One of the biggest surprises of my happiness project has been the extraordinary effectiveness of my Eighth Commandment: Identify the problem.
As strange as it sounds, I’ve learned that often I’ll suffer an unhappy situation without asking myself what the true problem is, or taking any real steps to try to solve it. Instead, I suffer a vague sense of discomfort, without being prompted into action.
My solution to this? To press myself to identify the problem. It’s a lot easier to solve a problem once I know what it is.
For example, I love coming home to Kansas City. We have a million things to do while we’re here, always the same list: Worlds of Fun, Winstead’s, Arthur Bryant’s, Rainy Day Books, Kaleidoscope, Topsy’s, etc. But often I need to do a little work, too (like post to my blog). My work as a writer has changed. I used to write on my laptop, on my own schedule, with no one to answer to for two or three years at a stretch. Now I feel a more constant need to report for duty. I love my new tasks (blog, Twitter, Facebook, monthly newsletter, etc.), but they demand a different rhythm of work.
For the past few years, when in Kansas City, I found myself feeling anxious and uncomfortable about this need to work.
For this visit, I took the crucial step. While on the plane, I asked myself, “What’s the problem?” It turns out that the problem isn’t that I can’t manage to take a break from family togetherness or that it ruins my fun to do a little work amid a vacation (in fact, I’ve found, a little work can make vacation more fun).
When I thought about it, I realized the problem was that in my parents’ place, there’s no desk. They have a lot of beautiful furniture, but nothing desk-like. They keep their own laptop on a shelf in the kitchen, and when they need to it, they put it on the kitchen table. Right in the middle of the action. The constant distractions and interruptions kept me on edge. Even when no one was wandering through the kitchen, it felt as though someone would pop in at any minute. It’s hard for me to concentrate in these circumstances.
Having identified the problem, I took a second crucial step. About an hour after the girls and I arrived in Kansas City, I mentioned to my mother, “You know what would make the guest room a lot more user-friendly? A desk.” I didn’t want to seem critical or fault-finding, but it was true that a desk would make a big difference.
My mother said, “Well, I haven’t seen a desk that would be right for that room, but I need a card table anyway, so I’ll go ahead and get it so you can use it.” Within six hours of my comment, my mother had picked up a card table at Target (the platonic ideal of a card table, exactly how you picture it and for $29), and now I’m typing on it, tucked away in a quiet corner.
Identify the problem! Why is this so hard? It’s a bit counter-intuitive that thinking about a source of unhappiness can actually be a happiness booster. It seems more likely that I’d do better to put up with a vague sense of uneasiness rather than shine a spotlight on it. And probably in some situations, that is better. But so often, I’ve found, “Identifying the problem” shows a possible way to solve it.
Now if I could only get my wireless mouse to connect…
* Did I mention that my book is available for pre-order? Yes, I’m pretty sure I did. But here I go again! Order early and often.