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Posts Tagged ‘personal development’

A Happy Life:

I have few or no worries and low stress. I am healthy and pain-free. I don’t have to deal with change very often. I spend time doing pleasant activities: reading books, playing games, watching movies, eating good food, making music, doing fun work, hanging out with friends. I go on fun outings on the weekends. I have enough money to do what I want to do.

A Meaningful Life:

I don’t walk away from something only because it is difficult. I embrace change when it is necessary. I enjoy challenges. I prioritize time for the things that matter to me: building close connections with others, helping others, working towards artistic mastery, creating things, doing work I’m invested in, learning more about the world and about myself, feeling gratitude and appreciation for the little things, evoking emotions and uncovering truth. While I still search for a balance in order to take care of myself, I make trade-offs in order to live in line with my priorities.

*****

I don’t think these two lives are necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do sometimes come into conflict with each other. And when I’m being honest with myself, I know that the happy life, while sometimes tempting, also sounds…empty. I’d enjoy it for a while, sure, but if that was all there was for me, I’d get restless.

When I think back on my life so far, what gives me the most personal satisfaction are not the pleasant activities I’ve done. I can hardly remember most of them. Most of the things I’m actively glad I did were challenging and not always comfortable. I’m glad I moved to London for a year. I’m glad I studied music. I’m glad I got to travel. I’m glad for the relationships I formed, with students, family, friends, romantic partners. I’m glad I taught. I’m glad I wrote a musical, and short stories, and novels. I’m glad I got a dog. None of those things were easy, and none of them were unadulterated happiness (although the dog was close!). But they are what matter to me.

I was struck by something in the Atlantic article “There’s more to life than being happy:”

“Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.”

Now there’s a silver lining if ever I’ve heard one. Right after reading the above article, I happened across my friend Myke Cole’s essay on PTSD, and he also talks about finding meaning in the face of adversity:

“We have to find a way to construct significance, to help a changed person forge a path in a world that hasn’t changed along with them.”

This is how we move forward in the world, through the meaning we create, through the choices we make. The more I think about this idea, the more clarity I find. Buddhism talks a lot about the inevitability of suffering. But the suffering can give birth to meaning, and that meaning? It’s a truly beautiful thing.

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There’s been a spate of recent research and popular science writing on happiness and what affects it (and what doesn’t affect it). I find this research to be fascinating stuff in its own right, and often a great leaping point. I write about it a fair amount, but I don’t think of what I’m writing to be scientific.

I actually think I write about philosophy. The philosophy of happiness, if you will. I use my own personal experience, the personal experience of others, the philosophy of others, and scientific studies that show certain trends, and I put it all in a blender, and you read the results.

I want to emphasize, though, that I don’t think that what makes me happier will make everyone in the entire world happier. If having a more fulfilling life is something you’re interested in, then collecting different viewpoints and ideas is one way of pushing forward your own quest. Maybe some of the theories and ideas I talk about will inspire or resonate with you.

But when ideas about individual happiness are presented as scientific fact or a fait accompli, then the issue becomes more confused. Which is why I was really happy to read the recent Scientific American blog post by Jamil Zaki entitled “Psychological studies are not about you.” Dr. Zaki decries popular science writing that implies that the studies cited are about individuals. Indeed, he says:

“…Psychological studies… can tell us about how changes in behavior (again, think generosity) might affect the well-being of whole populations…. Most sciences—including psychology—are much better suited to these broad applications than to telling any one person about their life.”

This is because psychological studies mostly involve groups and use statistics. So their findings focus on large-scale trends as opposed to the individual. For example, on average, people may increase their happiness by a certain amount if they engage in gratitude practice. But you as an individual might find that using gratitude practice increases your happiness a lot more than that, or alternately that is doesn’t have a very strong effect at all. Neither of those things make you at all strange since the study in question was talking about averages over a certain population.

Then of course there are the controversies where there are differing points of view. For example, there is a theory of happiness called the set point theory of happiness, or the hedonic treadmill, that states that people have a predetermined happiness set point. There have been a few famous studies, one that looked at people who had been paralyzed and ultimately returned to the same levels of happiness they had been at prior to injury and another that looked at lottery winners that returned to their pre-winnings level of happiness.

But now there are studies showing that this isn’t always the case: that indeed, sometimes people who win the lottery do have increased happiness over a period of time, and sometimes people who divorce do have increased happiness afterwards. There are also examples of individuals having permanently decreased happiness levels. There is more discussion about the forty percent of happiness levels that aren’t controlled by genetics but by intentional activity. And even if the set point theory of happiness is statistically present over a large population, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily apply to you personally. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

Which isn’t to say that reading about these studies or about other people’s personal anecdotes or philosophies can’t be enlightening and helpful. Just as with writing advice, we’re allowed to take whatever works for us and throw everything else away. We each get to learn about the unique combination of what makes us tick and make decisions based on that self knowledge.

What advice about happiness and fulfillment hasn’t worked for you? What advice has?

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I spent last weekend at the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. The theme of the conference is how to live a remarkable life in a conventional world.

I could write so many essays about things I learned this weekend (and maybe I will in the future). But right now I want to share some moments of transformation.

As some of my long-time readers know, I’ve been struggling with a lot of physical problems the last few years. I hurt both my knees in the spring of 2009, and they never completely recovered. I’ve also repeatedly injured my left ankle. At the height of these injuries, I was unable to walk a single city block.

But by far the worst parts of my injuries are the activities I’ve had to give up. Nowadays I have to tailor my travel very carefully around my limitations. I’ve spent the last four years being unable to hike, an activity I’ve been doing since I learned to walk. And for the most part, I’ve had to give up dancing.

I began to dance in a summer theater program when I was around eleven, and I was horrible at it. I was awkward, uncoordinated, as inflexible as could be, and had trouble even figuring out if I was turning right or left. But I learned that summer that I could like something even though I wasn’t good at it.

I continued to dance. I learned to dance through the musicals I performed in. I spent months learning how to do the time step (tap). In college, I took some jazz dance classes, swing classes, and salsa classes. But it was in London that I completely fell in love with dance. I took a weekly Five Rhythms (R) dance class, which is a kind of freestyle meditative dance, and I couldn’t get enough.

When I dance, it stops mattering what I look like, or how good or bad a dancer I am. All that matters is the beat and my body moving and the energy I’m sharing with those dancing around me. Everything else falls away, and I feel so much closer to the essentials of what matters to me.

And then I couldn’t dance any more. I had to be careful. I had to be cautious. I had to avoid pain and allow space for the healing that was so incredibly slow. I couldn’t put  much weight on my ankle, and what if I bent it the wrong way? What if I pushed myself too far and undid whatever progress I had made? More than four years passed in this way.

This weekend I gave up on being careful. I let go of safe. Such a large part of my injuries was related to stress and tight muscles and losing a part of myself. And I’ve been working so hard to make the necessary changes to heal.

This weekend it was time.

Me with some new WDS friends at the closing party. Photo by Armosa Studios.

I danced. At first it was hard, awkward with my left ankle in a brace. I couldn’t remember how to move. I don’t have the right muscles anymore. The few times I’ve allowed myself to dance in the past few years, I’ve been so very careful. But this time I didn’t stop myself. I paid attention to my body and experimented at the opening party, and then Sunday night at the closing party, I let myself go. I danced three hours straight with only brief breaks. Once I had started, I never wanted to stop.

I’m somewhere in that crowd, dancing with all my might! Photo by Armosa Studios.

I spent many years not feeling like I could be myself. No longer being able to dance was a symptom of that feeling. I was trapped in a prison of impossible expectations, both outer and inner. The world felt like a dangerous place.

When people tell or show us that we don’t matter, we begin to believe it. Until we consciously choose NOT to believe it.

I danced at the World Domination Summit to celebrate the experience of being myself, in all its facets: the brilliance and the mistakes, the joys and the pains, the successes and the failures. Lately I’ve often felt like I’m waiting, that something new is right around the bend if I can only hold out that long.

But something new isn’t coming. Something new is already here.

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Occasionally I read an article that makes me really excited because it puts an idea or concept so elegantly into words that even if I’ve thought about the topic many times before, I feel like I’ve made a brand new discovery. This happened a couple of days ago when I read Toni Bernhard’s “Why Judging People Makes Us Happy.”

In the article, she explains the distinction between discernment and judgment:

“Discernment means perceiving the way things are, period. Judgment is what we add to discernment when we make a comparison (implicit or explicit) between how things or people are and how we think they ought to be. So, in judgment, there’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to have things be the way we want them to be.”

When I was younger, I wanted so badly to be nonjudgmental that I often didn’t even allow myself to practice discernment. This had results about as unfortunate as you might expect.

When I started allowing myself to have opinions again, I had no idea what to do with them. Plus I’d been storing them up for quite some time. I felt like I was having judgmental thoughts left and right.

That’s why I like the idea of discernment, the middle ground of seeing the truth of what’s going on around you. Discernment doesn’t require excuse-making (for ourselves or for anybody else). It also doesn’t require us to change anything (or wish anybody would change). What it does allow for is seeing a situation as it is unfolding, for seeing how other people are acting and reacting, and for noticing how what’s going on is affecting our own states, whether that be emotionally or physically.

Discernment gives us data, the data of what actually is as opposed to wishes about what could be. Once we have data, then we can make good decisions for ourselves as to what actions we wish to take and what boundaries we might want to set. Without data, it’s hard to figure out the best way to take care of ourselves.

Let’s say I have a friend, and I notice that every time we’re together, he’s talking in a negative way. At that point I can pay attention to how that’s affecting me: Am I tired after we hang out? Do I feel more negative myself? What emotions am I feeling? Do I brush off the negativity fairly easily or does it linger for the rest of the day?

Maybe it doesn’t affect me very strongly, and I feel compassionate towards my friend because I know he’s having a hard time, in which case I don’t have to do anything at all. Or maybe I’m feeling drained or some other way that I don’t like feeling, and I realize I only want to spend time with my friend when I have a certain amount of energy. Maybe some other stuff is going on in the friendship too, and I decide I need some distance. Or maybe I have a conversation about it with my friend. All of these choices are fine, and they simply depend on the dynamics of that particular friendship.

Discernment and then action move us away from the blame game. Instead of thoughts of “it’s her fault, and why does she have to be that way?”, we move to “what do I need to do to take care of myself?” Taking care of ourselves is something we can act upon, and doing so allows us to have more compassion for those around us.

What do you think? Do you agree with Toni Bernhard’s definition of discernment vs. judgment?

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In my ongoing quest to stop being a perfectionist and instead just be a human being, I have found the following strategies to be useful.

1. Get a dog. Dogs don’t care if you’re perfect; they only care that you love them.

Portrait of a Devoted Doggie

2. Reframe the idea of perfection. Decide it is impossible, or decide it encompasses more than a single rigid definition, or go all philosophical and decide that imperfection is perfect in its own way.

3. Spend time around people who appreciate your natural strengths.

4. Spend time around people who are okay when you falter.

5. In fact, spend lots of energy finding awesome people with whom to surround yourself. This helps with all sorts of things if you are paying attention.

6. Distinguish between situations in which you must present yourself professionally at all costs and those (often in your personal life) in which you have some more leeway.

7. For the latter, force yourself to be honest. Especially when you really don’t want to admit that you need help or that you’re having a rough time.

8. Accept that not all people are going to understand or believe your honesty. Change your response to this from a panicked “I must seek their approval at all costs” to a shrug. Be grateful for those who are supportive. (And if none of those exist in your life yet, go back to number 5 and try some more. They are out there.)

9. Remember that you are one person and that therefore you cannot do all the things. Even if other people want you to. Even if you want to.

10. Realize you can’t control everything, and that perfection doesn’t automatically equal happiness.

11. Actually, not only does perfection not equal happiness, it sometimes equals stress, burn-out, dysfunctional relationships, isolation, and despair. Remind yourself of its downsides when you’re having trouble letting go.

12. Embrace the cheesiness and tell yourself you love yourself. Tell this to yourself even more when you think you’ve fallen short.

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Photo Credit: chiaralily via Compfight cc

The scene: A spring afternoon on a concrete patio with metal tables and chairs, close to the train tracks. A slight breeze keeps me worried that I should have brought more than my thin sweater, worried enough that I order a hot drink in spite of the sunny weather. A large dog lays with his head between his paws, gazing with eyes big enough that many of his actions automatically become characterized as mournful even though that’s not his personality at all.

My friend is telling me about a conversation she had with a customer service representative over the phone. After explaining recent events and how they pertained to the issue in discussion, the woman told her, “Don’t worry, now you’re getting the chance to start over.”

I say, “Don’t we all start over at one point or another?”

***

I have thrown away a bowl full of leaden gingerbread dough. I have discarded ten thousand words and started a novel from scratch (and felt grateful it was only that many). I have graduated, I have moved, I have ended relationships, rekindled relationships, started relationships. I have obtained employment, lost employment, quit, and changed careers. I have opened and closed a business. I have walked out of a lobby at a convention and sat for twenty minutes in my hotel room before coming back out and starting again. I have spent months recovering from physical injuries, only to re-injure myself and go back to the beginning of the process. I have rebooted my computer, my phone, huge strands of my life.

So I guess you could say I start over a lot.

***

A friend of mine moved recently, and in the process, she got rid of a ton of stuff. She hardly has any books left (she mostly reads electronically these days), most of her kitchen cabinets are empty, she’s getting rid of big pieces of furniture. I thought to myself, “Wow. This is the way to start over.”

By contrast, when I start over, I tend to carry everything with me: my experiences, my memories, my baggage, and physical mementos from the past. It’s certainly the bulkier way to go. But there is no one right way to start over. There is the way that feels right at the time.

My kitchen cabinets are full. But I do have an empty bookshelf.

***

The title of this post suggests that I’m going to offer up advice or maybe a list of ten bullet points summing up the process of starting over. But this time I don’t have a list for you.

Starting over is hard. A lot of that is because of the fear that often comes with it, the fear and the not knowing and the what if game. And starting over is stressful. If you look at the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, you’ll see that almost all of the most stressful events in life have to do with change: beginnings, endings, and starting over.

So really when we’re talking about how to start over, we’re also talking about how to be kind to ourselves and how to be resilient and how to deal with stress.

When have you started over?

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I am tired of apologizing.

Expressing empathy and sympathy? I’m all over that. But I’ve spent way too much of my energy apologizing for things that have nothing to do with me.

And you know what? I’m not sorry.

  • I’m not sorry that I may have different priorities than other people .
  • I’m not sorry that I have things I want and things I need.
  • I’m not sorry that I want to be treated with respect and consideration.
  • I’m not sorry for the life choices I’ve made, even if people don’t agree with them or understand them.
  • I’m not sorry that I don’t want to discuss my financial situation with strangers.
  • I’m not sorry that I have a different sleep schedule from the norm.
  • I’m not sorry that the ways in which I spend my time are not obvious.
  • I’m not sorry that I notice and sometimes point out sexism and misogyny in media.
  • I’m not sorry for my own opinion and assessment of myself.
  • I’m not sorry when I choose to say no.
  • I’m not sorry that I can’t be perfect.
  • I’m not sorry when I refuse to take on other people’s issues willy nilly.
  • I’m not sorry for the existence of my emotions.
  • I’m not sorry for standing up for myself.
  • I’m not sorry for communicating.
  • I’m not sorry for being complicated.
  • I’m not sorry that we don’t have every single thing about ourselves in common.
  • I’m not sorry when people won’t take care of themselves. I feel sad about it, because I know how bad that feels, but I am not responsible for the choices they make and the pain they put themselves through.

This is what it looks like to not be a people pleaser. You start apologizing a lot less frequently. Instead you communicate, and you compromise, and you take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and you surround yourself with people who are willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, and when you screw up on occasion, you apologize and make amends, and everything works out a whole lot better.

Stop apologizing for yourself. Start living instead.

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