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Happiness is…

Sectionals

It’s been a year since my brother got out of the hospital and I invited him to live with me. The past week has been a series of anniversaries of traumatic events, and in that series, today was the worst day.

A year later, I am having a stellar beginning to my academic year. Further proof of the benefits of practicing mindfulness–the reminder that all things pass, and ultimately you will be OK. I have also learned how to look for happiness when it seems as though there’s nothing to be happy about, and how to savor it when I experience it.

This year began with my tennis team advancing to sectionals. If you don’t know anything about league tennis, this is a big deal. It’s sort of like advancing to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And if you don’t watch basketball, then just think of it as a once in a lifetime experience.

One of the lessons on happiness that I often write about is that you never know how you will feel about something until you get there. I had always imagined that advancing to sectionals would be a joyful thing. And it was joyful, but it was many other things, too. That seems to be the general rule–we never feel just one thing. Instead, we feel multiple, often contradictory things. I was happy we won but it didn’t make me a happier person in general. I still worried about the same things, had the same insecurities. Winning didn’t make me less neurotic, and it didn’t change my life for the better. It was a reminder that, because all things pass, happiness is also fleeting.

During the weekend of the tournament I had the opportunity to get to know two players who I had never spoken to before beyond saying hello. Although they barely knew me, when I needed a place to stay, they invited me to stay in their room on the spot–which helped tremendously with my obsessing about money. Many of my friends helped in whatever way they could–negotiated a lower rate for my room, shared their food with me. It was a reminder that making meaningful connections with other people is the thing that brings me the greatest happiness. It’s why I have the job that I do. Why I captain so many teams. Why I want everyone go out to dinner after our matches.

In a few weeks, we will be off to sectionals, and I am excited about the chance to advance to nationals. I will enjoy the challenge. I will channel my inner warrior. I will go all out to win. But win, lose, or draw, I know that the time off court with friends old and new will give me plenty to be happy about. And after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat fades, the friendships will still remain.

Satisfaction Guraranteed

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I’ve read a lot of books on happiness. I’m practically an expert on the subject, as far as my library is concerned. The book that has been on my mind recently is by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Which doesn’t sound like a book on happiness, but of all the books I’ve read so far, I think he gives the best advice on how to be happy.

This will probably not come as a surprise to you if you read my blog, but the key to happiness is to practice mindfulness. Well, actually, it was still surprising to me, because even though I do practice mindfulness, I’m not sure I am necessarily any happier than I was before I started doing so. So I was anxious to find out what I needed to be doing differently.

Here’s how it works: in any given moment, there will be good things and bad things. (Although I think he refrains from using the words good and bad, because Buddhism tries to avoid judgment and criticism. But I can’t remember what phrase he used.). We often imagine that if some aspect of our lives were different, we would be happier. If only we had a better job. More hours in the day. Eternal summer. In reality, even if we could get everything we wanted, it would just change the content of the good and bad things in our lives at that moment.

For example, lately I’ve been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with my single status. I tried to have a positive attitude on Valentine’s Day, but it would have been nice to have some guy other than my allergist wish me Happy Valentine’s Day. And he probably only said that because he kept me waiting for an hour before he finally saw me.

But when I really think about it, I thought it was sucky to be in a relationship, too. I don’t miss arguing about stupid stuff like where to put the plants. I don’t miss those periods of feeling disconnected during arguments. Being in a relationship didn’t even make me feel any more secure. The fear of rejection and abandonment was always looming. Every day my clients remind me of all of the pain and heartache that come with love, and I don’t miss that pain at all.

In many ways, my current life has been an exercise in learning how to be happy with what I have. When I got divorced I lost more than half my income and constantly stressed about the safety that comes with having money. Now I’m also supporting my brother and have even less than I did before. But I worried about money when I had more of it, too. So I really can’t say that money has made me happy, because my fear about not having enough of it has always kept me unhappy, no matter how much I had in my bank account.

Even though I still find myself wishing my life were different every day, multiple times a day, I do believe that happiness comes from accepting whatever life is in this moment. This mixture of joy and pain, good and bad. My relationship status. My income. Even my ability to access happiness.

When I teach clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that the goal is not to be successful at staying in the moment, but rather to become aware of when they are not and to bring their focus back to the present. So that’s what I do. A thought about how my life sucks pops into my head, and I remind myself that it is possible even in the midst of my pain to access happiness. Over and over again, until I get to that moment.

If Only…

waiting-for-happiness

It’s that time of year again–after Daylight Savings Time, shortly before Thanksgiving–when I am the most at risk for a depressive episode. But this year I am determined not to have one. Or at least to control whatever is in my control to prevent one. I mean, that is always my goal, but I do have an added incentive this year: I have to be able to take care of my brother, which means I have to take care of myself.

I am happy to say that I have been much better about setting boundaries as a result of this added motivation. I can only help so many people. I can only worry about so many things at once. I can only take on so many responsibilities.

The biggest problem is that, despite all of the blog posts I’ve written about letting go of those illusions of happiness that people cling to– money, beauty, the perfect relationship, extra hours in the day–I still cling to my illusions of happiness. I feel this restlessness that can’t be soothed. I long for something that will take the edge off. I turn to something that will only provide fleeting moments of relief, at best.

Lately I’ve been turning to shopping. I know it’s compulsive. I know that the relief will be temporary. I repeat this to myself as I fill my cart, put in my credit card information, and hover over the order button.

Sometimes I can talk myself out of it for a few days. But during those days I still obsess over it. Would it really be so bad if I bought another pair of boots? Don’t I deserve some indulgence, given the crappiness of my life?

So I give in and hit order. But a few days later, I have the itch to shop again. And then I have to take money out of savings to pay my credit card bill. And then I obsess about not having any money. And then I feel deprived, so I want to buy more stuff.

The problem is, I need something to think about. And if I’m not going to fill my head with all of these illusions of happiness, then what, exactly, am I supposed to think about?  So then I try to remember what all of those mindfulness books say about happiness.

I list all of the things that I can be thankful for. This is tricky, though, because if I see an accident on the side of the road, I think, I’m glad I haven’t gotten injured in a car accident. But then my obsessive brain will be like, oh my God! What if I get in a car accident?!

So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion and tell myself that we’re not going to focus on car accidents because that stresses you out. We’re trying to focus on things that will make you feel more content. Like, how nice the weather is today, given that it’s the middle of November.

Or I’ll try to be fully present by focusing on whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing in that moment. Like driving. Or listening to my client. Or watching UVA get killed in football. Or I’ll do something that I enjoy, like knit, or read, or write.

But eventually I give in and shop some more. So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion again and remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can.

It’s a lot of work, quite honestly. But it does occupy my mind with something other than illusions of happiness. So I’ll keep practicing and see if it keeps me from getting depressed.

shoes

Do you think I bought too many shoes?

Olympic Dreams and Self-Esteem

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I’ve really enjoyed watching the Olympics over the past 2 weeks. During the Winter Olympics 0f 2014 I wrote a post about my dream of being an Olympic athlete. I didn’t so much care about being the greatest athlete of all time, but I wanted to be a part of the opening ceremonies, live in the Olympic Village (without getting stuck in an elevator for 40 minutes like Del Potro), and exchange pins with other athletes.

During this year’s Olympics I was struck by how many stories there were about gold medalists (usually men) who felt lost, depressed, even suicidal after their success. How they turned to drugs, alcohol, got in trouble with the law, wandered around purposeless, sometimes homeless, not knowing what their next goal should be. Michael Phelps’ story is probably the most surprising one of all. What would the greatest Olympian of all time have to feel depressed about?

This is the myth that continues to haunt us in our search for happiness. We believe that achieving greatness will transform us into someone who we will finally like. It will bestow upon us a sense of self-worth and belonging. We will feel purposeful, useful, and lovable.

In a previous post I wrote about how I had a similar experience after I got my Ph.D. I was expected to get an education beyond college. Preferably medical school, but in one of my few acts of rebellion, I chose clinical psychology instead. Even in my first year of grad school I had fantasies about how smart and accomplished I’d feel after getting my doctorate. Only to find out that instead I felt…exactly the same. Actually, maybe even a little worse. Because if having a Ph.D. didn’t make me feel better about myself, I realized that nothing would. I had nothing left to channel my energy into. No fantasies about how I was just one accomplishment away from achieving my dream of not feeling sucky.

There are other versions of the dream of transformation. They involve six figure salaries, weight loss, a youthful appearance. The perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect children. Everything we ever wanted is waiting for us…right after we accomplish this one thing. Oops. Not that one. The next one. Or maybe the next one.

Yesterday on the ride home from our annual Cincy Tennis Tournament trip, I was telling my friend that my job in therapy is to tell my clients over and over again that they are OK, just the way they are. Every week they bring in a different set of problems, different flaws, different confessions, and I say those are all OK, too. You’re still fine. On the one hand, that may seem like a strategy that is too simple to be transformative, but you should try it some time. It’s surprisingly difficult to believe we’re fine the way we are. That’s why change takes so long; we need to hear it all the time. We are never fully confident that we are good enough.

It’s clear that Michael Phelps still enjoys winning gold medals. It’s obviously still a thrill to train to be the best, to see that his hard work has paid off, and to know that he’s still the greatest. But he also seems more at peace about retiring. After all, he is not just the greatest Olympic athlete of all time; he is also a father and a soon-to-be husband. Will he come back to the Olympics in 4 years? Maybe. But if he does, it will be because he loves the competition–not because he is nothing without it.

I, too, think about accomplishing goals differently than I used to before my Ph.D. I’m still competitive and I want to win, but now it is more about the process of getting better than the result of any particular match. I do think that competing hard, playing fair, and executing my game plan say something about my character. But win or lose, when I walk off the court, I’m still the same person I was before the match began. I’m still me.

And I’m becoming increasingly comfortable with that.

I’m In Between Shoes Right Now

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Today I woke up happy because I had a good day yesterday. My tennis team won, my other team almost won, I got to play, and a bunch of my friends went out to eat afterwards–which is always my favorite part. And even though I lost my match, I played well and we split sets. The last time I played with my partner we had a set point but we blew it, and this time we closed the set out, so this match was an improvement. My friend told me that I am always looking for the silver lining. I know some people don’t believe in small victories, but I think you’re a lot happier if you do.

I was watching this commercial the other day about these athletes who were giving this guy’s daughter advice about life. David Robinson gave her positive advice, but I can’t remember what it was. This other guy who was supposed to be some loser said, “remember–success is just failure that hasn’t happened yet.” Which I thought was freaking hilarious. That’s a good illustration of what life is like when you don’t look for the silver lining.

My tennis partner gives me a hard time because he says I’m setting my sights too low and I don’t have enough faith in myself. And it’s true that I’m happy as long as we don’t get killed, but I prefer to think of it as being easily made happy about the small things. Like hitting a good forehand, since that’s my weakest shot. Or free pie on Wednesdays.

Nevertheless, I still get that sense of foreboding joy that Brene Brown talks about in her book “Daring Greatly.” I still worry about when the other shoe will drop. Sometimes after something good happens I’ll even switch to worrying about death or bodily injury, thanks to my anxiety disorder.

I just looked up the origin of that phrase, because why would it be so terrible to drop a shoe? Apparently it has its origins in NYC. In the late 19th and early 20th century, apartments were built so that the bedrooms were on top of each other, so it was common to hear when your upstairs neighbor took their shoes off. So the phrase refers to that maddening feeling of when you’re waiting for something that is inevitably going to happen. Last night on 60 Minutes they had a feature on this guy on death row who asked to be executed as quickly as possible for that very reason; he just wanted to get it over with, even though he didn’t want to die.

Most of the time I hear people say it after something good has happened and they know this means that something bad is going to happen soon and ruin everything. However, when we are feeling down, we don’t wait for the other shoe to drop; we think we’re going to feel bad forever.

When clients express this fear, I tell them to think about both positive and negative feelings as things that ebb and flow, even if we do nothing. So it’s true that when something good happens, something bad will follow at some point. But it’s equally true that when something bad happens, something good will eventually follow. The key to happiness is to be able to savor that moment, in between shoes, even though you know that at some point you won’t be happy. This works for negative feelings, too; in this moment you may be sad, anxious, or angry, but at some point you will be happy again.

So while I know that the next post you read may well be one in which I say I’m feeling depressed or anxious, in this moment I am happy, and I’m going to let myself enjoy this moment for as long as I can.

I Must Be Feeling Better

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About 2 months ago I wrote a post about feeling depressed again. I knew I was at risk of it because it was winter, and we were at our busiest time of the semester at work, and I had spent an extended period of time with my family over Thanksgiving. But often when I am in the midst of something difficult, I try so hard to be positive that I do not fully process how miserable I am in the moment–like when I hurt my back.

But that day in December I could no longer deny it–I was officially depressed. Evidenced by the fact that I was not looking forward to our cookie exchange party. Because I really like sweets. If I had been my “normal” self, I would have been singing the Cookie Monster song. You know the one. C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me! Oh, cookie cookie cookie starts with C! 

In fact, not singing out loud in public is also a sign that I’m probably depressed.

Don’t get me wrong–I still went to the party and I still ate a bunch of cookies. And I brought home a bunch of cookies and ate those, too. But I was much less joyful about it than I ordinarily would be.

The good news is, I’m better now. Because last night my friends and I went out to dinner at O’Charley’s after our tennis match, and our waitress told us that it was free pie Wednesday.

Initially, we were in a state of disbelief. It’s what? We get a free pie? Are you serious? That is awesome! Is this a limited time offer? So you mean every Wednesday we can get free pie? How long have you worked here? You’re sure it’s not going to end? If we stay here all day do we get more than one piece?

And then throughout the night I would spontaneously yell out “free pie Wednesdays!” I told my brother when he called me last night. And this morning I texted my friends who were there to remind them about free pie Wednesdays. Although I’m pretty sure they remembered.

This is what my normal state is like. Celebration of sweets to an annoying degree. But come on! Free pie! That’s the best promotion I’ve ever heard of. Still, had it been a couple of months ago, I would have been much less exuberant. I mean, I still would have gotten it and eaten my pie, but I might not have kept yelling “free pie Wednesdays!” every few minutes.

And then a couple of weeks ago I ordered some new tennis shoes and did not realize that they glow in the dark until we turned out the lights at the indoor tennis facility where we play–the one that is closing at the end of the month–and they were glowing in the dark. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, these are the most awesome tennis shoes ever!

Since then, I’ve been thinking about starting glow tennis. All of the lines and the net and the balls would glow in the dark. Plus, in addition to shoes, we could have glow-in-the-dark clothing, hats, wrist and head bands, overgrips, and strings. This would be a great way to get kids interested in tennis. And it would save electricity. There may be a slightly increased risk of injury from running around in the dark, but we could get everyone to sign a waiver and tell them to play at their own risk. No one listens to those warnings, anyway. Like running at the pool. Or diving in the shallow end.

And I could make a bunch of money if it were successful. Heck, I wouldn’t even need to win the lottery anymore. And I would get to wear my new shoes. And then after playing glow tennis I can go to O’Charley’s and eat free pie.

The only problem is, this semester may be busier than last semester, so I may be headed for a mental breakdown again in a few weeks. Knowing this in advance does not always make it possible for me to prevent it because, despite all of the work that I put into maintaining my mental state, some things are not in my control.

But in this moment, I am happy, so I’m just going to enjoy it for as long as it lasts. And wear my new shoes. And eat free pie on Wednesdays.

shoes

 

In a Perfect World

I think I would really enjoy living in paradise.

Although I do wonder sometimes if it would get boring after a while. I know some people who live at the beach say they hardly ever go, even though they moved there because they love the beach. It is no longer the place they fantasize about escaping to; it just becomes the place they live.

I know I said in my last post that perhaps things can only be extraordinary when you compare them to something ordinary. Maybe that doesn’t just apply to paradise. Maybe that applies to everything. A beautiful day. An exciting win. A perfect date. Maybe things can only be wonderful if sometimes things are terrible. At least that’s what I tell my clients as a way to help them appreciate sadness, anger, fear, and heartbreak.

Still, I’d like to give it a shot, just to make sure.

For me, in a perfect world…

I would have a place in Hawaii and Switzerland. And it wouldn’t take an entire day to get there.

It would be easy to find someone to date. And he would never drive me crazy.

Federer would always win.

The weather would always be perfect for tennis. And when it rained, it would do so after midnight.

I would have enough money to get awesome seats at any sporting event.

UVA would win the national championship in football and basketball in the same year.

My family and friends would always be healthy, happy, and safe. And so would I.

Every morning I would wake up feeling like something exciting was going to happen.

No one would make me feel ashamed that I woke up at noon.

Every book I read would be the kind that I never want to end.

And when it did, there would be a sequel that’s just as good as the first one. Maybe a whole series, even.

And then the author would write another series and that one would be just as good.

My blog would be widely read.

Some big-time publisher would approach me and tell me they want to turn my blog into a book.

I would be packing right now instead of procrastinating. And I would have put away my laundry last night instead of sleeping with all my folded clothes next to me in the bed.

I would be excited before a trip instead of stressed out about all of the things that I have to do before I leave.

I would not be depressed after the trip was over because there would be something new and exciting waiting for me when I got home.

Today I woke up at 6 am, which is crazy for me. I was all excited and couldn’t fall back asleep. There’s lots of good tennis on at Wimbledon today. My mixed doubles team plays tonight, and we have a good chance of winning. And all I have to do today is pack for my trip tomorrow, where I will get to play more tennis and spend time with my niece.

Maybe it’s not a perfect world, but we can still have moments of perfection. And this is one of them, because Federer’s match is about to start.