend our holidays running around trying to please everyone rather than making our own happiness a priority. We exhaust ourselves trying to do it all and leave feeling depleted ourselves.
Seriously — why?
No one is making us live this way. The worst they can do is get angry or attempt to emotionally blackmail us with guilt or anger. Their words might hurt our feelings, but they probably won’t ruin our lives if we take a hard pass on doing things we don’t really want to do simply because we don’t want to do them.
We actually have the right to say no and not give an explanation for it.
It’s not being unkind to choose our own happiness. It’s actually being very kind to ourselves. It sets an example for our children that personal happiness is also a priority. When we feel exhausted and opt-out of one more obligatory visit, we’re modeling healthy boundaries and self-care. When we go where we don’t want to go (complaining about it before and after), we’re modeling that how we feel doesn’t matter. We’re also not modeling authenticity when we put on a happy face for things we hate and then gossip about it later.
I learned this well over the last year. I enrolled my daughter in Girl Scouts but then had a very unusual experience. Each meeting, the parents gathered to discuss fundraising and future events while the kids watched movies or played. This happened for weeks that turned into months. I gingerly approached the scout leader to ask what badges my daughter was earning.
Is there, in fact, a badge for watching The Lion King or playing at a park? Am I earning a badge for all of my participation? I thought these things but didn’t dare ask — not after the drama of the last parent who dared to voice a complaint. Her response was as volatile as I feared it would be.
More time passed. In the end, I finally summoned the courage and energy to confront her on the fact that I was doing all the participating while my child was gaining nothing from the experience. As a full-time writer and single mother, I didn’t choose to volunteer for the organization. Further, I didn’t want an activity that required active and regular participation from me. I wanted to sit on the sidelines and watch my child enjoy an activity — not participate myself while she did nothing.
I’ll just say that the conversation did not go well, but I did opt my daughter (and myself) out of participating in that particular troop. I knew that I didn’t have the energetic resources to devote to something that required that much parental involvement — not with juggling multiple roles and preparing for the October release of my first novel. I felt an instant wave of relief for doing the thing I knew I needed to do, which was to say no and stand up for myself and my child. I didn’t want the involvement, but my child did. We were both disappointed.
It’s a small example of this phenomenon, but I’ve done the same in other areas of my life. I’ve stayed in hostile work environments, feeling like I had no choice. I’ve put up with bullsh*t from colleagues and bosses and cried every day before going to jobs that made me feel like I wasn’t valued. I’ve gone to family events that caused me incredible amounts of stress and made me feel like I had to water down my true self to participate.
I’ve got new rules for my life, and one of them is going to be Nothing Out of Obligation.
I’ll go to school events that aren’t exactly my jam because making my kids happy contributes to my own happiness. I’ll make time for family members who value and respect me as a person but not for ones that don’t. I’ll sit on the sidelines of extracurricular activities and participate as much as I feel I’m able without compromising myself. I’ll do the hard work of maintaining my relationships and investing in them because loving well is something I enjoy.
I’ll do all the adulting things I’m expected to do like pay taxes, work, pay my bills, and take good care of my kids. But I don’t think we have to sacrifice our lives in service to everyone else on the face of the Earth. This isn’t the military. This is our lives we’re talking about. Why do we stay in relationships where we aren’t valued or in work situations that make us feel terrible? Why aren’t we prioritizing our happiness and making space for it? Why aren’t we making choices that make us feel loved and cared for as much as anyone else?
Does it come down to a lack of self-love? Societal pressure? Cultural expectations? Emotional blackmail? Yes, our lives are short, which is why we should be enjoying them.
I’m not advocating a selfish approach to life.
I’m advocating for healthy boundaries, self-care, and making choices that contribute to our overall well-being rather than adding to our stress. This shouldn’t be a novel idea, and yet it is.
I remember when the Netflix original series Dead to Me was trending because of the protagonist’s approach to saying no to things that didn’t interest her. The character, played by Christina Applegate, would simply say no without offering an explanation. A lot of people sat up and took notice because it’s the opposite of what we feel we’re expected to do. Watching her do it felt empowering.
It shouldn’t be a novel idea. It shouldn’t have raised even a single eyebrow. We get to say no to things we don’t really want to do.
It would be better to donate our time or resources with a happy heart rather than a begrudging one, and yet we seem to think that our time or resources matter more than the attitude that comes with them. Our attitude would be vastly improved if we spent more of our time prioritizing happiness. Then, we might actually have the energy to volunteer or give back and do so with a positive attitude because we’ve taken care of ourselves first.
I’m not trying to upend social convention. I just want to live a life that makes me deeply happy. I want to model that for my children. I want to be deeply mindful, grateful, kind, generous, and joyful with my time and energy.
I just don’t want to keep doing it for everyone else but me.