Skip to main content

Things I enjoy vs. things I do

Michelle recently showed me a Facebook post that said (approximately):

Make a list of the things that make you happy. Make a list of the things you do every day. Compare the lists. Adjust accordingly.

I think the point is that you shouldn’t be spending time on the things that you don’t enjoy. However, that strikes me as both a privileged and a limited view.

First, not everyone has the ability to choose what they do. Most of us have to work. Not all of us are fortunate enough to enjoy our jobs. (Some of us are not fortunate enough to even have jobs.) So some of what we do is effectively imposed upon us, and suggesting that we can choose these things is not always reasonable.

But let’s assume that one has the privilege to have a job and life like mine, a job and a life that provide a reasonable amount of choice and autonomy. There are still many reasons to do things that don’t make you happy.

Here’s a simple one. I don’t particularly enjoy doing laundry. It certainly doesn’t make me happy to do laundry. But it makes me happy to have clean clothes. And so Michelle or I do laundry every day, or almost every day.

If I look at my typical day, I do a lot of paperwork. I don’t particularly like doing paperwork. But the paperwork often leads to things that make me happy, such as seeing my students have great opportunities, or making sure that my department has resources, or getting to work with awesome people, or whatever.

For example, we have a cool speaker coming to the department this Thursday. I had to apply for funds. I had to check to hear why I hadn’t gotten a response. I had to recheck to hear why I hadn’t gotten a response. I gathered information from the speaker. I made a list of tasks for my assistant. I did some other tasks myself, such as writing to students, because I’m bad at delegating, and because delegating sometimes takes about the same time as doing it myself. I identified a variety of people who might be interested, and contacted them. I checked in on the status of everything. None of these are tasks that I love. None of these are tasks that I even like. But, in the end, I’ll get to hear an awesome talk (as will others), my students will get to meet with a cool speaker, and people will learn about important issues. And we get to make some connections between Grinnell and another institution. All of those are things I love.

I also go to meetings. I like some meetings, particularly ones in which I get challenged to think on my feet. That makes me happy. But most parts of most meetings don’t make me particularly happy. But meetings allow me to make connections across campus, to learn about things happening on campus, and to occasionally have some influence. And all of that helps me achieve things that do make me happy.

There are also things that seem to make me happy that, in the long term, lead to things that make me less happy. It makes me happy to find a cool book or record that I haven’t seen before. But if I do that enough, I have the less happy experience of dealing with too much clutter. (Those of you who’ve been subjected to my office understand.) I enjoy eating, but too much eating makes me overweight. I enjoy walking, but my knees are bad and too much walking makes them hurt. All things in moderation!

To return to my original point that it’s good to do some things that don’t necessarily make you happy. I write these essays every day. Do I love writing? No really. Does it make me happy to write? Not usually. Sometimes the writing flows. But often I get stuck or feel like I have not expressed myself in the way that I wish I could. And even when the writing flows well, I find myself going back and editing or adjusting or removing or …. But I write every day. Why? Because having written makes me happy, or at least I think it does. I enjoy that I’m accumulating a collection of essays. I enjoy finding that I’ve thought through an issue more carefully. I enjoy the occasional feedback I get on my writing. And I hope that writing daily will make me a better writer, which would certainly make me happy.

Does this mean that I don’t need to adjust? Certainly not? But the calculus is much more complicated than things that make you happy and things you do each day.

What makes me happy? Many things. Time with my wife. Time with my children. Walking in nature. Playing board games or cards. Teaching, particularly when I can improv in class. Learning new things. Making a difference to others. Sleeping. Reading. Eating. Laughing. Programming. Cooking (once in a while). Baking (once in a while). Watching my students succeed. Remembering my mother and father (although that also makes me sad). Hearing from old friends. Arguing, at times. Ranting, at times. Being able to analyze something quickly. Making people laugh. Organizing the too-much stuff I’ve accumulated. Making art. Looking at art. Getting praise. Wearing the Tigger suit (about twice a year). And I mustn’t forget: clean clothes.

As always, I am happy to receive comments, corrections, or criticisms on this or any of my other essays.

Version 1.0 released 2016-05-03.

Version 1.0.1 of 2018-04-20.