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Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

I usually write a blog post around this time that is about my theme for the year.

I spent some time this morning going through old blog posts and thinking about theme ideas. And, all in all, this has been a really good year for me. REALLY good.

List of possible 2015 themes:

Peaches.

Look, I’m happy!

Cool, I think I’m going to go take care of myself now.

Yeah, I got this.

Thanks for being my friend, you rock!

No thanks.

The important thing is the work.

Milkshakes! Pancakes! Peanut butter pie!

Shake it off.

This is one picture of happiness.

This is one picture of happiness.

Hmm, which one of these should I use as the headline of this post? Decisions, decisions.

But in all seriousness, just because I had a positive year doesn’t mean I didn’t still learn a lot. Here are some of the things I learned:

  1. Dancing helps with my physical health in the medium term.
  2. Also it’s freaking awesome.
  3. Also it automatically improves my mood.
  4. My apartment is my sanctuary, and as such, it’s worth every cent I pay in rent.
  5. Sprained toes take a really long time to heal.
  6. Sometimes taking a break from networking can be beneficial to my mental health.
  7. Because it’s the actual writing that matters the most.
  8. Just because I’m afraid is not a reason not to do a thing. It’s also not a reason to automatically do a thing.
  9. I really like my friends. Well, okay, I guess I already knew this, but I get constant reminders.
  10. I like to see as many friends as possible at least once a month. By the time I’m going three months without seeing them, I am less happy.
  11. Finding meaning in your life is super important.
  12. Life after getting an agent is pretty much the same as life before. Except without the endless querying.
  13. Sometimes it is really hard to let go.
  14. Being gentle with yourself doesn’t mean you automatically stop learning from your mistakes. It more often means you’re not damaging your self-esteem so much in the process.
  15. People are different, and they pay different energy costs for different things. And that’s okay.
  16. Being indirect often does not pay off. And at least with directness you know you said what you wanted to say.
  17. But that doesn’t mean it’s not also important to strive for kindness. You can be direct and kind at the same time.
  18. Sometimes you’re not going to say what the other person wants to hear. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it.
  19. We all have quirks and eccentricities. Learning to accept this is important. About yourself too, not just about other people.
  20. Some comedy is actually funny. Yes, I know you already knew this. Now I do too!
  21. But some comedy is still not that funny at all.
  22. The necessity of sometimes having to wait isn’t going to go anywhere.
  23. Having a lot of lemonade in my fridge is wonderful.
  24. So much that’s going on has very little to do with me. I learn this every year. The trick, then, is to figure out what does have to do with me and focus on that.
  25. When you can make the choice to think positively, that’s the right choice to make. When you can’t, allowing that to be okay too can sometimes help you get back to a happier frame of mind more quickly.
  26. It’s important to allow other people to make their own mistakes. Even when it’s painful to watch. But if it’s too tiring to watch, it’s okay to take a little break.
  27. Differentiating between short-term and long-term problems can save a lot of energy.
  28. Mashed potatoes taste better when you add a lot of butter.
  29. Everyone has problems. People who understand this tend to be good people to have around.
  30. Loving yourself is still one of the most important things you can learn how to do.


What did you learn this year?

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Success in our culture is associated with MORE.

  • More money, fancier car, fancier house, more things to put in the fancier house.
  • More sales, more critical acclaim, more award nominations, more award wins, more clout.
  • More bonuses, more stock, more seniority, more autonomy, larger teams, more prestige, more press.
  • Better, prettier, sexier, thinner, busier, richer, smarter, better read, better informed, more talented, more hard-working, more visionary, more original, more popular.

I’ve known some pretty successful people, and even right after a big achievement, it is not uncommon for them to still worry, to still feel insecure, to still want more. 

Won one award? Well, why haven’t I won more?

Made a million bucks? Well, I won’t truly be safe until I have [plug in larger number here.]

Got a promotion? Well, when am I going to be another level up?

And to a certain extent, I admire the striving. It is exhilarating to be pushing ourselves, to be ambitious, to be trying to improve, to do wonderful things.

But at some point I wonder, when is it enough?

Which is followed soon thereafter by its cousin, will it ever be enough?

And I think as long as we are measuring success by external factors, it may never be enough. Not unless the internal factors have been addressed as well.

Photo Credit: jacilluch via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jacilluch via Compfight cc

When we internalize rejection, when we take failure as a reflection on our intrinsic value as a person, when we struggle with unacknowledged shame, when we replay messages that tell us we are somehow bad or wrong for things outside of our control, when we relive past traumas through the present day, when we measure success only from the outside and not from the inside…

no success will ever be enough.

Happiness doesn’t come from the outside in. But this is hard to believe. If you just get that job or make a certain amount of money or find the perfect partner or have the right number of well-behaved children, happiness will surely follow. Won’t it?

And it is true, all of those things can contribute substantially to happiness. (And if you don’t have certain basic things, of course, all bets are off.) But if you are not prepared for happiness on the inside, none of them will be enough. Because nothing is perfect. Nothing remains unchanged. Important things–families, relationships, friendships, careers–take a lot of work. And there will be parts that are unpleasant. And there will be setbacks. And there will be losses.

So then, lasting happiness comes not only from external factors but from a wellspring deep inside.

And in order to find this, we might need to re-examine our definitions of success. We might need to let go of having MORE and instead focus on what we have and where we are right now.

We might need to consider that we are already enough, and that we always were.

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I’m sitting in a darkened theater, and Act 2 is about to begin. This is one of my favorite plays, I haven’t seen it in years, and it is even better than I remembered. By the end of the play, I will almost be in tears. And a wave of gratitude washes over me, that this is my life, that I get to see live theater with friends who also appreciate it, that I’m sitting here now, and I am happy.

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I’ve been dancing in a new venue for the last hour, and now I’m sitting cross-legged on the hard wooden floor, listening to the event organizer speak. He is talking about the importance of the community and the importance of being cognizant of boundaries while dancing, particularly with newcomers to the community (that would be me). I feel such a sense of rightness, that here I am doing this new thing I love, and it fosters a community that first of all, talks about boundaries at all, and that does so in such a respectful and thoughtful way. And I am happy.

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I’m writing a new novel, and I’m having the best time. I sit down with my laptop, and I watch as I slowly add words and the story takes shape. I have no idea how good it is, or even if it’s any good at all, but one of the joys of the rough draft is that I kind of don’t have to care. I have to write my words. I have to meet my goals. I can worry about “good enough” at a later date. But right now I get to live in London again, and I get to become acquainted with gargoyles and ghosts and girls who won’t grow up, and I am so very happy.

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A few months ago, here is what I told myself. Nothing in my life was blowing up. I’d already mostly decided not to move. I’d cut out as much drama as I could, and finally there was some space. The book was going fine. Nala was fine. I was fine. And I said to myself, “Now. Now is your chance to make your life as amazing as possible and see what happens. See if you can do it. See what that looks like. Now. This is your time. Try really hard not to take on anybody else’s stuff, take care of yourself, do what you need to do, and go shine as brightly as you want.”

My theme songs for this period, as anyone who follows me on Twitter and many more who don’t already know, are Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and the Presidents of the United States of America’s “Peaches.” Yeah, I’m not entirely sure either, but they’ve set the tone nicely. So, whatever works.

And what does this now time of mine look like? Not so unexpected perhaps. Lots of writing and more writing, singing and piano playing, walks with Nala, dancing dancing dancing, theater and concert going, reading, and Star Trek, along with the occasional game. Baking and good food and quality time with friends. My ankle is doing well enough that I might be able to throw in some longer walks or hikes, which is pretty exciting. I’ve been meeting a lot of new people, not because I’m trying all that hard to do so, but because they seem to keep appearing, and many of them have been a privilege to meet.

It’s not all simple and easy and perfect; this is real life, after all. I’ve also been sick and tired and very sore because dancing, and I’ve had setbacks and disappointments, and I’ve made mistakes. Sometimes the world can be an ugly place, and sometimes it can be a complicated place.

But I keep having this very particular type of happiness sneak up on me. It doesn’t seem to matter what I’m doing at the time, but all of a sudden I’ll stop and think, “Oh. This is my life.” And I’ll feel this mixture of gratitude and relief and happiness, that I get to have this chance, that I get to do this work, that I get to know these people. That I get this time.

I think I look pretty happy here. (Photo by Christie Yant)

I think I look pretty happy here. (Photo by Christie Yant)

My friend told me my post last week about friendship was mushy, which yeah, I knew that, and I think this one probably is too. I know, but I kind of can’t help it. All I can say is it’s a very genuine mushiness. I doubt that makes it much more palatable, but it’s all I’ve got for you. Happiness is kind of mushy. I am a huge musical theater geek, which I’m pretty sure is good evidence all by itself that I can be kind of mushy. And apparently I’m willing to spread on the mush.

I also think sometimes it’s easy to only write about the problems, the dark places, the sturm and drang, and all that. And these are all important things to talk about. I’m going to keep talking about them.

But sometimes I want to let you know that the happiness, it is here too.

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I’ve been sick this week, which isn’t exactly surprising since I just got back from the Rainforest Retreat, which means airplanes and airports and hanging out late with writers who are sick and sleeping not especially well in the strange cabin bed and working my butt off.

I’m not seriously sick, I just have a cold, and so I’ve almost been enjoying watching how everything slows down. Because I don’t have a lot of energy, my life as a result gets pared down to its essentials: putting on clothes, feeding myself and the dog, taking the dog out, drinking ridiculous amounts of fluids. And then, you know, trying to put at least a few words down through the fog of illness.

And now of course I’m sitting down to write this blog post, and my main thought is, how do I make being sick compelling? And I probably can’t, of course, because the overriding experiences of being sick are those of physical misery (throat that burns every time you swallow, limbs that ache and feel strangely heavy, tightness at the temples) and tedium (because you’re really too tired to do much of anything), and neither of those are particularly interesting. Being sick sometimes feels like the spaces between when all the good stuff might happen.

But the spaces between do give me time to reflect on the good stuff. So I’m going to tell you a story. It is about a tipping point. Unlike being sick, tipping points do tend to be compelling because they represent that moment when everything our unconscious minds have been working on coalesces and comes out into the open. And then we, story-loving creatures that we are, turn that into a narrative of the tipping point.

The time: About a month ago, a Sunday evening. The place: My living room, the same chair I’m sitting in now, in fact. It’s an awful-looking chair, I’m told, but I don’t even see it when I look at it anymore. I just know it’s comfortable.

I’d spent a few hours earlier in the evening working on tax-related stuff, and now I’m making a hard phone call. Also, I’m irritated. And I have hurt feelings. Nala lies at my feet.

So I’m sitting there trying to have this conversation, and honestly, this is not a real conversation I’m having. I mean, there are words coming out of both of our mouths, but I’m certainly not being myself, nor have I ever been myself with this particular person (a reality that has been troubling me), and I have no idea who I’m actually talking to. It’s all mirrors and masks and a maze made of brick and a series of painfully careful steps leading to this moment.

And I’m engaged in some waste-of-my-time chain of thought, and then all of sudden, I interrupt it. It is so abrupt that before I have time to think about it, I blurt the interruption out loud: “This is not my problem.”

Not my most tactful moment, but that sentence continues to resonate in my mind. This is not my problem. And most of my other emotions fall away, and I’m left with a sense of profound relief. Because this is not my problem, and that means I don’t have to do a thing about it.

….

And I didn’t. I let it go. I was grinning like a maniac for several days, and the next day I sat down and wrote “What I Really Did Last Summer.” Because now I could see that what had kept me from writing it before was, in fact, not my problem either. I could see that all that careful footwork had gotten me precisely nowhere except all tied up in knots and estranged from authenticity. And why? For something that wasn’t even my problem in the first place.

My most adorable problem.

My most adorable problem.

I’ve spent much of the past month noticing what else is not my problem. It’s an interesting exercise. It doesn’t remove all the hurt or disappointment from life, but it does remove a lot of stress. It turns out there are many things I thought were my problems that really aren’t. So many situations I don’t have to fix, so many people I don’t have to charm or make feel better. Which means I have a lot more energy to throw at the things that actually are my problems, like making my current novel as awesome as possible or getting myself to Rainforest and back or hydrating obsessively to get rid of this cold.

And now that I’m sick and everything has slowed down, I can sit back and appreciate this feeling of having fewer problems, of letting other people do what they’re going to do while I take care of myself.

I could get used to this feeling. It feels like happiness.

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“How well I know with what burning intensity you live. You have experienced many lives already, including several you have shared with me- full rich lives from birth to death, and you just have to have these rest periods in between.”

Anaïs Nin

Recently someone was describing me and they used the word “intense.” At the time I was nonplussed, incapable of completely escaping the negative connotations of the adjective. Pursuing my interest in reclaiming those personal characteristics that are less easy to sit comfortably with, I began to think more about what it means to be intense.

There is no arguing with the accuracy of the language. I am, in fact, intense. I feel things strongly. I care. I invest myself. I get excited. I throw myself into the heat of the fire. A perhaps “nicer” way of saying this is to say I have depth, but at some point we are just splitting hairs while trying to avoid the judgments of a society that values being laid back except at the workplace. (At the workplace, as far as I can tell, society wants us all to be relentless workaholics who are still somehow able to meet family responsibilities, maintain our health, and have free time in which we can consume.)

Many writers of my acquaintance are at least somewhat intense. Maybe you have to be in order to be willing to shut yourself up in a room and create a world solely in your imagination for months at a time. Maybe you have to in order to have something worth saying. Maybe you have to in order to brave the convolutions of the publishing industry. I’m not really sure, but intensity does seem come with the territory for many of us. Musicians too. Perhaps artists in general.

Put “intense” into an image search, and you get photo after photo of roiling colorful skies. Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs via Compfight cc

What I love about living with intensity is this: it makes the moments of my life mean more to me. The possibility of slipping into complacency becomes much less likely, and complacency is the kiss of death to an artist. Intensity pushes us onwards. We need to be out there in all the mess and glory of life, sleeves rolled up, ready to soak up whatever is there to be experienced. Some artists experience intensity in austere solitude; Emily Dickinson comes to mind. Some find it in observing society, social mores, and customs. Some find it through adventuring. Some find it through pursuing la vie boheme. What matters is not so much the content of the experience as the depth to which that experience is pursued and savored.

Intensity can be uncomfortable at times, both from the inside  and as witness. There are feelings! And not all of them are what we consider to be positive! And our culture still encourages a certain kind of insouciance, a fetishization of the carefree state: “Don’t worry, be happy,” we are exhorted. Intensity, though, doesn’t usually land on only one side of the emotional spectrum. Happinesses might be more richly enjoyed, but sorrows will be more deeply felt as well.

The challenge, then, becomes to harness the intensity and steer it towards something meaningful. We are generally encouraged to suppress the intensity, deny it, drown it out and numb it, but it’s when we learn to work with it and channel it that we can create our best creative work and fully inhabit who we are. Intensity, then, is neither good nor bad. It can be a difficult challenge, a useful tool, and a motivation to examine life and ourselves more deeply.

The next time somebody tells me I’m intense, I’m going to thank them for the compliment.

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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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