Stress Test
October 30th, 2012

I had to fill out a questionnaire about my health for work.  Do I smoke?  Do I exercise?  Do I get regular check-ups?  That sort of thing.  These types of questions usually leave me feeling a smidge proud because my truthful answers are almost always the “right” ones.  When it comes to matters of health, I play it pretty much by the book.

The end of the survey threw me for a loop, though.  It asked you to indicate within what timeframe (one month, three months, etc.) you intend to make a change in various aspects of your life.  The lifestyle issues in question were to quit smoking, exercise more, eat better, get more sleep, and handle stress better.  For the first four I was able to happily mark the “I already do this” box.  But for stress… I did a double take.  I don’t remember which box I ended up checking, but in my heart of hearts I know I have some work to do there.

Lots of fellow bloggers have written lately about Gretchen Rubin’s new book “Happier at Home.”  I’m also in the middle of it, and have found myself doing some good but hard thinking in response.  Rubin’s aim with this most recent happiness project was to make her home into a place that fosters her happiness.  This effort speaks to me because it is my home that I find to be my biggest source of stress.

It is not my home itself that causes me stress.  Yes, it is an old house with a handful of ongoing maintenance to-dos, but nothing too significant (last spring’s pipe replacement nightmare notwithstanding).  Rather, it is the rotation of weekly chores and obligations that wear on me the most.  For the past two consecutive weekends I have literally sat down to relax only for as long as it takes me to eat a meal.  By Sunday evening I’ve found myself satisfied with my level of industry, but utterly and completely spent.  And while I crave a hyper-productive weekend every now and then, the prospect of gearing up for one every single week leaves me cold.  I’m not sure how to get the equation of my weekend back into balance, though.  The tactical elements of it are not interesting enough to discuss here – I’ll get it figured out – but the existential elements are.

Why is the impact of these stressors at home so much greater than stressors in other areas of my life?  When my job leaves me feeling unraveled I don’t take it to heart nearly as much.  When I get stuck in traffic I don’t assume that it’s a personal failing.  Yet when I feel stressed out at home the stress itself is compounded by the belief that I’m to blame for it.  It’s not a happy feeling.

In a recent post over at Motherese Kristen cited a NYT blog article about how American’s pursuit of happiness has left us statistically more anxiety-riddled than any other nation.  The piece was interesting from a cultural point of view, written by a recent British transplant who noted that Brits find discussion of happiness to be a bit crude and desperate.  The numbers about our rates of anxiety are compelling, and I understand how idealism about happiness can leave us comparatively disappointed, but somehow I still find myself opposed to the implicit premise that this means we should stop seeking it.

I know what I want.  I want each weekend to be filled with a balance of productivity and pleasure.  When Sunday evening rolls around I want to feel that I have been fortified by two days off and am ready to face the week.  Knowing what I want – and acknowledging it – is the only way to make any sort of progress toward it.  Keeping myself blissfully unaware of my desires may prevent disappointment, but it is also a sure path to continued frustration and stress.

Reading “Happier at Home” has been a wake up call, of sorts.  I want to be happier at home.  Specifically, I want to be happier on weekends.  Unlike getting stuck in traffic or being handed a monster project at work, this one is completely within my control.  That makes it both worse (because only I am to blame for any unhappiness I feel) and better (because in the long run I believe in my ability to change things).  I will not hold up some fictitious ideal and compare myself to it until I have no choice but sheer misery.  But neither will I avoid the topic altogether just to keep myself out of the emotional muck.

I will take it one task at a time until I’ve shuffled the deck of my life at home into a configuration that is better suited to support my happiness.  My first task?  Keeping it all in perspective.  This will work itself out in time.  Stressing over stress is not the first step in any happiness solution.

3 Responses to “Stress Test”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Hi Gale,

    Thanks for offering your take on this question of seeking out happiness. I find your closing line especially resonant: whenever I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed, my first move is often (completely unhelpfully) to worry about how stressed I’m feeling.

    I also hear you on feeling that your weekend is out of whack. Recently I’ve made a slight shift that seems to be helping me some on that score: I try to schedule any beyond-our-family activities for Saturdays, leaving Sundays free for household stuff. I’m not sure why drawing that line in the sand has left me feeling more relaxed at the end of the weekend, but it does. It’s almost as though Sunday has become a secular Shabbath for us, filled, yes, with laundry and grocery shopping and catching up on mail, but also with making soup and baking bread and really being together.

  2. e Says:

    If it’s any consolation, when you’re older than dirt your stress level plummets. I often say that I choose to be happy – no matter what is going on BUT and that’s a big but, I recognize that making that choice is a lot easier at this age than it was when I had six children under foot. And I guess that is what I’d say to all young mothers – yes, the stress is there – but if you can choose to be happy while dealing with science fair experiments or spelling tests or getting ready for trick-or-treating, your stress level will even out. If I don’t get that walk in that I’d planned, who cares? I’d love to walk every day but sometimes it just doesn’t work (unfortunately sometimes for days) so rather than get uptight about it, I move on. If I’d planned to dust or even better clean toilets and it doesn’t happen, oh well – I guarantee that dust or whatever will wait patiently for me. If I’d thought I’d cook dinner and instead we bring in junk, that’s life. Being stressed out about anything is simply not worth it. Just as importantly, if your stress level decreases, your children’s stress levels drop as much or possibly more and that brings your stress level down even more. It’s a tricky thing – stress – but it accomplishes very little so shoo it out the door and enjoy life. May seem simplistic but give it a try!

  3. Ana Says:

    I hear you on the weekends. We talk a lot about changing ours but haven’t figured out what changes we can actually realistically make to make our “time off” more refreshing. I feel like weekends are a marathon of chores with the background of whining, and I’m so exhausted by Sunday night—not exactly the intention of having the days off of work. If you find any practical changes that work for you, please share!