Things I’ve Learned About Happiness

by Abby on August 16, 2015

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve started a new project as a way to put into practice some of the things I’ve been wanting to do, like be happier. Happiness is one of those concepts that can easily become vague and elusive. Ask anyone what they want out of life, what they want for themselves and their kids, and more often than not, you’ll hear, “I just want to be happy” or “I just want them to be happy.” But what does that actually MEAN? And how do you actually DO it?

Happiness is a terrycloth-wrapped baby that belongs to someone else.
Well, you’re in luck, because I’ve come across some very specific and (I think) helpful advice. If you’re anything like me, you want steps, tips, how-to’s, a hand-drawn map, even. Just show me what to do and I’ll do it! OK, calm down. Now, here’s what I learned.

First up, the August issue of O magazine is chock-full of self-helpy quizzes and charts. Bring it, Oprah! But what caught my eye was a little sidebar on joy. Basically, here’s what it says: for well-being (happiness?) we need to feel both satisfaction AND joy. What’s the difference, you may ask? “Joy is more about relaxing into a realm where you aren’t controlling anything,” says psychologist Sarah Gundle in the article. Consider the following options. Can you spot the ones that qualify as joyful?

Option 1: You rearrange your beloved books, setting aside a few to donate.

Option 2: You go for a run. That’s your meditation time, and you’re training for a marathon.

Option 3: You wander through a museum, stopping to admire pieces that draw you in.

Option 4: You peruse the farmer’s market for your favorite activity: cooking a family meal together.

Answer? Option 3, because it’s the only one that’s not “productive” and doesn’t have an agenda. It’s just for you, and just for pleasure. And necessary to achieve true happiness. Interesting, right? (Says the lady who gets immense satisfaction from alphabetizing her spice rack.)

The next helpful piece of info I got from an article in More magazine, “Hardwire Yourself to Be Happy.” The article confirms what I’ve already heard about meditation and gratitude: they work because a) they are daily practices, not a one-and-done activity, and b) they actually, physically rewire your brain.

When you practice them over a period of time, you forge new “neural pathways” in your gray matter. (BTW, this is what I did, knowingly or not, when I found a new parking spot at my kids’ school that changed my life. Novelty, change, taking a different route are all ways to get your neurons firing. Do I totally sound like a brain scientist, or what?)

OK, so in the More article, a neuropsychologist explains that the key to rewiring your brain for happiness is to focus on positive experiences and memories. “By directing your attention, you can deliberately create and prolong the kinds of experiences that will shape your brain so that you are happier,” says Rick Hanson, Ph.D. I have read elsewhere that writing down or taking photos of positive moments can help you remember them more, too. What a great idea, right? 😉

Go read the article, because Hanson gives step-by-step instructions for how to actually focus your attention to “absorb” a happy feeling. I tried them recently during a positive experience of my own: sitting on the couch with a glass of wine watching the latest episodes of “Playing House.” (Have you seen this show? I LOL my head off several times an episode. And the theme music makes me tear up.)

Like anything else worthwhile in life, happiness takes some effort and practice. Unless you’re Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who’s been called the happiest man in the world. Who, incidentally, says the secret is to stop trying to be happy and go help someone else. Hmmm… didn’t I learn something once about giving and accepting help?

So who else has learned (and practiced and retained) any helpful advice about how to be happier?

{ 6 comments }

My New Project

by Abby on August 9, 2015

There are 2 kinds of people in the world: those who talk about doing things, and those who actually do the things. My biggest fear is being one of the talkers who never quite gets around to the doing.

For a while now, my friend Angie and I have talked about doing some kind of joint project together. We weren’t sure exactly what form that project would take, but we knew we wanted to collaborate on something that would invite people into the conversations we have on the regular.

Abby and Angie in Baltimore during a blizzard

We are both writers and moms who met online through our blogs. We live in different cities (me: Baltimore, her: Charleston). We have different lives, but there are many parallels. We have many of the same challenges and are striving for many of the same life goals. In the same day, we might be pondering what it is to live an authentic life and figuring out how to make a Pokemon costume from a hoodie and a few scraps of felt. (Pro tip: glue gun!)

Over the years, we’ve had many, many conversations over email, phone, and Skype about the challenges of doing meaningful work without selling our souls, of juggling motherhood and career ambitions, and of carving out time for ourselves and our writing amidst our busy lives, which include husbands who work long hours and/or travel frequently, maintaining a (moderately clean and organized) household, and trying to raise healthy, happy, well-adjusted children who sometimes get pinkeye or have complicated school assignments at inopportune times.

When your life is like ours, it’s tempting to think, “When I have time, I will start this project I’ve been wanting to do.” Or, “Once summer vacation is over/my youngest starts kindergarten/I finally organize all the closets, then I will focus on what I want to do.” But guess what? My youngest DID start kindergarten and I STILL have not organized all the closets and who knows if I EVER will?! The point is, you can’t wait for the perfect time to do anything in life, you just have to make the time and start doing it.

So we did. We started what we’re calling the Abby + Angie Project, which is currently an Instagram diary of sorts about our conscious attempts to capture the good moments amidst our busy/messy/glorious daily grind. We even have a hashtag: #MoreGoodLessGrind. Get it?

There’s lots of talk these days about gratitude and being mindful, and how important it is to recognize the things you’re thankful for and truly be present in your life. I agree, but in my opinion it can all get a little finger-waggy, a little guilt-inducing, one more thing we SHOULD be doing, or that we’re doing wrong.

How many times has someone told you — usually a random stranger in the grocery store — that you should be grateful for your children and this time in your life, becauseitallgoessofast?! I tell those people to come over to our house between the hours of 4-7pm, and then we’ll talk.

What I love about our Instagram project is that Angie and I are aiming to be real and honest and authentic, but at the same time keeping the joy and sense of humor and appreciation for visual details that I think we both share. We’re not trying to showcase perfect lives that make others envious, we’re trying to capture actual moments when we thought, “There. That. Here’s a moment when I stopped and noticed and appreciated my life just the way it is.”

Here are a couple examples from our Instagram page, @abbyandangieproject. (BTW, I understand that many people break out in hives at the thought of yet another social media platform, but the beauty of Instagram is that you can just click and gawk at all the pretty pictures, no participation required.)

Date night, pink drink, life is on your side, #moregoodlessgrind

The upside of not getting out much is that you appreciate it so much more when you finally do. -Abby

#Baltimore #datenight #MoreGoodLessGrind

Endless summer, kids dancing on hill, Camus quote, #moregoodlessgrind

One of my favorite quotes is this one from French author Albert Camus:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

I think this photo, snapped one evening when I spotted my son and his friends dancing at the top of a hill, captures that perfectly, don’t you?

-Abby (college French major, woot woot!)

#summer #happiness #childhoodunplugged #moregoodlessgrind

So this is me, choosing to be the type of person who’s walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

Choosing to start the project and do the thing even if the timing isn’t perfect. (When is it ever?)

Choosing to look for the good in the midst of the messes and stresses.

Choosing to capture, share, and remember the small, good moments in this big, often overwhelming project called life.

I would love it if you joined us. Give a “like,” share a link, share your own photo and hashtag it #MoreGoodLessGrind. Let’s do this!

 

 

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A Weekend to Myself

July 27, 2015

What would you do if you had a whole weekend to yourself? No one to cook for, care for, or pay attention to except yourself. Nowhere you had to be, nothing you had to do. If you’re like me, you might be confused by the question at first. Wait… 2 days all to myself? I […]

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And Then There Were 3

July 21, 2015

Three is not the magic number. There’s a reason that being the “third wheel” is not a good thing. Three people means there’s always an odd man out, nothing is ever even or equal. And yet that’s my two boys and me all summer: the 3 Musketeers. Only with fewer mustaches and squirt guns instead […]

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Cork Boats and Bad Blogger Jokes

July 10, 2015

My son’s third-grade homework assignment: present a “how to” project. He was supposed to come up with an idea for something he knew how to do and share it with his class — say, how to make chocolate chip cookies or how to make an origami frog. Fun, right? After a lengthy brainstorming session that […]

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Happy to Help

July 7, 2015

I’m still digging out from our family health emergency. SO many emails, phone calls, texts to return, thank-you’s to write. The experience gave me a totally new perspective on needing and accepting help, let me tell you. I’ve always liked to think of myself as someone who is generous in offering help, but who doesn’t […]

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When You Live Far Away from Family

June 22, 2015

What a week. A health crisis hit our house, not life-threatening but life-altering while we’re in the midst of it. Also, school let out. And more than ever before, I felt the impact of not living near family. Our wonderful neighbors and friends rushed in to help, and my intrepid sisters-in-law and mother-in-law came to […]

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How to Not Get in Trouble, by Riley, age 6

June 15, 2015

So, I came home from my blog conference all fired up to get on a regular posting schedule again and put together an editorial calendar and refine my themes and messaging and do all this other stuff I learned about. But then life intervened the way it does. Unexpected dramas and crises converged with birthday […]

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Birthdays, Blog Conferences, and Tweens, Oh My!

June 8, 2015

Today my baby is 9! Happy Birthday, Miles! I can honestly say that 9 years ago I never DREAMED motherhood would be this great. Or this hard. But mostly, this great. The sweet-smelling little bundle of baldness I gave birth to after many, many hours of labor has grown into a smart, sweet but not […]

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What I’ve Been Doing Besides Writing

May 26, 2015

A mom friend of mine put it perfectly: this time of year is second only to the holidays in terms of busyness. The end-of-year school events: picnics, concerts, gatherings. The field trips, permission slips, yearbooks, teacher gifts. The baseball games, rain delays, birthdays, school holidays. The mad rush, the final push, before school lets out […]

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