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!

Electroconvulsive Therapy: what I wish I’d known

electric shock.jpg

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

Wonderful things that happened after my crisis

Long story short: after my fourth baby, I went into a tailspin. I tried a couple different medications, and Wellbutrin made me suicidal, so I checked into the hospital. I spent ten very good days in the psychiatric ward and had electroconvulsive therapy. (See my article about the spiritual effects of it here). After that I was supposed to remove stress and responsibility from my life for a while, so that my brain would have time to build on the changes from the shock therapy and establish a more positive thought pattern. So we attempted to free me up from some of the stress of living with a 6-year-old, 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and newborn, in my parents’ house, with my mother who has Alzheimer’s. Ha ha! That didn’t work. Instead my brother and sister-in-law took the three big kids into their home, and I moved into my sister’s house with my husband and newborn to recover.

What a mess! Except it wasn’t. Here are some wonderful things that God did in my family’s life as a result of this crisis.

  1. My family came together. They have always been loving and supportive, but my breakdown provided an opportunity for them to get even closer. There were several family meetings, in which my parents and all 7 of my siblings got together to help us figure out what to do, and how they could help. Everyone gave what they could: babysitting, money, shelter, driving, prayer, and help figuring out logistics and planning. And afterwards, when things were a bit more stable, they kept up the group conversation, to keep us all in touch and within reach for mutual help.
  2. I got wonderful one-on-one time with the baby. Instead of being the littlest of four, always set down so I could feed the big kids, or carried like a football while I did the laundry, she got to have that only-child experience of being the center of my universe. I think she’d be fine either way,  but it was nice for me! I had similar experiences with the other kids; my family’s help made it possible for me to spend a glorious hour outside with my two year old,  enjoying the wind and the shadows and the trees and the mud, and give my other kids their heart’s desires: my undivided attention to their very favorite Legos and ponies, respectively.
  3. We experienced life with my sister’s family, who are called to a special charism of poverty and generosity. We learned to live with less stuff, waste less, and pay special attention to the liturgical seasons. We learned to live in a sort of community, everyone contributing to the household and accepting anyone who showed up.
  4. We lived out of our suitcases for three months. It actually helped me appreciate what I had, and appreciate what it would be like to be dirt poor–using both sides of every paper, saving boxes to keep my clothes in, piecing together my sewing scraps to make a wall hanging because I had no pictures. And I missed very little of the massive pile of stuff I left at my parents’ house. We’ll see how quickly I can keep this new-found minimalism, but so far in our new apartment we’ve managed to get rid of a lot of junk and live with less than we’ve ever done.
  5. My family’s generous actions had good results for them, too. My sister, whose kids are almost all grown, got to have a baby around the house again; my other sister, who did a heroic amount of babysitting for me, told me that she’d been helped out a lot at another stage in her life, and it was nice to have the opportunity to pay it forward and help someone else. Driving us and our kids back and forth for visits and moving gave my siblings opportunities for long-awaited visits with each other. Siblings got to catch up, aunts and uncles got to know nieces and nephews, cousins got to play together. Yup, one big long crisis-fueled family reunion!
  6. My children had the experience of living at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. They came back home with all sorts of wonderful habits, like brushing their teeth and following along at Mass and clearing their plates after dinner, and all sorts of other things that I totally would have taught them, any day now. They learned to play with kids of different ages and how to adjust to a different family’s schedule.
  7.  _I_ learned how resilient and grounded they are. My kids’ maturity and patience in dealing with all the changes (along with my sister-in-law’s kind updates on their little triumphs and achievements) was really encouraging to me as a parent.

There was no avoiding this huge disruption, and I thought my family and I would barely survive it. God had plans to bring a lot of unexpected good out of it. Thank you, God.

Find the rest of the 7 Quick Takes here.

Renoir onions

“Onions” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881

 

Make your own happiness

There were a lot of inspiring plaques in the behavioral health wing at Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital, most of them the usual vague “live, laugh, love” type of thing. But one of them really spoke to me. It was actually in the scheduling office, and it said “the time to be happy is now.”

The first part that struck me was the “now.” I often get stuck in the trap of depending on the future and my specific plans for it: when we get a house, then I’ll be happy. When the kids are older, then I’ll be happy. When my husband gets a good job, then I’ll be happy. And guess what happens? I get what I was hoping for, and I still find something to be unhappy about. Or worse, I don’t get what I wanted, and I feel justified in remaining unhappy. The sign reminded me not to pin my happiness on something that might happen in the future.

But here’s something I’m just realizing recently: if you want to find happiness now, rather than in the future, you need to be able to make your own happiness. Is it possible that happiness is a choice? I’m not sure if this is true for someone in the midst of true clinical depression, and I hope I’m not sounding like those clueless people who tell you to just snap out of it and cheer up. But for those of us struggling with mild depression, or maybe just the ups and downs of everyday life, I think it’s possible to choose happiness. When I’m feeling down, I have two choices: I can do the thing that feels good initially, like holing up in my room and watching reality TV, and dwelling on everything that’s bothering me at the moment; or I can do the thing that will make me feel better in the long run, like taking a walk, or putting down the book I’m trying to read and giving the kids my full attention, or putting on some cheerful music and dancing around.

This isn’t easy! It takes so much effort. But each day I’m learning more and more that I have control over my mood, and I don’t have to be a slave to my emotions. Try to be happy! It doesn’t work every time, but I never regret trying.

Making Peace with the Minimum

Barbie, Pregnancy, Doll, Education, Child, Childbirth

Remember the “Best Odds Diet” in What to Expect When You’re Expecting? As I recall from my anxious first-pregnancy reading, the idea was that you could eat junk food or you could eat healthy food, but if you really wanted to do everything you could for your baby, you would eat as healthily as possible. If you had a choice between a piece of whole-wheat bread and a piece of organic, whole-wheat, whole-grain, homemade, all-natural bread, why would you choose something with less nutritional benefit for your baby? Why eat something good when you could be eating something perfect? Didn’t you want to give your baby the best chance at perfection that you could?

I think I threw the book out when it suggested that it was okay to treat yourself once a month or so, but you should really try to make your indulgence something like homemade, fruit-sweetened carrot cake or a bran muffin. Sometimes this mindset is so obviously ridiculous that it’s easy to dismiss. But sometimes, it’s so subtle and logical-sounding that it can really get a hold on you. Do any of these sound familiar?

I just checked her diaper and it’s only a tiny bit wet, so I really don’t want to change it now. But now that I know, it would be wrong to wait–I’d be knowingly letting her tender skin come in contact with pee, and maybe she’ll get a rash! I better change it right now.

Maybe he has this inexplicable diarrhea because he drank water from that mud puddle! I could have stopped him but I didn’t. I figured “usually I stop him, but one time won’t be a big deal.” But what if this happens to be the one time that really mattered?

I’m sure I buckled her into her carseat correctly. But what if I didn’t, and she dies in a crash? I should go double-check, or triple-check. That would be the best thing for my baby. After all, I want to give her the best odds at survival.

Maybe you’re a normal person, and this doesn’t sound familiar. Or maybe you’re someone prone to worry, scruples, or obsession, and this is your life. But here’s a third option–maybe you’re normally pretty balanced, but right now you’re pregnant, or postpartum, or breastfeeding, and you’re not thinking logically. This is no way to live your life. It only ends in despair and self-loathing.

I recently saw a meme that rejected the mantra “fed is best.” Fed with formula is minimum, it argued, but breast is still best. Why would you want to give your baby the minimum when you could give her the maximum? Now, how you feed your baby is a lot more important that the little things I mentioned above, and breastfeeding is certainly best in itself; but even so, things get bent out of proportion when you elevate the feeding decision above everything else. If you look at it simply as a choice between what’s okay (formula) and what’s best (breastmilk), the choice is obvious. But that keeps you from weighing other considerations, like whether your mental health is up to the challenge, or whether your physical health is up to the loss of sleep. It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to make a choice that’s optimal for every single aspect! Life just doesn’t work like that. Don’t let your mind bully you into thinking you have to make the best possible choice, every time. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Why Schools Need Real Counselors

Here’s a wonderful story about St. Benedict’s, a boys’ preparatory school in New Jersey where the students–most of them from low-income black or Latino families–have a 98% graduation rate. The monks attribute their success to the fact that they have real counseling services–not just career counselors or academic counselors, but actual psychologists–who help the boys deal with anger management, depression, and lack of a father in their lives.

“The counseling center is critical,” said Father Edwin Leahy, a monk and the school’s headmaster, to the Huffington Post on Tuesday. “I don’t know how people do this work without attending to the kids spirits, psyche and heart. It’s very rare that cognition is the reason for poor academic performance in our experience — frequently it’s emotional distress.”

 

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What a Catholic approach! They’re educating and healing the whole person–not just the mind or the soul, but the brain, the psyche, the emotions. They’re not just assuming that a good education and a good spiritual life will solve all problems. As I have written many times, Catholics often fail to understand that psychological problems can be different than spiritual ones. Prayer can heal, for sure, but we’re more than just souls, and sometimes our minds need healing too. You wouldn’t rely on prayer alone to fix a physical problem; God doesn’t want you to leave your mental problems untreated either. I have seen firsthand, in college, what happens when you take young people with depression or an unhealthy past, expose them to heady ideas and philosophies, and offer nothing but hard academic work and daily Mass to deal with their psychological problems. They go off the deep end.

I recently received a fundraising letter from my alma mater, which emphasized the way that the college defied the trend of hypersensitive “safe spaces” and “microagressions” and instead formed independent and strong men and women. So far so good; but the president of the college lost me when he listed, under the heading of emasculating demands that the ivy league made, “free mental health support.” Opposed to this he listed “daily Mass and sacraments,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. Now, it may be mostly the “free” part that the president was balking at; but the fact remains that he considers mental health support a symptom of the entitlement society, rather than a crucial part of care for the whole person. This is a dangerous and foolish way to treat the education of young men and women. May more schools follow the example of St. Benedict’s, and show their students God’s loving care for us–mind, body, and soul.

 

Photo: Boy carrying brother by wyammadison on Flickr (license)