We’ve all heard the phrase, “to know him was to know [fill in the blank with a word describing a defining characteristic of a specific individual].” I recently heard this used in a song lyric and it stopped me dead in my tracks and got me thinking about what word(s) would be used to describe me.
Then, a few days ago I attended a lovely memorial service for a former professor of mine. The service consisted of nearly an hour and a half of her closest relatives, friends, and colleagues sharing their favorite memories of Dr. O. She lived a remarkable life, including travels to every corner of the globe, developing an esteemed academic career, and weaving her passions and interests throughout everything she did. That was the point that struck me the most. All of the people that gave remarks – friends from her childhood, college days, professional and private life – each knew all of her. She didn’t have parts of her personality or passions that were hidden in certain areas. The words these people used to describe her were all on the same theme. That is how I hope to live, too. I want to give of my genuine self to everything I do instead of compartmentalizing myself.
I often think about characteristics that I want to improve; such as to be more patient, gracious, charitable, affectionate, etc. but I haven’t really given much thought to how I appear to other people. Surely if I am acting and thinking in these positive ways it will appear to those with whom I interact but that hasn’t been my focus. I certainly don’t want to get caught up in thinking too much about how other people perceive me. This will be another area in which to try to find that balance between the two extremes. Food for thought I suppose.
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” – Cicero
Less regret, more gratitude: this is my second “rule” for the first month of my Happiness Project. The first rule – act the way I want to feel – that I wrote about here has become easier and easier as the month has gone by. Now, on the last day of the month, I find myself still struggling with the second rule in response to certain situations. It is easier for me to look back on events that are further (several years) in the past and see them in a mostly fond light. Remembering them with a heart of love and warmth and gratitude that they happened, and knowing that I’ve processed any lessons to be learned and have let go of anything not falling under the “gratitude” umbrella is a pretty nice feeling. For instance, embracing the sometimes painful reality that not all people who enter our lives are meant to stay forever and being able to learn from each person and experience but still look back on a faded-away friendship and be nothing but grateful that it occurred. To leave any hurt, confusion, or resentment behind and have those memories stir simple and unburdened gratitude. Of course the passage of time does help (I honestly believe that if time doesn’t completely heal all wounds it at least lets them scab over pretty thoroughly) but I think a large part if it is also feeling satisfied in having learned from the experience.
That is where I find it harder with more recent events. I’m very cognizant of wanting to capture every lesson that is there to be learned, even those that are hard to decipher at the beginning. I assume that part of that sentiment comes from not wanting to (needlessly) repeat situations that have already occurred just because I was too dense to “learn my lesson” the first time.
In the attempt to embrace and live this rule my prayer has been for discernment, that of all of the small and fleeting, and oppressing and lingering thoughts that go through my mind I will be guided to wisdom and will be able to discern and understand the answers and lessons that I am searching for.
In September, the second month of my Happiness Project I will be focusing on “identify the problem” and “do what needs to be done.” I’ll, of course, continue to apply the first two in day-to-day life as much as I can. August hasn’t been the easiest month, overall, but I’m making progress. Some days even the most miniscule amount of progress forward is so very welcomed. One foot in front of the other!
The news, Facebook, Twitter – everything seems to be full of comments about Robin Williams’ sudden death yesterday. It has been (preliminary) ruled a suicide and many people are posting articles and resources about suicide prevention and depression resources, which is great. That is definitely a serious subject that still carries such stigma, any opportunity to chip away at that barrier to services is a good thing.
On repeat in my head since I first heard of his death yesterday evening are lyrics from a gospel song by James Cleveland. I only vaguely know of this song in passing but the first verse has stuck with me:
Give me my flowers
While I yet live
So that I can see the beauty
That they bring
Friends and loved ones
May give me flowers
When I’m sick
Or on my sick bed
But I’d rather have
Just one tulip right now
Than a truck load of roses
When I’m dead
Speak kind words to me
While I can hear them
So that I can hear the beauty
That they bring.
Unfortunately it often takes these external reminders of tragedy and loss to remind ourselves to say and do the things we should right now, while we still have the chance. There is nothing to be gained from waiting to say a kind word or tell someone how much he or she means to you. Give them their flowers.
“Act the way I want to feel.” This is the first rule of my Happiness Project and one I have been thinking about a lot this week. I had initially come up with this rule months ago in the context of social situations. I am a pretty strong introvert. Although I do enjoy being around people and socializing with friends I find that social interactions take my energy rather than supply it. If I am low on energy before a social setting (especially large group interactions) it will be my tendency to pull away and quietly keep to myself. This does not necessarily mean that I’m not having a fine time or that I am upset or bothered by something, but I’ve learned through some painful trial and error that my actions can be perceived this way by others. Actually, my body language/facial expressions are misconstrued with some frequency, which is concerning and a separate topic for another day.
In order to counteract this unintentional blah-ness I embarked on a quick experiment where I made considerable, directed effort not to give into my weak-willed (and admittedly selfish) habits and instead I forced myself to physically act in the way that I wanted to feel. If I wanted to feel light and fun and full of energy I needed to start acting light and fun and full of energy. And sure enough, it worked! For example: if I was with a group of friends out celebrating someone’s birthday, instead of sitting there like a bump on a log, only speaking when directly spoken to and, although not technically saying anything overtly rude but nonetheless acting in a way pretty devoid of social graces, I would instead muster up enough energy to engage a few people in conversation and smile and laugh and show the usual signs of someone having a good time. The funny (I don’t really know if any of this is funny, but still.) thing is that a majority of the time I found myself in these blah-ness situations I was actually having a grand old time but was just too tired/lazy/selfish to show it to anyone not living inside my little brain. Once I get the ball rolling on the acting then the feelings quickly becomes more natural (doesn’t smiling and laughing release endorphins or some other feel-good hormone?) and voilà!
Maybe this is considered to be a version of listening to a “get psyched” playlist before a nerve-wracking situation. Maybe it is even a little of the “fake it ‘til you make it” variety, although when I put this rule into practice I’m not trying to be disingenuous. I’m not trying to “fake” anyone into perceiving anything other than the truth. I’m just trying to match what is happening on my face and with my body with the truth inside my head.
This past week the most common situation where this rule has come to mind is when I want to feel calm. It has been a rough couple weeks emotionally and mentally, and although I have legitimate things to think about and a lot left to process, sometimes my frazzled self needs a break. I need a moment of calm in the midst of the constant roller coaster of thoughts and emotions rolling through my head. This can be as simple as taking deep breaths. Inhale for ten counts, exhale for ten counts. I found some roller-ball vials of relaxing scents – peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, etc. – I had buried in a box of random toiletries in my linen closet and have stashed them in handy spots to help when the deep breathing by itself does not do the trick.
Exercising has helped immensely. Those magical endorphins again! I’ve not found anything that helps to calm the mind as quickly as a desperate run through a peaceful neighborhood or an utterly exhausting, all consuming hour of hot yoga. Exploring the physical limits of the human body is a wonderful thing. And an exhausted body falling into bed at night somewhat helps to combat my ever-present sleep difficulties.
For the rest of this month (and beyond) I’m going to continue to ruminate on how my actions affect my feelings and how to modify those in a healthy way. Namaste.
I’ve mentioned the book that gave me this idea, The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, where the author takes a year to research and test numerous small, concrete changes in her life and in her thinking that may increase her day-to-day happiness. When I first read the book a few years ago I made the following list of things I could do/think that might help my own level of happiness:
- Act the way I want to feel
- Less regret, more gratitude
- Identify the problem
- Do what needs to be done
- It’s okay not to feel okay
- Surround myself with happy
- Try new things
- Take the extra minute
- Show affection/proofs of love
- Leave some things unsaid
- Live deliberately
- Enjoy now (as if first or last)
It is a new month (Well, almost. Today is August 2nd.) and I’m going to tackle two of these things (the book called the twelve things “rules” so maybe I’ll use that term too) each month and really make an effort to keep them in mind throughout the day. That’s not to say that I will actively avoid the reminding ten but will actively hold the chosen two closer in mind and reflect on them specifically for the duration of the month.
I’m excited! Living unintentionally frightens me on many levels. I’m a big believer in on-going, intentional self-improvement but the past few months I’ve let that take a back seat to snowballing daily stressors and concerns and confusion. Some of those factors have recently changed and although I’m sure I will be tempted to fall back into that routine I’m really going to put more effort into growing myself. To be completely honest, some of this is coming from knowing that self-improvement is always good, etc., but also it is coming from a place of fear and worry. I’m worried that another year of my life will go by with things just being ‘fine’ and I won’t have moved towards anything different. When an opportunity comes along to jump into a new chapter of life I want to be in a place where I am ready and equipped to make that decision. And in order to get to that place of redness I know I need to work on some of my own issues, happiness among them.
I have a good life. I want to go on record saying that yes, my life is good. I have so many things in the ‘pro’ column: I love my job, I have some wonderful friends, I have good health, and all of my day-to-day basic necessities are being met. No complaints there. I’ve taken some great trips, have explored some interesting hobbies, and have an undying allegiance to my alma matter. Awesome memories of awesome times.
But I feel like it could be more. I’m not depressed (although I’m currently in the midst of one of life’s many transitions that often leaves me feeling blue) but I can’t say that I’m really all that happy either. I just am. I know it could be worse – a lot worse, even – but also knowing that it could be better I find myself wondering what lies in that mysterious “room for improvement.”
A few years ago I read a book, The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, for a book club assignment and its tenants have stuck with me. Basically, the author was in much of my same situation – content with the major factors in her life and not looking to make drastic changes, but rather was searching out small but distinct ways to improve her daily ‘happiness’ quotient. I am a strong believer in living intentionally and part of that intention is to take care of one’s mental health and overall outlook on the life in front of them. I’ve been depressed. I know what it is like to have a debilitating chemical imbalance that supersedes any desires to just “look on the bright side” or “fake it ‘til you make it.” The place I currently find myself is different. I still feel capable of taking steps to make myself feel better, I’ve just been a little stuck on how to get started. So I dug out the book and have committed to my own Happiness Project. No time like the present, right?! And thus this blog was born.
I’ve journaled on paper on and off throughout the years, but mostly during the darkest times. I’d like to use this platform to encourage myself to think through many of the thoughts (happy and sad, deep and fleeting) running through my head. If anyone stumbles across this and stops to read, cool. If not, that’s cool too. There is something about turning thoughts into words that achieve a deeper reflection for me, and also provide a sense of accountability. I don’t know where this blog (or this life) will go but I’m optimistic! Some days desperately, forcibly holding onto that optimism, but still trying.