Friday, November 2, 2007

The Fulfilled Life?

From what is fulfillment made?

The big answers to this question seem obvious to me: fulfillment is love, loyalty, honesty, intimacy, trust in relationships. Fulfillment is commitment, passion, enthusiasm in work. Fulfillment is laughter, zest, irreverance in play.

But what about the little answers? I believe the little answers may be the critical difference between a happy life and a joyful life. Is it asking too much to live a joyful life? I think not, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy task to accomplish. I think it takes discipline and thoughtfulness. It requires a deep consideration of habits and the cost of those habits. A cost that is measured in units of joy, not dollars. In the United States, we are obsessed with dollars, productivity, and economic growth. It’s all about “getting stuff done.” Joy, however, is NOT about getting stuff done. I suppose it CAN be about getting stuff done; I am happy when I cross that last thing off my to-do list. But more fundamentally, joy is pleasure and fulfillment; pleasure on the small scale and fulfillment on the larger scale.

How does one measure anything in units of joy? If we examine joy on a temporal scale, for any given activity there is anticipation, duration, and aftermath. A truly wonderful activity will contribute units of joy to each of these temporal stages. For example, I love to bake and eat cookies. I look forward to baking (anticipation—1 unit of joy), I like mixing the ingredients together and watching a cookie dough form right before my eyes (duration—2 units of joy), and I like eating and sharing my cookies (duration/aftermath—2 units of joy). I’m not a big fan of the cleanup (aftermath), so we’ll say that washing, drying, and putting away the dishes and cleaning up the counters costs 1 unit of joy. So if we add up the units, cookie baking is a total of 4 units of joy (5 units – 1 unit for cleanup = 4 units). That’s a pretty good deal in my book!

My theory is that the secret to a joyful life is to discover the people and habits that make you happiest. Spend more time with those people and spend more time cultivating those habits. As for the other people and habits, remove them from your life if possible. If removal is not possible, think deeply about the ways that you can make them more enjoyable (or maybe just less irritating). Don’t let unpleasant people or habits steal your joy!

I have a habit which is sneakily stealing my joy. It’s my own fault, really; I willingly devote hours to it with little complaint. Sometimes I even build my schedule around it! It, my dear reader, is television-watching. Staring at a big box with moving pictures. It is a greedy habit, soaking up my free time and leaving me feeling vaguely empty after I stop. When I’m not rationing the amount of time I spend on it, I can spend 7 or more hours a week watching television. That’s a lot of time! That’s 7 hours, 420 minutes, during which I am not reading, writing, cooking, baking, cleaning, chatting on the phone, working, or any of a hundred other things that I could be doing, things I find more meaningful, fulfilling, or even just important. This madness has to stop! But it is SO HARD. Recently I tried rationing my TV time: I told myself I would only watch 4 hours a week. I only lasted about 2 weeks before I watched 5 hours in one week. Shoot!

Why is it so hard to not watch television? I think it’s hard because television is such an easy, effortless form of entertainment: click on tv, sit down, watch as the hours of your life slip away. The stories are absorbing: I think human culture evolved in part as a result of story-telling, and as products of human culture, we in turn are biologically programmed to like stories. But television-watching is as much a pleasure as it is an irritant. I loathe commercials. While I like the stories, the characters are often annoying, prone to making the same mistakes over and over again. Many storylines revolve around unrequited love, infidelity, and betrayal. I, on the other hand, am looking for requited love, fidelity, and trust. Finally, I’m getting better at predicting the endings, which either means that I’m getting smarter or the television plots are getting thinner. Maybe it’s both.

It’s time for me to quit watching television. Period. At least for a few weeks. To tell you the truth, I’m a little nervous about quitting cold turkey. My television habit has been with me for several years now, and my prediction is that my life will feel a little empty without the comfort of some brainless entertainment every week. During my television-less time, movies are allowed as long as they are not televised movies; in other words, I can rent videos but no network television. To document my television-less adventures, I will be posting blog entries here at Life, Love, and Food. I know I have a history here of saying I’m going to do things (Summer Cooking Wish List, anyone? Hey, there’s always next summer!), but this promise is one I will keep. Promise!

Wish me luck!

In celebration of what one might call a life wake-up call, I will leave you with a simple recipe for Mexican Coffee. Ground coffee is brewed with cocoa powder and cinnamon, and the sweetly spiced brewed coffee is combined with milk and a dash of cream and sweetener. It’s rich and delicious, a perfect pick-me-up in the morning. It’s my standard morning coffee now.

Mexican Coffee
Serves 1 (but can be scaled up to serve more)
Units of Joy: 2
Adapted from Rachael Ray’s Cooking 'Round the Clock

1 heaping tablespoon of ground coffee (use more or less depending on how strong you like your coffee
~1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
Generous sprinkle of cinnamon powder
1 cup water
1/3 cup milk (or more or less as you prefer)
Tiny splash of heavy cream (optional)
~1 tsp. sugar (or more or less as you prefer) OR a drizzle of real maple syrup

1) Brew coffee by adding coffee, cocoa powder, and cinnamon powder to your coffee maker’s brewing basket. Use the back of a spoon to smooth out the contents of the brewing basket to make sure the brewed coffee can flow smoothly into your coffeepot. Add water to the coffee maker’s water tank and brew coffee according to manufacturer’s instructions.
2) Pour coffee into your favorite mug and add milk, cream if desired, and sugar or maple syrup. Enjoy!


JD said...

Very good article Rosiecat! I often think that we value the incorrect thing here in the US, we could have a great discussion on this. Although I do have to point out the difference between the latest episode of General Hospital and a History Channel Show on the D-Day landing. I think you should try to limit your frivolous TV time and move that to other activities. I also enjoy sports on TV, and there are many more emotions tied up into that. You have me thinking though.

Rosiecat said...

Hi JD!

Yes, I agree with you on all your points. I would love to watch more historical documentaries, but I never know when they are playing. The problem with my tv-watching is that I wasn't really enjoying it very much, so I started to think that this was a habit that was not making me happy. It's been almost a week since I watched tv (I stopped cold turkey last Thursday), and thus far, I don't miss it at all. I will, however, probaby watch part of the Thanksgiving Day parade on tv--I do enjoy the parade festivities while I'm curled up on the couch drinking my chai latte in pajamas!

I am definitely not trying to villify tv-watching as a pastime. I think there are lots of great things to watch on tv--sports, parades, occasionally movies. If we are selective in our tv-watching, I think it can be quite enjoyable without threatening to take up more than its fair share of our recreational time.

Thanks for the comment! You always have such a practical and valuable perspective on life.