Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

The blog post that I have found to be the most influential on my life is James Altucher’s How to Deal with Crappy People (and its follow-up How to Deal with Crappy People Part 2).

I don’t remember when I read it, probably a couple of years ago, and it was a revelation to me. Just the bare fact that there are crappy people who exist and we’re allowed to acknowledge this as truth was amazing to me. And that we are actually allowed to do something about it besides silently suffering? Wow. Heady stuff.

Then I read this article last week on The Problem of Being Too Nice (an issue I’ve written a little about myself). And I realized why receiving permission from that James Altucher article to call a spade a spade was so important.

Here’s the problem. If you come from a certain background, a background that generally includes at least a few influential and crappy people (usually but not always involving a dysfunctional family), then you become more likely to attract other crappy people. You turn into a Crappy People Magnet. And you’re so used to being around crappy people, and dealing with them, and having crappy things happen, that it all becomes normalized. You assume everyone is like that, and it’s all on you to make everything work out anyway. You can’t tell who is crappy and who isn’t. They just all blur together into an incoherent pile of people.

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With so many crappy people involved in your life, though, things never stabilize. There always seems to be stress and drama. You’re so rarely getting what you need that you get more and more tired. It takes all your energy to keep your head above water. And the worst part is you might eventually become a crappy person yourself. After all, it’s not like you’re learning healthy behaviors.

As a young girl, it was strongly instilled in me that everyone else was good and I should tolerate most behaviors. Even now I find writing about crappy people to be really uncomfortable. The people pleaser in me wants to make a million excuses for them. But the fact is, there’s a real difference between being an imperfect human who makes mistakes sometimes and being a crappy person. Maybe the crappy person is only crappy to some people. Maybe the crappy person won’t always be crappy. Maybe the crappy person has extenuating circumstances. It’s good to be compassionate. But…

It’s even better to take care of ourselves first.

I know there are plenty of happy people out there who mostly know other good and happy people. I am so glad they exist because they are excellent role models for those of us who have more of a struggle. But this post is not for them.

This post is for those of you who do have crappy people in your lives. This post is for those of you who need permission to call a spade a spade. This post is for those of you who might need to make some difficult decisions in order to take care of yourselves.

There are people out there who are kind and care about what you need. And life without so many crappy people? It isn’t perfect. There are some things about it that are sad.

But it’s also like being able to take a full breath of air for the first time.

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My friend posted a link to “Writing — for health and happiness?” a few days ago with a funny comment about how people use Facebook as therapy. The article talks about the therapeutic benefits of writing down thoughts and feelings and explores whether doing so online gives the same benefits as private writing. It also hints at a few obvious drawbacks to talking about traumatic experiences publicly, although it doesn’t explore that issue in depth.

But what I found most interesting about it had nothing to do with the internet: “…People who had had an early traumatic sexual experience were more likely to suffer health problems later in life… Prof Pennebaker said he realised it was because that experience was a secret.”

Secrets cause stress. Secrets cause health problems. Secrets can quite literally kill you (and I’m not talking about like in those “solve a murder every week” detective shows, either).

A big secret feels like it’s gnawing into you from the inside out. It’s always there, waiting for your fragile moments to twist you into knots. It works on you, changing who you are and how you see the world. It grows bigger and bigger the longer you wait, ever more impossible to talk about. It saps your happiness and mental well-being. And it causes physical consequences.

That’s why I talk again and again about the importance of having connections with other people. Writing about a secret will take away some of its power, and so will talking with a trustworthy someone. It doesn’t matter so much who it is, as long as that person knows how to be supportive: your family, your friends, your SO, your therapist.

Secrets left untold become all-consuming, but once they are out in the open, they return to their original sizes. And sometimes the act of keeping them can trap us, keeping us from facing the reality of a situation. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still hard and painful and traumatic. But some of their significance comes from the act of keeping them secret, and that part of the emotional load can be dropped.

I think this is part of why I always feel so confused when people say happiness isn’t something that can be improved upon. Secrets actively cause emotional unhappiness, and we can make the choice to tell them and work through them. Secrets lead to poor health, which also causes unhappiness (chronic pain, anyone?), and we can change our health risks by keeping a journal or finding even one person to talk to, online or off.

Sadly, I can’t have a discussion about secrets without adding this caveat: personal safety comes first. And telling secrets can sometimes jeopardize that. In such cases, you might need to seek professional help in order to keep yourself safe.

Telling secrets is hard. Writing down the truth is hard. Finding someone you can really trust is hard. Deciding to change is hard. And it might take a long time. But none of that changes the fact that keeping secrets is unhealthy.

Whereas finding a way to tell a secret might just save your life.

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I talk about creating change a lot, and I want to be clear about what I’m talking about. Making a change in our lives is not necessarily about happiness. I mean, it can be, but that is not the only reason to change. And even if the end goal is happiness, the process of change itself is not conducive to increased happiness; it’s too difficult and stressful for that.

So why change, then? We may wish to change to create more meaning for ourselves and our lives. We may wish to tell a different story with our lives than the one we find ourselves in. We may be thirsty for challenge or new experiences. We may be on a quest to become healthier or more empowered or more mindful. Or we may sense that we are being pushed down below our natural happiness setting and wish to change the circumstances causing this.

A lot of people are looking for something. We may be looking for happiness, or we may be looking for comfort or satisfaction or excitement. We may be looking for answers to questions that echo down the years of our lives. We may be looking for something larger than ourselves.

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At the World Domination Summit, Donald Miller, a memoirist, spoke about the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who wrote the bestselling book Man’s Search for Meaning. Dr. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor, and he worked professionally with Holocaust survivors. For him, life was all about creating meaning, even in the face of horrific circumstances.

According to Mr. Miller, Dr. Frankl believed three things mattered in creating a meaningful life:

1. Having a meaningful project that helps the world in some way (note this doesn’t have to be a paying project)

2. Having personal connections with other people, whether that be family, a significant other, friends, and/or a community

3. Having a redemptive perspective on suffering; aka finding the meaning in suffering, feeling one is achieving something through one’s suffering, choosing how to respond to suffering, etc.

This is some of the best advice on how to live life that I have ever heard. It’s so practical. It doesn’t wince away from the tough realities that sometimes face us. And it crystallizes my thoughts about my own life. It’s not happiness I’m seeking, not really. It’s meaning. It’s the ability to have a life that matters to me, and one in which I’ll be okay even in the darkest of times.

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” – Viktor Frankl

Maybe the happiness research is correct, and there isn’t very much we can do to affect our own personal happiness levels (although gratitude and mindfulness practice seem to help). But if we are most concerned with meaning, then that hardly matters. We don’t have to be the happiest people on the planet in order to create meaningful lives. We simply have to decide that meaning is important to us and make choices that reflect that belief.

A project that matters. Being brave, finding the silver lining, and experiencing gratitude even through bad experiences. Love.

Yes. These are the building blocks of the life I want to live.

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A friend recently shared an article entitled “The Curse of the Connector.” Its tagline? “It’s easy to never be alone and yet very lonely.” The writer describes a glamorous Gatsby whirlwind of life in his social circle, in which everyone is supposed to always be doing something exciting and “crushing it.” But, he says, “The world desperately needs more “connections” to become true friendships.”

I live in the Silicon Valley, and I’ve experienced the culture the author is talking about. The “crush it” culture exhausts me because, on the surface at least, it seems to focus heavily on appearances. In addition, there is the “always busy” mentality. Meanwhile, we like to speculate on whether social media is making us more lonely. All of these ideas are interconnected, as they relate to the type and depth of connections with which we surround ourselves.

I’m going to rush right by the fact that the first mention about true friends in this article is that they make excellent personal brand consultants. (Really?!? That’s the first thing that comes to mind about friendship? Really?!?) At its heart, this article is about the realization that our lives are better when we have close friends as well as a large number of acquaintances, that friendship isn’t a numbers game or a mere ego boost.

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Yes, friendship takes time. Yes, it takes work. Yes, sometimes it can be quite difficult to find kindred spirits with whom to be close. Since last year was the Year of Friendship for me, I spent a lot of time thinking about these things, and now I have a few theories about friendship:

The Once a Week Theory: The more often you see somebody, the more likely you are to become close friends. Once a week or more is optimal. Once every other week is adequate. Less than once a month and the friendship probably doesn’t have the time to form right now. (For long distance friendship making, texts, emails, and Skypes can be substituted for in-person time. For established friendships, you can sometimes get by on less, but eventually you won’t be as close.)

It is no coincidence that many of my close friends get together every week for game night. I think of other close friends I’ve made, and there is generally either a concerted effort to see each other regularly, or a steady stream of texts or emails.

The One-on-One Theory: Sure, I can have good times with people at parties or group outings. But for me, a friendship becomes closer when I spend time one-on-one or in small groups (probably no more than four or five). The more one-on-one time I spend with somebody, the more likely we are to become close friends.

The Diminishing Returns Theory: Not everyone is going to be a perfect friend match. Maybe she’s too busy, maybe he’s going through a rough patch, maybe the two of us just didn’t click (or it was a one-sided click). Maybe there’s something in the friendship dynamic that isn’t working too well. It doesn’t mean you aren’t both great people, it just means you’re not going to become close. Happily, there are many more fabulous people out there who might become good friends. It works better to invest time with the people who will invest their time in you and can be part of a balanced and positive friendship. (Yes, friendship can be surprisingly like dating.)

Taylor’s Party Corollary: The closer the friend, the earlier you plan to arrive at their parties. It’s nice when a close friend arrives close to the start time. They can help set up, chat comfortably, hang out before the party picks up speed, or occupy early-arriving acquaintances and help the conversation flow. (Note: I am not good at this. I almost always arrive late to parties.)

How about you? Have any theories of your own about friendship?

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It’s that time again! Birthday time! My birthday is tomorrow, but I am celebrating all week. Why? Because I can, that’s why. And because I’m happy to be alive. And because I keep thinking of things to do that sound like excellent birthday-related activities. Like playing an epic game of Battlestar Galactica this past weekend, for example. And visiting Ghirardelli Square. And going to a bookstore (any reason is a good reason to do THAT!)

Last year I wrote about Five Happy Things for my birthday, and I think that’s an excellent tradition, so I’m going to do it again.

1. The Academy of Forgetting. Flawed it might be, but it’s also the best and most ambitious thing I’ve ever written. I’m in the middle of an exciting (and at times turbulent) romance with it, and it reminds me of all the best parts of being a writer.

2. The Writing Community. When I went up to Seattle at the last minute this spring, I sent out an e-mail telling local writers I was going to be in town. I expected to spend most of the trip by myself; maybe a couple of people would be able to get together, I told myself. Instead, I got to see so many writer friends, it blew me away. People who went out of their way to spend time with me, help me (especially with the buses), and show me cool aspects of Seattle (the Underground Tour, the Theo Chocolate Factory, the nightlife, the food). And that’s when it hit me down deep: this is what community is. And I am a part of it. How amazing is that?

3. Food. I love food. I was raised on a bland and narrow diet, and ever since I went away to college, I’ve been on a journey of discovery. I am so happy there are spices! And onions! And different types of cuisines from different countries! Heirloom tomatoes exist, how exciting is that! And beets, and baked sweet potatoes, and cherries, and gnocchi, and sushi, and Ethiopian food, and curries, and white hot chocolate, and… You get the picture.

4. My bathtub. My bathtub is a proper big bathtub, like all bathtubs are meant to be. It also has jets, but I never use them. What I like about my bathtub is that I don’t have to bend my knees to fit in it, and I can be submerged in hot water from my neck to my toes. Sheer bliss.

5. Being able to set my own sleep schedule. I do not like going to bed. However, I do like to sleep and feel well rested. Do you see the inherent quandary? Happily I am able to set my own hours, and therefore I am able to stay up late and still get eight hours of sleep. This is a wonderful thing, and I appreciate it on a pretty much daily basis.

I will leave you all with the adorableness that is Nala. This is maybe my favorite photo of her.

You can see some Jack Russell attitude here. Classic Nala.

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I haven’t been writing recently about being a people pleaser, or becoming more assertive, and other topics like that. You know why? Because it’s hard. It’s hard to change how you react to things. It’s hard to tear your life apart, examine it from every angle, and then slowly put it back together again. I often put pieces on backwards, or they just don’t fit right even though I’m hammering at them for dear life.

But then I read this essay by Penelope Trunk, who is, as you know, one of my favorite bloggers, and I realized I should write about it more. Here is what she had to say:

“It’s hard to know who to take advice from. But my instinct tells me that the best advice comes from the people with the most difficulties. Not in the past. But right now. Because that’s where you want to be: doing something difficult right this moment.”

So yeah. I’m doing something difficult right now, so maybe it is worth talking about, even though it’s dangerous and messy and I don’t have all the answers. I don’t want to give you advice as much as I want to illustrate that people can in fact do this–that people can change themselves, that people can look at themselves and say, I could be a lot happier than I am, and then take positive steps to make it so. Because I meet so many people who seem to think that almost everything is impossible, and that just isn’t true.

Here are two things that happen when you have actually made strides at changing your people pleaser tendencies: people will freak the hell out, and you will realize you have spent most of your life listening to very bad advice.

People will freak out because, even if they are actually decent people (and sadly, some of them aren’t), they are used to you being a doormat. You suddenly deciding you’re not a doormat is vastly inconvenient and confusing. It disrupts the normal patterns of all your relationships. Even the people who are generally supportive of this change will sometimes freak out, because oh my god change and where do they fit into this new picture?

As for the bad advice, it’s amazing how willing many people are to support you making decisions that are outright harmful for you. Society as a whole is quite okay with this notion too. There are two forces at work here. There are the people who are taking advantage of you in some way. It is obviously in their best interest to give you bad advice about continuing to be a doormat with everyone; they have a vested interest in you continuing to drink the Kool-aid. And there are the people who are doormats just like you, who don’t have good advice to give since they are in the same unfortunate position, and who wouldn’t give the good advice anyway because then it might force them to examine their own position, which they don’t want to do because of the chaos that would then ensue in their own lives.

Of course, once you have that lightbulb moment in which you realize how generally absurd most of this advice is (and wouldn’t that make a fun post one of these days?), there is no turning back. You have taken the red pill, and you begin to wonder: why was pleasing these people ever so important in the first place? So instead you sit back and watch them freak out, and you remember that you are worth it. And you keep resisting the gravitation pull of going back to the old comfortable ways that were holding you down.


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I read a lot of blogs. Some I read regularly, some I occasionally swoop down upon and catch up in a big glut of reading, some I read only once. Many of these blogs are writer blogs, and I’ve seen more than one post about Writer Envy.

What is Writer Envy? It’s that niggling feeling in the pit of your stomach when you hear that Jay Lake averages 2,500 words per hour. It’s the pang you feel when you hear someone’s broken into a market that you’ve been dying to get into. It’s the discouragement of feeling that maybe you’re being left behind as one by one, all your writer friends get agents and publishing deals and more and better sales than you think you are getting.

Does anyone know why we call it green with envy?

Well, guess what? I’m giving you permission to be jealous, whether with Writer Envy or because of your friend’s superior cooking or for any other reason. To envy is to be human. And, it turns out, it can even be good for you. Psychology Today recently ran an article citing a recent study about envy. The results are fascinating: it turns out that feeling the emotion of envy both causes us to focus more on the object of our jealousy and boosts our memories. Basically, jealousy allows us to more efficiently learn and remember how to achieve what we’re jealous of.

Therefore, instead of beating ourselves up when we feel it, we can begin to think of envy as a tool. We can use it to make ourselves better writers (or cooks, or car washers, or underwater basket weavers). We can harness that energy to motivate ourselves instead of to discourage.

Example: Let’s say my friend Beth makes a sale to Greatest Ever Magazine, which is the market that I most want to break into. I can wallow and feel terrible about myself because Greatest Ever Magazine still sends me form rejections. Or, I can use my desires and feeling of jealousy to motivate me. I can read Beth’s story and analyze why I think Greatest Ever Magazine liked it. Perhaps the subject matter is perfect for the market, or perhaps the market prefers upbeat endings like Beth’s. I can figure out the strengths of the story, and then compare it to my own recent work. Perhaps Beth’s story shows excellent use of setting, whereas I have too many under-described, white rooms in my recent work. Or perhaps Beth’s story has a twisty and exciting plot that drives it, while my recent stories have all been character-driven. I can learn from my friend Beth’s success where the weaknesses in my own work are and how I might get started on improving them. Beth might even be willing to share her own insights on Greatest Ever Magazine. Meanwhile, because I am jealous, I’ll be more likely to focus and remember what I’ve figured out.

(This can also work, by the way, with embarrassment. I was so embarrassed that I forgot the names of the two rivers of Mesopotamia in seventh grade social studies that I will probably remember that they are the Tigris and Euphrates for the rest of time.)

Of course, experiencing jealousy doesn’t mean we can’t also feel happy and pleased for a person who has succeeded. And it certainly doesn’t excuse any bad behavior on our parts. However, knowing that our brains are designed to feel jealousy on purpose to give us a better chance of survival can change our outlook. Instead of seeing jealousy as an embarrassing weakness, we can see it as another way to move forward towards our goals.

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