I am excited to share some of the strategies I am using to boost my happiness and manage stress in a healthier, more life-affirming way, but I am writing this post as much for myself as anyone because I feel the need to collect my strategies in one place. My progress on this journey feels a bit tenuous—like a setback could make me forget everything I am learning about living a more mentally healthy life. If you read my last post, you know that I had been internalizing stress to the point that I felt desperate enough to overdo B6 supplementation, resulting in self-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy.
I see these happiness strategies as dynamic lifelines. Their comparative value may fluctuate as I move through life. They are presented in no hard and fast order. All have value to me, and all are making a difference.
- Mantras: I have mentioned previously my love of quotes. My mantras derive from my quote collection in most cases. Usually, a quote inspires me to personalize the words into an affirmation or reminder for myself. Some mantras remain constant for years. Others are more fleeting, serving me well for a time, until I seem to outgrow them or to move into a different phase in my life. I repeat these to myself, usually in my head, sometimes aloud, often many times a day. Here are the mantras that are currently serving me most effectively:
- I do what I can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then I let it go. Derived from an Elizabeth Gilbert quote, this mantra is arguably my most important mental lifeline right now. I am in an intensely busy phase at work. There is really no way to get everything done that I would like to get done “within a reasonable time frame.” In order to sustain myself through this intensity, avoid burning out and resist a spiral back into unmanaged stress, I had to redefine what constituted a reasonable time frame and adjust my expectations. This is difficult for me because excellence is one of my core values. But, I cannot sustain excellence if I am so stressed that I am damaging my health. So, I have Gilbert’s quote posted above my computer at work, and I repeat the personalized mantra countless times throughout the day to calm myself and to remember that I am only one person, trying hard to do good work, in a limited amount of time, with multiple responsibilities pulling me various directions.
- I am deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that I do. This mantra is a balm to counter resentment at the bureaucracy, the mundaneness and the minutiae of life that can wear me down and leave me feeling discouraged. Louise Hay deserves credit for this mantra, because it was inspired by her words, “Find a way to be deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that you do.” (Also posted above my work computer.) “Finding a way” is a crucial aspect of the effectiveness of this mantra. When I repeat this mantra to myself, I challenge myself to identify meaning in my activities of the day or even the moment. How does what I am doing right now (or what I did today) fulfill me? What meaning have I created? What value have I added? It is a useful mental exercise that helps me to keep or regain perspective, when I feel the threat or reality of being swept up in the tide of constant appointments and/or obligations. When I challenge myself to identify and acknowledge the meaning in what I do, I feel calmer and, truly, more fulfilled.
- My thoughts shape my perceptions, determine my actions and behavior and create the world I envision. This mantra has been part of my daily self-talk for years, and I often use it to ward off fear and to remind myself how powerfully I shape my own reality by the way I approach life. Although I don’t fully subscribe to the Law of Attraction, I do believe that how I choose to define myself and my circumstances influences how I experience life. I find myself repeating this quote while cycling as I approach an area where I have had problems with a dog. It gives me strength and feels a bit like a talisman. Whether or not it actually wards off chasing canines, I can’t say for sure, but it allows me to feel more powerful and more capable and it reminds me to expect the best and to do as much as I can to help myself.
- I am happy. I am healthy. I am peaceful. I am free. This is an adaptation of the Loving-Kindness Meditation. These words calm me and induce gratitude. I enhance the benefits when I extend the meditation to friends and family, those who don’t understand me and all beings. (e.g., May all beings be happy. May they be healthy. May they be peaceful. May they be free.) My heart expands when I take the time and make the mental effort to extend these wishes to others. I feel more generous, more peaceful and happier.
- I choose happiness. I use this to shove unproductive thoughts out of my head. Sometimes I couple this with an emphatic, often audible, “This is my time!” I do this especially on my bike. Processing emotions and issues is one thing; allowing myself to haul the baggage someone else (or a situation) creates is another. I shed the baggage by remembering that I choose happiness, not the weight of victimhood.
- Three things that went well today: I mentioned this practice in a previous post. Each night before I go to bed, I write in my journal three things that went well during the day and why. I have done this practice, recommended by Martin Seligman, for several years, and I treasure it as a way to center, reflect on the day and focus on the positive. Even on very difficult days, I challenge myself to find three good things to record. Sometimes they are profound; sometimes they are mundane, but the practice makes a big difference to my overall outlook. I practice on a miniature, mental scale throughout the day. If I leave work feeling stressed, I recall three good things from the day as I walk to my car or drive home. Sometimes, I use a variation of this in the morning. If I feel draggy and reluctant as my alarm sounds, I find three things to which I can look forward that day.
- Does it/will it bring me more peace or more stress? This question is a very important strategy for me. I ask myself variations of it many times throughout the day, particularly when I am at a decision point. Will eating this chocolate bring me more stress or more peace? Which item on my task list is causing me the most stress? Once I identify it, completing it becomes top priority. If I attend this function, will it bring me more stress or more peace? To the extent that it is possible, the choice that adds peace and/or minimizes stress is what I select.
- “I have three criteria to apply to any item trying to make its way onto my to-do list: Is the activity fun, meaningful, or absolutely necessary?” – Amy Tiemann: When I read this in Amy Tiemann’s Mojo Mom, several years ago, I was struck by its wisdom. There are so many obligations and options competing for our time; it made sense to have some criteria with which to choose those most worthy of my precious minutes. I try to ask myself these questions before accepting a responsibility, taking on a task or attending a function. Of course, these are subjective criteria, but they promote awareness and conscious decision making. They minimize the risk that I will agree to do something solely out of guilt, thus lessening the chance of resentment.
- Year-round cycling: Cycling is such an important part of my life. Its value cannot be overstated. I am unquestionably a nicer, healthier, higher-functioning person because I have cycling in my life. I am a proponent of exercise, in general, and I look for ways to add movement to my day. But, cycling is special. I cherish the time I am on my bike, even on rides like yesterday morning’s, when I was battered by a raw north wind for most of my 50 miles. I have typically declared the end of daylight savings time in November until it begins again in March to be my off-season. This year, acknowledging how hard fall and winter are for me, I have decided that I will maintain some level of cycling throughout the year. I will still have an off-season, in that my rides will be relegated mostly to short (15-20 miles) weekend rides. I will need to invest in more cold-weather cycling gear, but I think it will make the winter months easier to bear and will allow me small doses of the mood boost I get from cycling throughout the year.
- Reading: Like cycling, reading is invaluable to me. I am always reading a book (99.9% nonfiction), and I always have books waiting for me on my Kindle and in a stack. Having a book with me wherever I go serves as a security blanket. I grow so much through reading and through processing many of the ideas I encounter in books while I am on the bike. I have been focusing heavily on positive psychology and happiness literature recently (currently reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home), but I read many other types of books, too. I read whenever and wherever I can. While an undergraduate, working full time during the day and going to school at night, I got into the habit of reading while brushing my teeth, getting dressed, folding laundry, etc. I still do that. I can read while washing dishes by using my elbow to change the pages of my Kindle. I love to learn, and reading is one way I can take control of my lifelong education and personal development. As I drive home from work, a joy often pops into my mind: “I will have opportunities to read!”
- Quotes: Beyond personalizing quotes into mantras, I refer to my five volumes of collected quotes multiple times throughout the day while at home, randomly selecting words of wisdom through a ritual I have used for years. One change in recent months is that I give myself permission to select another random quote if the first (or subsequent) one doesn’t speak to me in the moment. I then ponder these quotes, especially in situations where I won’t have the opportunity to read or will have the opportunity to think (before turning off my book light to go to sleep, before leaving in the car, before getting on my bike, before getting into the shower, etc.). This practice calms me or sometimes excites and inspires me. Even quotes I recorded years ago suddenly may be particularly resonant.
- Blog: This blog arose out of my personal quest for happiness. Writing is one of the ways I center and process, plus, I have found myself with an urge to share the lessons I learn through cycling and reflection. I have a loose vision for the future of this blog, but, for now, it is a creative outlet that I hope others find helpful. However, its value to me is not dependent on whether or not it benefits others. Writing it is an end in itself. Taking the time to do so feels like a luxury. It would be easy to say that I can’t afford the time, but I think the truth is that I can’t afford not to take it.
- #100HAPPYDAYS: When I saw a post about this project on Facebook, I knew that I was ripe to participate. Having recently learned the cause of my neurological symptoms and being struck by the reality that stress, anxiety and depression contributed to them, I was committed to enhancing my own happiness. #100HAPPYDAYS extends beyond “three things that went well today” because it forces a more active pursuit of happy moments. Since I have to take a photo to post some symbol of happiness that occurred during the day, it is not enough to retrospectively reflect and choose good things; I have to look for them actively and capture them with my camera. This turns my focus more often to the positive.
- Push myself: For me, this mostly involves cycling. I find that I am more energized if I ride on the other side of comfortable several times a week. I feel good about my gains, and my body benefits from the endorphins released by the vigorous exercise.
- Vocation: I owe my renewed appreciation for the word and the concept of vocation to Elizabeth Gilbert. In Big Magic, her discussion of vocation helped me to recognize an often-missed coherence to my daily life and to my lifelong personal and professional journey. At this point in my life, “vocation” is a more useful construct than “mission” or “purpose.” My vocation encompasses both the way I live my life and the work I do. I see the value that each leg of my journey has brought to the whole of my vocation. I find peace and comfort in this view. My blog, my paid work, my veganism, my cycling—all are components of my vocation.
- Devaluing “busyness”: I recognize that, for several years, busyness has been my signature state. When people asked how I was, I often responded, “Busy.” I equated commitment to busyness, excellence to busyness and responsibility to busyness. Now, I can see where that got me, and I want to put busyness in its appropriate place. Yes, my calendar is still full—very often fuller than I would like or fuller than my introversion would choose—but I have pushed busyness off its pedestal and recognize that whatever benefits wearing that label may have given me, the costs were greater. I have changed my language so that I try to refer to my schedule as “full,” rather than busy. The difference may be semantic, but “full” connotes abundance to me, while “busy” connotes stress.
- Redefining success: As someone who has always pursued straight A’s and high academic achievement, I have too often felt shame at my nonlinear career and income trajectories. It is easy to say to myself that someone with two master’s degrees should be making more money than I do. But, have I ever really chosen my work for the salary? That has always been a secondary or even tertiary or lower criterion, probably to my fiscal detriment, but integrity and, yes, vocation, have always been more important. I can acknowledge that the financial return on my academic investment is probably lower than I would have hoped or than most people would expect, but I do feel like the work I have chosen to do throughout my career has generally made positive differences in people’s lives and to the world, albeit in incremental ways. A quote I found in UU World magazine several years ago (I believe this is a paraphrase of a quote by Mother Teresa.) said, “Every action makes a ripple. The ripples change the world.” I hope that I will make enough positive ripples that there will be more compassion and less suffering, more excellence and less complacency, more integrity and less insincerity and more fitness and less squandering of potential in the world. If I accomplish those things, then I will have been successful.
- Limiting exposure: Sometimes the world can feel so heavy. As an ethical vegan, the suffering experienced by nonhumans and humans alike can be seriously depressing. I have found that I simply must limit my exposure to the sad stuff. Compassion fatigue is real, and I have a strong tendency toward it. I am aware that there is a line between burying my head in the sand and overdosing on vicarious suffering, sadness and bad news, and I try to stay reasonably balanced between the two. My veganism provides an example. I have been vegetarian for over 33 years and became vegan over seven years ago. For the intervening 26 years, I wanted to believe that being vegetarian was enough. Finally, I knew that, in order to live my values with integrity, I needed to educate myself more thoroughly about the suffering of animals in the dairy or egg industries. As soon as I allowed myself to learn the truth, I became vegan. I continued to learn more, but reached a saturation point, especially after the heartbreaking loss of my special dog Andy in 2011. I realize that, in so many ways, Andy’s death was a crucial turning point in my life, representing far more than the pain of that loss. I am a committed vegan. There is no turning back for me, so there is no point in continuing to torture myself by reading or watching animal suffering. It is more productive to focus on what I can do to contribute positively to the world, rather than to become unbearably weighted down with the sadness of the world.
- Adjusting my expectations: This is related to the first mantra I discussed in this post. Living this mantra means that I have to adjust my expectations, but I am careful to distinguish between that and lowering my standards. Instead of demanding that I address every email before I leave work, I use my “more peace or more stress?” strategy to determine my highest priorities for the following day, and I move on “in a reasonable time frame.” It makes a difference. Another area where I have adjusted my expectations is this blog. Initially, I committed to posting at least once a week. I have found that life doesn’t always allow that without undue stress. Since Just Wind is one of my happiness strategies, pushing myself to produce substandard work, just for the sake of staying on an arbitrary and unrealistic schedule, makes no sense. I will emphasize quality over frequency.
- Strengths: Related to being fulfilled by what I do and finding meaning in my daily life, I focus on identifying the ways that I am using my strengths—those character traits and talents that most empower me to make a difference—to contribute to the greater good in the world. I know that life feels more rewarding when I am putting my strengths to good use.
- Adding movement: A practice I started several years ago (and resurrected after a brief hiatus when I changed jobs) is to add a little movement to my work day by taking the long way to or from the restroom every time I get up for a bathroom break. This takes only a minute or so, but it helps me to get a tiny burst of physical activity and clears my head for a moment.
While I hope this (admittedly long) post will add value for my readers, my primary objective is to create a collection of my most useful happiness strategies, as a reference for myself.
Please share your happiness strategies in the “Comments” section. (If you tried to comment on previous posts and couldn’t, I think I have fixed the problem.) I would love to learn from fresh perspectives. We can all contribute to the happiness in the world by pooling our accumulating and evolving wisdom. It is one of the ways we make ripples.