Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How to Be Happier, Step 7: Resilience

This month my posts have been following a list from the blog of psychologist Jeremy Dean of ten habits that science has shown make people happier. Today I examine the seventh of these, resilience.

This has been one of my favorite sayings since I found it on a Salada tea bag tag. Those words really spoke to me, and I kept that tag pasted up over my desk for years.

I believe those words, and I’ve experienced that strength in my own life at times when I had no idea where it would come from.

From 2008 through 2012 I lived through the five worst years of my life. In January 2008 my brother passed away suddenly from a massive stroke. From then on my ninety-five-year-old mother began to deteriorate. Her mind and memory failed; she was diagnosed with dementia; she could no longer live alone. And I was the only remaining child; the responsibility for making decisions about her care was all mine.

I was blessed to have my husband and sister-in-law, who could share some of the burden and give me support, but I was the only remaining child; it was on me.

As anyone who has had to care for an aging parent knows, these decisions are the hardest ones of your life. You know that a parent with an ounce of independent spirit left will fight giving up control of his or her life. He or she will resist any suggestion of leaving the home, will swear up and down “I’m not going anywhere. I can take care of myself.” You know they will do this even when it’s obvious to everyone else that they can’t take care of themselves. Somehow you, the caregiver, have to find the strength to do what’s right while fighting your own sense of guilt and betrayal.

And so eventually, after months of trying different solutions, months of pain and heartache and fear and “What am I going to do?”, we came upon the best solution for us, to move into a new house with my mother.

This solution eased my mind about her physical safety, but it didn’t eliminate the worry. Along with worrying about her, I began to worry about my own mental health. Most nights I would finally retreat to the sanctuary of our apartment on the second floor, exhausted, stressed, and distressed, able to think only another day is past. Another day that would bring us closer to the time this would be over, when we could return to our own home. And although a certain amount of guilt came with that thought, I believe I needed to think it in order to keep myself going and to preserve my sanity.

And gradually I learned to do all the things caregivers are advised to do for themselves. I stayed in contact with my friends. I worked at maintaining my freelancing career, though it needed to be curtailed a bit. I kept my love of reading. I prayed. My husband and I continued to attend mass every Sunday. Each night I thanked God for getting us through another day. And I began to relax and to enjoy my mother’s company again: her sense of humor was still there, reminding me that my mother was still herself. We could take her out for dinner or grocery shopping and be happy that she could still enjoy those small things.

She passed in 2012. We’re back in our own home, our own life resumed. I’ve healed. And now this is what resilience means to me: to hold on; to think transcendently, lifting yourself above whatever is happening and looking ahead to a better time; to take comfort and satisfaction from the things you enjoy; to call on and be grateful for the support of friends and family. And to have faith.

There’s a line from the great Stephen Sondheim song about resilience and persistence, “I’m Still Here,” after the singer has detailed everything she’s been through in her life: “I got through all of last year/And I’m here!”

Maybe having the ability to say that is what keeps us going.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How to be Happier, Step 6: Direction

On January 2 I posted a list from the blog of psychologist Jeremy Dean of ten habits that science has shown make people happier. For the next several days I’m posting individually on one of these actions/states of mind in hopes that we can all learn to make them habits.

Today’s topic is direction.

Okay, how many of us have direction in our lives? How many of us know exactly where we’re going and how we’re going to get there?

No, not me, either.

Remember in It’s a Wonderful Life when James Stewart tells Donna Reed, “Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that”? It didn’t work out that way for George Bailey, and most likely it doesn’t for the rest of us, either. Life has its own way.

Nevertheless, having some sense of a direction in which we want our lives to go can make us happier.

I think I see direction as an overall bent of our personalities. It’s what we want to build our lives around, the things that are important to us. For some people it might be success in business—a good job, regular promotions, large salaries. Others might tend toward the sciences, or sports, or adventure. For me it’s been spiritual and aesthetic things—literature, arts, humanities. I’ve spent my working life in nonprofits because I prefer the more relaxed atmosphere, the relative absence of competition and pressure.

By this point of view, direction is more something that we choose to align with our deepest selves rather than something we actively plan and work toward. For that, goals may be a better word.

Goals are things you want to accomplish, things that are important to you. These are the things that take planning and thought. For me, because I’m lazy, I need to expend more effort into really thinking about what I want and how I can get it.

Because I’m not good at these things, this year I splurged and bought a fancy new planner (the InkWell Press LiveWell). As you can see, each month has a “Mission Board” in a honeycomb pattern on which you can spontaneously write whatever you want to accomplish that month.


My overarching goal this year is to (finally) finish the second draft of my novel, then take an online class to help me to shape it and get it ready to submit for publication. That’s a pretty big goal. I’m hoping that by breaking it down month by month it might be more manageable. This month I’ve written down on the mission board my participation in the UBC, as well as continuing my 100-day writing challenge (goals that happen to overlap this month). Next month maybe I’ll be more precise and write something like “write at least 100 words of novel each day.”

Small steps, like tea leaves, conglomerate into something wonderful.



Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How to Be Happier, Step 5: Trying

On January 2 I posted a list from the blog of psychologist Jeremy Dean of ten habits that science has shown make people happier. For the next several days I’m posting individually on one of these actions/states of mind in hopes that we can all learn to make them habits.

 Trying. Learning.

Continually learning and trying new things all throughout your life is one of the best ways to stay healthy and keep your mind active.

I will admit that I’m better at learning (book learning) than at trying (actually going out and doing things). Often when I’ve tried something new it has stayed there: as a try. Okay, I tried that. Not for me. (See here for my thoughts on being a “beginner”.)

Still, I believe in trying things that interest me. I tried skiing. I tried to learn to swim. I tried horseback riding and jiu jitsu. I even tried belly dancing a couple of years ago. I’m glad that I tried all these things, even if they didn’t stick. Some of them I may even go back to try again some day.

And some things I tried have stuck: crocheting, running, bowling. And all those things I tried have kept my life interesting. I know there are things I still want to try in the future, including yoga and tai chi.

Learning in itself is something I expect to keep on doing my whole life. I want to learn more history. More about art. I want to relearn French. And who knows what new interest will come my way in the future?

One of the so-called Big Five personality traits in psychology is openness to experience, and scoring high on this trait is considered a sign of being a well-adjusted and happy person (as opposed to scoring high on neuroticism, which I think I would…one reason I pay attention to staying open to possibilities!)

New opportunities to learn, new things to try, are always in our path if we’re alert for them and open to them.

What things have you tried in the past? Do you stay open to new opportunities to try and to learn?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

How to Be Happier, Step 4: Appreciating

On January 2 I posted a list from the blog of psychologist Jeremy Dean of ten habits that science has shown make people happier. For the next several days I’m posting individually on one of these actions/states of mind in hopes that we can all learn to make them habits.

Today’s topic is appreciating.

Here are a few of the little, ordinary, but beautiful things in life and the world that I appreciate:

  A cup of hot tea and a sunbeam shining through the steam from the cup

☼ Lighted windows at dusk

Kindness and generosity

Colors and patterns

Birds chirping in bare winter trees

Spontaneous conversations with strangers in public places
That a gray sky has its own kind of beauty

My dog sleeping on her blanket in my office

Strawberries and blueberries

Smells: vanilla and cinnamon, lilacs, onions cooking, pine trees, fresh wood, a library

A clean, fresh, dry towel after a shower

Snatches of music that just enter my head out of nowhere

Sunlight reflecting off the windows of tall buildings


How many more can you think of? What ordinary things do you especially appreciate?






Monday, January 5, 2015

How to Be Happier, Step 3: Exercising

On January 2, I posted a list from the blog of psychologist Jeremy Dean of ten habits that science has shown make people happier. For the next ten days I’m posting individually on one of these actions/states of mind in hopes that we can all learn to make them habits.

Today’s topic is exercising.

Uh oh.

This is on a list of how to be happier—that doesn’t make me happy.

This is one thing I do not do well, at least not as well as I should.

Does anyone—other than my husband—really enjoy exercising?

Those who preach about exercising tell you to find an exercise you really enjoy. Really? The only exercise I really enjoy is turning the pages of a book.

Nevertheless, and surprisingly, I am better at it now than I was when I was younger. I remember even as a child that I couldn’t run very far without getting a stitch in my side. When I became an adult, and suddenly running (by adults) was all the rage, all I could think was, Are they nuts? What’s the point?

Now I do enjoy walking. When I was growing up my mother didn’t have a car or a driver’s license, so we would walk into town or take a bus to go longer distances. Now my husband’s and my favorite vacations are to great cities, where we can walk all over.

But running? Never gonna happen, I thought.


My husband is a runner. He competes in races. After we were married I began going to races with him as a spectator/cheerleader. He often ran with people he worked with, nice, intelligent people who didn’t seem crazy at all to me. In fact, they were enthusiastic and happy to be on the race course. Gradually I started to feel twinges of envy. What would it be like, I wondered, to be able to actually run three miles?

Then I decided to walk in a few races. Having enjoyed that, I started thinking, Hey, maybe I could run just a little bit. From one tree to another. To the stop sign on the corner.

That’s how it started. Just like they advise you to do. Start out slowly. Run for one minute. Then gradually increase your running time. Eventually I was able to complete a one-mile race, and later my first 5K—without walking! It was a thrill.

I am not by any means a good runner. I’m still slow. I don’t do it as regularly as I should. Especially in winter. Every spring I start all over, thinking that this year I’ll run several times every week. I’ll get in shape. I’ll do the ten-mile race in July. I’ve done that race exactly twice, and certainly not running all the way.

But I remember when I first began being able to run that three miles and the “runner’s high” I got. The feeling of yes, I can do this!

I still fight my own core of laziness. I still look for excuses when my husband asks if I want to go to the gym. (The very word gym reminds me of high school horrors in gym classes.) I prefer to say the Y—YMCA doesn’t have as many negative connotations for me. Sometimes I distract myself by putting on HGTV while I do the treadmill. Love It or List It has managed to keep me going for an hour.
I know I need to do more. Maybe sign up for a yoga class. Do weights or stretching at home. Lose that extra five to ten pounds that seemed to come up on me out of nowhere.

But this nonexerciser at least tries. Does it make me happier? Maybe. I know  there’s at least one part of every run that’s happy: when it’s over and I walk back in the door of my house, knowing I did it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

How to Be Happier, Step 2: Relating

On January 2, I posted a list from the blog of psychologist Jeremy Dean of ten habits that science has shown make people happier. For the next ten days I’m posting individually on one of these actions/states of mind in hopes that we can all learn to make them habits.

Today’s topic is relating: connecting with other people.

I have to start off by admitting that this is something that doesn’t always come easily to me.

I am a shy introvert. I’ve never been very comfortable in social situations. For most of my life I’ve had very little self-confidence or self-esteem. And it’s hard for me to open up with people and to let them get to know me.

I don’t have a large social circle. I don’t like hanging around in groups. I’m not a party person. I’ve never had a lot of friends.

What I do have is a small circle of really good friends, most of whom go back to my college or early work days. And these are people I treasure.

I treasure them because they have stayed with me all these years. Somehow they saw something to like in me when I didn’t like myself so much. They were patient enough to want to get to know me and to let me take my time in revealing myself to them.

And they help to make my life happy.

As I’ve grown older I’ve come to be more relaxed and open with people. Having the support and love of my husband has helped me be more confident in myself. I’m no longer afraid to talk to people. I’ve learned to accept myself as I am (see step #9) and to accept that, although I don’t need a lot of socializing to be happy, I do need and want to be social.  

I also accept that I still have trouble forming new friendships, but I do have a pretty good group of acquaintances, through church, the neighborhood, and other avenues, and meeting and talking to them on various occasions fills a need for me. Maybe some of them will develop over time into something more. If not, I enjoy them as they are.

I do try to nurture the relationships I do have. My friends and I make a point of meeting regularly for lunch or dinner. We realize that good friends, people who’ve been with us through good and bad times, are irreplaceable. Finding people you really connect with is a rare blessing.

Many people come and go in our lives, and they all bring us something. The ones who stay, the good friends, bring us joy and enrich our lives. We need to nourish them.







Saturday, January 3, 2015

How to Be Happier, Step 1: Giving

On January 2 I posted a list from the blog of psychologist Jeremy Dean of ten habits that science has shown make people happier. For the next ten days I’m posting individually on each of these actions/states of mind in hopes that we can all learn to make them habits.

Today’s topic is giving.

We all know how to give. We give to our families, friends, loved ones on special occasions or just spontaneously, and doing so makes us happy. But it’s possible to become even happier by giving to people we don’t know, who we’ll never meet, who can never repay us, simply because they need our help.

 Yesterday I read in our local paper that our new mayor-elect, who’s being inaugurated Monday, called for a three-day “celebration”—but not the usual indulgent, overexpensive inaugural party that most politicians mount. Instead he asked for the people of Providence to do something good for others over this weekend. As one example, several locations around the city will be collecting food for our state food bank.

This is only one example of how every one of us can do something to help others.

Giving doesn’t have to cost a lot. We don’t need to be millionaires endowing schools or museums or making huge donations to charities. We’re all capable of doing something, no matter how small. Small things add up.

Do you have a cause that means something to you, but you can’t afford to make large donations? My primary cause is mental illness, particularly research on Alzheimer’s and other dementias. I’ve supported the Menninger Hospital, and a few years ago I began to donate regularly to the Alzheimer’s Association. I set up an automatic donation of a monthly amount of $25 to be charged to my credit card. This gives the Association an assured amount every month, and truthfully I barely notice the difference, and I don’t have to think about what and when and how much to give. You can donate any amount that’s comfortable; even $5 or $10 a month spread out over many donors can be great help to an organization.

Another example: Someone wrote to Carolyn Hax’s advice column a few days ago to share the story of how her family—not a rich one by any means—set up a college scholarship at the high school they’d all gone to. They got tax-exempt status and funded several $1,000 scholarships through small events like golf tournaments and garage sales.

 Small things add up!

 Of course many things other than money can be given. Time spent with adolescents or elderly people in nursing homes. Teaching adults to read. Getting involved in church activities. Anyone who can knit or crochet can donate handmade items to numerous charities. Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity; you can be valuable even if you don’t know how to hold a hammer. Pick up an extra can of food or box of pasta when you go to the supermarket. Collect them over a few weeks or months, then donate to your food bank.

We all want a better, more caring world. What if every one of us made a commitment to do something for others this year? Not only would we make ourselves happier, but we’d be contributing to the happiness of others. Is that a win-win situation or not?