Finding Your Happy
“Hey, I’m not ok, but I’m better than I was.”
This line of the song “OK” by singer/songwriter Paul Johnson, better known as Canyon City, is one I repeat to myself quite often. Almost a mantra.
I have struggled with depression, guilt, shame, anxiety, destructive ruminative thinking, worry, and stress. I know these are not uncommon burdens to bear. The fact that my life was largely sunshine and rainbows, especially relative to large swaths of the world’s population and even some of those people close to me, only served to feed the guilt I felt for having to carry those burdens with me everywhere and into every relationship I had.
So, slowly, I decided that I had lived for far too long without be truly, fully happy and fulfilled. It was time to get better. Not just for me, but for everyone around me. Emotions are contagious.
So, I began committing myself to physical fitness, discovering what I was and wasn’t capable of and experimenting with my body to find the right routine for it. Then, I started finding a nutritional strategy that worked for me and committed to it. I was still struggling to get everything right. Still struggling with depression and anxiety. And it hurt me, it damaged relationships, it got in my way, and it slowed me down. I was just plain sick to my teeth of it. I got my sleep in order. Learning better sleep strategies is hands down the best thing you can do for yourself.
Then I started mindfulness training. This was a game changer. I would still consider myself quite the novice even after nearly two years of daily practice, but it helped me slow down, lift some of that guilt and worry off of my shoulders, and enjoy each moment more consciously, and even just that is better than I was.
Recently, I discovered just how much I have allowed others’ views and opinions of me to feed into and even shape my own image of who I believe myself to be, but this means that I haven’t written my own narrative. I want to know who I really am, because even though I’ve lived with myself for over thirty years, I have now been able to see just how little of myself I actually know. So this journey I’m on is also about discovering more about me and how my mind works, and claiming it all as my own.
It’s been a years-long journey and it will never end. Sometimes I will succeed and sometimes I will fail. Both are just fine. Every day, every moment, is a chance to discover something new about myself. I am naturally curious and a big experimenter/tinkerer, so self-discovery is fun for me. That helps.
Today I have been asked to lead a workshop for my organization with one of my best friends and favorite people who also now just happens to be my colleague again (told you my life was all sunshine and rainbows) about physical and emotional health and wellness during these troubling times. I want to do it because sharing experiences like this could bring a piece of what I’ve found for myself to other people, and other people hold truths that I haven’t stumbled upon for myself yet. The only way to get there is to create the opportunities for discovery.
So, I got to thinking that it’s time to share stories like this as widely as I can just in case anyone within my reach would like to make changes in their own lives, but they’re not sure where to start. I thought perhaps now more than ever, it could be important to share some of those things that have helped me get better, even if I’m not quite OK yet.
Below you'll find 10 strategies that I’ve found to help me, things I’m experimenting with, and struggles I’ve had. Maybe it’ll help someone. Maybe it’ll even help me.
1) Take steps to act kinder and be more forgiving to yourself.
When you see your best friend struggling or making mistakes, do you berate them with insults and instructions on what they should have done instead? Do you constantly tell them they’re unattractive? Or that they’re stupid?
Hopefully you don’t.
So why would you do that to yourself? It is possible to assess your mistakes, learn from them, and push forward without degrading yourself and ruminating on all of that negativity. Never talk to yourself in a way that you wouldn’t talk to your best friend. Getting better at forgiving myself for mistakes large and small has helped me narrow my focus on the positive aspects my life and celebrate them more openly. Give yourself a break. Forgive yourself. Let it go.
2) Self care is not selfish.
Your emotions are contagious. Working on becoming happier, calmer, more contented yourself, whatever that journey looks like for you, almost always means spreading happiness in turn to those who surround you.
Have you ever noticed your own frustrations jump right into another person? How your own irritated reactions and attitudes cause irritated reactions and attitudes from a significant other or family member? I know I’ve had plenty of those moments. I’ve caused more than my fair share of those moments as a matter of fact.
Why do you think they play laugh tracks on tv shows? People like to laugh together. It spreads. Caring for yourself means caring for others. Then their happiness can become your happiness again, and everyone benefits in a beautiful endless cycle. I have been notoriously bad at this one, and it’s taken a lot of energy and focus to reverse decades of bad habits and behaviors. I don’t know that it’ll ever be easy for me, but it’s easier now than before.
3) An ugly frame lessens the appeal of even the prettiest picture.
In your house, you get to choose which photos to display and which frames to put them in. You can do the same with everyday moments and memories. The words you use to frame your experience matter profoundly.
Instead of “failing”, maybe you’ve just created a “learning opportunity”.
Instead of “cheating” on your diet, maybe you’re giving yourself a well-earned “treat” (this thought shameless stolen directly from Erica). Instead of “Ugh, I don’t want to go to work today”, maybe just say to yourself “I wonder what part of this work day will be my favorite part.” If you “fail”, you make yourself feel that you’ve done something wrong. If you “cheat”, you make yourself feel that you’ve done something wrong. If you wake up feeling defeated, you end up feeling all the more defeated for having felt it in the first place, and so you feel like you’ve done something wrong and throw yourself into a defeat cycle. This gives all the attention to the negative aspects of each experience, but you can choose which frames you pictures go in. This discovery has been relatively recent and massively impactful for me. Knowing that I can frame my own pictures has meant that my attention has shifted from a focus on the ugly, difficult, embarrassing, frustrating, shameful, guilty parts of my pictures to the brightest, happiest, prettiest, smiley-est, funniest, most comforting parts instead. I don’t catch myself every time, but when I do, I thank myself for it.
4) Assume that everyone you meet is doing their best in that moment.
Have you ever done something you were ashamed of, one of those things that comes back to mind unprovoked throughout the course of an average day to plague you with why-did-I-do-that’s and what-was-I-thinking’s?
Yep, those are called mistakes. And they happen to every last one of us.
For a moment, consider a mistake you made, big or small. Did you make it because you were malicious or masochistic, purposefully attempting to create a negative experience for yourself or those around you? I doubt it. You were probably under the influence of unidentified anger or frustration or confusion or irritation. It’s very easy to let those things act as amplifiers to negative reactions. Trouble is, it’s pretty difficult for us to hunt down and identify the reasons for our own irritabilities or frustrations, let alone recognize them in others. So if you disagree with someone, if you start to catch someone’s contagious frustration, take a moment to slow down, and quickly consider that this person is probably doing their best. Maybe their best just isn’t great at this particular moment. Because weren’t you doing what was currently your best when you made your own mistakes or jumped too quickly to your own angry reaction? Probably. Your best just wasn’t very good in that moment. This strategy can help you empathize and forgive instead of entangling yourself in the negativity around you. Seeing yourself in the actions of another person can also drastically reduce our natural judgmental tendencies. The part it’s helped me most with is understanding that no one really knows what they’re doing, and we’re all just doing our best, making it up as we go.
5) When you weed the garden, know your weeds and dig for the deepest roots.
It’s not necessarily reasonable to expect an entirely negativity-free life, right? Weeds will grow in your garden now and then. They are persistent, but, if handled properly, can be controlled and maybe even minimized.
There are two main weeds that grow in my garden. Dandelions and these odd little tree seedlings that the tree next door produces by the hundreds every spring. One is fragile on top with roots that never reach very deep. The other is surprisingly deep-rooted even at an inch or two tall. Knowing which one of these two I’m about to pull up helps me to determine how best to handle the situation.
For the dandelions, depending on how large they are, it’s usually fine to just grab the base of the plant and pull. With those monstrous little tree babies, it’s usually best to grab the small spade and make sure I get the whole root because pulling them up by hand is nearly impossible. It works the same for you mind. If you can identify the deepest root of your frustration or anger or sadness, it can really help you figure out how to deal with getting rid of that feeling. Identifying the truth of the feeling also helps you to understand how separate you are from those thoughts and feelings. When I start to get frustrated, I like to examine my frustration very closely. I turn off the TV or pause my audiobook, and sit still and quiet to identify just exactly what has got hold of me. Once I figure it out, most of the time, the tension washes away. The knowledge of what the root of the problem was helps me weed that plant right out. I look at it as an exploration, a chance for discovery. It’s amazing how much time we can spend with ourselves without ever really knowing everything there is to know about our own minds. Every weed is a chance to learn. And the more of them you take out, the easier it gets to weed your garden when they do crop up.
6) You don’t have to ride the rapids. You can step out and walk alongside the river when things get rough.
Think about a time when you got wrapped up in your emotions, let them get the better of you, ruined a good day for yourself / others, or any variation on that general theme, all because one bad or unexpected thing happened to you. Not difficult for me to do. I used to (and, though more rarely now, still do) have days when the unexpected or unplanned-for throws me into worry or frustration spirals.
Headspace has a great visualization of sorts that tells us that we don’t have to stand in traffic. You can step out of the way and let the cars pass by, out of harm’s way. I like to think of it as a river instead. Every day, there I am, just’a paddlin’ my little boat down the river. Sometimes I can go with whatever flow I find that day, sometimes I can’t do that very easily. And then sometimes, I come upon rapids. It could happen suddenly, when I don’t have time to recognize what’s happened until it’s too late and I’m already in the thick of things. Or perhaps I just couldn’t make it to the bank in time. But the more that I come up on them unexpectedly, the more I learn how to predict when they’re coming. What’s more, the more I get caught in them, the better I get at navigating them. But in instances, when I do see them up ahead, when I see things starting to happen that I know will shake me, all it takes is paddling to the bank, and dragging my boat alongside the river for a while. That’s not really all that easy either, but it separates me from the immediate danger, and gives me a chance to observe the rapids from afar, which can be a helpful learning experience, too. They’re dangerous, but they’re beautiful in their way. Studying them from a distance can help me see things I might not have seen from my boat had I attempted to tackle them head on. So you don’t have to get wrapped up in the negative emotions that can plague you from time to time. If you simply paddle to the bank, you might well find another way of continuing on your way without the danger of capsizing or drowning. This idea relates to my post from yesterday about digging for the deepest root. Examining the feeling itself can be as powerful a tool as studying the cause of that feeling. It allows you to step back from the feelings or thoughts that are provoking negative reactions in you. And maybe more importantly, examining your feelings and reactions to those feelings closely can help you more easily navigate them when next you come across them. Each rough patch is a learning opportunity.
7) Meditation and/or mindful practices are the best gifts you can give yourself. No matter who you are.
This right here was probably the single biggest game changer for me. Mindfulness practices are shown to reduce all kinds of common issues including high blood pressure, IBS, anxiety, stress, depressive tendency, age-related memory loss, bad sleep, anger management, and the list goes on and on. I can personally attest to at least a few of these. Certain kinds of meditative practices have even been shown to increase feelings of love and kindness toward others.
And here’s something that will blow your wig back, it can even support healthy telomere length (the little caps on the end of your DNA that protect it from damage when your cells replicate) which is directly related to cellular aging, and thus longevity. Meaning, meditation could lengthen your life. Just sitting still for a little while every day and resting your focus on anything, your breath, the sound of your air conditioner, the feeling of you feet on the floor. As magical and mystical as that all sounds, it is very, very true and it’s all backed by science.
So what is is and how do you do it?
Meditation is the practice of mindfulness. Meditation is sitting still in one place to practice. Mindfulness is a capacity that you can then take with you anywhere and practice at any time. Walking, eating, working out. Anything.
If you’re a beginner, it’s really best to begin with guided meditations. Once you get your bearings, you’ll probably be able to practice on your own, but how long that takes depends on the person. You may prefer beginning with that more classic idea of meditation, sitting still with eyes closed, focused on the breath. Or maybe you’d prefer beginning with a walking meditation. It depends on what’s sustainable at first for you, but the advice I’d give to this is that discomfort is part of the exercise. Meditation doesn’t mean comfort or peace all the time. It means exploration of your own mind. So embrace the fact that you’re not always going to enjoy the whole session. However you choose to start, do it every day. Make it an important part of your daily life. Because it’s good for you and everyone around you.
To find guided meditations, Headspace is what I’ve landed on as my preferred app, but I’ve also tried Waking Up with Sam Harris and loved it just as much for different reasons. Both of these apps are currently offering pandemic-related free access to certain materials.
What you’ll do, no matter what path you choose to begin with, is being still and quiet and gently focusing your attention on one sensation, usually but not always the breath. Ten minutes a day, you guys. That’s it.
If this isn’t appealing to you, find an activity that you can do mindfully. A coloring book for adults, knitting, walking. Whatever you choose, turn the TV off for a few minutes, and just focus on the sensation of moving the pencil, the needles, or your own feet.
I was skeptical of every bit of this at first, but once I began, I knew I would never stop.
8 ) Smile on purpose. Fake it ‘til you feel it.
Have you ever had a day when you really just *wanted* to be in a pissy mood? One of those where you just let yourself sink into the feeling and stew in it like angry people soup? I have had plenty of ‘em and not a one of them has done me any good whatsoever.
Each of those days left me feeling drained, sad, and lonely, and made those people closest to me feel the same way (remember, your emotions are contagious)! For what?! For the satisfaction of spreading the misery around? That’s not what I really wanted at all! It only makes you feel worse, and then welcome to the spiral I mentioned in a previous post (feel bad > feel worse because you feel bad > feel bad about feeling worse > and so on ad infinitum).
Instead of continuing this self-destructive habit, I’m trying to adopt a new smile on purpose habit. I’ve been going on little walks around the neighborhood recently smiling at the trees and the clouds and the birds and the sidewalks like the dopey idiot character from some bad sitcom. Do feel like smiling every time I start my walk? No, ma’am. But when the walk is done, do I laugh more easily, smile more authentically, feel more lighthearted? Yep. This is something we’ve all heard, right? Using the muscles associated with the act of smiling, even if you’re faking it, produces the same reaction in the brain as when the smile is authentic... or some variation of that theory. I just wanted to see if I could actually harness this reaction to my benefit. Turns out, you kind of *are* the way you act. Act the pissy part and you *are* the pissy person. Act happier, somehow magically be a happier person. It also affects how others perceive and judge you. People tend to believe that people with furrowed brows are more serious and intelligent. Obviously not always true. But it feeds into how they talk to and otherwise interact with those people. If you look happier, you’ll be perceived as happier. People may be more inclined to interact with you in positive ways. I have been notoriously bad at this one, so I want to turn it around. I’ve been told by so many people that they hadn’t approached me at first or hadn’t really liked me when first we met because they thought I was arrogant or some other brand of unpleasant. Little did they know, I was just projecting my own self-hatred and the discomfort I generally have for social occasions without ever realizing the extent to which it spread to those around me. Even people I didn’t even interact with directly! Wild, right? But now I’m fed up with being the bummer. I may not get it right every time, but I know I can do better, even if it means I have to fake it ‘til I feel it.
9) Give attention to your happiness.
I’ve talked about rumanitive thoughts before. They can be destructive and invasive. They suck. I usually have lots of them. Every embarrassing, shameful, mistaken, misspoken moment goes into immediate automatic replay in my head.
Trouble is, that’s no fun. And what’s more, so far as I can discern, it’s done me no actual good. They slow me down and keep me from being more authentically me and from enjoying the life that’s happening to me, which is a privileged life to be sure. I’ve been so lucky. I know that, but the clouds have blocked my view of it in the past.
My new strategy to change this, like some of the other strategies I’ve shared recently, I took (and made my own) from Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, a book I recommend to literally everyone (please pause here to go buy or borrow it real quick). And I had to borrow the idea because, as simple as it is, it had never occurred to me!
You are what you focus on, so I wanted to focus on the happier things in my life. Easy. Except that those ruminative thoughts get in the way. I’ve also always loved writing and found the idea of keeping a hardcover journal delightfully old fashioned. But I could never get myself to sit down and write details of my everyday life. It took too much time and always became a chore.
But why did I think I had to write down everything? It could be one sentence each day. A paragraph. Anything. I mean, my god, it’s *my* journal. It doesn’t have to be some idealized, massive, romantic tome. So I made a new Google Doc, so that I can access it whenever and wherever. I called it “Attention to Happiness.” I prettied it up with nice headers and styling, and set a daily reminder on my phone for 8:30pm, just before bedtime. The reminder says, “Write your happiest moment.”
And that’s what I do. Every night. Figuring out which one it will be has become a fun little game of collecting for me throughout the day. I focus really hard on gathering up even the smallest of the happy moments so that just before bedtime, I can decide which one is *the* one for the day. I just write two or three sentences about anything at all that made me happy that day. It only takes a minute or two. So much more reasonable than writing a log of my every action.
The plan, like Gretchen Rubin, is to self-publish the book after one year of recording my happy moments using Lulu so that I have a cute little hard copy of a year of happiness just for me. It’s given me a really easily accomplished and interesting art project to do, a sharper focus on the things I like about my life, and has shifted my attention toward ruminating on the positive instead of the negative.
10) Persist. Experiment. If you knew it all already, there would be no need to practice. You get worse just before you get better. Embrace discomfort, it’s how you grow. Get. Better. Sleep.
There’s a lot crammed into this one, but the main point of it is this: Even I’m not always successful at actually using the strategies I’ve posted over the last 9 days. In fact, I’ve had a bad day or two even while I’ve been posting these. I actually do use them though. Every one is part of my life now in an inseparable kind of way. They each work for me and I know that, but they can be hard to master. They take effort. Then a little less effort, and then a little less, until they’re normal.
Persist. Bad stuff will still happen to you now and then, but, here’s the part to get excited about: Do the things I suggested with regularity, make them part of the way you live your life, and you’ll be far better prepared to deal with a bad day when it inevitably rolls around.
Experiment. Find what works for you. Your happiness project won’t look anything like mine and that’s fine. In fact, it’s beautiful. What I’ve found in my experiments is that teaching yourself better self-forgiveness, to better care for yourself, to reframe your experiences, to fogive others more easily, to examine your own mind, to get out of the way of your own mind when you need to, to meditate, to smile on purpose, to give attention to your happiness are all good tools to have in your toolbox. Once you have them, you can take any of them out when you need them. The more you use each tool, the better you’ll be at using it the next time. Practice.
Studies show that, in human learning, there is often a dip in performance just before a big boost in performance (listen to How We Learn by Prof. Monisha Pasppathi in the Great Courses on Audible to learn more). For example, in language learning, you know explicitly that it’s correct to use the preposition “à” with the verb “to telephone someone” and you’ve heard it used that way two dozen times. But then you find yourself using no preposition in that phrase at all, mimicking the English structure, instead when you know you must have done it correctly before. You recognize your mistake as they leave your mouth, and berate yourself for being an idiot each time you screw it up, and you’re puzzled as to why you’d say something wrong that you know good and well how to say correctly.
The reason you shouldn’t beat yourself up for these mistakes is that this slump in performance of a task you know how to do and have accomplished before could be a sign that you’re about to suddenly get much better at that particular thing. So then the next week you come to class and never even notice that you didn’t use even one preposition incorrectly when talking about phoning people. Marked decrease in performance can indicate a performance boost in the near future.
The only way you’ll beat that slump though is to embrace the discomfort of being wrong. It seems built into us to deny and justify when we mess up. Admitting failure is a rough one. But instead of “admitting” failure, if you reframe it as “accepting” failure, then you’ve turned it into a learning experience. Put yourself in uncomfortable places. You don’t like to meditate and find it difficult, you say? Well, you and everybody else, my friend. Discomfort is part of the exercise because it is only through the filter of discomfort that we distill a better, more capable version of ourselves.
And lastly, and I cannot stress this enough, no matter what your circumstances are, no matter if you have kids or not, and no matter how much you need to get done every day. Get. Better. Sleep. This world would be a radically different place to live in if every one of us always got the sleep we needed. Make it a priority. When you do, you’re better for yourself and everyone around you. And that’s the point of all of this in the first place. Being better for the people around you. You want good sleep strategies, I got ‘em. Just reach out and I’m happy to share anything I know or have experimented with.
We can all lead happier lives. It’s not always easy or comfortable, but nothing worth doing ever was.
If you read all these, then as the young people say, thank you for coming to my TED Talks. Best of luck with your happiness, and I’m here for encouragement if ever anyone needs it, so always feel free to reach out.