The Happiness Project

I first discovered Gretchen Rubin through a magazine article she wrote that included her genius “one-minute rule:” if you can do something in one minute, do it now. Hang up your jacket instead of leaving it on a chair; throw out your junk mail instead of throwing it on the table; respond to that email instead of leaving it for later. Her book, The Happiness Project, is a lot more wide-ranging and interesting than this household tip, but that’s what first intrigued me.

Happiness Project

Rubin decided to spend a year reading every book about happiness that she could get her hands on, and trying almost every tip she found. Her goal was not to go on some grand Eat Pray Love-type adventure, but to find ways to make her current life happier. The result is kind of a cross between a memoir and a self-help book; some of it is relevant only to her, and some of it is startlingly insightful and universal. She’s a great writer, too; the book flies by.

I loved her point about expanding your identity through searching for more ways to feel happy and fulfilled:

One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish. Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened. Losing your job might be a blow to your self-esteem, but the fact that you lead your local alumni association gives you a comforting source of self-respect.

After I had my first child, I felt like I lost my identity in a lot of ways, and gained the new and unfamiliar identity of motherhood. It took me many years to reconcile the two. I think this book would have helped. Rubin does a wonderful job of navigating the guilt and assumptions that keep you from trying things that make you happy, or stopping things that make you unhappy. She realized that

just because something was fun for someone else didn’t mean it was fun for me–and vice versa….I tended to overrate the fun activities that I didn’t do and underrate my own inclinations. I felt like the things that other people enjoyed were more valuable, or more cultured…more, well, legitimate.

There’s such great freedom in allowing yourself to do something you like, just because you like it. (And it’s heartening to hear that even Gretchen Rubin, an accomplished lawyer and bestselling author, worries that her pursuits are not legitimate enough! Self-doubt strikes everyone.)

Because of this book, I started doing light reading again. I gave myself permission to read things just for fun, and not only things that were edifying or “important.” Rubin includes her a great quote from C.S. Lewis:

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including of the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

Rubin is secular, but she was also fascinated by the life of St. Therese of Lisieux–not just by her “little way,” but by the way she always appeared happy and cheerful, even when she was going through interior suffering. Rubin distills this into one of her major rules: “act like you want to feel.” She noticed that St. Therese didn’t just make herself act happy; she made herself be happy. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun (not at the beginning, anyway), but it works.

(Please note here that Rubin is not talking about people with depression; she’s only talking about people who want to live their best life. A lot of her tips are actually quite helpful for depression, but if you’re depressed you may find many of the suggestions in this book inadequate and irritating.)

 

 

This book is uneven. Her discoveries about gaining more energy, cultivating habits of gratefulness and cheerfulness, and discerning what really makes you happy are valuable. Her chapters on money and meditation are particularly vague and muddled. Overall, this wasn’t just an interesting read; it changed my life for the better. I’m excited to read her next book, Happier at Home. I’ll let you know when I’m done!

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Turning Your Life into a Story

I’ve been making my way through Anna Karenina over the last few months, and my mind has been immersed in Tolstoy. The other day I was happily preparing for a little family road trip. The weather was beautiful, I was going to have a few days off work, get time with extended family, and get to go to a wedding too. Then my 7-year-old came out and confessed that he had sat on his brand-new glasses, and they had snapped. It put a little dent in my good mood, and I automatically thought, Tolstoy-style, “a cloud settled over her happiness.” And you know what? It helped! Thinking of my very small suffering as a story helped me to see it objectively, and let the emotion pass.

This reminds me of something Viktor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the ways he coped with the suffering of the concentration camp was to imagine himself, many years after he had been released, lecturing about his experiences there. Viewing his experiences as a story helped him put a little distance between him and his suffering. My mother used to quote this to me when I was a kid, and I still use this technique once in a while. I like to remember that someday whatever’s going on will make a great story, and I’ll be able to laugh about.

This ability to see your suffering objectively has a lot in common with the idea of mindfulness. When you are mindful of what thoughts and emotions are passing through your head, you can put some distance between them and you. Simply being aware of a negative thought, as objectively as you can, takes away some of the negativity’s power.

More on this coming soon. In the meantime, try narrating your life and see if it helps!

Bucket Lists and Anna Karenina

The concept of making sure to have certain experiences before you die has been on my mind lately. When I was little, I used to panic at the decisions that faced me when I grew up–how would I have time to focus on all the things I wanted to do with my life? As I got older, I began to worry about all the books I would never read, and occasionally I worry about all the places I won’t ever get to. But then I remember: it doesn’t really matter, because when I get to heaven, everything good in those places and those books and those experiences will be there. I won’t have missed out. I do believe that everything good on earth will be there in heaven, only more so. But does this mean that I shouldn’t worry about living life to the fullest?

If you don’t believe in heaven, of course, there’s no question; this life is all you have, so better make the most of it. I don’t know how people who don’t believe in life after death go on living. It’s so bitterly unfair. Some people get to travel the world; some people stay in the same town their whole lives. Some people live a long and happy life; some people die in the womb. Some people enjoy life with all five senses; some people are blind. I don’t want to believe in a world where that’s all there is to it.

But I also don’t want to believe in a world where, just because there’s life after death, life before death doesn’t matter. After all, God made the world beautiful for a reason. Everything that’s beautiful about the mountains will be in heaven, I’m sure of it; but God made mountains on Earth too, just for us.

I’m halfway through Anna Karenina and my beloved Levin, after encountering his dying brother, has just been consumed with thoughts of his own inevitable death. Suddenly he realizes that all his grand plans, his brilliant ideas for revolutionizing agriculture and society, crumble into dust compared to the vastness of the universe. And because he’s an all-or-nothing kind of guy, every time he thinks about it he decides that he’s completely done with life, and there’s no point in striving for anything. At the same time, though, he’s on the brink of consummating his deep love for Kitty, and he gets very flustered when he tries to reconcile these two parts of himself. Nothing in life is worthwhile, because it all ends in death; but at the same time, everything is beautiful, everything is precious, simply because it exists in the same world as Kitty Shcherbatsky.

Because of our faith, we can reconcile Levin’s dilemma. We can see the good in the world, without denying the fact that the world is fading away. We can enjoy a trip to Rome, without weeping over the fact that we’ll probably never get to India and Mexico. But there’s still an elusive balance to be found here. How much effort should we put into enjoying life? We all know it’s risky to love creation more than the creator; but isn’t there also a risk to ignore the beauty that God created just for us? I don’t fully understand God’s reasons for putting us here with the time and the capacity to enjoy so much. But there must be a good reason that God created the Earth as well as heaven! Next time I’m feeling fatalistic I’ll try to remember that God wants me to enjoy this old Earth right now, instead of just waiting for the new one.

How is Schubert like an Orgasm?

Hi! I’m back!

I used to play this Schubert Impromptu, and my old piano teacher, Jerry Phillips, used to describe the time he heard a famous pianist play it, and his hands fluttered down the keys “like snowflakes.” To me, this piece sounds like snowflakes, but it also feels like a beautiful climax. Let me explain.

Please, please take a few minutes to listen to this, and listen to the theme starting in the left hand at about 5:50. That theme has already been played a few times before, reaching upwards, but this is the farthest it goes; this time, just when you think it’s reached the height, it goes a little further, a little higher. You think it’s the height of beauty, and it modulates one step higher. That’s what Schubert sounds like to me, and that’s how an orgasm feels–so beautiful you don’t think you can stand it.

And speaking of music, and orgasms, I think they can both be a good example of kairos–sacred time. In college I learned about the two types of time: chronos, the ordinary minute-by-minute passing of life, and kairos, the sacred time of eternity, when you feel lifted out of the world and you don’t feel time pass. I’ve always thought that I’ve experienced kairos at two times–during orgasm, and during childbirth. I think I can add a third–when I’m playing music like this, and I forget everything around me. It feels like the literal meaning of ecstasy–“standing outside oneself.”

When do you experience kairos?

Anchors of Happiness

star-gazing.jpg

We’ve all read about how experiences are better gifts for your kids than toys, but I really liked the way this study put it: holidays with your family are “happiness anchors” in your memory that have lasting effects on your psyche. Now that I’m a parent, I realize how much work my own parents put into arranging special trips for us–not necessarily the giant, Disney-type extravaganzas that most people talk about, but everything from beach vacations to day trips and little rituals at home. Here are some of the moments anchored in my mind.

  • I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to go see comets, eclipses, and meteor showers. I remember driving out to the countryside, being a little scared in the empty darkness but feeling safe with my big brothers, guarding my eyes against the passing headlights to preserve my night vision.
  • I remember road trips that my father planned meticulously, always making sure we’d be near the best delis at lunch time. I treasured a Bazooka Joe comic in Hebrew from a Jewish deli in Connecticut for years.
  • I remember trips to mines and quarries: a boat ride on an underground river, a cold cave pool that never saw the light of day, and giant loose chunks of mica free for the gathering.
  • I remember hours and hours of reading out loud before bedtime: Narnia and Robin Hood with my mother, Tolkien and Homer with my father. Just one more chapter, please!
  • I remember one glorious time when someone offered us a free dumpster full of books that survived a fire, and my father couldn’t resist. We parked it in our driveway and climbed in and dug around for treasures all week.
  • I remember science museums, art museums, planetariums, zoos, aquariums, beaches, mountains, operas, concerts–but also so many small things that my parents probably thought were no big deal: helping my father organize books for a book sale. Science experiments with my mother. I even have deeply happy memories of my bi-weekly turn to come along on the grocery shopping and get to pick the flavor of soda for weekend dinners.

I’m writing these down mostly to remind myself that my kids don’t need big fireworks from me. Today my six-year-old got to come–just him!–to Walmart to buy diapers, and we stopped for a little snack and a chat afterwards (“Subway is the best restaurant ever, Mama!”). My four-year-old is thrilled because she got to do “cutting practice” today (something my mother used to do for me),

Tovah cutting

and my two-year-old is just happy that I watched her do a trick. (“Watch this, Mama! SAME TRICK!”) They will remember the vacations and the expensive trips, but they’ll remember the little things too.

Electroconvulsive Therapy: what I wish I’d known

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Not this bad.

So. When I was in the psych ward last year and my doctors approached me with the idea of electric shock treatment (aka ECT: electroconvulsive therapy), my first reaction was, “that still exists?!” It turns out it’s not the torture treatment it used to be. It’s safe, quick, easy, and very effective. But my hospital wasn’t very good at giving me the full picture, so here’s what I’d like you to know if you’re considering ECT. (Please note, these explanations are in my own words. I’m don’t know if they are 100% accurate, and I’m sure they’re not technically correct. Double-check with a good doctor!)

  1. It’s an option for people who are already using the conventional means of therapy and/or medication, and aren’t getting better; and for people who need to get better in a hurry. As a postpartum mother of 4 with suicidal depression, who’d already been on medication and therapy for years, I needed something to change, quick.
  2. It re-sets your brain. My husband did a lot of research and found out that ECT kind of erases some of the thought patterns that have built up in your head. If you head back home after your treatments into a situation that hasn’t changed, with all the same stressors and problems, your mind will fall back into its old patterns again. You need to take advantage of the time after ECT to work hard and establish good new patterns for your brain: coping strategies, positive thinking, relaxation techniques, etc. I found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy extremely helpful for this.
  3. That means that you’re going to have a long recovery period. You’ll probably need to take time off work, or lessen your other responsibilities. You’ll need people nearby to cover for you and help you out. You’ll need someone to drive you to your treatments and stay in the hospital the whole time, and you’ll need someone to check in on you while you’re recovering. Obviously this is a tall order. But apparently, unless you take these precautions, your ECT may not have much effect and you may end up back where you started.
  4. My side effects were short-lived irritability and confusion, and some fairly significant memory loss. I was told that I would lose the memory of the morning before the treatment, and that was it; but in my case, that wasn’t true. I’ve lost memories from the last few years of my life, mostly the last year. I can’t remember places we went, things the kids did, books I’ve read, people I visited. I can’t remember what my friends’ youngest kids are named, or what they’ve told me about recent developments in their lives. It hasn’t really affected my life that much, but it makes me sad. I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. I think it was worth it, though. I’m not sure how much of my recovery was due to the ECT, and how much was due to medication, therapy, and changes in my situation; but I’ve talked to people for whom ECT was an unequivocal success, even a life-saver.
  5. Get somebody you trust to help you research and make the decision, especially if you’re in the hospital or in the middle of a crisis. I was scared, uninformed, panicky, and generally not in any state to make important decisions. I was so lucky to have my persevering husband to depend on. This is something you shouldn’t do alone.

Please write to me if you’d like to talk about it! My email is preverized@aol.com

Dear Me:

  1. Dear 14-year-old me: spending every lunch period sitting in the chapel and crying is not normal. Tell someone, for heaven’s sake. This is called “depression.”
  2. Dear 18-year-old me: why would you even date a guy who’s mean to people, inconsiderate to you, and doesn’t really care much about you or anything else? I don’t get it.
  3. Dear 20-year-old me: learn NFP before you get married, you dummy. Don’t just say “oh, we’ll learn it when we need it.” Trust me, you’ll need it.
  4. Dear 21-year-old me: just give the baby a bottle. You will never regret it.
  5. Dear 22-year-old me: anti-depressants are wonderful. It’s about time.
  6. Dear 23-year-old me: I know you don’t really believe it when people say this, but it really will get easier as your kids get older. Really!
  7. Dear me for the last five years: just go to bed. There are very, very few things you could be doing that will make you happier than more sleep.

Come see the rest of the 7 Quick Takes at Kelly’s!