Brain, Mindfulness, Purpose

Add In the Good Stuff

fairy pot

When we stop trying to find the solution, the solution finds us.  The idea of “adding in the good stuff” is all the rage healthy living.  Don’t worry about giving up cheese fries and soda.  The pull of the food industry is powerful, and fighting it grinds our sense of efficacy down to sawdust.  Instead, do a few leg lifts while brushing teeth.  Put leafy greens beside whatever else is on the plate.  Keep the focus on adding the wholesome.

This same bubbly counsel showed up in a recent parenting class.  When an attendee began slipping down the shame spiral about their ineffective parenting, the instructor reminded us not to worry about what we’re doing wrong.  “Do more of the good stuff,” she said.  Put special time on the schedule.  Focus on connection over correction.

Eventually (the theory goes) these little bits of goodness will crowd out the destructive patterns.

If this works with diet and family, why not mental health?

Continue reading “Add In the Good Stuff”

Brain, Choices, Mindfulness

Positive Account Balance

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.

-Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

The last slide on the budget PowerPoint lays out our school’s financial plan:

  • Increase revenue
  • Decrease spending


The boss man knows enough to apologize for it but not enough to skip it altogether.  None of us wants to hear it again.  We are familiar with the formula. Every pixel of internet clickbait loops us back around to yet another listicle that peddles yet another version of the same recipe.

Want to get fit?  Exercise more, eat less.

Tackle the day?  Fewer screens, more sleep.

Be a good friend? Listen more, talk less.

A good lover? Less grasp, more give.

Scale it up and the formula breaks down. Good luck giving global overpopulation the “less babies, more birth control” treatment.  Large-scale social problems have to reckon with the complexity of human cultures, histories, and economies.

This is why we love the personal self-improvement principle almost as much as we loathe it.  While its simplicity balms the wounds of chaos, its refusal to acknowledge complexity drives us batty.

Too hooked on your fix? Use less, breathe more.

Struggling with social anxiety or loneliness? Isolate less, connect more.

Stuck in your career? Hide less, lead more.

Anyone who has ever come up against a tough challenge knows that paths are crooked and terrain that at first appeared solid turns to quicksand in a blink.  It’s only when we’re far on the other side of it — or perhaps when we’re judging some other poor sucker’s fight — that we apply the simplicity principle.

I’m not the only one in the room looking at those PowerPoint bullets through rolling eyes.  As if.

As if all our problems could be solved so easily.

But now I wonder.

What if Mr. Micawber is right after all?

Not for everything, but for one thing in particular: when it comes to this life-choking, spirit-sucking, too-many-decades-in-residence depression, what if Mr. Micawber’s formula is exactly the one I’ve never really tried?

More happy, less misery.

Of course it can’t be that easy.  Not for most of us anyway, and definitely not for the hard core clinical pits into which I stumble, body and mind shattered, bruised and slick with mud. . .

Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of metaphor that costs me twenty pounds nought and six.

Happy = revenue.  Misery = expense.

How might this look?  Here’s an example:  When I remember yet again that awful phone call from Friday in which I learned that Bug and I missed an opening from a many-years waitlist for family camp because I called one minute (the registration lady told me) after the last person who got in. . . I say to myself, “Rehashing this makes me sad. I’m going to think about something else now.” Then I cast around for something nice to notice and remind myself that we’re going to have our own adventure this summer, whatever it is.

Or it looks like this: When my kiddo scowls and tells me yet again that he doesn’t love me and in fact I stink like a rotten poop-eating skunk, I consider how much better laughing feels than fussing. I clap my hands in delight and say I love eating rotten poopy skunk carcasses, they’re even better if they’ve been marinated in worm puke. Then we’re giggling and tickling, and our smiles bounce off the walls.

Or it looks like putting on music when I’m home alone and dancing while I do the dishes. Or texting a girlfriend just to say hello. Or carrying colored pencils in my bag so I can doodle while my son carries on with his buddies at a birthday party.

Or just frittering away my time stuck in traffic counting off the day’s 100 blessings.

It looks like noticing when I’ve started to pay the inflated cost of ruminating while missing an opportunity to generate some pleasure revenue.  A person who tends towards depression needs only one thundercloud to knock the account all out of balance again. Building back up from that kind of debt is a wearying toil — an avoidable one, as it may happen.

When I have enough attention to notice, I might choose to forgo the temptation.  Do not overthink, do not give in to self-pity.  Like walking past the Cheetos at the supermarket.  Just don’t.  Sure, those things are familiar but they make me feel disgusting, and really, they don’t even taste that good.

Can it be this stupidly, improbably simple?

Give it a shot, Smirk.

Choose happy whenever possible.  Or colorful, or musical, or goofy. Choose anything that lifts and ignites over anything that weighs and chokes.  Marvel at the beets, smell a bunch of dill.  Imagine what new recipe to make.  Flirt with the butcher.  Hum while trundling down the aisles.  If it increases the happy income, do it.  If it exacts its price in misery, walk on by.

It makes me smile just to begin.

See? Already, I’m saving for happy.

Simple as that.

Friends, Living in the Moment, Music

Dance Myself to Sleep

The remarkable sifter and curator, DMF, over at SyntheticZero posted a comment to Everything is Music with a link to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon playing Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes.

On the eve of an unwelcome anniversary and bracing for another night fighting off the devils that eat sleep, here I am in bed now, singing and dancing — yes, dancing alone in bed! — with the warmest thrill from smile to toes.

Now this word from Ernie & Bert:

Thank you for the most buoyant lullaby a girl could hope for, DMF. (And thank you, lambies.)



community, Determination, neighborhood, Relationships, Uncategorized

Action as Antitdote


Buried in the back of the Sunday Post behind Sudanese child soldiers and Syrian refugees is this story. In a part of Detroit well on its way to eroding into yet another ghost suburb in the strange narrative of post-industrial suburban decay, residents are re-claiming the place as their own.

They say that action is the antidote to despair.

The problems seem far too big. Arson, illegal dumping, sex work, drugs. Houses are gutted and razed, whole blocks turned into weed-choked lots. How could anything resembling vitality ever return to this place? Maybe the natural laws of decomposition and succession could redeem the story, but only after the place has lain fallow for a few generations. It’s a distant and sorrowful kind of hope, but it’s the best we can do.

Except that a few neighbors, apparently, are doing far better.

This neighborhood is too broken to re-animate in the here-and-now. The notion is folly. Absurd, really. Because when you sweep your gaze across the whole panorama — absence of stores and services, distance from economic opportunity, prevalence of crime, abandonment by residents — you throw up your hands and say, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin!”

Except that a few neighbors, apparently, just begin.

They begin with confronting one truck dumping one load of building debris. Or they begin with one piece of plywood over one burnt-out window. Or with one garden bed on one abandoned lot.

The tenacity of these neighbors is gritty inspiration. They remind us that “getting” what we want in our lives and communities really means making it from scratch. Steady, courageous, intentional effort and unwavering focus are required. So is using every spare moment — even those that have to be stolen from elsewhere — and every tool at hand to hack through the brambles and lay the groundwork.

Intensity of focus, however, is just one critical element, and insufficient at that.

These neighbors show us that we need each other.

Even though many of the Brightmoor pioneers have all the demands pulling at them the rest of us do — jobs, kids, aging parents, school, commitments pressing against the clock — they find each other. They cultivate the kind of we’re-in-this-together relationships necessary for building the future they want to inhabit.

They are hope in action.

They somehow got over the myth that first beguiles and then cripples so many of us in this increasingly commodified and solipsistic nation: that the neighborhoods, schools, and relationships we want might be out there somewhere. If only we could find them, if only we could crack the code! The folks of Brightmoor recognize that a dream is something you have to cobble together. . . together.

Their future is an uncertain and often unwieldy work in progress. These neighbors have to improvise. They have to trust in the messy process of winding up half-formed notions and setting them loose on rough, living ground.

With this courageous, dedicated, and wholly foolish commitment, they come a little closer to getting what they want for themselves and their children. Closer, perhaps, than most of us ever will.

They also heal one small corner of the world.

It’s more than a pipe dream. It’s happening right now, right up the road, at the hands of people just like you and me.

Photo credit: Digging Detroit



Friends, Love

Wedded Blissing

Here’s to the happy marriage!
Your magic combination of hard work and dumb luck does more than give the rest of us hope. It also offers your friends, kids, and friends’ kids a model of healthy partnership. God knows, we need more of those.
The glow you tend through your ways of being together is an inviting place. Thank you for letting us warm our hands there before we set out on the next leg of the journey.


Happy 100 Days: 65

“Mommy, I’m scared.”
Twice already, I have shooed him back to his bed with clipped reminders that his body needs a good night’s sleep and that there is nothing to be scared of. And anyway, if he keeps getting up, he is going to lose his nightlight. These approaches aren’t worth spit. I take a deep breath and remind myself that the kid does not need consequences. He needs a hand.
“Baby, it’s two hours past your bedtime. Sleep is the only thing that will make you feel better. There is nothing to be scared about.”
“But I just am scared.” His eyes well up and his little voice rises to a sob. Boy, do I know that feeling. Logic is about as effective against it as a wet noodle.
“Oh, sweetie, come on. Let’s go.” I set aside the shirt I am folding and try to shake off the list of unfinished tasks squatting on my shoulders. I put my hand on my little boy’s chest, turn him and guide him back to his room. “Hop up, into bed.”
He crawls under his Dora blanket. His lips are quivering. In the gentlest voice I can manage, I say, “I know you are scared, but it is just a feeling. There is nothing to be scared about.” My words are a stroll along the riverbank. My palm draws lazy circles on his chest. “Your grandma is here, your grandaddy, your mommy. Even your doggy and your kitty. Everyone is here in the house with you. We are all getting ready to sleep. You are safe.”
“I know,” he squeaks. “But I am scared of what is under the bed.” He tenses again and starts to shiver.
I don’t change my tone of voice or the quality of my touch. Dull and rhythmic. “Only happy things are under the bed. Your box of gold coins. Your yellow Sit & Spin. Some books that have fallen down the side. A bunch of loose legos.” I take a deep breath and blow it out. “Breathe in warm, quiet air,” I whisper. “Then let it go.”
He turns to the side and presses his back into my hand. “Let your mind wander to all the happy things we did today. We baked sourdough bread together, mixing and kneading and watching it rise. We played that silly running game when we walked the dog. We made the lego horse trailer. We found the rectangles and the crescents.”
“The star,” he says with a yawn. “I found the octagon.”
“Breath in the happy things,” I whisper. “The warm, quiet air.” I do this myself. “Then let it go.” I blow out my breath. I do this again and then again. I feel his shoulders loosen under my fingers.
“Remember how we cuddled on the couch and read that new book, A Prairie Dog for the President, and how Lewis and Clark made that animal pop up out of its hole. That was so funny. We laughed and laughed.”
I take another round of deep breaths. “So many happy things happened today. Just breathe them all into your belly and let them swirl around your body. Then,” I whisper, “you let all of it go.” I blow out a long breath. “Let all those happy memories float away with the air. Breathe in, fill your tummy. Breathe out. Release it all.”
He nuzzles down into the pillow and after a sigh, his jaw goes slack. I take two more deep breaths just in case, then kiss his cheek and whisper my love into his temple. “Sweet dreams, buddy.”
He is out. So am I.


Happy 100 Days: We the Undersigned

in 100 days we will say good
night to this year. We will rise in the dark
January morning to a new
I do not remember
my resolution when this year began. I probably did not
find the courage to make one.
This morning,
the cool light of the equinox
returned it to me.
This is my contract
With Joy.
The agreement is made and takes effect on September 23, 2012 between myself, hereafter known as “first party” and the creative juice of the universe, hereafter known as “second party.”
The provisions of this agreement are as follows:
During her tenure, the first party will
Stay alive
stay awake
trust her gut.
Greet her sadness
before letting it blow past,
shake hands with anger
then release her grip.
The first party commits
to noticing one beautiful thing
for every one that brings her sorrow,
watching her step
for quicksand
and seeking a way
Her service requires
when her face has forgotten how
glancing at the moon
when she would rather stay blind
speaking gently to herself
as if she already is the woman
she is becoming.
The term of this agreement is 100 days and shall be open for re-negotiation on January 1, 2013.
During the aforementioned term, the first party commits to choosing a minimum of 100 moments of happiness.
Each one, a pause:
She will submit a record of one each day
in writing
and when possible, speak
her gratitude for it.
For services rendered by the first party,
the second party,
maker of joy, will take care of the quality
of the goods
and the timing
of the deliverables.
The second party provides non-payroll benefits in the form of insurance
against despair.
Documentation of service will take the form
of punching the clock and ticking
the box.
One glimpse of beauty each day, a promise
small yet signed in a scratch
of autumn light at this, the first of the last of the year
in which two parties give
to a single promise
of renewal.


Greater Good

Your brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. Therefore, a foundation for happiness is to deliberately weave positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.  – Dr. Rick Hanson

The brain does not know the difference between chilling on the beach and imagining chilling on the beach. It also cannot differentiate between real and perceived peril. Fretting about being late while stuck in traffic stresses the physiology as much as the actual pink slip, eviction notice, or other phantom disaster that rarely materializes.
Why is it that anxiety about indistinct threats consumes us when positive outcomes are just as likely to occur and pleasure is just as easy to achieve?
Surely, a few mesozoic critters kicked back by the water’s edge, munching on berries and belching, “take it easy, man.” It would be nice to think we inherited a few of their relaxed tendencies, but the odds are against it. The Cheech Marins of prehistory likely ended up as dino snacks. The skittish ones, the ones who were a drag a parties because they mistook every passing cloud for a pterodactyl, survived long enough to present us with the Trojan horse of their genetic code. Without them, we would not be here. Neither would our well-honed ability to obsess over worst-case scenarios.
A bias towards danger served our ancestors well. Humans are very good at keeping the attention alert for threats of every flavor. The pace of life on an overcrowded planet gives us plenty to worry about, what with the European debt crisis and the melting ice caps. The mind and body are quite adept at remaining in a state of hyper-vigilance, no matter how high the cost. The cost just happens to be higher than we can afford if we are going to keep on living as long as we do.  Short-term survival has a tendency to trump long-term well-being, as the insomniacs among us understand all too well.
Prepare the body for a fight, and it complies every time. Even if rest or serenity would be better for the system’s overall health, the perceived need to stay alert to danger keeps an overtaxed system awake and awash in glucocorticoids. The human body, as well designed as it is to respond quickly and intensely to threats, did not adapt to rebound quite as swiftly from an overstimulated stress response. Scientific literature and popular media alike have documented ad nauseum the cumulative effects of stress. As you might expect, access to information does not appear to correlate to behavior change.  Hypertension, obesity, depression, memory loss, and bone thinning top a list that grows longer with every new study, providing an unfortunate counterbalance to stories of ever-increasing longevity.
(For more on this, give Robert Sapolsky a whirl. He manages to turn the biology of stress into a kind of free-wheeling science road trip in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)
The good news in all of this is that the brain is resilient, even if our stress responses are not. “Neuroplasticity” has been buzz-word around positive psychology circles for a few years. You can score a few extra points at your next cocktail party if you toss out  “self-directed neuroplasticity” while sipping your gin gimlet. The suggestion is that humans have the capacity to sensitize the brain to positive experiences. We can actually train the brain away from its compulsion to collect negative information. Through the practice of attending to what is going well, so the theory goes, we can begin to re-wire the synaptic framework inside the skull and make the old gray matter a lean, not-so-mean, happiness machine.

What flows through the mind sculpts your brain. Immaterial experience leaves material traces behind. – Dr. Rick Hanson

In a practice Hanson calls “Taking in the Good,” three practical steps can begin weaving a new neural network one thread at a time. This exercise requires just a few moments of focused attention. Once a day, once a week, whatever gets you on the bus. The best practice, so they say, is the one that a person actually does.  During the keynote presentation at a recent conference on resilience, Hanson led 350 attendees through these simple steps. It took less time than the wait at the average stoplight.  This would be a far more productive way to spend those idle, grumbling moments.

  1. Look for positive facts. Notice something that is going well. In the absence of right-now positive detail, calling up pleasant memory is a handy shortcut.
  2. Savor the positive experience. Allow the facts from step 1 to become an experience. Sustain it by keeping the mind trained on it for 10-20-30 seconds. Count out the time, and just stay immersed in the details. Allow the facts or recollection to expand during these seconds. Feel the experience in your body and in your emotions. Try to sense it. If possible, intensify it.
  3. Sense and intend that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body. Register it deeply in your emotional memory.

It is interesting that Hanson refers to this emotional landscape as “memory.” It does seem to function like cognitive recall. As we all learned in Psych 101, items move in and out of short term memory, skimming the surface like dandelion fluff on an easy breeze. All around, all the time, stimuli alight on the senses. Only a small portion of what is sensed actually settles in and lays down a root system within long-term memory.
In order for an item to move down into the deeper storehouse of the brain, a person has to engage with it in some way. The stimulus must connect to a larger collection of experience, and click into alignment with what is already in place. In this way, random bits of information go through a metamorphosis to emerge as knowledge. Have you ever noticed how you can still call up TV jingles for products that have been off the market since before you were old enough to buy them? An item embedded in long-term memory becomes as hard to dislodge as garden weeds.
If a person wants to learn Swahili, she seeks it out. She buys the CDs,  makes friends with Kenyans, and plans a trip to Nairobi with a homestay family.  She immerses herself in the language so that it twists its new threads around and between her known cognitive pathways. In order to call up Swahili phrases when she needs them, she will need to hear them. Through practice and repetition, she can weave loose strands into something thick and strong.  Most of us on the opposite side of the globe might encounter a Bantu construction and not even recognize it as language. We hear beautiful gobbledy-gook. It is the engagement with a bit of drifting data that pulls it down into a person’s foundation. The overlooked items float on away like those feathered seeds. The brain only knows what a person chooses to hold. In this way, it is true that we become what we pay attention to.
It makes intuitive sense to see emotional experience functioning like memory. Life bombards us with experiences of all kinds. The vast majority of what occurs to us and around us does not stay with us. It is only what we attend to, what we really grab onto and get acquainted with, that builds our emotional vocabulary.
This is what it means to self-direct the neuroplasticity. It is as true for learning happiness as it is for learning any foreign tongue. If the brain does not know the difference between a beach vacation and daydreaming about one, why not take one right now? Three simple steps can carry you to the lip of the sea. Attend to the positive facts, savor the experience, and draw that lifting sensation into the brain and body. In this way, the mind learns to speak the language of hope.

If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come.
– Chinese Proverb