What does the pursuit of happiness look like in your house? In our home, it used to mean the quest to actualize the picture perfect life; a lovely home, big careers, high achieving children. However, our search for the American Dream was quietly laid to rest once we figured out that the stress that came along with that dream did nothing but drive a big, fat exhausted wedge between the four of us. Our wildest dream is now about owning less and simplifying even more.
This month, take a step back and see how much of marital and family strain might be fueled by cultural norms that you may never have given yourself permission to question. The abundance available to us in our communities and our constant search for happiness and a sense of accomplishment outside of ourselves begins, at some point, to work against relationships. Begins, at some point, to erode the sense of intimacy that keeps families close. A lifestyle anchored in achievement does not necessarily equate to happiness.
Years ago, my brother Joe, then employed in development for George Washington University, called me one day and invited me to be his guest at a dinner party at Arianna Huffington’s house in Los Angeles. Not one to ever pass up an interesting party, I met him there and proceeded to endure a most humbling evening. Sharing space with the likes of Gloria Allred and many big wigs of the Democratic party, I was clearly out of my league. When people around me made small talk and told uproarious jokes about issues and people I had never heard of, well, let’s just say I felt like a kindergartener at the eighth grade lunch table.
I always remember that evening, feeling like I was less. Like I would never live in an elegant home like Mrs. Huffington’s or be the type of person that would understand jokes about the inner workings of Washington, D.C. I left that night promising myself to work harder, read more news magazines, watch more serious TV and avail myself to more intellectual discussions. I promised myself to find a way to have more. More, more, more…faster, faster, faster to make sure I didn’t feel less.
In October 2009, I saw that Mrs. Huffington had chosen, as her first book club pick, In Praise of Slowness, by Carl Honore, a book about less, less, less…slower, slower, slower to make us feel more. Life has its ironies.
I agree with Carl Honore. In his book he discusses the current trend toward deceleration saying that “The problem is that our hunger for speed, for cramming more and more into less time, has gone too far.” That “the current recession is a stark reminder that an economy based on fast growth, fast consumption, and fast profits is not sustainable.”
The pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. Not only can our economy not withstand such a pace, neither can our families. Divorce rates remain around 50%. I wonder how that might change, how children’s lives might remain innocent and intact, if families were given cultural permission to slow down and own less. The greatest indicator of success is a happy family, not a beautiful home as glossy magazines and TV shows might suggest.
Our experience of selling all and living abroad for a year to reconnect as a family supports Honore’s theory. It was a sacred time of owning nothing but possessing everything. Simplification has helped us maintain a level of sanity and intimacy that supports rather than strains our family. Perhaps the American Dream, as we know it, has run its course. Perhaps it is time for a new one. A slower, less materialistic one.
Taking things out of your life will help you and your spouse find more time for each other. So much of what we choose to fill our days can be argued as good, but too much of a good thing is still too much. If you are seeking real change in the quality of your marriage, you must find a way to create the emotional space to interact in meaningful ways.
I challenge you, this month, to think outside our cultural box and create your own recipe for happiness according to what works best for you and your spouse. My wildest dream is a peaceful heart and happy home, the very same two things that I wish for you!