Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Have You Found Your Bliss?

My husband and I try to introduce our children to as many activities as we can locally find. So far our daughter has enrolled in Karate, soccer, cooking lessons and a short theater course. We take them along to play golf, swim at the YMCA pool, and do arts and crafts at the farmer's market. 

It is not our intention to discover a hidden talent that will make them stand out from others. We want to let them discover an activity for themselves that they will enjoy doing, perhaps throughout their lives.

Past studies have shown that active people  - people who keep themselves busy - are happier than those that are not, and find more enjoyment in everyday living in general.

But how should you keep yourself busy?  What should you do with yourself? The problem for some of us grown up folks lies in our belief that "idle hands are the Devil's workshop."  It is right to a point, but it's usually taken to mean that we should be busy with work - with something useful. Perhaps a better proverb for today's way too hectic life would be "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!"

Not having something fun to escape to when one is stressed, mentally overworked, bored,or as a way to reward oneself,  has a depressing affect on people.  It makes them listless and clouds their general outlook on life. ( And they are no fun to be around.)

Having something you love to do also gives you a great tool you can use when you are tempted to break your diet with that cookie, or smoke a cigarette when you are trying to quit.  Instead of giving in, walk away and do the thing you love!  It's a terrific distraction.

There are many adults who, for as many reasons, have never discovered what they might do for the sheer joy of doing it.  Sadly, many are of the opinion that any undertaking without a productive result is simply a waste of time. Some of this is due to parental or cultural influence, some to personal ambition ("I simply have more important things to do.")

Doing my own little survey for this post among family and friends, I have discovered a wide variety of activities people engage in for the sole purpose of having fun.  Retirees often have great success in finding a fulfilling hobby. They have plenty of time to check things out, and there is no longer a struggle with guilt about doing something more productive.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find that many of the people working 40+ hour weeks still had found their own little pleasures "just to get away from it all." They hook rugs, play games on the computer, knit, paint pictures by the numbers, do intricate picture puzzles; two had taken an evening class to learn how to play the guitar and someone else had taken a class to make mosaic art. 

Cross word puzzles had several enthusiasts and one working mom was a whittler with great passion. Her Grandpa had been a whittler and in her youth she would sit with him in the old barn where he would tell her stories of the magical creatures he had met in the woods while looking for just the right fallen branches. Sometimes they would leave him just what he needed on the old tree stump, where they knew he always rested for a spell.

I was so charmed by this story that I seriously thought of taking up whittling, just for a minute or two.

All this of course is to inspire you so that if you don't already have "it", you will go and get "it." It's never too late and it needn't cost much. There are many How To... websites on the internet, reasonable prices for evening classes in the local high school,  and the library is an absolute treasure for books on crafts.

When you give some thought to what you might like to pursue, something may come to mind that you were always a little curious about. Maybe you even have an acquaintance  whose hobby you had found interesting.  If it requires a specific skill, perhaps they'll show you how it's done.

Do it! Have fun!  Having fun is very important to a well balanced life - happiness and wellness go hand in hand. The only rule is that there be no judgment of "value"  on the type of activity you choose, and that the joy be purely in the doing of it! Let your whimsy be your guide.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Not Everyone Is Looking Forward To The Holidays

Christmas Day, 11:30 p.m. The house is empty again and all the guests have gone home. The children are asleep on the floor.  You kick off your shoes and fall back on the couch. The house is a mess, and you feel empty and depressed. You are ashamed of your feelings. You accuse yourself of being ungrateful. Everything was as perfect as you could possible make it, but here you are with a big aching hole inside. Just like last year, and the year before that. What did you hope would happen that didn't?

The holidays are a very painful and miserable time for many, many people.  Studies show that most of us are reluctant to share our negative feelings, particularly at this time of the year  - afraid of being judged as not religious or spiritual enough, or being seen as a humbug. These studies also show that people feel more isolated in their sadness when they believe that they are the only one having this experience. The reason misery really does love company is because it lightens with sharing.

Many of us are simply "burned out" by all the decision-making and additional work, and our levels of serotonin are literally depleted. Others are homesick for the "good old days" when they were children and believed in miracles. Christmas was magic then, even when parents were poor. The child in us still expects the feeling of magic, even if we are not consciously aware of it. When nothing happens to let us relive those feeling of childhood, we feel betrayed and depressed, convinced that there is nothing really left to look forward to.

To those of you who suffer through the holidays every year, don't suffer needlessly. Make a plan to change the things you do and how you usually celebrate.  If thoughts of past and better holidays make you unhappy, avoid thinking about them by keeping your mind busy with other activities.

If you can afford a trip, go to a place where the holidays are less obvious. If you are staying home,  you can plan your day around some great movies you can rent, or go to the library and get a couple of books you will love to read. Don 't forget your favorite foods and snacks! If you  have a hobby, start a new project and go shopping for what you'll need.  (Everyone enjoys a good picture puzzle.)  If you live alone and being around people is what you need, volunteer at a soup kitchen or at a hospital.  Perhaps you could read to someone who never gets visitors.

As adults, only we can help ourselves, because only we know how and why it hurts.  Do make a plan that changes your experience - don't dwell on the past. Prepare well ahead of time.  And share your feelings with others -  it may well lighten things for all of you.

Think of everything you enjoy throughout the year, and fill your holidays with it.  If the old traditions don't bring you joy, it's about time for some new ones.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Live A Life That Fits Your Nature

An old friend of my parents’ is a physician by profession. He is a first-generation American and was the first one in his family to go to college - a super, super smart guy. What else could his family wish for him but to become a medical doctor in America? He had listened to their dreams all his life, and was convinced that it was his dream as well. Everybody’s dream came true. He shared a very successful practice with a partner, was kind to his patients and even made house calls.

It would have come as a great shock to everyone except his few close friends, had they discovered, how deeply unhappy Dr. D. (let's call him that) was as he went through his daily work routine. He was really only happy in his little greenhouse in the backyard, were he raised orchids, and very few knew that his real dream was to own a fruit orchard some day.

Dr. D. was by nature very shy, and I suspect that he suffered from a mild form of social anxiety. Seeing as many as 30+ patients a day was a genuine struggle for him that never eased. Not to disappoint his parents and appear ungrateful for the sacrifices they had made for him, he resolved to stick with it until their passing. His parents are still well and in their 90's, and Dr. D., although retired to some extent, still goes to the office -  living out a self-inflicted sentence instead of a happy life.

The dentist in my home town (I grew up at the shore) had the right idea – he sold his practice and bought a marina instead, which was more suited to his temperament and natural inclination. You may also remember an article I wrote a few months ago, in which I mentioned my husband’s personal struggle with a career change from a teaching professor of philosophy to a career in the medical industry. Again, the previous job had become an uncomfortable fit.

There are actually many people pursuing careers and goals that they are ill suited for, and they too will remain stressed and unhappy until they make a change. But many feel trapped by the need to keep up a certain lifestyle, family expectations, and accumulated financial responsibilities.

The only way out of this unhappy state is to make a change in line with your true nature, or what the Buddhists call one's "suchness.” Your "suchness" or true temperament will never allow you to feel comfortable, happy, or content, when you are engaged in activities that are alien to who you really are. Maybe you don’t  really like carrying a cell phone that keeps you 'on call' 24/7, deadlines make you feel stressed, wearing a suit and tie everyday, following orders that are clearly misguided, and having to say, "Yes Mr. Johnson" when you really want to scream, "Are you nuts??!!!".  And that’s okay.

The point is, when you live and strive for a goal, an inner ease and balance must be your partner. Hard work and challenges don't rock that boat when you know who you are, and that what you want will be a good “fit” for you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Are You Working On Your Self Image?

Thanks to reality television, we are well-informed on how to pursue an external image that the world will admire. We must own a house that requires a sizable staff for upkeep, numerous garages for our car collection, and several rooms to fit our designer wardrobe, shoes and etceteras. Of course we must also be stunningly beautiful, so we have facials, plastic surgeries, personal trainers, hairdressers and make-up artists. (Ideally, he latter come to our homes so that we don't have to mingle with the nobodies.)

Let me make it quite clear that I am not anti- anything that makes for a happier life. The problem with external improvements as a means for happiness is that after the initial thrill of a new acquisition, the human brain adapts to its presence fairly quickly, and it becomes just apart of the norm. (To paraphrase a wise individual, “personal ownership of the Mona Lisa would eventually make her just part of the wall.”) The brain cannot maintain a constant state of “awe.” 

So, the individual whose self-image is attached to impressing others is committing themselves to “ever more and bigger.” Unless there is some revelation that happiness may lie elsewhere, the race will continue unless the money runs out. Keeping up with the Joneses plays out differently in Beverly Hills than in rural Iowa, or when you’re working your way up the ladder at Goldman Sachs versus a small law office in central Pennsylvania. The scale and resources are different, but the driver is the same.

Without the necessary resources to follow the rich and famous, we have devised another scheme to deny the "nobody little self" that we have decided we are. If we can't be important, at least we will be popular and liked. Depending on the audience, we like what they like, and dislike what they dislike. 
After testing the water, we are politically liberal or conservative. When asked our opinion, we ignore our inner voice and the answer becomes the suspected “right” one. No matter how many times we do the dance to try to please others, it never really stops feeling icky.

Lying without cause – pretending you think or feel something you don’t for someone else’s benefit - demeans us, and it has a devastating effect on our sense of self worth. When you first confront yourself about this, you may feel shame and be uncomfortable, but it is literally another necessary peel off the onion toward genuine self acceptance!

(Not telling the truth to protect someone, or telling a 'white' lie that comes from kindness to prevent a hurt, are not generally the kind of lies that do us harm.)

The lie that demeans us, the one that is meant to hide our truth, is literally an attack
on the self, again and again. Who needs enemies when we do such a fine job?

And after all, what could possibly be wrong with us? Why do we feel we have to hide what we have come to believe, and what we really enjoy doing? So many of the choices we make in life come down to apples and oranges. A good decision can only come from the real self – the kind that makes you truly happy and keeps you going in the right direction for you.

Self-respect is never measured with someone else's yardstick. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why Respect Still Matters

I was recently at a three-day convention were research psychologists presented their latest studies and findings. One topic caught my particular attention, and I guess it has always been close to my heart. This research looked at how people are affected by being ignored, left out, or disrespected. These experiences impact us at the level of our self esteem, in addition to creating anxiety and depression, from light to severe.  Even small slights can do a great deal of damage.

We would all benefit from becoming better aware of the occasions that make people feel left out and ignored.  

For instance, it is easy to feel uncomfortable and excluded when one is invited to a special event and the host or hostess makes no effort to include everyone in the party. That is – or at least should be - their most important job.

Large weddings can become very awkward, and anything but a celebration, for guests who are not part of the family or the close circle of friends. Often the tables are too large and the band plays to loud to make audible conversation. Rarely does anyone introduce stranger to stranger sufficiently to give them some common ground to ease into a chat.

It is disrespectful to the “outer tier” guests to invite them (at a very high price these days) to simply come and watch the show. Forget the food. It is the perfect setting for feeling excluded, uncomfortable and unimportant. Wedding planers and parents of the bride and groom, pay attention. Make it someone's job to include everyone receiving an invitation to feel a part of it all.

Another disrespectful behavior (one I am sure we have all fallen victim to) is when the person talking to you at some event seems to be looking in every direction but yours.  This gives off the very clear impression that he is looking for someone more important than you.

Well, the list could go on and on, and I am sure that some of you could write a book.

The important point I want to make is that respect still counts as much as ever, even though it's not that frequently on display. But, as ample research shows, people are just as sensitive to being excluded or slighted as ever, and if you behave disrespectfully to others you will not be liked. Your relationships will suffer, and it will be more difficult to get ahead in the world and get people on your side. Everyone responds to courtesy.

I think a big mistake is often made by working parents and the well-to-do. They, understandably, aim to give their children everything they desire, and don't want to spoil the precious little time they have together with discipline and lectures. The result of this kind of parenting, however, can be an overly-privileged and entitled sense of self-importance, and a lack of respect for others. Teachers and other adults may instinctively dislike these children, and odds are good that their peers will feel the same way.

This is not what I want for my children. I love them, but I also want other people to like them, too. These are some of our family rules:

     Say hello to everyone you encounter

     Always use “please,” “thank you,” and “may I?” (very, very important)

     When speaking to adults or friends, look at them while they are talking to you and don't interrupt.

     When calling a friend, first identify yourself to the parent, then ask to speak to the friend.

     Be nice to everyone in your class or group, even if others are not.

     Never eat candy or cookies in front of anyone, unless you have enough to share.

     Don't say mean things to anyone, or about anyone.

     Don't interrupt adult conversation, unless it is very important.

And of course, for all of us in general, the "Golden Rule" still is the best recipe for a wonderful life!