happiness project: one year later

A little over a year ago, I started a happiness project.

I started my project because I was realizing that, while there were a lot of good things happening in my life, I wasn’t feeling good about the ways I was spending my time. I was feeling a lack of emotional engagement in the world around me–a combination of mental/emotional burnout from the work I was doing and the world around me, and my own mental health causing me to disengage. Even though I was surrounded by blessings, in my family life, my friends, my clients, I just found myself feeling unhappy more often than not.

My decision to try a happiness project came from reading Gretchen Rubin’s book by the same name. I wasn’t as focused in my approach as she was–I didn’t try to set a new habit or goal each month, or anything like that. But I did–kind of without really thinking about it–follow the basic outline: identifying what brings joy, satisfaction and engagement (and, on the flip side, what brings guilt, anger, and remorse); identifying concrete actions that will boost happiness; and then, the tricky part, following through on those actions.

This year ended up being a lot more of a roller coaster than I expected when I started my project last summer. I got a new job and changed career paths. I moved to a new state. I took up yoga. I struggled a lot with my physical and mental health. There was a lot of change–and we all know how much I love change.

But there were parts of my happiness projects that stuck. I found things that brought me joy: creating things, sharing things with others, spending quality time with people I love, experiencing media in a comfortable way. And I found ways to bring those into my life as habits: I set myself writing goals. I spent more time with friends. I kept a journal. I got a pen pal. I got a library card, and read more books.

I’m going to do a few more posts to be more in-depth about the different habits that have actually stuck with me about my happiness project, but I know the biggest question I have to ask myself after a year of this is: am I happier?

And the answer is:

I don’t know.

It’s hard to measure happiness when you have depression, and harder still when that depression comes in waves that sometimes overshadow everything else. The last few weeks have been especially depressive, and even though I’ve been engaging in a lot of my “happiness practices”–journalling, writing, yoga–I don’t feel as much connection to them, and it’s been difficult to feel my usual warmth. But I still feel a sense of achievement, and that’s a step on the ladder toward happiness–and a sense of achievement is a hard thing to come by in a depressive episode.

But I think that there’s more to it than just being happier. Because I know now what kinds of things move me toward feelings of happiness. Creating something. Writing out what I’m feeling. Quality time with my husband or a friend. Snuggling on the couch with my dog. Doing something that moves my body, whether it’s yoga or going for a walk. Taking the car for a drive so that I can sing at the top of my lungs and not bother anyone else.

The hard thing for me now is to make myself take those steps toward those actions.

Right now we’re in the Jewish month of Elul, and I’m in the middle of participating in a program through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (because I have the best job ever) focusing on reflective journalling in preparation for the New Year. It’s combining reflection, poetry, introspection, and future-focused thinking–all sorts of things I actually really need right now, as I work through a combination of depression, stress, and trying to sort out how to merge my own happiness goals with my goal for the coming year, which is to focus on strengthening the primary relationships in my life. And that’s a happiness project in and of itself.

So: a year of happiness projects. Am I happier?

Well…

I’m working on it.

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on reconnecting (happiness project, part 7)

So let’s just start off by acknowledging that yep, I fell off the face of the earth. My bad, team!

Let’s reconnect.

I’ve been doing a lot of reconnecting lately, in a lot of spheres: physical, emotional, spiritual. It’s been a long, tiring few months: we’ve moved house yet again (though, hopefully, hopefully, for the last time for a long time), I’ve had a few sporadic illnesses that have taken awhile to bounce back from, work has been a whirlwind of activity and new projects…the list goes on. And my moods have been…well.

For someone who really, really doesn’t like change, the number of transitions, relocations, routine adjustments, and sudden changes of plans over the past few months have been challenging, to say the least. I wish i could say I’ve handled all of those challenges gracefully, but that would be a flat-out lie, so I won’t pretend about it. Spouse has been an absolute champ in dealing with me, but I’m absolutely sure that it has been neither fun nor entertaining to spend your down time with a cranky, over-exhausted, stressed-out wife.

So, that whole happiness project thing.

I’ll be honest: it’s fallen by the wayside in a number of ways. I’ve fallen back into a lot of old habits in the last few months–spending most of my downtime on a screen, not seeing friends as much as I’d like to, getting into a very skewed coffee : water intake ratio that generally left me crankier and more tired than I would have been if I was really hydrating well (and/or not drinking absurd amounts of caffeine).

But I’m trying to be better.

Back in May, I bought a three-month yoga membership to a studio near my apartment. I did a lot of yoga in college and some in grad school, and it was really great not just for my fibromyalgia (though it helped a lot with that) but for my mental health and my sense of connection to my mind and my body. The person in your yoga class that starts borderline crying during pigeon/eke pada rajakapotasana? Yeah, that’s me.

IT’S FINE IT’S PART OF THE PRACTICE

Surprisingly–or not–I actually started feeling emotionally better once I started connecting and crying through some of my poses, especially the restorative ones. I started using my savassana to actually just connect to my breathing, instead of letting myself run through my to-do list or stress list or any other list of craziness that tends to rocket around my head. Since starting to work at an amazing organization that teaches, among other things, mindfulness meditation as a spiritual connection practice, I’ve toyed around with the idea of starting a real meditation practice daily, but for now, I generally localize it to my savassana. But it’s been really wonderful, and since being more mindful in my day to day life was one of my new year’s resolutions, I also get to feel like I’m making progress toward a goal.

One of the most important parts of yoga has been setting an intention at the beginning of every class. When I first started getting back into yoga, my intentions were basically “get through the class without dying and/or falling over in a super embarrassing way”, but as I’ve kept going, I’ve ended up with two intentions that tend to make it into most of my classes: self-compassion and reconnection.

Living with a chronic pain disorder gives me a weird relationship with my body. Being in constant pain means that I’m always aware of my body–it’s pretty much impossible not to be–but I don’t always feel close to or connected to it. Sometimes, I feel like my body is something heavy that I have to drag around. While I’ve tried to take time to thank my body for what it can do instead of focusing on the ways it limits me, it’s an ongoing challenge to do that on a regular basis. Setting an intention at the beginning of class to reconnect with my body–to feel what it’s feeling without passing judgment; simply recognizing where my body is telling me it’s reached a limit and acknowledging it for going as far as it could–has been eye-opening for me because it’s given me space to sit, willingly and purposefully, with my body several times a week for at least an hour: not judging, not frustrating, not grumbling, just connecting and acknowledging.

And it’s…it’s been good. Not quite life-changing, and not quite automatic yet, but good. Meaningful.

In the spirit of reconnecting, I’ve been trying to spread that intention through the rest of the aspects of my life. For a while at the beginning of the year, and again when we moved to New York, I was doing a pretty good job of seeing friends regularly, keeping in touch with family, reaching out to folks I didn’t see often, etc. In the past few months, a lot of that has fallen by the wayside. It’s hard to know for sure if that’s because my commute is longer and I’m just too tired, if I’m mentally exhausted by all the transitions, if it’s just too darn hot for that kind of nonsense, or some combination of the three, but I’ve definitely lost track of a lot of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year.

So this month, I’ve been trying to move forward–or go back, I suppose–to the habits that I’ve been trying to build over the course of this year and this happiness project. I’ve been connecting with friends–grabbing a coffee, keeping a monthly breakfast date, doing virtual planner decorating dates, keeping my family group text amused with occasional memes and YouTube videos, even going to a few shows. And even though my inner introvert tends to hate it (kind of a lot, merp), it’s clear–just from my mood and the way I’ve felt at the end of the day–that it’s been worth it.

 

Still–I can’t do it every day. I’m still finding myself running into mental roadblocks with spontaneous plans that throw off my original routine (and things like weather and spontaneous friend/family events have made that a pretty constant reality over the last few weeks, grumble grumble), but the warm fuzzies of spending time with my friends and feeling human connections rather than isolating myself in my apartment has been worth it.

There are some things that I’m still working to reconnect with. My writing time has fallen by quite a bit (hence my very neglected blog), I’ve been journalling less, reading less. But slowly, that’s changing too. I hit the library this week and picked up two new books. I finished the first draft of the novel that I’ve been working on since November (TAKE THAT, WRITER’S BLOCK), and I’m starting some new stories. Slowly, slowly, I’m reconnecting to the the things that bring me joy.

 

When you set an intention for a yoga practice, it’s not meant to be an intention set for the rest of your day or week or life. It’s just that: an intention for your practice, whether that practice is a morning sun salutation, an hour-long class, or a full-day workshop. But you’re setting it for yourself, for the moment you’re in, the body you’re in, the space where you are. So that’s what I’m doing, one moment at a time: setting an intention to reconnect.

One moment at a time.

when happiness is work

One of the odd roles I’ve taken on in a lot of my friendships and other relationships has been “the happy one.”

The first time someone told me that I was the “happy one” in our particular group of friends, I was…well, let’s say “confused,” rather than “offended,” because it sounds nicer. It wasn’t that being happy is a bad thing–it’s obviously not, and the work I’ve been doing on my happiness project is part of my effort to move toward the whole happiness thing–but that I’ve just never thought of myself as an especially happy person. I didn’t (and often still don’t) think of myself as unhappy, either, just not super happy.

At the time, I asked my friend what she meant by that, and she shrugged. “You look on the bright side of things,” she said. “You find good things in people. You smile a lot. You just come off as a happy person.”

Okay. All fairly true things–I will totally admit to being the sort of warm and fuzzy person who hopes that the person tailgating me on the highway is speeding to deliver a baby and not just being a dick, I have one of those weird smiles that seems to prompt people to talk to me and tell me about their feelings (basically the opposite of resting bitch face. Resting therapist face?), I don’t like cutting people off when what they’re saying seems important. But does that really make me seem like a happy person?

Apparently yes, because over the course of the next several years, more people in various walks of life–coworkers, friends, clients, relatives–commented on my positivity, my bright mood, my smile, my idealism, all that jazz. Meanwhile, there I am, looking around in confusion, because my head feels like a jumble of depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and brain fog, and all the happiness that everyone else seems to see coming off me just doesn’t feel visible to me. In fact, I usually feel like I have to force it to show up.

Spending most of my working years in various “helping” fields, from childcare to higher education to mental health, means that I’ve rather inadvertently put myself in professions that require me to be more emotionally “on” than, say…I don’t know, working in accounting or something (sorry, accountants. I just assume that spreadsheets don’t bring that many feelings to the game). For most of my day, whatever my actual mood might be, I needed to be plugged in to the feelings of the people around me to offer support, advice, problem-solving, insight, etc. I’ve been lucky to work at places where I can be a little more “off” when not interacting with whoever the client base happened to be (students, campers, mental health clients, etc), but it still involves a significant amount of emotional labor on a day to day level that can get incredibly draining, especially when the positive emotions you’re expected to display might not be entirely reflective of your genuine feelings. But when people start taking your manufactured happiness as real, they start to expect it, and then you start to assume that you have to project that happiness at all times.

Being and looking happy, then, turns into a job. This is a problem that other women have talked about all over the internet and I won’t repeat their very good points, mostly because this is more about my personal experience than about my feminism, but then, it can be hard to separate the two. Would I be feeling so nervous about not feeling the happiness I project if gender norms didn’t expect me to be smiling and cheerful to every person I meet? I don’t know.

The big question I’ve always had for myself, though, is whether there’s a difference in my mood when I’m not making the effort to act positive compared to when I am. There is something to be said for the “fake it till you make it” effect, and I found that out the hard way over the past few weeks.

I haven’t been shy on this blog about my struggles with chronic pain and depression. Living with chronic physical and mental health issues isn’t a walk in the park, but they’re my everyday existence, and I find myself generally able, for the most part, take a bunch of meds, put some product in my hair, smack a smile onto my face (HELLO HAPPINESS IT’S SHELLY HOW ARE YOU TODAY) and get out the door. But that’s the thing about chronic issues–they’re chronic. You get used to them. You know what to expect, you know what they feel like, you get a feel for your bodies aches and pains and occasional-oh-hey-it-feels-like-there’s-acid-on-my-skin moments. But when you get something else on top of your usual chronic illness (for example, the ass-kicker of a flu I came down with two and a half weeks ago and am still getting over), all bets are off. The things that usually work stop working. All the energy you’ve saved up to get you over the hump of compensating for crummy joints or nerves or serotonin receptors is suddenly gone, and the spoons you’re used to having to get through your day promptly disappear.

Over the last two weeks, all of the positive energy I usually try to summon up to project my happy attitude–to be “the happy one”–went out the window. No more Shelly happy face. I was stuffy and cranky and sleepless and exhausted; I was coughing constantly and couldn’t breathe through my nose (my nose! the only part of my body that I can usually rely on to work! wtf??), I was, in conclusion, a mess. I meandered from my bed to my couch to my bathtub, I slept constantly, I mustered a few smiles for my nephews and family but overall didn’t really even try to be sociable during our Passover seders with my in-laws. I was cranky toward my husband and often asked to just be left alone, and didn’t take much of time to ask how he was doing (except for the occasional thank-you for the many, many sweet things that he did for me while I was being a brat toward him).

It sucked.

But now that I’m finally on the mend and had a bit of my spark back yesterday and today, I’ve started to realize that what sucked about it wasn’t that I felt like crap, but that I was wallowing in feeling like crap. Don’t get me wrong, the flu is miserable, and I think everyone’s entitled to a few “woe is me” days through the worst of it. And in all honesty, throwing a crappy flu on top of an already messed-up body should probably earn me a few extra days. I didn’t bother with any of the usual self-care I took on even on my worst fibro flare days, and losing that probably made things worse. I took baths, but spent them just staring at the wall instead of lighting something that smelled nice and putting on an audiobook or some music. I put the same pajamas on again and again. I didn’t brush my teeth. I didn’t eat and barely drank any water. It felt a lot more like a bad depressive episode than a physical illness, and I think that my total lack of attempt to do anything to take care of myself because I was just in such a bad mood could have very nearly turned it into one.

It’s still strange to think of myself as the “happy one,” as I continue to struggle with the same health issues (both physical and mental), but the past few weeks gave me some insight into just how much I miss that positivity, mostly manufactured or not, when it’s not there. I don’t know if the positive attitude and forward-focused mindset I project are becoming parts of my personality that I like more than I resent, but my time spent feeling miserable and sorry for myself certainly didn’t help me with my healing process.

When we’re kids, no one really tells us that happiness can feel like work, and that sometimes you have to make your own, and that sometimes it sort of feels forced. But I think that I’ll take a little bit of manufactured happiness over my self-sustained misery bubble any day.

It might be faking it until I make it, but I think the faking it helps.

embracing vulnerability (happiness project, part 5)

Fairly early on in my graduate social work program, our program director sat down with my cohort and talked to us, pretty frankly, about the burnout problem. Some fairly ridiculous percentage (like, 21-67% across multiple studies) of mental health workers report high rates of emotional exhaustion and cynicism with the profession, leading to increases in anxiety, depression, and stress-related health issues. She told us, gently but frankly, that in her experience, a significant number of MSW grads end up leaving the social work field, or at least direct service work, within five years.

I remember, distinctly, looking around that room of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed MSW students, and thinking to myself, “Okay, some of us are gonna burn out, but I’m not going to be one of them.”

What’s that saying about famous last words?

When I chose social work as a field, I knew I was getting into a profession with long hours, low pay, and high rates of compassion fatigue. I’ve written before about the struggle I’ve had balancing my own need for self-care with the desire to spend all of my emotional energy on my clients, and in all honesty, it’s something I’ve struggled with throughout my career–and probably always will, regardless of whether I’m in direct service work or not. It’s just another part of who I am, much to my husband’s chagrin.

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But as convinced as I was at the beginning of my graduate program that I was not going to be one of the social workers who burned out in their first five years, I’m beginning to admit that maybe I am. It’s impossible for me to ignore that in the year that I’ve been in clinical work, my health issues–both physical and mental–have gotten worse, my stress levels have skyrocketed (despite pretty significant work over the last six months on self-care routines), and overall, may happiness has just decreased. I love my clients, and in many ways I feel deeply fulfilled by the work that I do. But I also feel tired, frustrated, angry, sad, fiercely furious with the social systems I’m forced to work within, and overall, exhausted.

So, as I recently announced to my work colleagues–and therefore now all of you readers–it’s time for a change.

Besides being one of my absolute least favorite things on the planet just on principle, being on the job hunt means exposing myself to one of my biggest anxiety triggers: putting my own future in someone else’s hands.

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I spend a lot of time hanging out with my therapist and talking about why this is such a big deal for me, and in all honesty, we’ve been digging around in it for awhile. We’ve spent a while going back and forth talking about how much I love to plan and control things (case in point), and how job searching is basically impossible to plan or control, because all you’re doing is sending cover letter after cover letter out into the void, hoping like hell someone will send you an email.

(Also, can I just say that whoever started the “due to the amount of responses, we will only contact you if you are invited to interview” thing is an absolutely terrible person? Because seriously. Send a batch “rejection” form email if you have to, but leaving everyone else in limbo is awful, and I hate that it’s become the norm.

Anyway. I digress.)

Wrapping my mind around just why it is that this job search thing makes me so uncomfortable–beyond just the aforementioned frustrating limbo–has been an ongoing challenge over the past month or two that I’ve been engaged in this process. I’ve probably spent two or three days’ (or at least nights’) worth of time trying to connect to the feelings of fear and anxiety that come up every time I think about writing another cover letter or sending another email, and each time, I find myself back at the beginning of my thoughts, deciding that this must just be some kind of personal failure.

But help comes through in weird places.

In my post about New Years’ Resolutions, I talked about wanting to make an effort to watch one TED Talk each month. I spent most of January vaguely scrolling through the TED site from time to time and occasionally bookmarking things to maybe watch later, and ended up scraping in right under the wire last night, thanks to a list of 5 Must-See TED Talks for Social Workers that a friend of mine shared on Facebook. The one I picked was “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown, and you guys, I don’t say this much, but it was actually life-changing.

 

In her talk, Brown talks about the biggest barrier to human connection is shame–something that each and every one of us feels at one time or another. Shame is that deep, emotionally exhausting feeling of not [blank] enough–not good enough, not smart enough, not worthy enough. And that to overcome this shame, what we need to do is allow ourselves to be vulnerable; “to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen,” in order to embrace connection. And that, of course, is absolutely fucking terrifying.

So Brown set out to do some research, to deconstruct shame and kick vulnerability’s ass, and to figure out just what it is that separated the people who were able to overcome shame and believe themselves worthy of love and happiness from those who couldn’t. What she found, at the heart of the matter, was this:

“There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”

Brown wanted to dig deeper, so she sat down with her interviews and did a more in-depth analysis to see what those people with a belief in their worthiness had in common. And she found four factors. The first three, I thought, seemed to make pretty perfect sense. They had a sense of courage, or as Brown phrased it, “the courage to be imperfect.” They were compassionate to themselves. They had connection.

But the last factor, to both Brown’s and my chagrin, was this: they embraced, wholeheartedly, vulnerability. They knew that in life, vulnerability was a necessary, if uncomfortable, emotion–necessary for connection, necessary for learning, necessary for growth.

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Brown’s reaction, and mine, was essentially this:

What the hell, research?!

(It was at about this point in the video that I realized that Brown and I would probably get along really well.)

I’m not going to recap the entire video, because you should really watch it–please, please watch it–but I will tell you what I really took away from it. Vulnerability, as awkward and stomach-churning and anxiety-producing as it is, is something that we must connect with if we are to connect with all of the emotions that come with growth and progress. When we close ourselves off from vulnerability in order to avoid the painful feelings that sometimes come with it–fear, anxiety, disappointment–we also lose out on happiness, on personal growth, on excitement.

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When I meet with my clients and they bring an uncomfortable feeling into the room–depression, grief, worry, pain–I ask them to spend a moment sitting with that feeling. I ask them where they feel it in their bodies, where they carry it–in their shoulders, in their chest, in their belly? I ask them to connect with the feeling and allow themselves to feel it, rather than instinctively away, because listening to those feelings is part of the process of understanding them. But doing this for myself has always been something I’ve recoiled against, preferring instead to press past vulnerability and project an air of surety or calm.

It may seem strange to bring vulnerability into my happiness project, but the more I think about it, the more I begin to understand that embracing vulnerability is a critical part of practicing happiness. Where my clients need to connect to the feelings they bring into my office, as I prepare to leave that office I need to connect to the vulnerability of allowing others to control where I go next. I need to lean into my discomfort, not push it away, and only through that discomfort and vulnerability will I be able to reach out to opportunities.

As uncomfortable as it is, I don’t know where the next step in my career will be. But I know that vulnerability is part of the journey.

And, strangely, I’m excited to start.

gratitude for simple things (happiness project, part 3)

When I started working on my happiness project over the summer, one thing that stood out to me as a major obstacle was my upcoming birthday in August.

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Turning twenty-five felt like a huge milestone, but for all the wrong reasons. It didn’t feel like a celebration of being a “real adult” (but hey, losing those young driver fees on rental cars was pretty swell) or a transition into the period of your life where people stop worrying that you’re going to get knocked up and start worrying that you’re not going to get knocked up.

Instead, for me, it felt like the end of the period where I felt like I could “hit it big” and get into that whole wunderkid movement of amazing teens and twenty-somethings who blow the world away with their genius.

Call me an entitled millennial if you want, but I grew up with parents who fostered in me a love of learning and an appreciation for my own talents. They taught me to know my value as a person, to not let other people tear me down, to believe in what I’m good at doing, and then to go out and do it.

tumblr_nkufl6f40l1u1sgm6o6_250[Thanks, parents!]

Unfortunately, as I learned in my late teens and my (oh gosh) early twenties, when you combine a childhood/adolescence of believing that you’re going to grow up to be extraordinary, a textbook Leo star sign personality, a lot of anxiety, and a generally ordinary career path, you end up with a big ol’ crash that happens around…oh, let’s say twenty-five.

The internet is full of all sorts of reasons why life isn’t actually over when you turn twenty five. Usually in handy lists of twenty-five reasons, for search optimization purposes and market trending. So clearly, turning twenty-five is enough of a milestone that everyone freaks the hell out about it. At least I’m in good company.

In all honesty, freaking out over not being a Pulitzer Prize-winning author by the age of twenty-five wasn’t a freakout I actually thought I’d have. “Don’t be ridiculous,” twenty-three-year-old Shelly said. “We dealt with this when we decided to go to grad school for something other than an MFA.”

“Seriously, it’s fine,” twenty-four-year-old Shelly added a year later, finishing up NaNoWriMo. “You write for fun now! Isn’t that so much more relaxing? Remember how stressed you were about your senior thesis? It’s great that you don’t have to do that anymore! You just write for yourself!”

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Well, younger selves, it turned out that I in fact was not done freaking out about this whole thing.

Back in October, I posted about World Mental Health Day, and how grateful I was to be getting into therapy. In addition to dealing with years of under-addressed depression and anxiety, one of the big drivers for my starting therapy was trying to come to terms with understanding that the–very, very blessed!–life I’m leading is very different from the life I thought I would have when I was much younger.

And that’s the thing, guys–the life I’m leading? It is, in so many ways, a very, genuinely wonderful life. I have a lovely home, a wonderful husband who blows me away daily with the things he does to care for me, a sweet dog who could chew less of my stuff but is overall pretty great, a job where I get to make a difference in people’s lives. I have friends that I trust with my life and that I know would be there for me in any situation, I have close and extended family who are loving and kind and supportive, I have a network of health professionals who support me through all of the various things that make my body try not to work. I have a sharp mind, I have a sense of love and wonder for the world around me, I have, for the most part, a positive outlook on life and genuine hope for the future.

That’s a pretty awesome life. So admitting that despite all of that wonderfulness I’m still pining for a half-cooked dream of jet-setting the world on an international book tour for my world-wide bestselling fantasy novel felt like crap. I felt like I was undervaluing my family, undervaluing the work I do, undervaluing the life I’m living. I felt guilty and ungrateful, like I was letting my family down.

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My therapist made a point to tell me that it’s okay to have a hard time letting go of a long-held dream, and that it’s more than okay to have difficulty reconciling childhood expectations with adult reality. We’ve spent a long time talking about my beliefs about myself and my need to be “extraordinary” and where it comes from, and how that drive could be redirected. I won’t bore you with my clinical process, but I will say I’m still working on it, and it’s an ongoing project.

One thing that’s made a big difference, though, is expressing gratitude for the life that I am living now. I started a journal over the summer, but after realizing just how preoccupied I had been with my “expectations vs. reality” dilemma, I started to record daily events that I was grateful for–things that made me smile, things that made me stop and thing, things that made me appreciate the people in my life.

Making time for gratitude has changed the way I think about my life. I spend more time at the end of each day reflecting on moments that have touched me, personally and professionally. I’m not talking about major moments of breakthroughs, either. I took time to recognize the client who tried out for a play despite fighting anxiety, the co-worker who walked with me to Dunkin’ Donuts to get coffee, the friend who sent me a silly Snapchat, the feeling of pride when a client acknowledged a difficult feeling or memory, Ziv bringing extra brownies home from work. I noticed that practicing nightly gratitude in my own written reflections led to me expressing more gratitude out loud–words of affirmation has always been a love language that speaks to me, but by expressing my gratitude for the ordinary wonderfulness in my daily life, I started to feel happier, and more genuinely grateful for the simple things in my life.

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I won’t say that I’ve stopped striving for the extraordinary. I’m still writing, still learning, still pushing myself to practice and keep myself sharp and on the lookout for new opportunities. But instead of trying to create a dichotomy between my adolescent expectations and my adult reality, I’ve been focusing on melding them together. The high-styled, perfectly made-up hermit writer of my teenage dream has been replaced by a novelist who divides her time between the written word and a full, thriving family, balancing writing with sticky fingers and slobbering dogs and date nights on the couch.

That’s a writer I’m looking forward to meeting, and a life I can’t wait to lead.

on doing happiness (shelly’s happiness project, part 1)

Over the last several months, I’ve had a lot of changes and transitions. Many of those were quite positive–Husband and I moved south to be much closer to our families, both of us started new jobs, we got a brand-new baby nephew. Lots of good things! At the same time, there was  a lot of stress. My health has been up and down over the last few months, as is the nature of chronic illness, and the constant hectic-ness of our schedule has meant that I found myself spending almost all of my free time crashing on the couch with a laptop and a blanket.

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As wonderful as laptop internet time is (and it really is wonderful), I started noticing that by the end of each weekend, I felt like I hadn’t really done anything positive with my time. And at the end of each month, when I would try to reflect back on how I’d used my days and weeks, I started to realize that doing nothing wasn’t making me feel relaxed or refreshed, but frustrated and defeated. There’s a big difference, I’ve found, between the delighted sigh of “I did nothing this weekend!” and the unhappy realization of “oh…I did nothing this weekend.” The former is a great feeling! And sometimes it’s the feeling we really need to have, especially those of us with chronic illnesses and limited spoons. But the more days of non-activity that passed by, the more I started to realize that I just wasn’t happy with what I was doing with my time. I wasn’t happy with a lot of things.

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I think I should stop for a moment and say that I wasn’t unhappy in the general sense of the world. Many things that were happening made me very happy. I have a wonderful marriage to a partner who is supportive, caring, and understanding of my needs and limits. I have a silly and adorable dog who is effortlessly able to make me smile. I do good work with my clients. I get to spend far more time with my family members than I could over the last few years. We were financially stable and secure. My life was very, very full of love and blessings. The unhappiness I was feeling was very much localized in my own activities and emotional engagement, and the changes I wanted to make were almost entirely focused on my own behaviors.

When I started to realize that I wasn’t feeling happy, I sat down to make myself a list of things that I thought would make me happier. About ten minutes into this little exercise, it occurred to me that everything I was writing down was vague and noncommittal: “more exercise”, “less screen time”, “socialize more often.” I was basing my list on a definition of happiness that doesn’t really fit what I need to make my life feel more positive. “Being happy” felt very passive to me, and it was too vague to feel meaningful.

Once this actually clicked, I started trying to figure out a definition of happiness that worked for me. Was happiness a feeling? A process? An activity in and of itself? There was a lot of variability, and I wasn’t sure how to conceptualize it in a way that made sense to me. In the end, I still haven’t quite figured out how to define happiness, but I’ve definitely concluded that happiness needs to be something that is actively practiced, not achieved. (Sidebar: I’ve had this epiphany about other things in life that are normally thought of as nouns as well, particularly marriage. Marriage as a process = constantly evolving, changing, and improving. Marriage as a noun = ALL DONE EFFORT FOREVER, GOODBYE PANTS AND SHOWERS. I may be over-simplifying, but you get the idea.)

So for me, happiness is something that you do. Great. From there, it was a matter of figuring out how to actually “practice” happiness in a way that would actually make a difference to my emotional health. Strangely enough, this was actually easier than figuring out what I wanted happiness to be in the first place–I already knew about the areas where I was unhappy, so it was just a matter of identifying what I wanted to change about those different things. In the end, I narrowed things down to a few tasks I could do throughout the days and weeks to bring some more positive engagement with life into my daily behaviors.

My plan for the next several blog entries is to write a bit about some of the different changes–whether behavioral, environmental, emotional, or mental–I’ve tried to make at home and at work to improve my happiness practice. It’s entirely possible that these reads will be extremely boring for anyone that’s not me, but maybe some of you will find them interesting, or even start working on your own happiness practice! 🙂