Archives for posts with tag: Happiness

In my psychology practice, I am often asked by parents, “What is the best school for my child?”

The children with whom I work, by and large, are not well suited to your typical school. I could tell the parents what qualities that I think would be best for their children, but the truth is, for most families, the ideal doesn’t exist. Consequently, I respond by asking about constraints.

“What is your neighborhood school?”
(Schools should be comparable across the area, but unfortunately, that is far from the case. And I’m not just talking about limited availability of good public schools in low income areas. I’m talking about limited availability of good public schools in ANY area of my city. But there are some.)

“Is private school an option?”

“How do you feel about religious schools?”
(There are a number of religious schools in the area that do a good job of providing a nurturing but structured environment. Also, of private schools, the religious one charge less money than the secular schools.)

“How far are you willing to drive your child to school?”

In other words, before I say, “Your child’s ideal school environment would include x, y, and z”, I narrow things down to the most attainable options.

I do this for two reasons. First, it is a very practical approach. Secondly, it is far less discouraging.  We could go on endlessly about the characteristics of a “perfect” school only  to discover that it simply does not exist.

No one likes a “dead end”. We like the idea of endless possibility. However, knowing the dead ends, the improbabilities, and the impracticalities, can stop us from spinning in a life of too many options, many of which are false ones.

There are dead ends in my own life. There is no longer the option of “I will live my life as if there is an unlikely chance that something REALLY bad might happen.”

REALLY bad things have already happened.  Scary, awful things.

Knowing that this way of thinking is a dead end in my life is sad but it is also liberating. Knowing what I can’t do makes some of the choices simpler, in a way.

Today, I choose to live the best life that I can within the constraints that define me as an imperfect human being.

Today, my life is pretty darned good.

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You may have heard this. A complaint about one’s life is followed by the statement, often expressed apologetically, “Well, that’s a first world problem.”

I realize that the intention of the phrase is to provide perspective, to encourage people to count their blessings and further, to appreciate the poverty and unhealthy living conditions that are typical for people who live in poor countries.

I want to let you in on a secret that I have told no one until now. I strongly dislike that expression.

Perhaps for many of you, it helps you gain perspective, a reality check combined with a big dose of empathy.

To me, it sounds like an invalidation of one’s own thoughts and feelings and a kind of intended short cut from point A, being distressed to point B, feeling calm.

I know for me, this kind of short cut doesn’t work. I tried invalidating my feelings for years. “You shouldn’t feel, angry” I would tell myself. “You shouldn’t feel sad.” “Stop feeling guilty. You are always beating yourself up.”

By not allowing myself to feel what I felt, I found that it took me a great deal of time and energy to calm myself down. And I remember a number of years when my normal state was one of a roiling anxiety in my gut and in my brain. My twelve years of chronic neck pain happened during this period of time as did my two episodes of depression.

It also didn’t make me feel any better about other people. It wasn’t like I wasn’t a nice person or that I was not kind but it took a great deal of work. Sometimes, kindness and compassion would just flow from my being but lots of the time, it didn’t. I had to at least a little digging. And then because I was anxious, I would sometimes worry that I hadn’t done the kindness or compassion “right”.

This is the way I feel about the “first world problems” expression.  I don’t deserve to be angry, annoyed, sad, worried, anxious, etc because I live in a wealthy country.

Feelings don’t have to be deserved. Feelings just are. We have them. They happen.

Stress can make our brain misinterpret situations; it can get biased toward interpreting the world in a negative way, being on the alert to find threats to our safety such as rejection and danger. Stress and anxiety can also impair our brain’s ability to differentiate between meaningful and trivial threats.

First world life is fast-paced, over-saturated with information, competitive, and demanding. In other words, it provides genuine stress. And that stress can produce feelings that we think we “shouldn’t” have.

And aside from stress, people feel stuff. We just do.  For myself I know that if I am mindful of my distressing feelings, they lose power over me. And when I validate my patients’ parents’ stress and frustration with a basic problem such as potty training, they can stop feeling stuck and ridiculous in their feelings of powerlessness as a parent.

I live in the first world and I enjoy its benefits unlike many in my country who live in poverty and unhealthy conditions. I am no more important than people who live in the rest of the world. However, I am not less important, either. When I feel happy and calm, I find it easiest to be charitable and compassionate. Being happy is not the same as having things. However, for me, it frees time for me to exercise my good will rather than perpetually questioning the validity of my petty irritations, fears, and sadness.

As I mentioned in my last post, my psychologist gave me much to think about when she linked the amount of work I spend on happiness to the fact that I have much to be happy about, which means taking inventory of it all through mindfulness would naturally take a good deal of time. The image that came to my mind was “counting my happy money.” I don’t know why it came to me, maybe because it is like the sayings, “an embarrassment of riches”, “count your blessings”, and “pay it forward”. In any event, I find it kind of amusing and so it has stuck in my mind.

Last week, I focused as well as I could on counting my happy money. Looking at each gold bar in my Fort Knox of things for which I am grateful. I am no stranger to Positive Psychology and know that expressing gratitude is linked to increased happiness.

Even so, I was taken aback about how calming it was to use gratitude and appreciation at the times I was feeling unhappy. When I wrote the post about appreciating my husband even though I was mad at him, he was actually sitting next to me. I knew I was mad at him for the wrong reason. I was taking some parenting stress out on him. But I was still upset. By writing,  felt a gradual re-centering, a misting of calm, that cooled me off, pulled me back into my orbit around reality.

What a soothing exercise. I have used that strategy in the past at a time I was extremely distraught. I just started writing a list of positives, the resources I had that would help the situation. That a very constructive coping strategy, which helped me avoid panic. But using gratitude and appreciation last week, when I was not so stressed, actually made me feel happy and calm.

I am so very thankful to have had the Pay it Forward opportunity. What a gift.

John and I. 9/17/14 by Miguel Cornelio of Momentous Image.

John and me. 9/17/14 by Miguel Cornelio of Momentous Image.

I remember when I was starting grad school in my 20’s. One of my classmates was from the sunny city of Miami. I noticed that although she was actually younger than me, she had crow’s feet, those wrinkles people get around the corners of their eyes. I figured that since she already had them, I would get them fairly soon. But I didn’t.

The first wrinkles I noticed were above my left eyebrow. I can lift my left eyebrow above my right, just like Spock on Star Trek. I did it A LOT as a teen and a young adult. My younger brother and I laughed about it a lot. It was something I did when I was being silly and having fun.

Wrinkles are signs of aging. The first time I looked at myself and thought, “I’m not young anymore” was in my late 30’s. I was looking at the backs of my hands. They weren’t as smooth as they used to be. In other respects I still looked young. I’ve done a lot of work with my hands over the years. Writing, gardening, knitting, cooking, and caressing loved ones. My wedding and anniversary rings are on my hands.

When I was putting on make up this morning I saw them. I have crow’s feet that don’t go away when I stop smiling.

I’ve done a lot of smiling in my life. And I’ve squinted at the sun when I was in the mountains, the tropical rainforests,  and kayaking on the sea. I spend a lot of time outdoors, which makes me happy. I spend a lot of time with people who make me happy.

The lines I have, by and large, are not remnants of the bumps in the road of life, the wrinkles we have to smooth out. My wrinkles are from the best bits. They show the happy and productive moments that I have enjoyed. If I am lucky, they will continue to broaden and deepen, I hope.

When I was young my face was smooth. Now the lines tell a story, one that is meaningful and full.

Life lines is what they are.

Warning: Smiling can cause life lines! (Also, I told you that my husband puts his camera close to my face.)

Warning: Smiling can cause life lines! (Also, I told you that my husband puts his camera close to my face.)

My dear friend, Rachel, just posted a comment on Facebook, “I think I’m about to get in trouble on a friend’s page. Best shut my yap.” My response was the following comment: “Do a cost/benefit analysis and then proceed accordingly. I saw my comment in print and thought, “And to think I used to write poetry.”

But when it comes to sticking our necks out and debating, it is probably pretty good advice. As I have described elsewhere, I am naturally argumentative and love a good debate. You may recall from an earlier post that my fellow grad school mate, Penny once described me in her amazingly wonderful Appalachian drawl, “Elizabeth would argue with a post.”

Some of those arguments were transformative and some were just fun. At other times, they were draining, left me in a lingering state of emotional turmoil either because I felt hurt and/or that I felt that I had hurt someone else. I am not a mean person but I am a quick thinker and when hurt or angry, I can use my verbal ability in a very aggressive way. This was particularly true in my teens. One of my high school teachers wrote in my senior year book, “I will miss your acid tongue.” I don’t think he missed it because he ignored my Facebook friend request when I put it out there a couple of years ago. And I could see that he was active on Facebook and friends with other students.

An excellent lesson I learned during the horrible work situation that led to my first of two major depressive episodes was to trust myself and choose my battles carefully. I spent nearly three years at that workplace, surrounded by some amazingly competent and dedicated people and others, well not so much. And since the folks in the “not so much” category were in management, even us amazingly competent and dedicated underlings misbehaved. I spent a lot of time in conflict with managers and coworkers because I felt both personally and professionally attacked and unable to do my job. I was given two managers, with totally different training, and totally different goals. In other words, it was a structural set up for failure. Before I fully realized how futile my situation was I spent a lot of time questioning in my head, “Is it me or is it them?”

Sometimes arguing for me is an intellectual exercise or sport. At other times, it has been a way of seeking reassurance when I am anxious. I did a lot of that kind of arguing at that place of employment. The illogic and chaos of the place was so disorienting. If only I could explain my ideas logically or counter criticisms in a reasonable manner, the universe would become organized again.

The universe didn’t reorganize itself until after I was laid off from the job in a very nasty way. But it was freeing. I got my depression treated. I got my Washington state psychology license and planned to start a small private practice in case my research career, the one I had fought to achieve and maintain over the span of 20 years, wasn’t viable. I wrote a small grant with a software company that designs web-based training, using a rather ingenious curriculum design developed by a professor at mid-west university. The grant was from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a pilot educational program. This was truly exciting as I had been working in computer-based parent education program research and development since my doctoral dissertation. Telehealth was a new, growing, and much needed research area. I live in a metropolitan area but I spent my training years, six years in North Carolina, one year in northern Florida, and two years in southern Indiana, working with rural families with very little access to even the most basic parent education on how to help little kids learn to cope with the difficulties in life in ways other than hitting, kicking, or throwing tantrums.

For my doctoral dissertation, I had carried out an independent project (as opposed to working on a professor’s project) a clinical trial evaluating a parent education program that I developed along with my husband, who is a software engineer. The results of the trial were modest, but positive and statistically significant. Working with an established professor translating parent education to his web-based instructional design meant continuing a line of research using technology as an additional mental health service delivery method.

You know I love writing about context. This is why I am not making a long story short. If you have not yet gotten my message, I was REALLY invested in my line of research. Getting help to under served populations. Preventing the really treatment resistant mental health problems that can develop in folks who don’t get early intervention, many of whom end up being “treated” in our penal system. This may sound overly self-important or idealism bordering on delusion, but I really viewed it as a vocational calling of sorts.

Back to the grant. We spent the $50,000 the government provided very very well. The pilot project was a success and something of which I will always be extremely proud. The parents who used the program loved it and they also provided me with very positive feedback regarding the email-based discussion thread moderation and coaching I provided to them as they completed our little program.

Although I enjoyed working with my co-principal investigator, the Big Time University Professor, I was extremely unhappy with a key staff member at the company, with whom I interacted daily. I think it basically boiled down to his taking a different role on the project than the one that he had been accustomed to, which was being in charge functionally if not officially. In other words, management had been very hands off. He really did not like this and fought me over everything including the program content and learning objectives.

I also disliked managing a project being carried out in the Midwest while I lived in on the west coast. It was time to write the “big grant” the one that was the follow up for the pilot grant (the granting mechanism was defined as a two-stage grant, the little grant followed by the big grant.) If the government were to funded the second grant, it would have been a $250,000 grant, which is not enormous in the research world but it is significant and a huge amount for a researcher at my career level.

I knew people in Seattle with relevant production and project management experience. REALLY GOOD PEOPLE WITH WHOM I’D WORKED WELL IN THE PAST. I’d contacted nationally known researchers, primarily psychologist and they had agreed to serve as consultants on the grant with no financial compensation. (That is standard, by the way. Psychology professors do a lot of stuff for free.) The pool of possible Internet programmers in Seattle was huge compared to a small university town in the Midwest. The professor and I set up a meeting with the company C.E.O. I wanted to request that I hire a Seattle crew to carry out the project, should the grant be funded. Big Time University Professor thought this was a grand idea, in fact I think he was even the one who suggested it.

C.E.O.’s response was a surprisingly loud and angry, “You work with the team you’ve got or we part ways.” I REALLY wanted to write that grant. But I was clear about what I was and was not willing to put myself through in order to get that chance. He had made a bold and seemingly bullying move. I calmly replied, “If the only choices are to keep this team or to part ways, then we will part ways. But I think there are other solutions to this problem. Let’s discuss those.”

I didn’t argue but I stood my ground. The small grant was over. I was back to collecting unemployment. My family needed for me to make an income. It wasn’t just about my idealistic goals or my career. It was about putting food on the table. The meeting ended on an ambiguous note something along the lines of “Let’s keep talking about this.”

My gut told me to get out and that what looked like a wonderful possibility would not be in reality. The C.E.O. was not a bad guy but he was disrespectful and I had no confidence in his ability to treat me like someone with something of value to offer the company. They were also struggling financially, had been through a number of rounds of lay-offs, and a few years later, the company folded. So he was also trying to protect existing staff rather than to expand the company into Seattle.

My husband agreed with me and I declined to write the grant. It was disappointing but felt like the exactly right decision. I ended up getting on research staff at the University of Washington and starting my psychology practice. I ended up loving both jobs, the former as long as it lasted, which was three years.

These days, I keep my arguments with posts (figurative or literal Facebook posts) to a minimum. I try to think about the costs of acting as well as the costs of not acting. I think about what things I will not get to do if I am busy arguing. I think about the fairness and strength of my argument. I consider the other side. I consider other solutions to the problem. I think about whether I am trying to solve the right problem.

Conflict is a fact of life. Some conflict is even necessary for life, especially if one has relationships with at least one other human being. But conflict as a way of life? No, thank you. I’ve got too many other things I want to do with myself.

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George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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