This year is the strangest. The most trying year of my life to this point, but full of grandiose events and feelings at the same time. This year our second son was born, my parents came to visit after almost three years, we have bought our first property and found an apartment of our dreams in Hamburg.The highs are so high my heart is about to jump out of my chest.
This year my country is on the path of destroying millions of lives while simultaneously on a very public suicide mission. To witness how it slowly, but steadily destructs itself throws me into a deep pit of despair. The lows are so low I want to stay curled in bed all day, doom-scrolling. I have kids, though, so instead I get up and make waffles. I’ve been making waffles at least three times a week lately. It seems to help.
When I do scroll in search of horrible news, almost entirely skipping any reminders of normal life and the good in the world, each new post seems to be crazier than the other.
About a quarter of the content in my Instagram feed are tips and tricks on how to avoid mobilization. Oh you know things like: don’t live at the place of your registration, take sick leave at work, pretend you are not home if someone knocks on the door, change the city or, better yet, the country.
Then I open Telegram and see a message by a Ukrainian blogger I’ve been following for years, confessing she has ordered potassium iodide drops. One takes them to help block radioactive materials, in case you had no idea.
On Facebook I come across a post asking whether there is a bomb shelter in Hamburg city limits, just in case.
All I can think about is how is this my life now? Has the world gone crazy or have I? I am consciously trying to make myself feel happier. Don’t laugh, but I am taking a happiness course. Officially it’s called The Science of Well-Being and is offered by Yale University, if it makes you (me) feel better.
Over four million people have already taken it. “Don’t worry, be happy” doesn’t seem to do it anymore. One has to analyze the recent research and obtain the right set of tools in order to be happy. If you think that’s bad news, here’s some good news for you. What truly makes you happy is actually perfectly achievable. Sleep well, exercise, meditate, be kind, talk to people (both meaningful and fleeting conversations count), stop scrolling, have a gratitude journal.
I made a bullet list in my notes with the following points and try to check off as many as possible each day. Sometimes it’s 8 hours of sleep and exercise. Other days it’s an act of kindness and lack of social media. Gratitude journal has become a daily habit within the past three weeks.
Another thing I am currently doing to feel better is re-reading Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of years spent in concentration camps during WWII, written by an Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out. You’d assume you could only get even more depressed after reading about such unimaginable suffering, but this brilliant book, on the contrary, makes you believe in humanity and the inner strength of a man.
“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”
Viktor Frankl, though, doesn’t think that happiness is something one can intentionally achieve:
“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”
The contradiction between the two approaches to happiness is not lost on me. While Laurie Santos, the professor at Yale who created The Science of Well-Being course, suggests that you should purposely perform a string of actions in order to feel happier, Viktor Frankl essentially says: dedicate your life to a great cause or another person and happiness will ensue.
For the time being, I am going to continue to go to bed early and plan my acts of kindness, as strange as scheduling out your acts of kindness may seem. I will push myself to make conversations in coffee shops and supermarkets, because science says it will make me feel good and not at all awkward and embarrassed for my broken German. I believe in science.
But then there are waffles. Kroshka loves them. It’s convenient to have kids. I can say that the reason I make waffles so often is him and not at all myself. Every morning starts with extremely confusing back and forth of “I want waffles! I don’t want waffles. I want cold waffles. Waaaaaaaafffffffles!”
He sits at the table and spreads an enormous amount of sour cream over his waffle and some strawberries that my mom and I picked, mashed and froze back in June. He eats with so much gusto, his face — a painting of sour cream white and strawberry red. I don’t even mind getting up from my chair every four minutes because the waffle maker only makes two waffles at a time. And as I run between the dining table and the kitchen counter, checking if coffee is ready and making sure everyone has a fresh hot waffle, while munching my own on the go, I realize that Viktor Frankl is not wrong.