Happiness?

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I think there is a general misconception about the state of happiness.

Here in the US, written into one of our founding documents, we find the phrase : “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

These words have had a profound effect on the psyche of our country.  While originally, as the phrasing implies, the word “happiness” meant more the pursuit of wealth and a good situation in life, it’s meaning has morphed as time has passed.  Now that many of us take finding a decent situation for granted, the meaning of “the pursuit of happiness” has become something less tangible, more of a state of mind than anything else.  We should be joyful, we think, it’s our right to feel happy most of the time.  We want to follow our bliss, find endless affirmations around us, employ positive thinking to attract what we want in life.  After all, “happiness” is our right.

The thing is, life in the world isn’t a streamlined experience.  If you expect conditions that are conducive to your happiness to be present all the time, you’re going to be let down.  Crappy things can happen out of the blue, “ruining” what may have started out a good day/week/month/year, regardless of the positive thinking you’ve employed.  Nature is not predictable, and rarely is thinking things will continue on as they are indefinitely a good long-term strategy.  I don’t mean to sound bleak or like a downer.  If you look at it scientifically, a static system is a dead system–we’re all meant to exist in a continual dance of finding equilibrium.

In less obvious ways, I think this “pursuit of happiness” can affect the way deal with our health, physical and emotional.  Rather than a long hard slog to feeling mostly alright with a few crappy days every now and then, we want our pathological symptoms to go away, the sooner the better.  We want to be cured from what ails us, to overcome our flaws and endlessly improve ourselves.  Then, maybe, we can start getting down the the business of being happy.

But what if happy is learning to work with those symptoms, of accepting our limitations, and within those confines, appreciating, if not loving, our strengths?  What if happiness is that moment we stop trying to be this glowing, radiant magazine cover version of ourselves and reinvest that energy inward to taking a good long look at ourselves and being ok with that, however messy?

I’ve lately started to re-work what I consider to be “happy”. Maybe this is odd, but personally, I’m not a big fan of feeing giddy happiness–it feels too fragile, like sumptuous dessert to be enjoyed only every so often.  I much prefer to feel a calm sense of resiliency, the feeling that regardless of what happens, good or bad, I’ll be able to assimilate and adapt as needed.  Happiness as an appreciation of inner strength.  That way if today happens to be a cruddy day, or if illness befalls me, it becomes less of a catastrophe or set back than something that I can deal with, moment by moment, without feeling like I’ve been pulled away from my previously happy state.

This is a work in progress, an aspiration, but it feels useful.  It gives the sense that, bar anything horrible, I’ll be ok, and that’s a good place to be.  And the thing is, most of us are already there, if we just let ourselves appreciate that fact.  We’ve got this.

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HALT SAD

“Winter is coming…”

I’m not a Game of Thrones fan, but I did watch the first season before the brutality and violence towards women turned me off.  One of the facts of the world that this author created is that winter comes only every so many years, but it also lasts for years.  Even as a Pacific Northwesterner, where the winters are more dreary than freezing cold, the thought of a winter that stretches for years is slightly horrifying.

Here, more than enduring months of subzero temperatures and having to protect ourselves from the dangers of frostbite or hypothermia, we have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.   Today, when I was thinking of SAD, another acronym popped into my head, one taught to me by my godmother, who happens to be a therapist: HALT, which stands for Hungry Angry Lonely Tired.  The acronym is there to help people remember that if they’re feeling any permutation of those four sensations, it’s probably a good idea to stop and check in with yourself  before you act on how you’re feeling right then and there.  It’s interesting to think of how SAD and HALT are linked.  Both have a central commonality, which is to forget how things are when we’re not in the current state we’re in.  So, for my breakdown of how to deal with SAD here in the grey Northwest winter, I’ll divide it into H A L T.

Hungry:

Winter is so often a time of comfort food.  We crave the warmth and insulation that starchy, carb-y, fatty foods give us.  While I don’t believe in stressing out too much about what we’re eating unless it’s a radically unhealthy diet (check out this article from the New York Times), it is a good idea to check yourself to make sure that some of those warm, nourishing comfort foods are well-balanced.  Warm salads and soups are a good way to get in the vegetables that we might get in the summer through a nice crunchy lettuce based salad.

Angry:

Taking care of your emotional self during the winter months is incredibly important.  When it’s cold and rainy outside, we’re less likely to go out and exercise, which can negatively impact our mood.  Though not really anger, depression can feel worse in the winter when it’s dark at 4 o’clock and the world outside the four walls of our home is uninviting.  Depression, anxiety, and other mood imbalances can throw off our reactions to the outside world, and we can be reactive in ways we’d otherwise be able to work through.  Seeking the appropriate therapy for this is essential to being able to actually enjoy the seasonal introversion that winter promotes.  Talk therapy, exercise, art, herbs, meditation, or drugs can all be helpful, depending on the severity of the mood disorder you’re experiencing.  Too often people put a stigma on seeking the level of help they need either from a therapist or taking the medication they need.

Lonely:

Ah, loneliness.  Even worse than the stigma asking for psychological help, admitting to loneliness, even to oneself, can be hard.   Human beings are a strange species, both trapped in the essential isolation of their own minds, while simultaneously being completely dependent on one another to care for each other.  The internet age has offered us the illusion of social contact via websites like Facebook or Twitter, but for many people, social media can also be a trigger.  This wonderful article from Psychology Today gives some excellent tips on how to deal with loneliness whenever it rears its sad face.

Tired:

The dark days of winter can make some want to hibernate, but be aware of any overall drops in energy levels.  Vitamin D deficiency here in the Pacific Northwest can be a real problem for people.  The lack of sun and being outside in the winter can deplete the levels you spent the summer building up, so make sure to talk to a healthcare practitioner about what dose of D.