Happiness: Wanting What You Have; Not Desiring More

 I don’t think of myself as a material person. My favorite clothing items and most of my bike and ski gear are nearly 10 years old. I rarely buy retail. With every purchase I remind myself of my desire for a minimalist approach to “stuff. Yet when it comes to Christmas and birthdays I LOVE receiving presents. I have even used these occasions to weigh someone’s affection for me through their level of generosity and gift-giving abilities.

Some of this stems from my childhood. When I was growing up, Christmas and birthday gift-giving in my family were unspoken contests for our love for one another. If gifts were not equally distributed between my brother and me, my parents ran the risk of one of us winning the knowledge that we were more or less loved by them, depending on what was doled out.

Those kinds of things never change. That pervasive internal score keeper is in all of us, and when we move from relationships with our family to intimate partnership we need to take a hard look at how we want to approach those nagging negative behaviors learned in childhood. Score keeping doesn’t stop at Christmas gifts. In any partnership there is opportunity to keep score throughout the day. “I made dinner AND did the dishes last night.” “I put the kids to bed every night.” Score keeping doesn’t serve a relationship, yet we all do it.

As much as I hate to admit it, this past Christmas brought out my old internal contest and diligent score keeping, and I directed it toward what I gave to my boyfriend vs. what he gave to me. In my mind, I lavished my boyfriend with material gifts, giving him an early present on Christmas Eve, followed by a stuffed stocking of goodies as part of my family’s traditional Christmas morning gift exchange. Later on Christmas Day I gave his dog a present, then presented him with his “main” gift, something I knew he wanted.

When it came time for him to give me his present, I was so excited, but when I started to read the card it explicitly said that my gift wasn’t material; rather, it was an experience. For a moment, I felt really hurt that he didn’t buy me anything.

Getting past your initial feelings

Then I kept reading. He wrote a thoughtful and adorable poem about giving me “India Day.” It was a day that would begin with him cooking an Indian breakfast, then an Indian lunch, and in the afternoon we would go to a yoga class followed by watching his favorite Bollywood film, and then complete the day with a homemade Indian dinner. I have never been to India, but he has and wanted to share it with me.

Unfulfilled promises in the past have resulted in a struggle with promised experiences. I can trust an in-hand hard material good, but I can’t trust a spoken promise, and certainly don’t want to have to ask for something, because asking feels pretty uncomfortable to me. It is similar to asking someone for money that they owe me; there’s something about asking that makes the actual payoff feel unsatisfying. I thought that if I had to ask for “India Day” to happen, I would enjoy the actual day much less. Nevertheless, I reluctantly asked if we could schedule “India Day” for New Year’s Day, and he said yes.

My boyfriend makes the best hot chai on the planet. On New Year’s Day, I woke up as if it were Christmas all over again, feeling the excitement of a 5 year-old who couldn’t wait for “India Day to begin. I nearly pushed him out of bed because I was so looking forward to a cup of his chai. Instead of one delicious cup, he made a huge thermos of it, enough that we had “self-serve chai” all day long. And throughout the day the house smelled of Indian spices smoky, warm and inviting.

We don’t often go to yoga together, but on “India Day” we did, and it felt special. We spent the rest of the day cooking and eating and sitting by the fire, and watching the three-hour Bollywood film, which – surprising to me – I loved. Then he offered to include a few of my closest friends for dinner, they claimed the masala, dahl, and biryani was the best homemade Indian food they’d ever had.

Wanting what you have is where happiness is born

The day was poetry in motion, a perfect day. It was a precious gift that I almost missed because I thought I wanted something more tangible, yet that memory is as real and sacred as any material belonging. If I were holding one of those old contests of comparing love, the care and time that he put into that day far surpasses the use of my credit card for his gifts from Whole Foods and REI. His gift speaks volumes to how much he loves me – if I choose to see it that way, which I do.

Happiness is measured in the level of gratitude for what you have. This story reminds me of Jane’s wise words, “Happiness is wanting what you have.” This holiday season happiness for me was, “wanting what I got.” I was reminded that keeping score and focusing on what I think I want keeps me away from countless opportunities to receive so much more.

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