Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.
-Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield
The last slide on the budget PowerPoint lays out our school’s financial plan:
- Increase revenue
- Decrease spending
The boss man knows enough to apologize for it but not enough to skip it altogether. None of us wants to hear it again. We are familiar with the formula. Every pixel of internet clickbait loops us back around to yet another listicle that peddles yet another version of the same recipe.
Want to get fit? Exercise more, eat less.
Tackle the day? Fewer screens, more sleep.
Be a good friend? Listen more, talk less.
A good lover? Less grasp, more give.
Scale it up and the formula breaks down. Good luck giving global overpopulation the “less babies, more birth control” treatment. Large-scale social problems have to reckon with the complexity of human cultures, histories, and economies.
This is why we love the personal self-improvement principle almost as much as we loathe it. While its simplicity balms the wounds of chaos, its refusal to acknowledge complexity drives us batty.
Too hooked on your fix? Use less, breathe more.
Struggling with social anxiety or loneliness? Isolate less, connect more.
Stuck in your career? Hide less, lead more.
Anyone who has ever come up against a tough challenge knows that paths are crooked and terrain that at first appeared solid turns to quicksand in a blink. It’s only when we’re far on the other side of it — or perhaps when we’re judging some other poor sucker’s fight — that we apply the simplicity principle.
I’m not the only one in the room looking at those PowerPoint bullets through rolling eyes. As if.
As if all our problems could be solved so easily.
But now I wonder.
What if Mr. Micawber is right after all?
Not for everything, but for one thing in particular: when it comes to this life-choking, spirit-sucking, too-many-decades-in-residence depression, what if Mr. Micawber’s formula is exactly the one I’ve never really tried?
More happy, less misery.
Of course it can’t be that easy. Not for most of us anyway, and definitely not for the hard core clinical pits into which I stumble, body and mind shattered, bruised and slick with mud. . .
Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of metaphor that costs me twenty pounds nought and six.
Happy = revenue. Misery = expense.
How might this look? Here’s an example: When I remember yet again that awful phone call from Friday in which I learned that Bug and I missed an opening from a many-years waitlist for family camp because I called one minute (the registration lady told me) after the last person who got in. . . I say to myself, “Rehashing this makes me sad. I’m going to think about something else now.” Then I cast around for something nice to notice and remind myself that we’re going to have our own adventure this summer, whatever it is.
Or it looks like this: When my kiddo scowls and tells me yet again that he doesn’t love me and in fact I stink like a rotten poop-eating skunk, I consider how much better laughing feels than fussing. I clap my hands in delight and say I love eating rotten poopy skunk carcasses, they’re even better if they’ve been marinated in worm puke. Then we’re giggling and tickling, and our smiles bounce off the walls.
Or it looks like putting on music when I’m home alone and dancing while I do the dishes. Or texting a girlfriend just to say hello. Or carrying colored pencils in my bag so I can doodle while my son carries on with his buddies at a birthday party.
Or just frittering away my time stuck in traffic counting off the day’s 100 blessings.
It looks like noticing when I’ve started to pay the inflated cost of ruminating while missing an opportunity to generate some pleasure revenue. A person who tends towards depression needs only one thundercloud to knock the account all out of balance again. Building back up from that kind of debt is a wearying toil — an avoidable one, as it may happen.
When I have enough attention to notice, I might choose to forgo the temptation. Do not overthink, do not give in to self-pity. Like walking past the Cheetos at the supermarket. Just don’t. Sure, those things are familiar but they make me feel disgusting, and really, they don’t even taste that good.
Can it be this stupidly, improbably simple?
Give it a shot, Smirk.
Choose happy whenever possible. Or colorful, or musical, or goofy. Choose anything that lifts and ignites over anything that weighs and chokes. Marvel at the beets, smell a bunch of dill. Imagine what new recipe to make. Flirt with the butcher. Hum while trundling down the aisles. If it increases the happy income, do it. If it exacts its price in misery, walk on by.
It makes me smile just to begin.
See? Already, I’m saving for happy.
Simple as that.