When you ask people to get right down to it, they want to be…happy.
Consider anything that you do, even those things that are difficult: get up early in the morning for a run; work on your marriage; start a meditation practice. Why are you doing it? Because you want to be happy.
But then there are those times when, no matter what you do, happiness feels like a bus that’s just never arriving. You got yourself to the right stop, on time, and the schedule says that the bus should arrive, but the Happiness Bus is leaving you alone on that corner (and you feel convinced that everyone else is on that bus, without you).
In other words, you’ve tried all of the “stuff you’re supposed to do, to get out of this funk.” You’ve gone to yoga and had your green smoothies and you floss and wear a seat belt and perhaps even go to some workshops or read some self-help books on “how to be happy,” but it just isn’t happening.
I’ve been there (as you’ll see). This post is for you.
Yes–Happiness IS about what you do
Perhaps someone has said to you in their Zen voice, that “happiness is not something that you do; happiness is what you are.”
When I was clinically depressed (I don’t consider myself to be, anymore), comments like that made me want to say to the person, “Way to be an asshole, buddy.” I wanted to be met where I was at, seen fully, and supported as I lifted myself out–not told some pithy self-helpy nonsense that didn’t really make sense to me because I felt so lost and alone.
I do think that it’s true that on a fundamental, soul-level, happiness is what you are.
I also think that it’s true that if you want to be happier, if you want to tap into what you truly are, you’re going to have to make some choices. These choices will involve “doing stuff.”
At your core, you are light n’ joy–of course. But you can’t see the light when you’re hiding out in a dark room. The first thing you’ll “do” to decide you want to be happier will be make a choice: I want to be happier, and I’m willing to make different choices.
Biochemistry, or Choice?
A quick note: is happiness biochemistry, or choice? All the best research indicates that it’s about 50/50. We’ve got a basic “happiness set point” that we’re born with, and that’s 50% of the deal. The remaining 50%, however? It’s not genetics; it’s choice.
Some of the choices you make do influence biochemistry (the hormones and systems in your physical body), and emerging science indicates that biochemistry does influence how genes express themselves.
Bottom-line: no one is pre-disposed to be 100% miserable. You can capitalize on genetic gifts and even make choices that influence them.
The Basic Happiness List
When I was clinically depressed, I wasn’t miserable for lack of trying. In the Courageous Living Program, I share more of the story, but the long and the short of it is that for me, climbing out of clinical depression meant doing things very, very differently.
I was reminded of how tough depression feels, in the weeks after my daughter was born. I was sleep-deprived, recovering from a c-section, and trying to survive my body’s hormonal roller coaster. It is an almost impossible feeling to describe to anyone who has not had children; I simultaneously felt more joy than I could imagine when I held my daughter close, and yet I felt so hopeless and low as the weeks dragged on and I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever function in my life, again. I remember walking through Whole Foods one evening, looking at all of the other shoppers and thinking strange, surreal thoughts. I felt disconnected from reality.
I was falling, fast. I could feel an impeding meltdown–and I am not using the term lightly–in every cell of my body. It scared me.
So, I sat down and I made a baseline list of things that I needed to do, every single day, to pull myself out of this. It was a similar list to the things that I started to do to emerge from the clinical depression that has plagued me in my twenties. I didn’t necessarily phrase it this way, but in summary, it was something like this:
Drink a ton of water.
Get outside for a once daily walk, even if it’s only five minutes.
Meditation, even if it’s only five minutes.
Salad, daily. (Note: this does not say “eat a perfectly clean, organic, raw foods diet, with no chocolate for the rest of your life.” One salad, each day. That’s it).
Dance to a song.
Daily gratefuls with my husband.
Mild yoga stretches.
These were the things that I knew would be both mood boosters as well as biochemistry influencers. The hardest was number five, because I felt like a fool, swaying my loose, awkward, postpartum body to a song even in the privacy of my home office, but I did it.
The Harder Happiness Choices
But those are only the basics. There were other, harder happiness choices that I needed to make when I was emerging from clinical depression in my 20s. Choices like:
1. Distance yourself from negative people. This meant not speaking to anyone–family members, old friends, and at one point in graduate school, the world’s absolute worst Mean Girl roommate–who brought me down. Later, yes, I’d need to learn the lessons of personal responsibility, not giving others enough power to “bring me down,” and seeing the wounds that were behind their craptastic behavior. But when I was trying to throw myself a life preserver? No contact. Stay away. Wide berth.
2. Surround yourself with fabulous. Fabulous music, fabulous people, fabulous food, fabulous clothes. I systematically started to eliminate the un-fabulous and bring in more fabulous. This was a conscious undertaking into really understanding what I thought was fabulous, as opposed to what people stereotypically think of–things like gorging on sweets or blasting upbeat music. I was interested in what spoke to my soul, what was quality. I didn’t want to wear a single item of clothing that had me think “meh” when I looked in the mirror. I wanted song lyrics that felt like they’d been written as a love poem just for me.
3. Follow the whims. I took random drives, making turns down unexpected side streets. I grabbed a notebook and went to a cafe I’d never seen, before. I wandered around new sections of the book store. I drove past a trail head, turned around to park, and hiked it even though I wasn’t wearing the right clothes or shoes. I woke up and thought, “I want to go to the beach” and spent the entire day getting there, only to arrive at sunset when it was turning cold. (P.S. It was worth it).
4. I changed my language. I was working intensively with my coach at the time, and he challenged me to switch “had to” into “get to.” I turned “can’t” into “I’m not choosing to” or “I don’t want to,” because they were more honest phrases. The linguistic interruptions stopped me in my tracks, every time.
4. Conscious crying. I had to cry. I had to grieve. I imagine that from child hood alone, all of us have at least a year’s worth of crying in our bodies. I got to it.
What Happened After I Did All That Stuff
When I distanced myself from negative people, I was able to see more clearly what it was that I truly wanted, without being influenced by them. I was able to see how I could create it, without hearing their wet blanket womp-womps.
When I surrounded myself with fabulous, life started to feel more fabulous. I was more discerning about what really made me happy versus what “should” make me happy but just didn’t quite click.
When I followed whims, I met more interesting people, I laughed more, I got more curious about life. When I got curious, I felt like maybe more was possible than the misery I’d been mired in.
When I changed my language, I was confronting every single self-imposed limitation that I’d created in my head. When I confronted limitations, I realized how few of them really existed. Hello, powerful.
When I consciously cried, I freed up–on a somatic, bodily level–all of the pent up pain and hurt. I needed to cry it out. I found that when I gave myself full permission to cry, rather than trying to hold it all in, what was on the other side of those tears wasn’t as scary as I’d been afraid it might be.
This is how to be happy , really. To be happy is to be connected with ourselves and others. To be happy is to feel grounded in who we are, to feel our power. The joy can’t stop, won’t stop, when we pave the way.
First, my best moment. The moment that was everything:
meeting Anika Jane. June 2, 2014.
And now on to the lessons:
1. Forget about “being realistic.” This is an oldie, but goodie. I’ve lost count of how many times someone has told me to “be realistic” about something I deeply desired. I lead with this because whatever it is that you desire for your life, whatever it is that you want to create, whatever that thing is that feels so fucking big as to be impossible–well, it’s possible. Some how, some way. And if you want it badly enough, you’ll find a way to get it.
2. “As in the beginning, so in the middle, so in the end.” In other words, those initial red flags? Don’t explain those away, thinking that surely you must be mis-reading something. Your initial hits about a situation or person tend to show up again (in the middle) and the end (when you’re shaking your head and asking yourself how you ended up here). When you sense that something’s not right, there are two places where you end up: Either you’re on target with your perceptions that something’s off (which means the situation is no bueno), or if you truly are mis-reading something, then you’re going to fight the impulses in your body that are screaming that something’s wrong. Either way, it doesn’t feel good–so keep it simple, and distance yourself from what doesn’t feel good. Whether it was hiring contractors, booking hotels, or proposing workshops, 2014 made it clear that while it’s woo-woo to follow the energy of something, woo is where it’s at. When things were easy-peasy from the get-go, I walked away feeling lifted up. Any time I pushed something through, all I ever got was more pushing.
3. “If you don’t feel comfortable asserting your boundaries, that’s your sign that you shouldn’t work with them.” –Rachael Maddox . I was on the phone with my girl Rach, trying to parse through a sticky hiring situation. Rachael and I started jamming on boundaries, and that’s when she delivered this gem. It hit like a perfectly aimed arrow, helping me to understand why I hadn’t spoken up more, or sooner, and why I’d accepted months of flimsy excuses. Note that this doesn’t just apply to who you hire–it works for romantic relationships, friendships, and any other collaboration.
4. Gratitude for the little things will save your life. In the first few weeks with baby, everything was challenging. My daughter went through a brief period of crying every night, off and on, from approximately five p.m. to ten p.m. Finally (!) she would go to sleep. My husband and I would sit on the couch, sip a glass of wine together, and share five things that we were grateful for. I remember clinging to that little gratitude ritual, because we were so sleep-deprived and wrecked from all the crying, and we knew that in just a few hours she would be awake, again. It was a tiny moment of normalcy between us at a time when everything felt upended. It taught me the power of gratitude in a way that nothing else ever has. (Oh, and–some big gratitude that she stopped crying for five hours a night!).
5. “Self-care” is not a buzzword, not a thing that you tick off the box, not something you should “do more of.” It’s a lifestyle. I’m either living a lifestyle that integrates self-care into its very fibre, or I’m not. There’s no in-between. This is another “lesson from the land of bebe.” I’ve learned that if I want to be the kind of mother that I desire to be, self-care is not something to fit in. It’s the way that I need to live.
6. It’s okay to release relationships where there is not a shared vision. Business relationships. Friendships. Collaborations. Doctors. I’m not talking about giving someone the grand middle finger. I’m talking about acceptance that there isn’t a shared vision for what the two of you would come together to create, and releasing the relationship. One of the “hazards” of being a life coach is that with my understanding that shitty behavior is the result of prior wounding, I’ve been hesitant to release a relationship that wasn’t a match. “They’re wounded; I want to be compassionate,” I’d think. “After all, I’m hardly perfect! I’ve got wounds. I wouldn’t want people to ditch me because of my imperfections.” But this was resulting in various connections that weren’t feeling good and in some cases, being totally taken advantage of. A lesson learned: sometimes, the kindest thing we can do in a situation is release it. Side note: Pema Chodron has written about this. It’s called “idiot compassion.” That term pretty much sums it up.
7. Raising a baby exposes you to more extremes. At least, it has for me. The extremes of joy are highs like no other. My happier moments are far more happy than they ever were, pre-baby. I never get sick of seeing my daughter smile. And the flip-side? The irritation can also be an extreme low. There have been times in the past few months where I’ve had the thought that because my husband left out the butter for the umpteenth time, our marriage was in trouble (luckily, then my common sense catches hold of me). Freaking out about butter? Yeah. Freaking out about butter.
8. I struggle a wee bit more with not being liked, than I had thought. In 2014, I found myself delaying making decisions (so as to be liked for just a little bit longer, until I needed to decide on something and cause some upset); grounding in my “no” to requests yet inwardly writhing (because I really, really felt attached to being liked); not speaking up (so that I could avoid an awkward conversation that might result in not be liked). Inevitably, of course, whether or not I am liked is not something that I can control. The surprise for me in 2014 was seeing how often this came up and needing to remember and re-re-re-remember the lesson of giving up control. It’s always someone else’s choice to decide whether or not they like me, based on something I do or say. My job is my open heart.
9. My priorities are clearer than ever before. I realize that it’s a cliche, but having a baby has brought things into a tighter focus. I had already considered myself someone who just didn’t have time for bullshit. But now? After baby? Now I really (really!) don’t have time for bullshit. Bullshit like endless hours of Facebook or cable television surfing. Bullshit like trying to negotiate peace in relationships where I’m the only one wanting to negotiate. Bullshit like not taking care of myself with exercise or nourishing food so that I can show up for my daughter in the way that I want to. If I want time for family + business + self, then I need to trim away the bullshit.
10. I’m capable of more than I had thought I was (and the mantra, “I dunno, but I’ll figure it out” really helps). I wondered how motherhood was going to affect…everything. But somehow, I delivered. When Entrepreneur Magazine asked if I’d become a weekly contributor, when Danielle LaPorte and her team reached out to me to ask if I’d be one of the first beta testers to run Desire Map workshops before they formally debuted to licensees, and when they followed up by asking if I’d shoot a series of teaching-related videos…I felt a “yes” in my body followed by, “But how am I going to manage that?” followed by, “I dunno, but I’ll figure it out.” And, I did. Or, I should say, we did, since this was a family effort–my husband pitched in with child care (and I returned the favor when a concept he submitted for an art and music festival was accepted for a public art installation). We figured out schedules, coordinated pick ups and drop offs with day care, and I hustled (Van McCoy style) with my work.
That’s my 2014 recap–by far and away the most challenging of my life, but also without question, the most joyful. Want to complete your own? Check out the free 2015 Courageous Living Planner, available until January 15, 2015.
I had just read about a terrible act of terrorism. There are so many of them that sharing which one will seem almost comical to anyone who reads this post a year from now; they all sound so alike that they blend together.
This one involved children. And this year, I became a mother. And these days, when I hear stories about atrocities committed against children, it hits me in a completely new way. I ache for those parents, and for the loss of so much human potential that was loved and nurtured. I think of how, when my daughter is not at home, the house feels empty when her roars of delight or demands to be picked up isn’t the background hum of our life.
Even a second of thinking that I would never hear those sounds again or feel her warm little body against mine or kiss those little fingers and toes that are always in motion?–unimaginable.
* * *
And, then there’s life. I was in a conflict with someone. I was ruminating on things they’d said, things I’d said. Months were passing with no real resolution. I went about my day. I’d hear about some new, more recent thing that they’d said about me, and then feel the anger surging up, again. I’d feel distant and disconnected from myself whenever I thought of the situation.
Things kept amplifying. If I spoke respectfully, it didn’t get better. If I fought back and tried to explain myself, it didn’t get better. If I completely distanced myself to give time and space, it didn’t get better. Tit for tat. You did this, so I’ll do this–oh, you did that? Well, then I’ll do that plus this!
But then, another frustrating conversation or little anecdote would filter over to me, and again, I’d feel frustrated.
It was a surprise to me on a random day of the week when I suddenly thought of, and then began crying for, those children. It was like a dam bursting forth; one moment, I had read about these children hours earlier and simply filed it away in my mind the way we do with most of the endless stream of bad news that we see in any given day, and in another moment, I was aching.
I thought of those parents grieving all the way across the world, and wished that I could hug them tight and close. I wished that there were anything I could do to stop this kind of war and madness.
I felt apologetic, more than anything. I kept thinking, “I’m sorry; I’m sorry; I’m sorry.”
This is the guilt that often accompanies privilege: to know that you have it so good when others don’t, that it’s as if you’re getting away with something. In that moment, I felt sorry for having it so good and not being able to do anything to undo someone else’s pain.
But I knew that this grief was not where I wanted to live. It’s tempting for all of us to believe that if someone else would be different (bosses, friends, family), if those outer circumstances (money, time) would be different–why, if only those terrorists would be different, then we’d all be happy! I know that this belief system is a fallacy.
It’s this fallacy that the people or the stuff “out there” needs to change before we can change, that keeps anything from ever changing.
So I asked myself, “Where am I at war, in my life?”
And swiftly, I got my answer.
The Buddhists say that all war starts within. It’s because we abuse ourselves that we will abuse others; it’s because we’ll go to war within our immediate families that we will go to war with other countries; it’s because we starve ourselves (of love, if not literally of food) that we will tolerate the starvation of our neighbors who can’t afford food.
This is why I don’t think that personal growth work is selfish. We cannot give what we do not have, and anything you do to grow who you are on an individual level can only ever benefit the collective whole. The more you grow, the more it becomes imperative to your growth to raise others up, to bring them with you.
For all of my attempts to listen and speak respectfully, to practice compassion, I was at war–the war of wanting someone else’s behavior to change. If only they’d see my perspective, I thought, they’d realize that I was trying to communicate with love, and that I didn’t want this madness between us.
That’s just arrogance. The way to stop the war? Short of enacting necessary boundaries for my physical and mental well-being, I could just let them live the way they wanted to live. Not in a dismissive or condescending way, but rather dropping all desires to get them to make different choices.
That meant, somewhat painfully, letting them say what they wanted to say (to me, about me), letting them be as close or as distant as they chose.
Ending the war is really about releasing control. If I find it to be madness that two religions would fight each other because “you don’t believe what I believe,” then it is just as much madness to be locked in conflict with someone else in our luxurious, first-world circumstances, for the same underlying reason.
Sometimes, there is a pop-bonus-surprise! with these stories, where a day or a week later, for reasons no one can discern, the other person in the story who was kicking up so much trouble magically decides to chill the fuck out and then the conflict resolves itself. Then the narrator of the story gets to wrap it all up in a neat little bow.
This isn’t one of those stories, at least not in that way. What happened for me when I realized that I didn’t want to be at war, anymore, was that I found an immediate kind of peace.
“They get to live, how they want to live.” My new mantra. My new rallying cry of freedom.
Also, in a world where the political system increasingly feels less representative of public will, where calling my representatives and asking them to do something is going to be about as effective as putting a sticker on my butt, ending the war within and trying to create communities of people who are willing to practice respect and tolerance becomes the one thing we can do. It’s how to change the world .
There will always be grief in knowing that my little, individual self cannot stop the suffering I hear about on the news. But I’m willing to do what I’m able to do.
I’m willing to start with my own little heart, and hope that a movement springs from there.