Happiness, the Web, and Me

Back in the dawn of Web time (1994, to be precise), I accidentally stumbled into being a Web developer. At the time I was an acquisitions librarian, which means I bought a lot of books. This, in turn, meant that book salesmen loved me. Sometimes they would even wine and dine me, but mostly they chatted me up.

Now really great salesmen get to know the peculiarities of their better customers — and there was one who not only knew I had a thing for computers, he also had a sizable geek-streak. One day, he said to me: “You’ve got to get this new free software called Mosaic.” He tried describing Mosaic. I think he even said, “It’s an interface into the Internet that includes pictures.” But I thought “Huh?” And, of course, how much can you trust a salesman?

Tumbling Into the Web

However, a few months later I gave it a whirl… and it knocked the socks off me. NCSA Mosaic was, in fact, the first graphical Web browser. But what totally stole my heart was that not only did NCSA include instructions on how to build your own website, whenever I coded a Web page I felt happy.

Feeling happy is always good, but for me in 1994 it was a godsend. That was the second most miserable year of my life (1993 being, bar none, the worst), so to feel even a tiny gleam of happiness was a mind-boggling gem. Lucky for me, although we had two small daughters at the time, my wonderful husband was thrilled to see me happy again — and he made it possible for me to spend time creating websites. Many evenings he watched manly (not) TV shows like the Gilmore Girls with the kiddos. Meantime I sat in front of our 386 PC, phone line trailed across the house to its noisy modem, alternatively learning whatever I could and creating a website for my fellow acquisitions librarians.

Evenings and weekends I spent countless hours building and maintaining this site — just because it made me happy. I never dreamed Web development might become a career path for anyone, let alone me. Nevertheless, in 1997, Vanderbilt Law School’s administration asked if I wanted to be their “webmaster.” I was floored. I’d been a librarian for 17 years and assumed I’d be one the rest of my life. I said, “Let me talk to my husband.” Over dinner that night, I indeed asked him, but our two daughters instantly said, “Oh Mom, a webmaster is so much cooler than a librarian.” Now I know some very cool librarians and some super dorky “webmasters,” but my daughters were pushing my happiness button, and thus the answer was blindingly obvious.

Getting Serious About Happiness

1997 turned out to be yet another seminal year for me. Sadly, my mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s was becoming much more pronounced. She changed from a fun, vivacious, outgoing woman into a heartbreakingly unhappy recluse — withdrawing from even her 50-year friendships. Meanwhile I met other Alzheimer’s patients who were perfectly happy. From talking with their families, I learned that these women had always been at least reasonably happy.

It made sense. A deteriorating brain filled with happy thoughts, a mind habituated to happiness, is much more likely to remain happy.

At last a light bulb in my head switched on. I was 45 at the time and, while in better spirits than my 1994 self, I was not a happy person. In that moment, I realized that if I got dementia, I was sure to be wretched. To prevent that gloomy future, I had to do whatever I could to raise my happiness set point — and it couldn’t wait a minute more. Plus it would improve the quality of my life right then and there. It was a no-brainer.

But how exactly does one go about making oneself happy? All I knew to do was to fake it — moving toward things that my gut said would make me happy and, when possible, away from things that upset me. This worked well enough, but my guess is that model would have crumbled over time. I needed both affirmation that this was a good path and concrete techniques.

As luck would have it, the very next year I discovered the Dalai Lama (one of my longtime heroes) was releasing The Art of Happiness. I devoured it. Then there was an explosion of happiness books. At first I thought people were riding on the Dalai Lama’s coattails. And perhaps that was true. However, 1998 was also the year Martin Seligman made Positive Psychology “the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association.”

I tried many of those books and later blogs. Some were helpful; others not. But the more I read, the more knowledgable I became. It just kind of happened. I didn’t set out to become knowledgeable about happiness. Rather, it reminds me of my friends who are crazy about beer. They try oodles of varieties, explore brew pubs and breweries, and maybe even make their own. While they become quite knowledgeable, that’s not their goal. They are just having a good time.

The Web Grows Up

But back to the Web. Since 1997, the Web has become high stakes for many people. That’s splendid for getting jobs and generating income. However, it also means that behind the scenes, the creation and maintenance of websites can be fraught with power politics and fragile egos – anything but a resource for personal happiness. All of the really good Web developers I know (especially the women), have a laundry list of horror stories. Me too.

And yet, meandering my way through now decades of creating sites, I still keep coming back to happiness. It was somewhere between hard and impossible to stay grounded in that during my typical work day, so my mainstay was after-hours, when I could do as I pleased. For example, in 2011 I took a one week vacation so I could teach myself responsive Web design. I’d been frustrated that I couldn’t get my employer to let me take time off for training, so I did it myself. Creating my first responsive site was like a second honeymoon.

Then in October 2013 I was offered incentivized early retirement. Visions of unalloyed happiness danced through my head. Would that that were true. The reality, however, is that since then I’ve had a mix of jobs. Quite a few have been neutral – nice for cash flow, but neither enjoyable nor disagreeable. Three have been exactly what I imagined – pure fun — while two others, both of which began wonderfully well, went kablooey.

The combination of the two that went haywire has turned out to be one of those unwanted gifts life is forever giving us. It made me back up and reassess. What went wrong? What went right? What needed to change going forward? And, most important, what really mattered to me?

The Next Phase of My Web Journey

As a Web developer, what matters most to me is creating excellent websites while, at the same time, cultivating happiness. In fact, I want to make that happiness grow – not just for me (although I certainly do want that), but also for my fellow Web professionals.

Put all that together and I have a new plan — and it’s for this very blog. For the next few months, I intend to focus Happy Web Diva on specific ways that Web professionals can cultivate personal happiness while creating first-class websites.

This new adventure will be great fun for me — and I hope for you too.

2 Responses

  1. Many thanks, Femy. If you have suggestions about things you’d particularly like me to cover, I’d love to hear.

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