Archive for the ‘happiness’ Category

Inspiration Challenge 23

February 23, 2009

Day 23 Challenge: Live like your hero for a day.

This should be interesting.  One of my heroes is Anne Shirley ala Anne of Green Gables.  I love the spirit with which she approaches life and the people who surround her.  There’s a certain optimism and “Anne-ish” philosophy that I could use right now.  I feel that negative thoughts constantly slip from my mouth or into my mind, that though I see myself as a generally positive and optimistic person, this is not reflected in my day-to-day conversations with people.  I want to bring the face I present to the world into greater alignment with my inner world.  So I’m going to only say positive things all day today, only think positive thoughts.  There is a silver lining to every incident.  I may have to squint hard to find it on a blustering New England morning, but I’ll find it – oh, I’ll find it.

The Connection Between Inspiration and Empowerment

February 20, 2009

Acting on dreams and inspiration is not just about honoring our uniqueness and vision for our lives.  On the most basic level, it feels good.  Think of the times you finally get around to that list of household chores.  Or how much you enjoyed writing a card to a friend, even if it is hard to shut off the TV.  The activity itself is enjoyable, the process feels good, or the sense of accomplishment is satisfying.  It engages the three components of happiness that positive psychologists talk about – positive emotion (enjoyable), engagement (getting into the flow), meaning (doing something with a larger purpose beyond personal fulfillment).

Beyond increasing happiness, acting on dreams spills over into the rest of life in other ways.  The courage and initiative it takes to explore a new hobby or tackle a project are important in so many areas.  These are the same skills as it takes to start up a conversation with the cute girl next to you at the supermarket or to make a career change.  In job-seeking parlance that’s called “transferable skills.”  The process of starting up a new project builds other transferables like persistence, diligence, self-discipline, creativity, and the confidence to tackle new and unfamiliar tasks.  And these are important in all areas of life, not just the fifteen minutes or half an hour set aside each day for personal activities.

In public health parlance this is called “empowerment,” or possession of a sense of control over life.  Empowerment is not innate but developed through life.  That crucial step – knowing that options exist, feeling that there is something I can do about the situation – is the difference between feeling trapped and searching for a way out.  It is the difference between feeling hopeless and finding hope.  And that has a huge impact in how we react to situations, both tiny crises and major life changes.

This is not easy to develop.  Initiative does not pop up overnight, and from the time we are young we are not given many opportunities to develop a sense of empowerment.  First in school then in work, we are always acting on someone else’s agenda.  Empowerment can, however, be cultivated in successively larger projects.  The first time is always the hardest, so it makes sense to start small and gradually build up.  Pick something out of personal interest.  It is far better to take these steps when the stakes are lower and the timeline is fluid, than when the stakes are high and time is limited.

In that regard, taking one step towards something you’ve always wanted to try, like signing up for an adult education class or becoming active in a church committee, is an easy, fun and non-threatening way to develop empowerment and the skills to take control over life situations.  Best of all, it coincides with your personal interests and values.  And who knows?  It might lead to new opportunities in your personal or professional life.  The blogosphere is filled with stories of men and women who started documenting their hobbies and developed them into a full-fledged career, or who met likeminded people through the Internet and created all sorts of interesting, creative, unusual and powerful new projects.

So just start.  Pick something.  Dip your toe in the waters.  Run with it.

The importance of inspiration

February 11, 2009

Everyone has a list of things they’d like to do before they die. Maybe it is to write the next great American novel, act in a play, see the pyramids, start a business. Far too often we put these off for “later, when I have time.” Meanwhile life slips by. We rush from obligation to obligation, and at the end of the day we’re too tired to do much more than flop down on the couch and decompress for a couple hours in front of the television.

The problem is that we could fill three lifetimes with work and household chores and still not be done with everything we’re “supposed to do.” In other words, we could spend three lifetimes on tasks that are less important to us, and less meaningful, than our dreams and passions. But it is our dreams and passions make us unique, not our jobs, not our ability to wash dishes or pick up dirty laundry. You may be wonderful at your job, but chances are you didn’t create your job. You may have molded someone else’s description into a job that fits you, but at the end of the day someone else could still take over and the organization would continue functioning. Your dreams and passions, on the other hand, are unique to you. Even two people who share the same overarching passion will find differences in the details, because our dreams are defined by life experience and personality.

To honor our dreams and passions is to honor what makes us unique. This means acknowledging our dreams and actively pursuing them. It may feel impossible to carve out time for them, but I’m sure you can think of a couple minutes ach day to devote to them. Pick one. Start small. Give your dreams half an hour a day, or fifteen minutes, or even ten or five. Aren’t they worth it? Aren’t you worth it?

Just start. Think of fifteen minutes you can squeeze into your day. Maybe it’s during lunch. Maybe it’s right after dinner when the TV shows aren’t that good anyways. Or maybe it means setting the alarm clock 15 minutes earlier and starting your day off on a positive note. It’s helpful to identify a consistent time each day. Think through the small details – where you’ll be, what supplies you’ll need, ways to avoid distractions and other obstacles. Make the commitment in writing, tell a friend.

Inspiration is the starting point. Inspiration is the day-to-day reminder to work towards the big dream, and why it is so important. It is also encouragement, a source of new ideas and solutions to the problems we encounter along the way. Inspiration is the flashes of insight into how you will carry out the dream – it is the seed of an idea, a novel new approach, the way around a stumbling bock. Inspiration keeps us moving forward. It reminds us to stay balanced and stay focused on what’s important.

Most of all, acting upon inspiration is exciting. Acting on one good idea unleashes a wellspring of new ideas that tumble forth, pile up, cross-fertilize to create even better ideas. You’ll notice this spill over into other areas of your life. Work won’t feel as tedious, and inspiration will help you find faster ways to get work done, or new ideas to contribute at meetings. It gives you something to look forward to as you do your chores. As your project grows and develops, it encourages a broader shift in thinking: what is worth my time? Am I enjoying life? Can I reshuffle my obligations to increase the time I spend on the things that matter? This creates an even larger snowball effect. Acting on inspiration leads to working on our dreams, which inspires new ideas and possibilities that lead to even more time and energy spent on our dreams, which leads to even more ideas and positive energy.

Inspiration Challenge 10: Focus on one of your senses.

February 11, 2009

I’ve been in a bit of a funk of late, dipping in and out of dark moods of despair, isolation, and self-defeating thought patterns.  All is not lost among the dense fog of gloom; indeed, there are many, many moments of sunshine that break through – though do not dispel – the threatening clouds that loom overhead.  Yesterday was another low, one which has been building for several days now and peaked around 2PM, sitting there in class, frustrated that the entire conversation was way over my head, frustrated that this school wasn’t what I wanted or needed, frustrated, most of all, that the conversation was perfectly manageable for half the class and that this school was exactly what that half wanted and needed.

Or so it seemed.  I’m not sure what’s more frustrating, being caught in circular thinking or the recognition of the circuitous path of your train of thought coupled with an inability to break the cycle.

You’re being really negative.  Jamie’s words, directed at herself not too long ago, but dead on nonetheless.  It’s funny how much negativity can seep out into the rest of your life, so quietly and unobtrusively that the coup is total and complete.  My ambivalence has infected all areas of life and dragged them down: my classes, my relationships, my moments alone with the activities i most enjoy, even my mornings at the keyboard.  It has been damn hard to write this past month.

You’re being really impatient.  Jordan’s words, advice to Lisa that she shared in passing a couple conversations ago.  Even now, Lisa and I find ourselves at similar crossroads in life; despite the thousands of mile between us, her life lessons still cut through my tangled webs of circular thinking that choke off rational thought.

Help comes, as it so often does, from an outside source.  Or in this instance, from two outside sources, both of whom have shouldered a disproportionate burden of helping me through this latest funk.  But from here, I know, I must shoulder the burden myself.  And so, just as I turned to daily inspiration challenges to fight February’s gloom, so too I turned to it yesterday to combat the additional shadows that have haunted my mind for so many weeks now.

Day 10 challenge: focus on one of your senses.

Touch.  The sensation of water running over potatoes, the warmth of the gas stove as it heats up a pot of soup.  Cooking can be remarkably therapeutic or it can be a messy sprint to throw together enough calories to get me through the day.  Last night I chose the former, mental sanctuary in the rhythm of the knife against vegetables, the soft glow of the kitchen light against the fading remnants of day.  The gritty unevenness of potato skin.  Bumpy, tangled ridges of kale.  Granules of salt, cradled in the palm of my hand before released into a bubbling pot, the gentle heat meeting arm and wrist for brief seconds in time.  And dishes, a chore I detest second only to cleaning the toilet, last night even the dishes were sanctuary, smooth porcelain and rivulets of water and the occasional soap bubble dancing on the surface.

Sometimes inspiration comes from the editing process.  Our senses tell parallel strands to the same story, but the mind becomes bogged down by too many details so it filters them out.  That richness of detail is an untapped source of inspiration.  So focus on one sense.  Let the voices of touch, taste, smell, and hearing tell their untold stories.  Last night meant letting go of my passive, reactive, self-victimizing internal dialogue.  Focusing on touch was a metaphor to balance my perspective with multiple voices, and also that we have power over which voices we edit out and which ones we let in.

Day 11 challenge:

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Positive Psychology 101

February 9, 2009

As a student, much of our classroom dialogue centers around grounding public policy and workplace practice in scientific research; that is, making sure that the practices we use are backed up by research.  And so, it seems only fair to ask whether a month of inspiration is a worthwhile pursuit or just wasted effort.  Is there any point to these daily challenges?  Do they really work?

It turns out there’s an entire field of psychology devoted to better understanding how to make life more fulfilling and productive, called positive psychology.  Since World War II psychology has been dominated by mental illness and pathology, but in the past decade there has been increasing recognition that absence of mental illness is not necessarily emotional well being, and that strengthening positive mental states can actually prevent pathology.  Inspiration touches on many themes explored by positive psychology.  Here’s what the current psychology research has to say about inspiration and happiness.

The “science of happiness” divides the pursuit of happiness into three major approaches:

The Pleasant Life.  The focus is on pleasure or positive emotion.  Increased positive emotion leads to increased happiness. We achieve this by directly pursuing activities that increase pleasure like having a glass of wine or watching a movie, or indirectly by changing how we interpret life events.

Past events: Cultivate gratitude and forgiveness
Current events: Increase mindfulness, or living in the moment.  In other words, positive psychology encourages us to stop and smell the roses.
Future events: Increase optimism and hope, or bring positive emotions to future events.

The Engaged Life.  Happiness comes when we do activities that fully engage us.  We become absorbed in the task, and this process of absorption brings great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, which translates into increased happiness.  This can be engagement in a really good conversation or accomplishment of a difficult task at work or for school.  In other words, any activity where we dive right in, lose track of the time and become fully absorbed in the process, falls under this category.  It may not always be a pleasurable task, but the state of absorption itself brings happiness.  Engaging activities ask us to draw upon our strengths like creativity, perseverance, sense of humor.  In doing so we build on our strengths while creating something worthwhile.

The Meaningful Life.  Happiness also comes when we are engaged in activities that give life a sense of meaning or purpose, i.e. when we work in service to a cause larger than ourselves.  Here the focus turns outwards to the world at large, and our strengths are used for the greater good.

The three pursuits to happiness are not mutually exclusive, but they do take different approaches to happiness.  The pleasant life treats happiness as the goal.  All activities are designed to create positive emotions.  The engaged life treats happiness as a process that is achieved through the process of engagement.  The meaningful life treats happiness as a byproduct.

Some activities combine two or more of these approaches.  Community service in a soup kitchen, for example, might produce pleasure from meeting new people, full engagement in the chopping or sorting or cooking process, and meaning in service to those less fortunate than ourselves.  Indeed, use of all three approaches is called “The Full Life.”

All humans differ in our tendency to rely on one approach or another to bring us happiness.  Some use only one of the above, some combination of two, or all three.  Studies have shown those who use all three in “the full life” have much greater life satisfaction.

A month of inspiration is a month dedicated to increasing happiness.  Inspiration touches on all three approaches to happiness.  Daily inspiration increases “the pleasant life” by calling on us to notice our day-to-day surroundings i.e. mindfulness.  It also encourages pursuit of our dreams, which brings hope and optimism about the future.  Inspiration pushes us to try something new or take on a new project, which allows us to live “the engaged life.”  We build new strengths and experience satisfaction from the flow of our work.  Inspiration also pushes us to think about our larger dreams in life and what we’d like to accomplish with our lives, encouraging us to spend our time on activities and causes we find meaningful.

Day 10 Challenge: Focus on one of your senses.