September: Self Care Month in Review

Self care month began boring, turned ugly, then finished nice and smooth.

I had 4 resolutions for September:

-Get more sleep (go to bed by 10:30)
-Take a daily 10-minute walk outside
-No sugar or alcohol
-Veggies at every meal

I successfully avoided all alcohol and sugar, which was surprisingly easy to do. I don’t really even miss them at this point, and I think I might just continue avoiding them indefinitely. I also succeeded in eating veggies at every meal, something I will definitely keep doing. I feel less hungry, more energetic, and I just really love the flavor and variety of the vegetables I’ve been eating. It’s kind of a pain to wash and prepare them, but I think I can build in a few more efficiencies that will make that part easier.

The daily walk outside hasn’t become a habit. I have focused more on spending time outside, which has led me and the kids to play outside more and to do more outdoor activities than we otherwise were doing. We’ve been hiking as a family every weekend, which has been a wonderful time and a chance to get together with friends while exploring the Wasatch Front. I’ve also begun sitting outside with my tea or coffee and watching the sunrise. I don’t get to do this every morning, but I’ve been doing it at least three times a week for the second half of the month. Having this quiet time outside really helps me feel ready for the chaos that comes after the kids wake up.

The sitting outside in the wee hours has been facilitated by the earlier bedtime I finally managed to keep for the second half of the month. I don’t always make it to bed by 10:30, but since I started going to bed earlier, I’ve made it to bed no later than 11:00, except on the nights my daughter was ill.

Like with my mindfulness practice in August, I found that during September, I once again kind of hit a wall about two weeks in, at which point I had a little crisis and then turned a corner into a more comfortable place. The more sleep thing turned out to be wonderful once I finally started doing it. It also helped to start getting better about keeping my mindfulness resolutions, which I’d kind of set on the back burner for the first couple of weeks. Breathing and being aware of judgments has really helped me keep things in perspective.

I’ve learned a couple of important and new things. One is about the value of self care when things are going well as a way of building up reserves to be able to cope when things become more challenging. When my daughter was ill last weekend, I was pleasantly surprised at how calm I remained and how energetic and capable I felt. I don’t know how long those reserves would have lasted had her illness been longer than it was, but they got me through a few late nights and restless sleep.

The other thing I’ve learned is that I don’t think my goal with this project is really happiness, per se. I don’t have a problem with being happy, and I do hope that making these changes will help me get more joy out of life, but I don’t feel that my endpoint is “happiness” anymore. I want to increase my awareness in the moment so that I can have richer experiences. I want to improve my ability to express my emotions—including happiness—and share them with my children in a constructive way. And I want to build up my life and deepen my connections in such a way that my life is more peaceful and fulfilling. I think the likelihood that these things will lead to happiness in the long run is fairly high, but I don’t think the short-term result is always happiness. I don’t want to use happiness as my goal in each moment because I think that might lead me astray.

For example, Wednesday night I felt tired. We spent a lovely afternoon with friends at Red Butte Gardens, walking around in the sun, playing in fountains, sharing a picnic lunch. Wednesday is also the day I’ve got planned to visit the gym and do my little workout. After all of our fun, I found myself thinking that feeling so worn out would be a reasonable excuse to skip my gym visit. I wanted to hang out at home and read my book and get up-to-date with my favorite blogs, maybe check my blog stats every five minutes.  But I chose to go to the gym. When I returned, I was still tired, but I felt relaxed, strong, and content. I don’t think I would have had as positive a feeling after spending the evening in front of a computer screen or even curled up with my book, as lovely as that would have been. And I have the added satisfaction of putting that healthy habit in the bank so I’m ready for those days when I need a little extra energy. Had I looked only at “happiness” as my goal, I don’t know that I would have made the same choice.

Another example is facing emotionally painful situations. In my experience, when confronting unresolved trauma, disagreements, or just negative interactions, things get worse before they get better. If I went for happiness only, I may decide that I have enough happiness already and choose to cut my losses and avoid the painful situations rather than working through them to find greater meaning.

I’ve read a number of books this month. The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore, The Search for Fulfillment by Susan Whitbourne, and The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. I’m also about halfway through Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which so far is blowing me away.

Tomorrow I start a new month! Check back for the plan for October. I’m excited and cautiously optimistic.

More Thoughts on Gratitude

A few weeks ago, I posted about a study that Ariel Gore wrote about in her book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. For those few of you who have not committed my posts to memory, the study found that people who kept a gratitude journal for six weeks reported an increase in happiness and a decrease in depressive symptoms. They experienced some improvement in as little as three weeks. Since reading this, I’ve been mulling over the idea of incorporating a gratitude practice into my Happiness Project, but I’ve yet to decide what form this practice will take.

In Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss, I found another twist on the idea. Weiner writes about a study at Kobe College in Japan. Psychologists divided college students into two groups. One was the control and didn’t do anything different for a week. The other group counted the number of kind acts they performed during the week. They weren’t asked to do any kind acts, just to count them when they did them. (This reminds me of Roger Rabbit when he said (paraphrasing Elizabeth Barrett Browning), “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand…”) At the end of the week, the group that counted their kind acts had a significant increase in their happiness levels compared to the first group. The researchers concluded, “Simply by counting the acts of kindness for one week, people became happier and more grateful.”

This may well have had a different result in a more individualistic country than it did in a more collectivist culture like Japan’s, but I still found this study compelling. The idea that I could feel happier simply by dwelling on the kind things I do every day is an interesting one to me. Knowing that memories are formed by laying down neural pathways, and neural pathways are reinforced by repeated use, it makes sense that traveling mentally back to the scene of a kind act could hardwire it in more firmly and make it easier to call up later on. If one has a clear sense of herself as someone who performs kind acts and is a helpful member of her community, I can see how that could lead her to feel more joy in her life.

So, which might work better for me, recording things for which I’m grateful, or counting the nice things I do? Or should I just cover all of my bases and do both? (Actually, in one of the links below, Randy Taran suggests they’re actually two different things, so it might make more sense to do them both. But would that be adding too much at once?)

Or I could just vacillate a little longer.

Going with the Flow

On Tuesday, my car got a flat tire. I drove on it for several miles, to the library, to the park, and back home, before I realized it was flat. I’d noticed that the car was hesitating a little more than I was used to, but since the parking break was down, I figured I was just imagining it. It was the strong smell of rubber that I detected while removing my son from his car seat that caused me to look at the tire.

Luckily, the place we got our four new tires last November offers free repairs. After the baby was down for his nap, I called them up and made an appointment for that afternoon, and then began psyching myself up for a trip to the tire place with both children. After a few minutes, I had a Wickedly Indulgent Thought: I would see if the babysitter was available that afternoon.

It was all too easy. Within five minutes, I was set up to have 2 free hours (well, they cost me $10/hour, but I’m willing to pay for freedom).

I left the children eating their snack with the babysitter and headed to have my Mommy Time at the tire place waiting area. Before I had kids, I hated waiting for car repairs. It was so boring and the place always smelled like tires and grease and stale coffee. The bathrooms were always dirty and there was always a TV on with daytime talk shows or some news channel with that incessant crawl that I can’t seem to stop staring at. But the tire place waiting room was like a little slice of heaven. There was no TV and aside from the tire smell, the only potential negative in my environment was the strong smell of alcohol exuding from the woman sitting next to me, and even that was more food for thought than it was an annoyance. And maybe I smelled because she changed seats as soon as another came available.

I read and I took notes and before I knew it, they were calling my name. I wanted to say, “Oh, that’s all right. I’ll just stay here for a little longer, if you don’t mind.” But instead I reluctantly reclaimed my automobile and headed towards home on a plugged and patched tire.

A couple of blocks away I had a second Wickedly Indulgent Thought: I had an hour before I needed to be home and there was a coffee shop right on the way. Without letting myself think too much about it (“…and besides, I’m only 3.5 blocks away from the house…”), I pulled into the coffee shop parking lot. Inside, I took my iced decaf soy latte, boldly sat at a table with a guy I didn’t even know (very European of me, I thought), and began to read a chapter entitled “drudge and flow” in Ariel Gore’s Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness (yes, this is another post about Gore’s book. Turns out I really, really liked it).

This chapter is about optimal experience—losing oneself in the balance between challenge and skill. In an interview with Wired magazine, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described optimal experience, what he terms “flow,” as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

I noted in my journal that this is how I feel when I write.

Gore goes on to state that “when study subjects are deprived of optimal experience in their day-to-day lives, they get tense and guarded, they report sleep problems, they feel weaker and more irritable, and they have shorter attention spans.”

I noted in my journal that there might be some real benefits to making time to write every day. I had thought it was just a self-indulgent addition to dedicate November to writing, but here science was supporting my decision. But writing doesn’t always feel effortless. Sometimes it’s a real chore, and I’m nowhere near losing track of time while doing it. I wondered, what are the optimal conditions that could ensure (as much as possible) that my daily writing leads to a state of flow?

Apparently flow has five components:

  1. A challenging activity that requires skill. Check. Writing definitely meets that criterion.
  2. Concentration. Yes, this one might give me a little trouble. Gore quotes Adrienne Rich: “Motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible.” I glanced at my watch and my cell phone, wondered how the kids were doing, and went back to reading.
  3. Clear and achievable goals. Check. At least for November I’ve got clear and achievable daily and monthly goals lined up.
  4. The feeling of some level of control over the experience (“facing the truth of our lives and finding freedom within the confines”). Check. I’m pretty much totally in control of my writing. Or I can at least set it up that way.
  5. A break from self-consciousness. Another one that might give me a challenge. But perhaps if I’m quiet enough, I can sneak up and start writing without waking my inner critic. Or find some way to gag the killjoy.

I looked up from my note-taking and realized I’d lost track of time. I waited for my heart to calm again after I checked my watch and realized I still had 15 minutes left to get home. Then I smiled at myself as I realized that–while reading and writing about flow—I had experienced flow. I slurped up the last of my drink through the straw then headed for the car still smiling inwardly, grateful for the screw that had lodged itself in my tire and made it possible for me to have this unexpected little break in the day.

A Moment of Clarity

For her book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, Ariel Gore interviewed hundreds of women about their experiences of and beliefs about happiness. In the end, she found that the happy women weren’t connected by any particular life circumstances. “The women who reported being the happiest,” Gore writes, “were the women who had the self-esteem, the basic resources, and the courage to question—and often reject—the scripts for female happiness they had been handed . . . The women who were happy weren’t the ones who seemed to get stuck in rebellion and postmodern commitment phobia, but rather those who were able to take it further—to write new scripts for themselves. In the spirit of curiosity and experimentation, they had freed themselves from the past and were willing to commit to new paths and new visions. The women who were happy were optimists, but they weren’t perfectionists.”

I enjoy blazing my own trail through life and remaining ever observant of the not-so-constructive patterns I may be unconsciously repeating, but I’d always felt most keenly the alienation this brings. It’s sometimes socially challenging to be the woman doing all of these odd things, like birthing at home, homeschooling, nursing past X months/years, even just not watching TV. But if Gore is right, this tendency of mine to buck the norm is potentially my secret to deep and lasting happiness. The key, then, would be letting go of the fear that lurks around being disobedient to cultural expectations and instead embracing the freedom of living authentically and imperfectly.

Gore quotes authors Hib Chickena and Kika Kat from their book Off the Map:

“This is what it means to be an adventurer in our day: to give up the creature comforts of the mind, to realize possiblities of imagination. Because everything around us says no you cannot do this, you cannot live without that, nothing is useful unless it is in service to money, to gain, to stability. The adventurer gives in to the tides of chaos, trusts the world to support her—and in doing so turns her back on the fear and obedience she has been taught. She rejects the indoctrination of impossibility. My adventure is a struggle for freedom.”

Ahh…happiness is feeling the click as disparate ideas fall into place to form a coherent picture. It’s kind of like one of those magic eye pictures.

(Can you tell I’m not as excited about Self Care as I am about mindfulness? I’m still eating my greens and taking walks and avoiding sugar and alcohol. It’s just not as fun and profound as shifts in perception.)

Gratitude and the Modern Homemaker

Young Housewife, Oil on canvas. The Russian Mu...

Young Housewife by Alexey Tyranov (Image via Wikipedia)

In Ariel Gore’s Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness is a chapter entitled, “if you’re hokey and you know it, clap your hands,” in which Gore explores the idea of gratitude, its effectiveness in improving mood, and why it’s sometimes so difficult to express.

Apparently, there are studies that have shown that keeping a gratitude journal for six weeks can increase happiness and reduce depressive symptoms. Results could be seen in as little as three weeks. Trouble is, expressing gratitude can feel uncomfortable, childish, and hokey, as Gore experienced when she tried to keep her own gratitude journal.

Gore presents two possible reasons for this hokieness. First, for many of us, our primary experience with expressing gratitude was as children when we wrote thank-you notes that may or may not have been sincere to relatives for gifts we may or may not have liked. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing thank-you notes, but many of us are stuck in that idea that saying thank you is something childish and sometimes disingenuous. Doing so as adults can feel insincere, even when it is sincere.

The other explanation Gore suggests is that in order to express gratitude, we must admit that we’ve depended on someone for something. As Americans, we value self-reliance over pretty much anything else. Admitting dependence by thanking someone is in conflict with the view of ourselves as self-reliant. Gore writes about her experience as a single teen mom. Everyone around her was waiting for her to fail, and she became determined not only to succeed, but to succeed without anyone’s help. “A relationship based on someone’s idea that he or she was going to rescue me, I decided, was worse than no relationship at all,” Gore remembers.

As a stay-at-home mom, I make no money of my own and am dependent upon my husband’s income. My husband has a Ph.D. and is gainfully employed full-time as a scientist, both things that easily fall within the range of activities that are recognized by our culture as “valuable.” My job—caring for and educating our children—is not really recognized in our culture as a valuable activity, at least not in the same way that my husband’s job is. He can publish results, he gets a performance review, he can quantify his contribution to his organization. There aren’t many measurable results I can show for my work. I can’t think of any at this moment.

We’re both prone to looking at “going to work” as his job and “everything else” as my job. Doing “everything else” is beyond my abilities, but I still labor under the illusion that I am—or should be—self-reliant in my role. When the house isn’t clean and dinner isn’t made and the children and I aren’t in a sunny mood when my husband gets home, I feel like I’m not holding up my end of our arrangement. He is great about helping me, but I have trouble thanking him for his help because it would be admitting that I’m doubly dependent on him, not only for financial support but also for help doing “my job.” I don’t feel grateful to him; I feel beholden to him.

But this is just how I view our situation in my darker moments. In reality, there isn’t “his job” and “my job.” In fact, except for the part of his work that results in a paycheck, it’s not about “jobs” at all. We are working as a team to meet the needs of our family as a whole. We each have a vocation and an avocation that contributes to the welfare of our family. His vocation is his career, on which he spends the bulk of his time and for which he happens to receive a paycheck. His avocation is working around the house and caring for the children, reading The Economist magazine, watching football, and running. My vocation is caring for and educating the children and working around the house. My avocation is writing, reading, and volunteer work. As my children get older, I expect the balance between my vocation and my avocation to shift until their positions are reversed. From this perspective, he’s not “helping me” by working around the house and caring for the kids; he’s contributing to our family. In the same way, I’m not “helping him” by making it possible for him to work towards his career. Who makes money and who doesn’t really doesn’t figure into it.We are each making space for the growth of our family through the growth of each member as an individual. I don’t need to thank him for helping me; I can thank him for the ways in which he supports our family. With any luck, our kids will grow up with this sense of cooperation and mutual respect.

At the end of the chapter, Gore shares a statement that she taped to the front of her gratitude journal: “I can take care of myself AND I can rely on others.” I would go one step further and say, even as I take care of myself, I am relying on others. Purchasing food, driving my car, even flushing the toilet, there is nothing I do that doesn’t involve other people at some point in the process. I can either admit my dependence on others and feel grateful to be part of a larger system, or I can insist on my self-reliance and cut myself off from relationships with those with whom I interact, directly and indirectly.

I started out this post with the intention of talking a little about gratitude, why Ariel Gore thinks it’s a problem for some people, why I think it’s a problem for myself, and then soliciting feedback from others about the idea of keeping a gratitude journal. I enjoy when my journey takes me through territory that wasn’t on the map.

I still would like your feedback, though. What’s your experience with gratitude? What feelings arise for you when you express gratitude? Have you kept a gratitude journal? Do you feel hokey saying, “thank you”?

What’s my Goal Again?

Cropped screenshot of Donna Reed from the trai...

Image via Wikipedia

The past couple of days, I’ve been in a really pissy mood. So has my daughter. I wonder if those are related somehow.

At any rate, I realize that when I’m feeling irritable, I mentally tag that as Something To Change. If I weren’t doing something wrong, I wouldn’t feel irritable, right? And then I go about dissecting every part of my life—diet, interpersonal interactions, time spent on the computer, books I’m reading, activity level, etc—to try and figure out the Something to Change so I’m no longer irritable. Despite the fact that this never works to improve my mood.

I’ve been reading Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore. I’m only about a third through it, so perhaps it veers off in some unforeseen direction, but so far it seems to be about how there’s a cultural expectation in the US for everyone to be happy (or at least to act happy), and the responsibility for this happiness largely falls on the shoulders of women. “A pretty girl is a girl with a smile on her face,” Gore’s grandfather told her. “A smile always makes everyone feel at ease.” Whether a woman is happy or not, Gore asserts, our culture encourages her to smile so that those around her feel better. Suppressing our true emotions and showing only happiness is a recipe for depression, which is part of why women have higher rates of depression than men (along with doctors’ expectation that women should be smiling more than men, which leads doctors to diagnose women with depression more often than men with the same symptoms). People from other countries, especially Europeans, aren’t as cheerful as Americans, says Gore, and Americans haven’t always been as cheerful as we are today.

I’m not sure if I agree with all of her conclusions, but Gore has got me thinking about happiness and about what it is I should be striving for. Is it realistic that my goal should be to never feel irritable? Or, more to the point since the thing that really disappoints me is when I snap at my loved ones, is it realistic to aim for never expressing my irritability? Is a “happy person” never irritable? What percentage of the time is a happy person happy? If it’s less than 100%, what are they feeling the rest of the time? Would I be fine with my current level of happiness if I were in another culture? Could I be just fine being my regular old tacitrun self if I moved to Europe? Do Europeans do Happiness Projects?

In addition, I wonder how a Happiness Project fits in with my ideas of feminism. I realize reading Gore’s book that I hold in high esteem the image of the uncomplaining wife and mother. She’s a woman who keeps a neat house, feeds her family nutritious foods, and gently but firmly molds her children into responsible adults, all while exuding elegance and ease. Where does this image come from? And why do I still want so badly to live up to it even as my conscious mind rails against it? Perhaps it’s just because I don’t have a clear and appealing alternative to Donna Reed or June Cleaver.

I seem to recall feeling out of sorts and full of questions and doubt the first week or two of practicing mindfulness. Perhaps this is just the disequilibrium that necessarily follows the implementation of changes in my routine and precedes increased understanding. If only I were better at observing my reactions with detachment. I have the feeling that would decrease the odds of my having a big old whiny freakout while I’m waiting for whatever insights are coming.