Sunday, October 16, 2011

Happy Place

Maybe you, like me, might have had one of those days, weeks or months when getting your sorry ass out of bed was a huge effort.   You turn on the TV and there's Matt Lauer unloading more depressing news on the economy and how we might be headed for another double dip recession.   The employment figures are dismal which means now might not be the best time to reinvent yourself and switch careers by starting that improv program for at-risk kids you've always dreamed of doing  (Insert your own dream here).   You get into your car and put on NPR which has an interview with an economist who tells you that the world markets are not rebounding as they should and things may never be the same economically in your lifetime.   Your heart starts to beat faster, so fast that you can see the steady thumping through your shirt.   Your breathing becomes shallow, you're sweating profusely and starting to get light headed.   You realize that you might be headed straight into a full blown anxiety attack and might pass out at the wheel on your way to work.   

You pull over into the nearest parking lot, try to catch your breath and try to calm down.   You turn the radio to a pop station just to listen to something different.  Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" blares out of the speakers and suddenly you picture those Glee kids singing their hearts out oblivious to Sue Sylvester lurking in the background.   Your heart starts to slow down and you take a shaky swig from your bottled water.  After a minute or two, you can finally catch your breath.   Rather weakly and barely on key, you join Steve Perry at the refrain: "Don't stop believing - hold on to that feeling - streetlights, people - oooooooohhhhhh!"  A sort of calm takes hold of your body as you continue to try to out sing Journey's front man.   Then it occurs to you - that you need to stop listening to depressing news shows and start listening to Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars instead.   Because while National Public Radio definitely has the lock on probing interviews - you discover that what you really need is a good dose of the Lazy Song during the morning rush hour.    Singing badly at the top of your lungs in your car is just one juicy slice of awesome to get you through your day.  

Finding your happy place can be a challenge in this day and age.  We seem to be so programed for negativity and gloom and doom that being joyful can seem like a guilty pleasure - especially when the internet is primed to really bring you down.  For every laughing baby on YouTube, there's at least 10 rants from the Real Housewives or a new outbreak of violence or disease in a developing country.  I was talking to a group of women when the resident Debbie Downer proceeded to read a series of depressing statistics that she was getting from her Twitter feed.  When I suggested that she might be happier if she was following Conan O'Brien or Jimmy Fallon and watching a sitcom to break the tension - she looked at me seriously and said "Never!"   Why kill that sense of constant righteous indignation with something fun and mindless? 

Here's the problem constant negativity - habitual thoughts and behaviors create specific neural pathways in the wiring in our brains, similar to the way water flowing downhill creates a groove in the earth. When we think or behave a certain way over and over, the neural pathway is strengthened and the groove becomes deeper. Unhappy people tend to have more negative neural pathways -- their minds are literally stuck in a rut.   But here's the good news: new research shows that when you repeatedly think, feel, and act in a different way, the brain actually rewires itself. This means you can change your happiness set point.   Leading brain researcher Richard Davidson, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported recently that, "Based on what we know about the plasticity of the brain, we can think of happiness as a skill no different from learning to play a musical is possible to train our minds to be happy." 

For me, finding those little moments of happiness in my day can do more for me than a double dose of St. John's Wort ever could.  For instance, on Saturdays, I go to Zumba and then spend the rest of the day in my yoga pants because frankly it's the weekend - I'm just too lazy to wear real pants.   Going to Target with my kids and getting a decaf low fat Salted Caramel latte with a little whipped cream is a sure ticket to my happy place - it just makes me smile.  Taking the kids to the park and jumping around like an idiot is very therapeutic.  Sitting on the carpet and watching movies with the Amber and Daniel is another way I like to spend some fun time on the weekends.  Cuddling with my husband or exchanging really inappropriate "That's what she said" jokes is a simple way to laugh together.  

Many people expect too much from the pursuit of happiness and make themselves miserable along the way.  They think that by finding that perfect spouse will end their days of loneliness, or getting that big promotion will guarantee financial independence, or finally going to Hawaii on the perfect vacation will give them the Nirvana that they've been searching for.  In the end, they end up disappointed because, no person, place or thing will ever give them that sense of satisfaction if they don't know how to find it for themselves.   

In the movie, It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey spends his life regretting never leaving Bedford Falls and feeling like a failure when his business is about go under on Christmas Eve of all days.   He's sacrificed so much to help others and in the end he is emotionally and financially exhausted (as someone whose spent my entire adult life working with charities, I can relate).  He is so tied into finding his destiny once he can leave his hometown that he cannot see all the blessings that have been bestowed on him.  It takes an angel named Clarence to show him what the world would be like if he was not around.   He realizes that it's his wife, family and even that drafty old house that makes him happy not that elusive dream of building bridges overseas.   

You have to find those moments of happiness each day - because if you don't find them for yourself - frankly no one else will.  It's so easy to play a crappy mood forward or to pass on a lousy day at work to those who are near and dear.   One way to beat that is to make some else's day by complimenting a co-worker or the women next to you in the supermarket checkout on her hair or shoes (this is a safe choice even if you're a guy and worried that she might think you're flirting with her - complimenting hair and shoes is not something most straight men do).   When you see how happy a compliment from a random stranger makes someone,  you end up feeling great too.    Those small acts of kindness make your world a better place and can really be a tipping point in someone else's day.   

This parable form the book 5 Habits of Truly Happy People by Marci Shimoff and Carol Kline really brings the importance of happiness into focus: One evening a Cherokee elder told his grandson about the battle that goes on inside people's heads. He said, "My son, the battle is between the two 'wolves' that live inside us all. One is unhappiness. It is fear, worry, anger, jealousy, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, and inferiority. The other is happiness. It is joy, love, hope, serenity, kindness, generosity, truth, and compassion.  "The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?"  The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."  

So do yourself a favor and find at least 30 minutes a day to laugh and spend time with someone you care about - even if it's a pet.  Tell the people that you love simply that you love them.    Watch an episode of The Office after a bad day at work - it will help put things in perspective (because let's face it - we've all worked for a Michael Scott at one time or another).   Happiness can take time to create - but it's totally worth it.  Just close your eyes, take a deep breath and don't stop believing.  

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