Happiness is something you do, not something you feel. I discovered this recently in a conversation about depression when I told a friend I feel better when I do something I enjoy instead of pursuing something I like. We discussed the differences between pleasure, excitement, and happiness and realized that happiness is an underlying, lingering state that is independent of external circumstances. Happiness can be present even when I’m doing something I’d rather not.
Pleasure and excitement, however, are dependent on external stimuli, usually generated by people or events. Both can be confused with happiness because they can feel similar. But happiness has a feeling of contentment that doesn’t extend to pleasure or need anything further to maintain it. Pleasure and excitement come with a desire for more — often leading one to want to replicate a moment so the feeling can be sustained or repeated.
Here’s a secret: one of the reasons I took up knitting is because I don’t want to feel bored when I’m old. As kids, my parents didn’t encourage us to have hobbies; my parents are not hobby type people. Growing up, my father thought it prudent I play sports. He placed me in little league when I was a toddler and when I proved a failure at throwing a ball, he moved me to basketball. I was no better playing hoops, so he moved me over to judo. With my inclination to lying flat on my back pretending to be dead, I didn’t go further than a brown belt on the mat. In desperation, my father threw me into a pool and told me, “Sink or swim. You’re not getting out until you do either.” So I learned to swim and spent the next fourteen years a swimmer, making All-American in Division III college swimming. I guess all I needed was a balls-free sport without any physical contact.
My parents are “practical” people. They do very little for pleasure or enjoyment outside the usual television watching or occasional get-together. As Cuban exiles, moving to a country where they didn’t know the language, and leaving family and everything they owned behind, they had to learn how to survive and make their way in a country that does things differently than they’re used to. This meant working, earning, and rebuilding what they had before they moved. Living in Miami, in a diaspora no different than they, my parents had few incentives to change or adapt, so most of that they learned growing up was passed on to my sisters and I.
My parents are aging now, and I see them falling trap to their habits. My father retired years ago, and while he continued to work as a freelancer years after, he is now at a stage where his talents and knowledge are not required. My father’s begun to feel “restrained.” He is, in other words, bored. Which can often make him a nuisance when he insists on helping out around the house or wanting to feel useful.
The older he gets, the more vital he feels he needs to be. My father often meddles in my sister’s family life. He dispenses advice my sisters often have to revise to his grandchildren. My father insists that his way of doing things is better than other people’s. And he throws a tantrum when someone (most often me) strays from what he regards is the correct way of living.
Here’s a confession: I took up knitting, in part, to avoid being like my father. My dad has no hobbies. He doesn’t have a personal space in the house where he can tinker, build, think, dream. My father is not a reader. He’ll nail a screw to a wall to hang a picture. He’ll keep the lawn trimmed so weeds don’t show. He won’t learn to use Word when Excel columns and rows will do. He’ll shutter up windows instead of replacing them with hurricane proof ones. When it comes to my father, he knows best.
When he’s not at the computer paying bills or arguing with banks over statements, my dad sits in front of the television watching news and sports. That’s his “hobby” or way to relax. If the day’s programming is not to his liking, he’ll flip through hundreds of cable channels searching for anyone bouncing a ball or hoping for a disaster somewhere in the world. My dad asks my mother for errands to do when he’s bored. He’ll find a new symptoms to squash with a visit to a doctor. He’ll look for something to do when he feels restless which now seems to be more often than before.
When I took up knitting, I did so hoping to find something I could do and enjoy long after I retire or feel useful. I wanted to find an activity that was portable, relatively inexpensive (depending on the yarn I use), and that would keep my mind sharp. On the fateful day when I walked into a yarn store and announced my wish to learn how to knit, I did so hoping that the quiet craft would help me do an activity where I didn’t feel I had to bother people for excitement or pleasure. I wanted to be self-sufficient and self-reliant — if not self-contained.
What I’ve discovered hundreds of yarn yards later is that I am happy when I knit. The simple threading of yarn with needles through loops can be hypnotic. I can lose myself for hours counting rows, alternating between knits and purls, and figuring out why I always end up with more stitches in a row than a pattern calls for. There are weekends where all I do is knit stitches, interrupting the flow only to eat, answer a call, or tun the lights off because it’s well into the night.
Knitting has become, for me, more than hobby. It’s something I do. Family and friends now take it for granted that I’ll show up to a gathering with a project and that I’ll sit on a couch and chat while working on something. My sisters say I’m more relaxed, relatable, and human since I started knitting. My friends say I don’t come across as cranky or as constipated as I used to. Everyone seems to agree that I look more — happy, if you will. And the truth of the matter is, I do feel happy. Even after I put the needles down for the day, the feeling of contentment lingers until it’s time to pick up the yarn again.
When I started knitting, I thought I’d be a lone person at Michael’s Aisle 47 shopping for yarn. I’m not. I also thought I’d be one of three or four knitters who are men. I’m not — by a long shot. If my Instagram account is evidence, male knitters are legion, and men are as passionate and talented about knitting as women. “I am more interesting as a knitter than as myself,” I told my sister. My knitting Instagram account now has more followers than my personal account ever did. I’ve connected with male knitters from around the world. Most, obviously, live in colder climes than South Florida’s, which makes it hard to connect or meet them. But all are as friendly, eager to help, and proud to share their skills with anyone who asks. There are retreats for men who knit that I hope to attend one day. I’ve met knitters who knit to manage depression as I do. And there are male knitters who are artists in their own right. I’ve even come across male knitters who turn a fetish into a knitting passion, and own a business for knitters like me who want to feel sexy while we knit.
This “hobby” baffles my father. He doesn’t understand how I can sit for hours knitting and purling. I’ve caught him looking at me with a look of disbelief at what I’m doing. It’s a look I’ve grown familiar with because it’s the same one he gave me when I failed to catch a pop-ball, couldn’t make a basket, walked away from a judo match, and almost drowned in a shallow pool. The look is the same one he gave me when I announced I was going to acupuncture school and when I told my parents I’d finish the program and was graduating. My father doesn’t understand that a lot of what I do is in response to what I see him do. Most of my decisions are based on wanting to avoid errors I see my father make. As I get older, I want to be less and less like him. I don’t want to end my days in front of a television waiting for a disaster to strike or flipping channels with mindless programming. When it’s my turn to go, I’d like it to be peacefully, doing something that makes me feel happy.
So, I’m happy when I’m knitting. Knitting has given me something sports, exercise, or work never gave me: contentment. I’m happy when I knit so while depression may lurk, it doesn’t pounce on me like it did before. I’m happy when I connect with other knitters, so my anxiety is relieved when I find that others knit for the same reasons as I. I’m happy when I knit, so I’m not as stressed as I used to be, and I can relax and feel more like myself with people around me. My secret, as well as other hobbyists, is that doing something I like makes me happy — which is no secret at all. This is common sense. But in a world that makes no sense any longer, simple things reminds us of what is important. For me, the inner peace, calm, and centeredness I get from knitting is the anchor I return to day after day. This gentle hobby is part of the reason I’m not falling apart anymore and how I’m stitching myself back together.