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Good Fortune

Money can’t buy happiness. Beauty is only skin deep. Age is just a number. It may be an illusion that wealth, beauty, and youth bring happiness, but I have to admit, sometimes it’s still a convincing one.

Earlier this summer, when I was stranded in South Carolina waiting for my car to be fixed, I had the good fortune of staying with a friend from graduate school and her family. At the time, I had been on this kick about destiny, so her daughter recommended that I read Holes, by Louis Sachar. It’s about a boy who is sentenced to work at a camp for delinquent boys for a crime he didn’t commit. Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, he was exactly where he was supposed to be. I was working hard to stay positive about my situation, so I wondered if my reading “Holes” was meant to be, as well.

I asked my young friend what else I should read, and she recommended Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. It’s about a Chinese girl named Minli who goes on a long journey to try to change her family’s fortune. In the end, she learns that family is the greatest fortune of all.

Every year my college friend and I have an Inner Child Reunion. During our first reunion a few years ago, I introduced her to Sophie and she realized that she had a part of herself that was not allowed to play. So we make it a priority to get together for a few days over the summer for an extended play date. This year we could not find a mutual time to meet, so she decided to bring her son and meet me at my brother’s house because I had to babysit my niece. So it was a double reunion since she, my brother, and I all went to UVA.

As usual, my friend and I lamented over the very adult burdens of money, weight gain, and aging, but without the same level of obsessiveness as before. Perhaps it was because spending several days with 4 adults and 2 actual children, in addition to our inner children, left us with less energy for lamentations. Or perhaps it was because being together helped us to be more grateful for what we have.

I’m not gonna lie. We did not become enlightened beings over the past few days. We would still like to make a little more money, lose a little weight, and slow down the aging process. But we were also reminded that we are blessed to have family and friends who enjoy singing and recording “Let It Go” for hours on end, several days in a row. How many other people can say that? (I would post one of the videos but it’s kind of embarrassing.)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I finished “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” last night, at the conclusion of our Inner Child/College Reunion. Grace Lin was right: gratitude brings good fortune.

Blessings in Disguise

Remember how my car broke down on the way to my friend’s wedding? Well, it turned out to be more of an inconvenience than an extra day and $1000. Try 2 extra days and $3000.

I tried my best to have a good attitude about it. I made a list of the things I was thankful for. I tried to put a positive spin on everything. It helped some, but it was still annoying.

You know what helped the most? I looked at the service ticket when I got home and it turned out that my rear brakes were 95% worn. I kind of thought they were unresponsive, but I didn’t think it was that bad. I’m actually thankful that my car broke down. I was speeding because I was late for the rehearsal dinner, and if I had to break suddenly, things could have been much worse. Maybe breaking down wasn’t a punishment for having a bad attitude after all. Maybe God was looking out for me.

I often tell clients that the events that they think are terrible at the time may turn out to be blessings in disguise. This is also supported by research on happiness. I mentioned in a previous post how people who become paraplegics from car accidents return to their baseline level of happiness after about a year. Sometimes they are even thankful for the accident, because it moved their lives in a more positive direction.

I guess if you’re really cynical, you could argue that they’re just rationalizing to make themselves feel better. I don’t think this is true, but even if it were, so what? Our beliefs are more compelling than reality, anyway. I’d love to be irrationally grateful.

This holiday weekend has been tough for me. Holidays are the hardest because they are supposed to be filled with family, friends, and food. And in this case, fireworks. I am 0-4. I think about how I’ve spent the 4th of July in the past. Some of the most recent ones were far worse than I could have imagined. Now that I’m single, the best I can hope for is that holidays won’t be as lonely and depressing as I think they will be. This one is about what I expected. (Unless Federer wins tomorrow. Then it will all be worthwhile.)

My tendency is to beat myself up for my single status. I must deserve it because of all the terrible relationship decisions I’ve made. Or maybe I’m just unlucky. Or maybe at some point in the future, I’ll look back and realize that this period of solitude was also a blessing in disguise. I’m not completely convinced of this, but I’m trying to be hopeful.

These are the flowers from the wedding. It has nothing to do with blessings, but I think it’s a cool picture.

Interventions, Part 2

In the book Stumbling on Happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert gives multiple examples of how we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the studies. How people who are paraplegics from car accidents and people who win the lottery both return to their baseline level of happiness after about a year.

I often tell clients the same thing when they’re catastophizing about what will happen in the future. How they’ll be flipping burgers at McDonald’s because they got an F on their chemistry exam. How they will never find love. How they will be depressed for the rest of their lives. We don’t know what the future holds. We know that we don’t know, but we still act like we do.

So how are we supposed to make decisions if we’re so terrible at predicting the future? Gilbert recommends that we ask someone who has made a similar decision and find out how they feel about it. Psychologists say that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Still, there are no guarantees. Ultimately important decisions often come down to a leap of faith.

A few weeks ago I shared my anxiety about having to do an intervention. I asked for advice from my psychiatrist, my therapist, and from God. They all said I had to do it. But I couldn’t make myself do it. Because based on the two suggestions above, the forecast looked pretty gloomy. But a promise is a promise.

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s “No Man Is an Island,” and he says that God is involved in every aspect of our lives, guiding our every step, trying to move us closer to where we need to be. I wasn’t sure if I believed that, but it was comforting to think that it might be true. That perhaps God was moving me closer to this conversation, even though I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

I decided to blog about it because that always seems to help. One reader said that perhaps the opportunity would naturally present itself. She was right; I got my opportunity. I did my part, expecting that my concerns would be completely dismissed, but they weren’t. My words had an impact. Things are in motion, moving in the direction they’re supposed to go. And I am thankful.

When I pray for courage, I feel like God tells me that if I do my part, He will do his. And while that has always been true, I’m always still afraid to take the next step. Will it happen this time? Was I just lucky before? Will God really be there on the other side?

Sometimes it takes awhile, but I usually take that leap of faith. I may not know what is on the other side, but I know I can’t stay stuck on this side forever.

Inner Beauty

6655ECA4-615F-4250-ACA1-12AE5BE0F205There’s a lot of talk these days about redefining beauty to include people who don’t look like supermodels. And more of an emphasis on inner beauty, as indicated by the number of FB posts of people with some kind of physical defect.  (“Like” if you agree! Ignore if you’re a terrible person.)

I’m all for focusing on inner beauty, but this tactic is problematic because, by definition, inner beauty is not something that you can see in a picture. I guess we’re supposed to infer that the person is beautiful on the inside, but that doesn’t tell us what inner beauty actually “looks” like. So I’ve been thinking about people who exemplify inner beauty to me.

When I was in grad school I met this guy who had a cappuccino cart in the hotel lobby where I was on vacation. This was the era before Starbucks, so I had never heard of a cappuccino.  He was thrilled to tell me what it was, how it’s made, and what makes it so great. After that, I bought a cappuccino every day while I was there. And it tasted that much better because of how much he enjoyed making them. I thought it was a thing of beauty to see someone who loved their job that much.

I don’t remember what he looked like.

I had a similar experience once while I was picking up a package at the post office, which always annoys me. There was a long line, too. But the woman behind the counter seemed so happy to give everyone their packages that I couldn’t help but smile. I don’t think it was because she loved her job like Mr. Cappuccino; I think that’s just who she was. And there is something beautiful about someone who can be happy, regardless of what they’re doing.

I don’t remember what she looked like, either.

When I was depressed 5 years ago, I had 2 friends who called me every day to check on me. Ordinarily I can talk up a storm, but I didn’t have a whole lot to say when all I had done that day was lie on the couch and will myself to exist. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember that they were there for me.

When I was depressed back in December, I hardly saw anyone because tennis season was over, I was off for winter break, and everyone was busy preparing for the holidays. Once again, I had one friend who checked on me regularly, even though she didn’t really know me that well at the time. Occasionally I would venture out of the house and we would see a movie or have dinner.  If it weren’t for her, I could have easily gone weeks without any human interaction.

I am blessed to have such beautiful friends.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes you have to be there to fully appreciate what it means to be in the presence of beauty.

Stop Doing Bad Things

At the risk of sounding completely inconsolable, I have to admit, I don’t find most of the self-help articles on social media helpful.

Take, for example, the article 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself. I have no problem with the suggestions themselves, but I don’t like advice that begins with the word stop. In therapy, if after the first session I were to say “You’re problem is that you look exclusively to others for happiness. Stop doing that,” I’m not sure the person would come back.

Research supports the idea that stop statements are not helpful, because when you say something like “stop being idle,” you put the idea of being idle in the person’s head. If you’ve taken psychology classes, you’ve probably heard the example “don’t think about a pink elephant.” You probably weren’t thinking about one before, but you are now.

A lot of people do find advice like this helpful, and that’s great. Personally, it makes me feel more judged than inspired. I respond better to strategies that emphasize empathy and compassion, self-acceptance, and forgiveness. And I prefer suggestions that encourage me to be the best version of myself to admonitions for doing things wrong.

If I were to come up with a list like this, here’s how I would paraphrase their recommendations:

1., 13., 19., & 20. Spend time with people who bring out the best in you.

2. & 23. Have faith in yourself; it’s the best investment you’ll ever make.

3., 25., & 26. Commit to being honest with yourself and to others.

4., 21., & 27. Put your needs first. Period.

6. & 8. Practice forgiveness of yourself and others.

7., 23., & 29. Take risks, even if it means that you will fail.

9., 10., & 28. Happiness cannot be found out there in the future; it comes from within, in this moment.

11. & 12. You can move forward, even when you don’t feel ready.

14. Let people get to know you, even if it scares you.

5., 15., & 16. Make your standard of comparison the best version of yourself rather than someone else or some perfect ideal.

17. & 18. Negative experiences teach us lessons that we wouldn’t have chosen to learn on our own.

22. Think of mindfulness as exercise for your brain.

27. Practice gratitude regularly,  and thank the people who you are grateful for every chance you get.

It takes a lifetime to put these values into practice, so be patient, have faith, and be kind to yourself in the process.

I’m adding designer marbles to my doodle collection.

 

The Federer Fund

Have I mentioned that I obsess about money?

I know that money can’t buy happiness–or at least there is a point of diminishing returns–and I am past that amount. But despite this knowledge, I still buy into the illusion that my life would be better if I made just a little bit more.

It’s not like I want to be a millionaire or anything. But I would like to have more money in savings. Especially now that I’m single. Because if I were to get fired or become disabled, I can’t count on anyone to support me. And I can’t save enough to have the recommended 6 month cushion–even if I were to cut back on every unnecessary expense.

Plus there are some luxuries I’d like to be able to afford. Research says that people are happier when they spend money on experiences rather than on things. I would love to be able to go to all of the Grand Slam tennis tournaments. And I would love to be able to semi-stalk Federer. Not in a creepy way. Just go to whatever event he’s playing in, even if it’s in Dubai or Halle, Germany.

Like many writers, I have the fantasy of having a best seller and making millions of dollars. But the more I read about publishing, the more I realize that this is about as likely as winning the lottery. But we all need something to fantasize about. Plus, someone has to win the publishing lottery. Why not me?

Sometimes it’s hard to be patient and focus on writing these blog posts, which I make absolutely nothing for, knowing that it will probably take years before anything happens–if anything were to happen. Federer might be retired by then.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m glad my blog is helping people. That’s why I started it. But is some monetary compensation too much to ask for when I am potentially helping more people than I do in my real job?

I’ve been brain-storming some ways that I can make money from my blog now, while Federer is still playing. You know how when you go on a tour and the guide tells you at the end that tips are greatly appreciated? I could tell readers that if they liked the psychological tour provided by this post, they can make a donation to the Federer Fund.

I think this strategy is better than charging people for buying a mini-book or putting ads on my blog. Not that there’s anything wrong with those strategies. I just think it would be more consistent with the theme of my blog to appeal to people’s altruistic side. Sort of a reciprocity thing.

I could even do a YouTube video where I charm people into making donations. I think I’m much more convincing in person. I could video myself looking sad because I’m watching Federer play on my low definition small screen TV from thousands of miles away.

I mean, if you had a chance to see shots like this one in person, wouldn’t you do whatever it takes to make that happen?

Children, Part 2

I babysat for my niece over the Thanksgiving break, which was tiring but a lot of fun. I never had a sister growing up but really wanted one, so it’s fitting that Sadie likes to pretend that we’re sisters. I told her about Sophie and she wasn’t phased at all. I guess kids don’t think it’s crazy when you tell them that you have an inner child because so much of their play revolves around their imagination.

Sadie has recently discovered that she’s a really good singer, so we started off the day belting out country songs and show tunes on Youtube during breakfast. The song “Tomorrow” has been running through my head for over a week now. I promised Sadie I would wake up early so the singing started around 7:30 a.m. while I drank my coffee and tried to wake up.

Then, because snow is a rare occurrence in Knoxville, we went sledding in the back yard. I was never big on sledding even as a kid so I was not expecting this to be much fun but it turned out to be a blast. I usually try to get exercise by playing tennis or obsessively counting steps, but it’s much more fun if you do it by playing, like kids do. So I counted that as my workout for the day.

After that I took Sadie shopping to buy her very first Christmas gifts with her own money.  It was sweet and hilarious to see how excited she was about it. Not only was this a good lesson in altruism, but it also taught her the value of money. By the last gift she realized that she didn’t have enough to buy a My Pretty Pony or whatever those things are called, so she asked me to buy it for her since she’d been so generous. How could I say no to that?

We treated ourselves to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory and shared the pumpkin cheesecake. Which was awesome! When we got home I helped Sadie wrap her gifts and drank more coffee. I was still really tired by then so we watched Brady Bunch episodes until her parents came home. At which point she made them open their Christmas gifts and told them that she bought them with her own money but now she didn’t have any left. They reassured her that she would probably get more money for Christmas.

I took a nap shortly after their arrival.

One of the less intuitive findings on happiness is that having children does not make people happier on a day-to-day basis, but parents believe that children make them happier to justify all of the hard work in raising them. Sort of like the principle behind hazing as a way to bond with your fraternity.

I’m not sure I buy that explanation. Having children isn’t about happiness. It’s about love. And love doesn’t always make you happy. In fact, sometimes it makes you miserable. But when you choose to love someone, you do it because you want to experience the full range of what it means to be human–even the negative stuff. And children definitely allow you to experience that full range.

I wrote this blog post because Sadie asked me to write another one about her last week but I never got around to it. Here is a picture of her modeling her sledding attire.

And here is Sophie’s drawing of Sadie and me.