Let it be easy
We love to work on things, don’t we?
One friend is working on a journaling practice. Another is working on being less judgmental. Another is working on a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. “Working on” something shows we take it seriously. We’re putting in the effort and we’re committed to reaching a goal. We work on new year’s resolutions, old cars, and home renovation projects. We work on our bodies and we work on our marriages.
The American obsession with work is a topic of much discussion lately, but perhaps more interesting is the way we turn everything else into our lives into work too. (“Still working on that?” the waiter says, eyeing our half-full plates. Even our pleasures can be work.) Our culture tells us that if we want something, we must work for it. Work isn’t just how we earn things in a capitalist society. It’s how we become entitled to them. We pay for our success, our leisure, and our joy with struggle or sacrifice. Otherwise we feel lazy, or unworthy of them.
Personal development is steeped in this language of work. We work on our bad habits through discipline and rigor, and we work toward our goals through diligence and practice. One source of this idea was the finding, popularized by Sonya Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness, which says that roughly 50% of happiness is determined by a genetic set point, and only 10% relates to an individual’s life circumstances, leaving 40% up to an individual’s actions. (See here for a good breakdown of the concept.)
Leaving aside my skepticism about that 10% number, which purportedly includes income, life experiences, and demographic differences, and therefore all of the grotesque consequences of living in a structurally racist, sexist, and unequal society, the prevailing takeaway from this model is that there’s quite a lot of happiness up for grabs, if only we’re willing to work for it. Rather than focusing on making more money, psychologists tell us that happiness lies in mindfulness and gratitude practices, in maintaining high quality relationships and getting regular exercise. Thus happiness became a goal, and reaching it subject to various forms of labor.
No wonder we’re all so F’ing tired.
We turn from burnout at work to feeling like we need to work on ourselves. If rest doesn’t come naturally to us (raises hand), we have to work at that too. And now the holidays are here, a time that can also bring more work — after all, the holiday magic doesn’t make itself. (Santa has an army of elves, the epitome of cheerful workers who never get tired and never seem to need breaks, even to pee. But here on Earth, there are lights to hang and dinners to make.) And soon, the new year will be upon us, with its resolutions and commitments to work harder at being who we really want to be.
But what if it could be easy?
This little voice has been popping up in my head lately. I’m sure it’s been there a long time, but I’ve only recently started to listen. After pushing myself so hard through these pandemic years, most of it with no childcare, juggling a career and a tiny human, I’ve reached a point where I wonder if there might be an easier way to do things. And while the old me would have recoiled at the idea of easy, which would seem lazy, or mediocre, or like I was settling for less than I could have done, I now find myself curious why I was so convinced the hard way was the only way.
I think of these opening lines from the Mary Oliver poem Wild Geese:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
What happens when we allow things to happen, rather than push our way through them? What happens when we soften into an experience, rather than hardening ourselves to work on it? I am only just beginning to find out, but what I’m learning is that ease can be a conduit to joy.
This might mean simply doing less. Perhaps this holiday you don’t need to make both pies from scratch. Perhaps you don’t need to make your own wreath, or hand write the place cards. This year I’ve gone bigger on the decorations than I’ve ever done, and I’m excited about the garlands and lights and bows. And then I was thinking it would also be fun to decorate a gingerbread house with Graham, and then, not seeing any kits I liked, I started to go full Martha, looking at gingerbread house plans, and I found a gorgeous delicate gingerbread greenhouse with translucent gelatin windows, and just as I was on the point of printing out the directions I stopped myself and said, “Let it be easy.” I remembered how old Graham is, and how busy we are, and I thought, maybe some gingerbread people would be just as fun and about ten times easier. Or maybe I will buy them from a bakery in town. I’m breathing easier now just thinking about how relieved I am that I did not take that on.
Or it might mean going slower. Over the past month, readers who are on Instagram have watched as I’ve painted the trim in my home office and very slowly added wallpaper to the walls. I have a lot of home projects I’ve wanted to do this year, but almost no spare time to do them, and for a long time they have just been sitting on my to do list, making me feel guilty. But doing a couple of wallpaper panels each week is a way to make progress without having to push myself so hard through the project. As a result, the process has been more fun, and more serendipitous. For example, for weeks, I’d been trying to decide on a fabric color for the daybed that will go in this room. I kept putting off the decision and feeling badly about it. One day I noticed the contrast of the red ladder with the wallpaper and I loved it! I was reminded how Dorothy Draper used to love light blue and cherry red as a color combination, and it inspired me. Rather than taking the hard path of forcing myself to make a decision, the easy route of taking my time and letting a solution surface has yielded a surprising new direction.
Add music — or a friend
“Let it be easy” sometimes means adding a component that makes the task feel lighter. For example, in our post last year on ways to make chores more joyful, many readers talked about how adding music, dance, or podcasts to a chore made the time seem to go more quickly — and even made them look forward to the experience. Sometimes we make a task easy by making it more social, not just because we share the work, but because (and research bears this out) most activities are more enjoyable when we do them with someone else. (This principle explains the appeal of sewing circles and quilting bees.) Even if doing a task socially ends up slowing you down, it may still make the task feel easier.
Adjust your expectations
Letting it be easy is also about changing our expectations of an experience. I often find that I get very anxious about writing certain kinds of emails. I put them off, and then I draft them and come back to them, agonizing about every word choice. But when I ask myself, “How could this be easy?” I find I settle into a more natural way of writing, and the words flow. It’s as if my expectation that writing something will be hard work makes it more work, while coming with the expectation that it will be easy puts me in a mindset that makes it easier.
Embrace curiosity over will
With writing, it often helps if I come to the task in a spirit of curiosity, rather than one of work. When I show up to the page feeling like have to muscle a piece out of my brain and onto the page, I feel anxious and tense. But when I arrive curious to discover what I have to say on a topic, then there is an excitement that makes writing a joy.
Curiosity puts us in an exploratory mindset, which opens up our perspective. This is why the notion of “letting it be easy” was so important to me when creating the Joy Jumpstart. There’s so much work involved in self-help that it can sometimes feel like we are dragging ourselves along the road of personal development. I wondered if rather than push ourselves through that process, we might instead have fun with it. Along the lines of the post I wrote on joy and transformation a few months back, what if transformation could be easy, rather than hard? What if we let joy lead our process of growth? The idea was to create exercises that were playful, to inspire you to think about meaningful changes in your life but in ways that feel light, exploratory, and fun.
Ultimately, there will always be hard things in life, and there will always be things that are worth working for. But the reflexive urge to make everything into work can leave us vulnerable to burnout and leave us with less energy for the things we really want to do in life. “Let it be easy” doesn’t mean drop your standards and settle for less. It doesn’t mean that you never push yourself or rise to a challenge. Rather, it means acknowledging that easy doesn’t mean lazy or weak or half-assed. It’s not a compromise. It’s a gentle surrender that trades control for presence. By allowing ourselves to participate in an experience without orchestrating it, to let it happen rather than forcing it, we find a more easeful way of being in the world, one that channels our energy in creative new ways.
Image: Yoori Koo via Unsplash