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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Simple pleasures... and then some

When I think about happiness, I think about an overall sensation of contentment. Happiness, to me, is a state you are in as a general rule of life. I can go through a yucky day and still consider myself a happy person, because overall, I have lasting feelings of satisfaction, gratefulness, enthusiasm and peacefulness.

This does not mean that I look at the world with pink colored glasses, seeing only the good, oblivious to all the bad, the unfair, the painful, the cruel, the sordid (and heavens know there is also a lot of that). This does not mean I am a happy-go-lucky who thinks "all is the best in the best of all possible worlds". It does not mean, either, that my life has been a succession of good things with never a pain, never a loss, never a despair.

Despair, by Edvard Munch

It simply means that happiness is one of my characteristics. Whatever happens, I will acknowledge it, deal with it, and try to make things better if I think I can. I will allow myself to feel frustrated, disappointed, sad, angry, scared. I am willing to be patient if something particularly hard to handle happens: negative feelings can (and they have in the past) become overwhelming for a while. But I will not let anything make me an unhappy person. Life is too short for that, and too precious. Everyday I nurture my happiness. It's a life choice.

I have been in different waters in the past. I used to be a worrywart. Like everyone, I have faced hardships. Granted, I was born in the right place at the right time, I never experienced extreme poverty, and I was never  targeted as member of a group to be exploited/exterminated (although I have felt some discrimination at times). That's a good start of course. But I did have my struggles, including depression, which is a curse I wouldn't wish to my worst enemy, and which I would never take lightly: if you feel deeply depressed, and it's not getting better, please do get some help. Even if you're convinced it will not do anything for you. (That's just your depression talking.)

The beauty of it all is that despite those hardships and struggles, each of us has access to happiness. If only we make the decision to be happy. I was amazed to learn that people who live in the slums of Calcutta, who can barely feed themselves and their family, who can barely find shelter, and for whom the only way to make a little tiny bit of money is generally through something either unhealthy or just plain dangerous... I was amazed that these people still find a way to celebrate on a special day, spending to their last penny for some colorful piece of clothing and some sweet piece of a treat. When it comes down to it, we are all the same: we need pleasure.

I do not equate happiness with an easy life. I don't equate it with pleasure either. Pleasure is ephemeral, and it depends on something tangible. We cannot afford to depend on something tangible to be happy. It would be too fragile. I know I want my happiness to be strong and durable. Which is why I cultivate it as a personality trait, that transcends (or tries to transcend!) everything else.

There are moments, however, when I feel first hand the powerful effect of pleasure on my happiness. It can be so simple. One of my extremely simple pleasures in life, for example, is to put clothes on the clothesline. For some reason I find it therapeutic. The repetitive movement, being outdoors in a cool or warm breeze, listening to the birds, taking a moment to observe the sky, the flowers or the trees. I usually do it in the early morning which also means it is still very quiet and peaceful outdoors.

Those kinds of moments cost nothing and originate from almost nothing. They make me happy because in the face of something so simple and so down-to-earth, I take my "happiness wand" and touch every single bit of the moment with the tip of it. Everything becomes sparkly and joyful, or sometimes just blissful and peaceful. I look around and not only do I see things, I notice them. Was the the bird bathing in the bird bath a source of pleasure until I looked at it, paused, smiled and thought about how wonderful it is to have a bird bathing in the bird bath we installed there? If a cute squirrel is running up a tree in the the forest and no one is around to see it, is it still cute?

But exit the pictures of cute squirrels. What I want to talk about now is one particular moment of simple pleasure I had on the weekend, spending part of the afternoon in our neighbour's brand new pool, chatting, splashing around, having a cold drink, just enjoying this nice summer day. Of course, being who I am I could not refrain from bringing a deeper topic up for conversation; after all I have just finished reviewing/editing that PhD thesis on Chinese philosophy, and after being immersed in it for so long I had to share some of what I learned with other people. Luckily enough, T and M were interested, and this turned into a fascinating debate over the respective merits of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Christianism and atheism. We got to the deep meaning of life. Discussing this while wearing a bathing suit and sipping on a bottle of beer is certainly the kind of pleasurable moment that makes it to my top ten.

Then this morning I went for a run with my friend at the break of dawn. The air was fresh, and the sunrise was painting the sky with pink and orange and purple. While pumping those hearts and legs we got to chat about so many fascinating topics (including the new tendency for highly regarded, highly paid business people to drop everything to follow their - much less lucrative - passion. I will come back to it). A joyful moment for sure, and such a great way to start a day!

Then there's always those phone conversations with my friends:

With M, who was the one to call me and who exclaimed "Oh sh***" as soon as I answered the phone (her washing machine was having technical problems). I love it that she feels so close to me that she won't hesitate to start a conversation with "Oh sh***". But what I love mostly about how comfortable we are with each other is that we can pretty much talk about any topic. I find that priceless.

With B, who is the bubbliest person I know in spite of whatever life throws at her. I love the fact that whatever we do, and however busy we are, we always end up chatting for hours.

And I won't even start on the wonderful email correspondence I keep with members of my family close and afar.

Those little joys, those kinds of moments are just a drop in my "happiness bucket", and I don't need them to be happy, but they certainly contribute to it. In addition, keeping my happiness bucket quite full ensures that I am well equipped to deal with the less-than-ideal circumstances of life when they occur. For example, I can turn to a wonderful memory to put sunshine in my life when I feel like everything is going in a downward spiral. It doesn't make today any better, but it puts everything in perspective, and it reminds me that despite the bad moments, there were and there will be good ones. Life might sometimes be tough, but this is all worth it.

How do YOU make sure your bucket stays full?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Taking responsibility

My previous post talked about choices and priorities. Let's now add responsibility to the mix.

As a grown up we face daily dilemmas that, in the long run, have a huge impact on our lives. According to Dr  Phil: "You choose the behavior, you choose the consequence". So true! Yet so hard to apply!

Take food, for example. As my friend K puts it wisely, with food, each bite can (and should) be a conscious choice. As far as we might wander away from good habits, deep down inside, we all want to be healthy. Incidentally, we all want to be thin. (And ripped. And attractive. And sexy. It's just one of those things!) Do you know what three words women love to hear the most? Try to guess. What are those three words? No, it's not "I love you." The three words that are sure to make a woman's day are... "You lost weight".

Other words that work pretty well are "You're tiny" (mostly when addressed to women, obviously) and "I love your hair". My personal favourite, that was said to me by a lovely person I had just met at the gym, was "You must be a runner, 'cause you look like one".

Yet we all find it so tremendously hard to stay on track. There are so many temptations! Imagine if we lived in a world where the only foods that existed were, let's say... lentils, brown rice, and broccoli. Would we even eat half as much as we do? Hardly. Easy access to a whole variety of foods is wonderful in a way, but it kills us (sometimes literally) in another way. Plus all the colorful packaging. Plus the huge portions offered in restaurants. Our bodies get used to eating too much sugar, to much salt, too much fat, and just too much in general. We can't even trust our signals of satiety anymore. Our system is just completely broken-down, and we have to relearn it all.

Which is what I've been trying to do for a few months now, with the help of my trainer A and this helpful, free website. I did not have a lot of weight to lose, but I was tired of "eating my emotions" and losing control over sweet treats. It was an obstacle on my path to fitness, it made my mood and energy levels fluctuate, and it gave me headaches.

An important part of relearning how to eat is to become fully aware of what we actually consume. Keeping a food journal is the best way to do this. Writing it all down (myfitnesspal calculates all the numbers for you) is sure to bring about some big surprises! It's hard to blame our excess fat on glands and metabolism when the numbers are right there in our face! (About denial and finding excuses - and for a good laugh - take a look at that video, recommended by A. Apparently, stress is not an excuse either!)

There's all kinds of excuses out there. No later than last week, while at the gym, I overheard a woman saying to her trainer "But I can't go to the restaurant and order a SALAD! Come on!" (To which the trainer calmly replied: "Yes you can.") Speaking of restaurants... I went to "junk food country" (namely the US) last month, and was pleasantly surprised when I opened a menu that contained calorie information for every single dish and drink. This is not about taking pleasure out of eating. It's about gaining knowledge and making informed choices. Indulging is certainly permitted... but to a certain point. As I'm saying this, there is a wonderful smell of homemade chocolate cookies in the house... and I've already eaten two. We are not to turn into "food extremists", like my friend M (a nutritionist) would say.

My personal excuse for bad eating has always been "other people". What are other people going to think if I insist on getting a smaller portion? If I stop after one glass of wine? If I refuse dessert? Especially if said dessert was made with me in mind! Gawd, that is tough. Truth is, however... nobody ever force-feeds you. (And if they did, you'd be warranted to sue them!) I and only I am in charge of what gets into my mouth.

Other people are also my excuse when it comes to social eating (which is ubiquitous in this society). So much of our social life revolves around food that it's really hard to stay reasonable. I tested it. After eating really well for a full day, I went to a friend's place for an evening of chatting and munchies. There was 5 or 6 of us there, and we all brought something to eat. I really tried to keep portions (including alcohol) in control. But when I typed it all into myfitnesspal afterwards, I had busted my daily goal (which is very reasonable and realistic) by close to 1000 calories. Ouch! How did that even happen, I wondered. But the numbers don't lie.

Any special occasion will also be a pretext for indulging, and like I said, this is fine occasionally. I cannot go to Quebec and not have a poutine. I cannot go to my mom's house and not have a piece of her yummy strawberry-rhubarb pie. It's all about moderation, really. Last time I went to the beach, instead of my usual cheesies and candy (for some reason the fresh air from the ocean makes me crave junk!) I brought a pear and 10 almonds (plus a bottle of water). I felt great, and I refocused my pleasure on non-food elements (my toes in the sand, the warmth of the sun, chatting with D, watching the kids catch some waves). It was as much fun. Really.

Re-learning to eat well can be hard at times, especially when you've developed an "addiction" to sugar, salt, and/or fat. But as for smokers, it's just a matter of time. When a craving comes, try and hold it for two minutes. By the time two minutes have elapsed, the craving is usually gone. If your stomach doesn't growl, it wasn't hunger anyways. And after just a few days of implementing better choices, avoiding your weakness becomes surprisingly easier. I had no idea I could survive (and thrive!) on so little sugar. Then if you do succumb, do as another nutritionist friend of mine recommends, and eat whatever you fell for SLOWLY, fully enjoying each bite or spoonful. Don't eat it quickly on the corner of your desk. You need your body and brain to register what's going on!

Perfection will NOT be attained, for we are not perfect (I personally just cannot have any chocolate ice cream in the house, at any time), but we can be the master of our own belly, and not let said belly control us. We will feel so much better for it. Trust me on that.