On happiness, balance, and how I got here…
One of the most memorable moments of my yoga teacher training was being told by a lecturer that “society sets us up for failure”. Without succumbing to the fatalistic thoughts that quickly come while thinking on this, I try to focus on the “why” of it and how to get around alleged “truths” of how to live in this era. On my flight back from San Diego this June, I became swept up in a marathon of Million Dollar Listing NY. I am certainly not a reality t.v. fan, but there is an exception to most rules! Fredrik Eklund’s cherubic tenacity and impeccable style hooked me – because what else will I do for six hours? I began envisioning what it might be like to become a high power realtor in the city, selling penthouses and living large. For a few short days after, my appetite for all fine things grew and I found myself daydreaming more and more about that lifestyle – fine dining, views of the city skyline at night. At the end of the day, I am both parts city and country girl, and frankly, I couldn’t be bothered keeping my clothes wrinkle free and pushing big bucks for more than a short time before I retreated to solitude in nature. It’s always fun to dream, though. MDL’s commercials were particularly notable. As a Netflix/Hulu user, I rarely sit through traditional t.v. and its ads. The ads on Bravo featured luxury cars, travel, and all of the trappings of the high life. This was a stark contrast to the ads that I’m used to (ones that run during The Good Wife and SNL). A few days back at home before returning to work gave me time to breathe and settle back in to my regular routine – hang with the cats, walk around the pond, grab a Dunks coffee and not feel guilty that it’s not fancy Starbucks.
Daydreaming is essential to finding gratitude for what I love. I can dream about living in a small cabin in the Alaskan woods, or in a chic little condo in Portland, OR. Maybe the Cranberry Isles of Maine or just live on a boat. There is so much joy in the wondering and what-ifs, but I love our little place that we call home. S and I often remember that, wherever we go, we will make it home and find things to love there. So how does one stay happy in one place with a mind filled with wanderlust? With eyes that get caught on some of the shiniest (and most expensive!) things? With a culture that keeps us always wanting more, doing more, feeling like what we have and who we are is not enough?
My parents taught me that if I always do what I love, it won’t feel like work. This is one of the greatest gifts I received. As a preschool teacher and yoga instructor, I don’t exactly have the ability to hop a plane and flit off to Europe. And if I could, I have a full time job and two kitties – all of which would hinder a month-long extended stay anywhere. I am totally fine with that, though. When I come home from a long day, I need a couch to curl up on and the warmth of a little cat. Yet, I still feel sometimes that I have too much on my plate. Along with knowing that I wouldn’t be happy jetsetting and hobnobbing permanently, I would also not be happy sitting on the beach forever with nothing to do. I have found my own little place with just enough crazy and just enough calm.
Does this make for a perfect balance? Certainly not. Running my own business and teaching young children keeps me busy beyond belief and there are certainly days when I get in my car and just want to close my eyes and stare at the back of my eyelids. In silence. For a long time. There are days when I am grumpy, too tired, feel underappreciated. Days when I drive too far for clients who don’t pay enough, days when I discover chocolate and playdough on the inseam of my pants (yet, hadn’t seen chocolate or playdough in at least 24 hours), and nights when I am bleary-eyed and sweaty and need to tackle tedious tasks of email campaigns, editing photos, and invoicing. I have had tie-dyed hands and muddy feet after a 14 hour day. Staff evaluations, sequence planning, shopping for stickers, scrubbing my mats. Parents with concerns about potty training, sleep training, small humans refusing food – and I care so much about these families. Clients seeking advice on sciatica, shoulder injuries, wrist pain, anxiety, and post-natal safety – and I care so much about these folks, too. Throw in family, marriage, and those little cats? Yeah, very full life. But when do I have time for drawing, shopping, binge-watching The Good Fight (STILL haven’t seen it!), and all of the other me things? I have even had to forego a pedicure because I was – shocker – too wound up to relax!
HOW, HOW, HOW does one traverse a consumerist, media-saturated, selfies-and-preening, go go go era?
1. Find the little joys
At the farmer’s market yesterday, I bought a little bouquet of wildflowers. Nothing fancy, but I love flowers. This inspired me to trim some blooms from my porch garden and put them in my bathroom. Little fuzzy cat paws, the smell of my shampoo, the clouds gliding across the sky, the same lines in my favorite shows that always make me laugh, the same coos of the mourning doves and their noisy taking-flight, the moments before getting out of bed when the blankets feel just right. Make your own list – with paper and pen – and begin to notice the little things you love throughout your day. These little things add up to a greater joy and cumulative happiness, filling your reserve for the bad days.
2. Do the right thing
Wear your seat belt, drive the speed limit, choose cruelty free products, use coupons and buy on sale, say please and thank you, hold the door for others, donate to charity, do some extra house work. A little bit less guilt on the mind and a few good deeds set a foundation. People who do good subsequently feel good. As with many items on this list, it takes time to create a habit and feel its benefits.
3. Make space
We recently saw The Minimalists’ live show in Boston. I lost my mom in March and this show hit so close to home. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, long time friends, embarked on the journey of minimalism, sparked by the death of Joshua’s mom. Going through her home and belongings, faced with the task of organizing and storing a house-load of things, Joshua realized the impact that material things have on people’s happiness. Whether making literal space or mental space, our cluttered lives need less. From the 30 Day Rule (see an item in store, wait 30 days, determine if you still want/need it) to the 20 Minute Rule (set a timer, clean and tidy a room until timer goes off), there are countless little tricks to develop habits for making space in our homes to breathe and live, without being burdened by stuff. Join an “Everything Free” group on Facebook to give away items to locals. Donate items to schools and non-profits. And for mental space? Prioritize what is truly necessary and let the rest go. Write down to-do lists, ask for help when needed, and do what you love.
This is not a self-indulgent luxury. It is a necessary part of today’s world. All of those times where I just want to sit and stare? I take that time to stop because it is my mind and body screaming at me to slow down. Invest in a few comfort items that make your day-to-day a little less harsh and, again, do what you love. It is fairly well-known, yet not well-practiced, that we must give to ourselves in order to give to others.
5. Connect with people
This is a huge one. Facebook and social media drive us to have a false sense of connection, maintaining too many relationships at a superficial level. Do those people know how you like your coffee? Or your go-to karaoke song? The small intimacies and nuances of social relationships can not be maintained online and these are the little things that keep us together, elevating the relationship from acquaintance to true friend. Whether you’re married or single, friendship is especially important in not feeling isolated. The effects of loneliness (and doubt, jealousy, spreading yourself too thin with social events)on a person’s well-being are profound. Using voice calls (rather than texting), or apps such as Marco Polo can keep you connected over distance. For more local friends, make weekly coffee dates or take turns cooking dinner for each other. Write snail mail notes, regardless of length or substance,or send a card/photo collage. Small acts go a long way in feeling close and connected.
Different than meditation (more on that below, of course), reflecting on your life actively and honestly lets your keep your focus on your priorities and keeping what works. Become a lifelong learner who consistently tweaks your lifestyle to accommodate your needs and wishes. Before college, I remember a high school teacher suggesting that I should think of where I want to be in life and figuring out how to get there by working backwards. For an over-thinker, this was some of the best advice to keep from derailing myself and getting lost in too many irrelevant thoughts. After leaving my school each day, as my feet hit the sidewalk, I think back to my day and focus on the best parts. I did not expect to be a preschool teacher, let alone lead classroom teacher, and here I am. Over the past seven years, I have gained insight about why I love this job so much. The joys of teaching curious little people, and being taught by them, creating, exploring, doing, laughing, being outdoors, snuggling with books, sharing my favorite parts of the world with people so new to it all. The humor, human connection, creative problem solving, and being part of a wonderfully warm community keep me coming back each day. I have a team of supportive, intelligent, and funny co-teachers and awesome administrators. Had I stuck to a hard-headed ideal of another career, I wouldn’t have received all that I have. For ten years, I have wanted to go to an expensive private school (rhymes with Shmesley Shmuniversity), taken on a dual undergrad/grad program to become a licensed mental health counselor focusing on expressive therapy, all the while forgetting the reason I initially left undergrad after three years – the inkling that counseling would be too draining for me. Those gut feelings, that thing you keep hearing within you, go with it. More time for reflecting what is working and what is not will help to steer you in the right direction.
Yes. Keeping this one simple: Inhale, exhale, listen to your breath, notice your thoughts without emotion.
Again, keeping it simple: Get together with friends, go to a comedy show, watch/read your favorite funny shows/books, and don’t take yourself too seriously. After my mom passed away, I couldn’t listen to music. My head felt stuffed with cotton and the numbness is still here, but I kept hearing her voice say “just put on something funny”. I struggled with depression as a teenager (hello, night owl, web designing, arty introverted book nerd) and she would always tell me to just put on something funny when I was feeling blue. My something funny was Mike Birbiglia stand up on Spotify for almost two months straight. Along with spending time with those closest to me, I spent a lot of time with Joe Bags’ brother. Make time for fun and funny.
9. Sun, Sleep, and Sustenance
The whole night-owl teenager thing? That did not serve me well in mental health or well-being, but I have to say that I am so grateful for those years. Without them, I wouldn’t have discovered my love of drawing, writing, piano, violin, and coding – to name of few of my favorite solitary pursuits. Chatting with my buddies late at night on AOL Instant Messenger (throwback gratitude to AIM!) got me through some of the general teen angst. And without these years, I would not know what rock bottom feels like. I never drank or used substances, my parents provided me with everything I needed, I danced and joined the school theater guild, I had friends, and I was well-loved. But I was not happy. My mom would ask me, “Deep down, do you feel happy?”, and the answer was always yes, but I was weepy and depressed more often than not. The terrible silent culprits did not make themselves known to me until later in life, but the damage of not sleeping enough, not getting outside, not being more physically active, skipping meals because I had “better things to do”, and definitely not drinking enough water made for an incredibly unhappy body. I was running on empty and just didn’t realize how I was supposed to feel. As I got older, I became more serious about taking care of myself physically – they are called basic needs for a reason. Without proper diet, exercise, and sun exposure, our bodies shut down in countless ways. Depression, anxiety, digestive issues, poor memory, inability to focus and learn, and general unhealthy appearance – to name a few – can tear a person down. Even if one of our needs is not met, the body feels it. I actually feel my mood decrease if I don’t drink enough water. Take it from someone who hit physical and physiological rock bottom – be serious when it comes to regular sleep, proper balanced diet, getting outdoors, and staying active. Too often, treatments for mental health issues and physical ailments are just band-aids on a preventable underlying issue.
Society truly does set us up for failure. Finding balance and taking care of yourself needs to be your top priority because it won’t just happen for you without some work. Perhaps think of it as growing strong healthy roots for a fruit tree – not a simple or easy task. Regardless if you’re into Nietzsche, pro sports, various Housewives, becoming the next Dali, or you’re still just figuring out who and what you are, start within. Maybe you’ll spend a few years in that cabin and then pounce on getting your realtor’s license. Wherever you are and wherever you’ll go, listen to that little voice inside.
And when in doubt? If you ever found yourself scoffing at the cliches “live, laugh, love” or “love is all you need”, just know that there is truth behind those. Surround yourself with people that lift you up and you can get through anything. In the end, love is all that matters. Cliches, and everything else, in moderation. ❤