The Labor of Happiness: A Thread at Yale Reflection.

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We hear it all the time: don’t look to outside stimuli for happiness. The onus is on us. Only we can define the textures and scents and flavors of contentment in our own lives. Happiness is too subjective, too knotted in the personal experiences that have disappointed, injured, and traumatized us, for anyone else to be able to perform it in ways that will please us, long-term. And of course, happiness isn’t designed as a longterm thing; it’s temporal. Contentment — that general, resting state of emotional neutrality, or, even better, vague, uncomplicated pleasantness — is the longterm thing. Happiness is usually felt at the height of a moment or in the recollection of it:

“I wish this feeling would never end.”
“I was happy then.” That kind of thing.

We know now what our parents and grandparents may not have: “X makes me happy” isn’t the healthiest requirement of a person, place, or experience. “I can be happy with X” is.

But old social demands die hard. And no one wants to bear the burdens of their own angst and anguish alone. No one thinks happiness (or contentment) should require much work. It’s more comforting to believe that the external can be blamed when we are unhappy and some un-bottle-able kismet is responsible when we are happy. That absolves us.

I discovered at Yale earlier this week, that happiness isn’t just work for me. It’s hard labor. But I also learned that I’m fit for the rigors of it.

I needed Thread at Yale, the 3-day, 3-night conference on multimedia storytelling I attended June 7-10, to be transformative for private reasons. (I’m pretty forthcoming here about my personal and professional challenges, so those reasons may not be difficult to guess.) But I also needed to enjoy it. The use of “needed” is deliberate here; this wasn’t a wan desire. Enjoyment wasn’t optional. I needed to leave New Haven feeling like I’d wrung its most pristine higher ed institution dry. I’ve no idea if I’ll ever get to return. And I needed to feel stretched and twisted and pulled taut, too; happiness lasts longer when your muscles ache at its memory.

But the happiness, the enjoyment, those weren’t things I needed for just for myself. I was thinking of the people who helped me get there. There were so many of them, some identified, some anonymous, none who I will ever be able to thank enough. I knew that the closest I could get to adequately expressing my gratitude would be to maximize the experience, to let every minute I spent there make the full ride through each cell and tendon and synapse.

To do that, I had to introduce myself to more people than I would normally feel comfortable meeting in a day. I had to be an active listener and a keen observer. I had to participate fully in workshop, to spend lunches and dinners among new folks, to bond with the people I instinctively knew would become real friends.

And I had to make it look easy. Because no one should ever be made to feel like paying attention to them is a laborious act.

I hope I succeeded. I think I did — and if there’s any picture that reassures me that I did my absolute best, it’s this one:

Me with my storytelling workshop peers at THREAD. Our mentor, Mark Oppenheimer, is pictured center. [Photo credit: Pearly Tan]

Me with my storytelling workshop peers at THREAD. Our mentor, Mark Oppenheimer, is pictured center. [Photo credit: Pearly Tan]

I look at this and I know. I was happy. I think we all were. We worked for it. Workshops were held Monday through Wednesday for three afternoon hours. We discussed 4-5 projects a day, offering feedback on stories told either in print, video, or audio formats. And we also just learned about how writers live. I’d assumed before showing up that I was drifting on an ice floe out here in Baltimore, floating further and further away from the epicenter of a successful writing life. But I realized most of us feel that way, no matter our money and privilege (or lack thereof), no matter our residential address, no matter our age. And most of us worry constantly about whether or not we’re on the right track as we struggle to balance ourselves on that floe and to keep creating, as all around us, professional leads and private loves go cold.

That may sound depressing, but I found it so incredibly affirming. I don’t know. Maybe you had to be there.

But I promised I’d try to take you with me. Especially those of you who helped me finance this trip. So here’s a multimedia story, told I spent most of yesterday creating. It’s at VoiceThread.com, a basic slideshow-with-audio capacity app I found by Googling. I flattened my inflections in the narration because I’m mimicking Gillian Laub, who showed us her own narrated slideshow, during her talk on our third night in town. I’m talking fast because I wanted to convey how time flew. And I’m also channeling my Ira Glass NPR voice (which is something we were frequently warned not to do. lol).

I didn’t really get to cover everything meaningful thing I felt or saw or heard in this blog post or in that Voice Thread. But I’ll leave you with three videos Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment screened for us from his live shows:

Artistic director of The Moth, Catherine Burns, brought writer, Matthew Dicks, to tell us a Moth story in person. It was devastatingly beautiful, but I can’t find a recording online. She also showed us lots of clips.

This was one of them, from the late Mike DeStefano, who describes one of his last, best memories of his wife, who died of AIDS (Trigger warning: grief and work-viewing warning: this includes profanity):

We also heard from Pulitzer Prize-winning sports journalist John Branch, who explained to us the process of how this story became a book and how this story became a 17,000-word multimedia project. Also recommended: his piece, “Lady Jaguars.”

Illustrator and political cartoonist Steve Brodner told us so many things, but the most significant for me was an off-the-cuff comment he made about his life. He said (and this is a paraphrase), “I ate breakfast this morning. There are things I created that are out there for people to buy. I do work I love.” I turned to my roommate, seated beside me, and whispered, “That’s really what I want my own life to be, too.” She smiled and reassured me, “You’re on your way.”

Final things:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is right. We all have to let go of our preoccupation with being liked by one and all, at some point. It’s not an attainable goal, and it’s the absolute wrong one to chase.
  • Intuition and self-awareness are great time-savers. Both help you know right away how much time to invest in a conversation.
  • You definitely want to check out fellow Thread attendee Naima Green‘s gorgeous photography website.
  • You definitely want to subscribe to my Thread roommate Nicole Taylor‘s podcast, “Hot Grease.”
  • Innovative digital storytelling involves a great deal of risk — and, like most other kinds of writing, good luck making money at it.
  • Many of my self-confessions (“I’m not social,” “I don’t perform extroversion well,” “I never go out, now that I’m a mom,” and “I’m more passive than I’d like to be.”) are terribly outdated.
  • Whatever your field is, it’s always going to be an enriching experience to regularly gather with others committed to that field. There are so many concerns and questions specific to our vocations and we forget that when we spend too much time away from others who’ve dedicated themselves to them.
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