Roger Cohen has found the secret to happiness, he claims in his latest New York Times column, musing on what awaits his daughter after high school graduation. “Want to be happy?” he asks. “Mow the lawn,” he advises. “Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.”
I appreciate the sentiment. Life isn’t always fun and exciting, and if you’re always expecting it to be, you’ll find yourself frequently disappointed. Still, this doesn’t represent the whole picture, especially for someone thinking about how they want to chart their path in life – or, later in life, whether and how to change course. Yes, you want to find joy in ordinary tasks like mowing the lawn, but first you need to decide: do you even want a lawn? That’s a better place to start.
Sure, Cohen is right that most things worthwhile don’t come easy – whether love, friendship, caretaking, advocating for what you believe in or making great art. But the key to happiness isn’t just putting your head down and doing what’s in front of you. It’s getting to know yourself well enough so you know what’s really important to you, naming those things, and making them central in your life as you pursue them. Yes, there will be difficulties and challenges along the way, and a good end-goal in itself isn’t sustainable; you need to find pleasure in the path. But if you haven’t stopped long enough to decide what you really want in life and let others decide that for you, it’s going to be really hard to do all those inevitably mundane repetitive tasks involved without getting really resentful.
I see this often with coaching clients. They’ve committed to some goal that intellectually they’ve decided has value – maybe it will earn them some money they need or status they’d like to have — but their heart isn’t really in it. They believe it’s what they should do, but it’s not a path they feel they’ve really chosen for themselves. So they suffer every step of the way.
Of course, there are lots of things we need to do that we don’t want to, and they often involve making a living. But within those requirements, we have some choices, even if only over the way we think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The more you feel like it’s the choice you’ve made for a purpose you’ve chosen – even if it’s unpleasant sometimes – the easier it will be to find joy in the process.
The same goes for mowing the lawn. I, for one, don’t really like lawns. Worse than lawns, to me, are lawnmowers. Using loud heavy machinery to cut delicate green plants seems absurd to me, and the sound of the motor ruins my whole experience of being outdoors to begin with. But that’s just me. Mowing the lawn wouldn’t be my path to happiness.
On the other hand, I have a garden at my home in Brooklyn, which I love. Yes, it requires a lot of work, and sometimes that feels like a burden. But I enjoy the peaceful feeling of being among plants and flowers and birds and squirrels, and I love just looking at it from my back deck or my office window. It takes the edge off urban life for me. So to me, pulling weeds out of the barrel of kale I’ve grown or clipping dead roses to encourage new buds to bloom is a pleasure. It’s the task I’ve chosen, and it has meaning to me.
Figure out what you want to plant, then tend it. That’s where true happiness lies.