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Happy 100 Days: Beginnings

This whole thing started because I was stuck. Two years had come and gone since the Jenga blocks of our little family had fallen all around us. Apparently it was not the most solid construction to begin with, but that’s a different story.
 
I was waiting. Waiting for what is anyone’s guess. Something to change, maybe? For a surge of energy? A white knight? I kept waiting to feel ready for the next chapter. Was I ready to move forward with Giovanni or ready to let go? Maybe I was waiting for Tee to make a decision that would force me into decisiveness. I am sure I was waiting for a better-paying job to appear on the horizon (as if this is how such things happen), or to feel inspired enough to launch the project that haul me out of my financial pit. At the very least, I was waiting to feel something other than dread about the future.
 
I think I was waiting for a sign. Since I do not believe in signs, it will come as no surprise that none materialized.
 
All this waiting contained neither momentum nor acceptance. It was frantic. I kept swirling, spinning my wheels, slipping into the same old vortex of exhaustion and hopelessness. Pick your metaphor. Every one is a different version of a circle turning back on itself. Work was a grindstone. Conversations with both Giovanni and Tee were broken records. The needle never moved forward along the groove of the music to find its conclusion and lift away, making room for the next piece. No, it was all just revolve, skip, repeat.
 
Work was getting done. I was walking and dancing myself healthy, staying on top of Bug’s schedule, calming myself before the reactiveness and complications that seemed to weigh down every interaction with the people closest to me. Sure, I was looking well enough on the surface. “You really just have it all together,” one of my co-workers said to me. I gave her a “huh!” that made her jump. I was holding things together, but only barely. It just didn’t make sense to me that two years into this new life, and everything (and I mean everything) felt so hard.
 
I claimed I did not know how to do anything differently. Those familiar grooves, even the revolve and skip and repeat, were keeping me a kind of safe. Known safe. Nothing-has-to-change-and-I-can-manage safe.
 
But, boy howdy, was I miserable. Oh, and did I mention? Tired, tired, tired.
 
About three weeks ago, I found myself returning to the same refrain of despair after a brief detour. I had gone through a tailspin preparing for a series of interviews for a job opportunity that would have helped me approach self-sustaining. After the dizzying crash when it was offered to one of the other two candidates (the one with 14 years of experience in a field to which I have just returned, so who can blame them?), I brushed myself off, got back to the grind, and heard the mean little voice I had heard at least four thousand times before:
 
No one is coming for me.
 
For two years, this message has left me bereft.
 
But on this day, I woke up. Something sounded different. I looked that voice right in the eye. “Say that again. A little louder.”
 
No one is coming for me.
 
A key turned in a lock. The whole mechanism of my understanding slipped into alignment, and the door fell open.
 
No one is coming for me!
 
I am off the hook! I do not have to keep waiting for vague fantasies of rescue to come pulsing to life. No one is coming. It’s all me, and I get to do this in any way I see fit. No more clutching, grasping, longing, and struggling to endure this in order to get to that.
 
What a relief!
 
The reason I am stuck is not because I do not work hard enough. The reason I am stuck is because I am stuck. The only way to get un-stuck is to lift the needle, remove the worn-out composition, and replace it with music more to my liking.
 
I am ready to make my own happy.
 
I understand that “happy” is not a steady state nor is it a fixed target. I also know that whatever form it takes, it is an ingredient required for that elusive success I feel is so far out of my grasp. Without a little pleasure, I am just stuck in the same groove. Revolve, skip, repeat.
 
Depression, exhaustion, and a worst-case-scenario mindset have done far more damage than all of my professional and relational decisions combined. Or, another way to say it is this: feeling bad makes the universe of options constrict so completely that I make poor, short-sighted choices. And I generally choose inertia over bold steps.
 
So, “happy” may be an insufficient condition for getting un-stuck, but it is certainly necessary. Career success, inspiration, intimacy, and health all demand this one thing. Not harder work, no. I have been working myself hollow. Instead, it is throwing open the curtains and maybe humming a little good-morning tune.
 
Zippety-doo-dah.
 
That’s how this all started. I decided to right then and there to quit kvetching and start taking in the good, as Rick Hanson advises. It was a simple decision to begin the daily practice of seeking out a more positive, loving perspective. To calm my reactions and smile the tension down. I figured that doing this with any intention would require turning the good experiences over in my mind, rolling them around the tongue. First, seek moments of engagement, then collect them, and finally, describe them.
 
For these 100 days, I give over to the possibility of neuroplasticity, and let these practices do what they can to rebuild the tendencies of this long-suffering brain. This was the promise I made to myself when I wrote that contract with joy.
 
I will let in the light. I will find the new song. I will not shy away.
 
I will write it all down.
 
This final practice, I have discovered, kills two birds with one stone (or plants two trees with one seed, as the case may be), because writing makes me happy. Writing about happy things makes me doubly so.
 
Let the signs come. I may not believe, but I will keep my eyes and ears open. If they do not materialize, well, then, I will just have to go and cobble them together from whatever is on hand. Which is, after all, everything.
 

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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