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Sunday, December 30, 2012

A little course on emotional self-defence

Here is the paradox: Life is too short to feel miserable. But life is also full of events that could make you miserable if you let them. How to cope? Simply by making the conscious choice to be happy. After all if we’re alive, we might as well make the most of it!

Unhappiness arises from a mixture of causes; the factors are numerous and often intertwined. The good news is that we do have power over at least some of them.

I strongly believe that it is up to us to fight back the tendency to get caught in a downward spiral – before it’s too late.

(Of course if you’re at the point where you don’t enjoy what you used to, and feel there is no point in living, then please skip this blog and seek help – quick.)

Here’s a few strategies that thirty-something years of life and the shared wisdom of others have taught me.

Regulate your mood via the body

First things first. There are some simple steps you can take to help prevent neurochemical unbalances. To name but a few: Exercise daily. Eat well (less sugar, more vitamins, healthy fats and protein). Sleep enough (too much isn’t better). You need a system in good working order to begin with.

Regulate your mood via cognition

1)      A change (in attitude) will do you good

From an intellectual point of view, it is interesting to try and be as lucid as possible. But from an emotional point of view, it is plain dangerous. Once you start to ponder the unfairness or the absurdity of life, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that life is shi**y or not worth living. From a “feel good” point of view, the reality doesn’t matter so much as our interpretation of it. It doesn't matter that you're actually beautiful, talented or rich; as long as you think you are. A little bit of delusion could actually do you good. It doesn’t matter that life is unfair and absurd; as long as you don’t let that thought swallow you whole. It doesn’t matter that you’re going through tough times; as long as you know you’ve had good times in the past, and will have good times in the future.

Unless you’re already profoundly depressed (in which case I will repeat it: seek help), self-regulating your thoughts should bring about positive changes. Shift the focus to concentrate on what is going well. Avoid like the plague thoughts that make you feel down. This does not mean you have to turn into a happy-go-lucky who refuses to acknowledge anything that has the slightest unpleasantness to it. But it is true that a pessimistic approach to life has a tendency to spiral down into dark thoughts. Don’t let that happen.

2)      Be pragmatic, not dramatic

We all know the saying: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." But we often forget to apply it in our lives. If something makes me upset enough and if I think I have the power to do something constructive about it, I do just that. No room for dramatization. I need all my energy for action. If, on the other hand, something makes me upset but I am aware I have neither the power nor the willingness to act to change it, then I forbid myself to give it another minute of "upsetness". 

Sometimes, I realize that I might just not be ready to act. It can be because I have not found the best course of action yet, or because it's still too early to do something, or because I need to prepare myself psychologically first. In those cases, I cease to focus on the problem, but I make sure to revisit it a little bit later. In any case, I try hard to not let any drama grow inside of me.

I used to feel intense stress when I faced a challenge that had no apparent solution. With time I have discovered that things usually turn out much better than the worst case scenario we had imagined. With time I have also discovered that even when there's no solution is in sight, it does not mean no solution exists. We are simply not aware of it yet. Solutions have a funny way of presenting themselves to us when we thought all was lost. Keep hope. Or, as my father, Y, used to say: "Have trust in future's uncertainty".

3)      Lower your expectations

This has nothing to do with accepting everything that happens to us, or settling for less. We all deserve the best, and should definitely strive for it.

Lowering our expectations means being realistic about life. We don't live in a Care Bears world. We know, for example, that if we have children, or a pet, it's just a matter of time before they completely wreck something. Expecting otherwise is just a passport for unhappiness. When it comes to sh** happening, the question is not if it will happen, but when it will happen.

Why are we so surprised when sh** happens? Maybe because, as Candide (Voltaire's character) would say, we like to think that "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds". When something goes wrong, we are taken aback, shocked, angry. We think it's so unfair.

If reality doesn't match your expectations, and if reality cannot be changed to match your expectations… then change your expectations. Life is too short to feel dissatisfied.

4)   Optimize the pressure you put on yourself

In our culture, we are constantly stressed, in levels that cannot be explained by any threat to our basic needs' fulfillment. How can we be so stressed when most of us live a comfortable life, with access to everything that our bodies and minds need? The answer lies in the pressure we put on ourselves. We want to do too much, too fast, too perfectly. No wonder we end up exhausted, overwhelmed, and dissatisfied. Save your sanity: cut down on the pressure. Pick a few time-consuming (and unpleasant) activities that you can realistically spend less time on, and do just that. Spend less time on them. 

Now you don't want to be under stimulated, either. Are there any areas where you might not be putting enough pressure on yourself? Have you been denying yourself the opportunity to develop your talents and pursue higher accomplishments? This is where you should put your energies. Clean your house a little bit less, and write on your blog a little bit more, for example. (Or any other example that personally suits you.)

5)      Be mentally flexible

Life excels at throwing us off balance. At taking us out of our comfort zone. Sooner or later there will be disappointments, disillusion, loss. What a better way to deal with it than be flexible? To embrace change, and even vulnerability? Adaptation is key. Old age is a good example of the need for flexibility. There is no escaping it: unless we die early (which is not more rejoicing), we will get older, and gradually lose our youthful looks, our mobility, our independence. Sooner or later we will have to deal with pains and aches. We will be forced to slow down. Whether we like it or not. How we deal with this, however, belongs entirely to us.

I am lucky enough to have a few examples of resilient and adaptable elders in my family, namely my two grandmothers, their siblings and some of their friends. I learn a lot by looking at how they deal with aging.

My paternal grandmother, G, has told me many times that she doesn’t understand why a lot of her peers complain of being bored. She says she is not bored at all. Her activities are limited, but she still enjoys life. G was a very active woman who had her own career (in the medical field) despite being born in 1917. She also traveled extensively. One would expect that she would feel down about the fact that she can now barely walk (although she still rode her stationary bike on a regular basis well into her eighties!) But down she is not. She has let go of the activities that were not anymore possible, adapted others, and found new ones that are more suitable to her capacities. She seems happy, and one can always have fascinating conversations with her.

As for my maternal grandmother, S (born in 1918), one of her favorite hobbies of all time was to knit. It has become increasingly difficult for her because of her declining eye sight. Not one to easily be defeated, though, she simply started knitting paler shades of wool, in which the details are easier to see. Like G, S remained pretty active until just a few years ago, cultivating an impressive garden and knitting like a machine; she also volunteered with other elders (who needed more help for various health reasons). At the ripe age of 83, she traveled to Europe for the first time, and there I am told she climbed mountains without ever complaining. Now 94 years of age, S still retains a healthy dose of humor and wit and liveliness. She is fun to be around.

Finally, I have to mention L, G’s sister-in-law. L has always painted. She especially excelled at landscapes. Tragic as it can be, aging confronted her with a very significant loss of vision. Did she stop painting? Absolutely not! She simply switched from representative art to abstract painting. What she paints these days is absolutely stunning; her use of color and texture testify to the fact that she is an experienced (and talented) painter. She still sells her art for big bucks. She just turned 94.

(As for R, L's husband and G's older brother - he is 96, he still plays pool, and never wants us to help him with anything, including getting extra chairs from a distant room, for the guests!) 

Aging will not spare any of us, but it is up to us to use it to our advantage.

6)      Cultivate detachment

We become unhappy when we feel we cannot live without something or someone. What used to be (or could become) a source of happiness becomes a source of unhappiness because of its absence. You had that summer fling. Now it’s over. What do you do? You can mope about. Or you can feel grateful. It could have never happened. Appreciate it fully for what it was, instead of expecting more. This applies to all life’s good things. To borrow from my friend S’s wisdom, “extras are bonuses”. What does that mean? It means that everything that adds to your baseline happiness should be considered like a bonus, and you should appreciate it instead of hoping for more.

7)      Be grateful

Speaking of gratefulness. Catherine DeVrye’s book, Hot Lemon & Honey, contains a quote that encompasses the idea of gratefulness very well I think. It goes like this: “Everyday above the ground is a good one”. It pays to stop thinking about what we don’t have (a sure way to become unhappy), and instead focus on what we are grateful about. Why don’t we immerse ourselves in the simple joy of being above the ground, alive and breathing? 

Gratefulness is something you get better at with practice. So practice, practice, and practice more. Every night, before falling asleep, list a few reasons why you’re grateful for this day. Then extend your gratefulness to all moments. This morning, when I looked outside and saw we were snowed in, instead of feeling frustrated (I wouldn’t be able to go for a run) I decided to focus on the fact that it was beautiful, and that I was lucky to live in a well-insulated house that remains warm and dry despite the wind and cold outside.

Regulate your mood via some simple actions

1)      Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket

One thing or one person cannot have monopoly over our happiness. Work should be balanced with hobbies; both should be stimulating and pleasurable. Love (for a significant other) should be balanced with other family ties and friendship; both should provide with a sense of connection. A little bit of each of many things will ensure that if one area collapses, you can still rely on other areas to make you happy.

2)      Have projects

Don’t get stuck in a rut. Life is dynamic. We thrive on novelty, stimulation, and new experiences. What’s more exciting than something (or someone) new in your life? Find ways to nurture a youthful enthusiasm about life. Keep learning. (We all have something we want to know more about.) Try new things. (Even if it’s scary at first.) Meet and connect with new people. (Even if you’re shy.) Visit new places. (Doesn’t have to be far away.) Move around the furniture if need be! Get a puppy! (Only if you’re ready to take care of him/her properly, of course.)

3)      Ditch the material stuff

As my beloved aunt M would say, materialism is a dead end. It’s nice to be comfortable (for eg. to wear good shoes), to be surrounded by beauty and to indulge in luxurious pleasures once in a while. But life cannot revolve around that. Also, your self-worth cannot be based on impressing other people with what you own or what you do (as tempting as it may be!) Who cares what brand those clothes are, if this jewelry is genuine, or how much a certain object is worth. If you like them, you like them. If others don’t, too bad for them.

4)      Relationships are everything

Think about the times in your life when you’ve felt the most despair. Chances are it was in times when you felt isolated, lonely, rejected (family conflict, bullying and heart breaks are good examples). We are a gregarious species that thrives on a sense of belonging (even the most introverts among us!) Cultivating our social network is nothing less than vital.

Then there are the toxic relationships we sometimes find ourselves stuck with. Our first reaction should be to protect ourselves. The best way to do this is simply to refuse to play the role the other person is trying to assign us. A relationship is dynamic, it is a dance where each person plays a role. If you modify the role you play, the other person doesn't have any other choice but to change their own behavior too. If, for example, you refuse to play the role of the dominated and controlled, the dominant/controlling person will soon have to abandon (not without a certain amount of turmoil, but hold on tight – it will get better). In some cases, you may have to take your distances… and that is fine too.

In relationships, giving is as important as receiving, and feels as good (oftentimes it even feels better). You know the difference between a crush and real love: in a crush you focus on how you feel. In the case of true love, the other person’s well-being becomes as important as your own. In general I have found that helping others and focusing on their needs is a good way to distract myself from my own dissatisfactions. I will still address my own needs, but regularly switching the focus from “me, myself and I” onto someone else does work wonders.

5)      Indulge in simple pleasures

They abound. They don’t necessarily cost much. Nature and music, for example, can put you in a trance if you fully immerse yourself in them. Other ideas: Any creative activity that you enjoy (mine is writing, but everyone can find their own). Reading. Playing. Dancing. Exercising. Laughing. Chatting with friends or family.

The pleasures of Winter, by Daniel van Heil

Food and wine can do the trick too, but they can become addictive, and then show unwanted side effects. 

One activity that fits the requirements of being both free, healthy, and intensely pleasurable is…

…well… sex, of course!

So go ahead and indulge! Long winter nights are ahead… take advantage! Time to reconnect with your sensual self! ;-) 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Finally! The post on procrastination I have been delaying for weeks

The new year is coming and, with it, comes one of the great pleasures of life: finding a new notebook/planner. I have not yet graduated to an electronic planner; in fact, I am resisting it with all my might. Getting a new, fresh, made out of paper planner brings up great school memories. Each year, in August, my mom would take me to the store to get school supplies. My favorite part of that was to look for a new planner. I remember them revolving around comic book themes like Garfield, Mafalda or Gaston Lagaffe.

Nowadays I buy my new planners for January instead of September, and I have gone from playful to more serious planners: one of my favorites is a medium sized, red Moleskine one. The paper is so soft the pen glides on it like a dolphin on water.

This year, however, I am departing from my traditional beloved Moleskine: I fell in love with another one. It does not have the same luxurious feel to it, but its front page immediately caught my eye:

The Creative Procrastinator? Surely this planner had been made for me! As I began flipping through it, it became more and more obvious that I had to take it home. This planner contains sections such as "Things I have to do but that can wait a day, or two, or three..."; "Small things I have to do before I can do the big things I have to do"; "Things I absolutely have to do unless I absolutely don't want to do them"; and "Things people have been bugging me to do for a really long time".

There are doodle blocks and lists of questions to answer when you don't feel like working:

"List 10 killer dishes you'd request if you had your own personal chef."

"List five jobs you wish you could do and five jobs you hope you never have to do."

(Don't you feel like answering those right away? I totally do! In fact, as I am writing this my head is filled with pictures of bouillabaisse and rouille croutons, only to be interspersed with images of me in the role of a happy editor-in-chief or life coach or sommelier.)

Each page of my new planner also provides with a "procrastinator tip" or piece of wisdom. When I started reading them I simply could not put the friggin' thing down. I recognized myself so much it was almost scary. For example:

"Remember to stop, smell, prune, and photograph the roses along the way. You can count their petals, too."

(This might explain my fascination for all of nature's phenomena...)

"A conscientious person waters the plants, pets the animals, comforts a neighbor, and calls at least one ailing relative or friend before beginning the day's work."

(It does make for a very healthy social network - and healthy plants and pets!)

"Uncompleted tasks are biodegradable and disintegrate over time."

(I wish!)

And there are lists. Lists of tips, lists of signs (you're a procrastinator), and lists of justifications for procrastinating. Here are some of them:

"Things to do when there's no emergency beyond avoiding the things you don't want to do:

Tip #4. Learn how to shut off your main water valve. While you're there, stop and think about new landscaping projects.
Tip #9. Devise fire escape plans for fires starting in 10 different places."

"How to use your pet as a procrastination partner:

Tip #4. Teach your cat how to fetch. Good luck.*
Tip #10. Sit with your pet in a comfortable place and read Moby Dick out loud."

* I have actually succeeded at that with late Azraël; he could fetch a little ball... and loved it!

"10 reasonable reasons to continue procrastinating:

Reason #2. You'll lose the adrenaline rush of completing a task at the last minute and might search for a less healthy addiction."

"The best ways to clear a cluttered mind:

Tip #1. Lie on your side and imagine all your worries, woes and work deadlines draining out of your ear. Then roll over and do it on the other side. This will empty both left and right brains.
Tip #2. Make a paper airplane out of your to-do list and fly it off a tall bridge.
Tip #10. Watch a cloud until it dissipates or drifts away. Then write a haiku about it."

"What to say when your work is due and you're not done:

Tip #6. I'd tell you why my work isn't done, but then I'd have to kill you.
Tip #10. I sprained my willpower muscle."

"Warning signs that your procrastination is at a crisis point:

Sign #1. You've made a master list of all your lists.
Sign #3. You can't get through a half hour of work without doodling or daydreaming." (Uh oh...)

Other than flipping through my new planner, and copying excerpts here on my blog for the benefit of my readers, I have been spending time reading articles on procrastination online. Surely, delaying my work to read about this topic cannot be considered procrastination?!?

If this is something you are interested in (because, just like me, you'd rather spend hours getting informed about your main flaw than actually doing your work), here is a link that you might like. From a more serious standpoint, this article does a great job at debunking the myths that abound about procrastination. If you're tired of procrastinating and ready to tackle this unwanted behavior, this article is a great starting point. You know what they say: the first step is to admit you have a problem.

Unnecessary Illusions and the Truth about Procrastination
By Timothy Pychyl:

ILLUSION #1: Procrastination can be beneficial. Delay can be beneficial, and we need to delay often as we plan, organize and optimize our use of time. Procrastination, on the other hand, is a needless form of delay that is self-defeating as a form of self-regulatory failure.

ILLUSION #2: It's just a matter of a few "all-nighters," it's not really harmful. Procrastination has been shown to undermine performance, well-being, even our health.

ILLUSION #3: It's just poor time management. No, it's about self-regulation and willpower.

ILLUSION #4: Worry helps me cope. We have many irrational beliefs that contribute to our procrastination.

ILLUSION #5: I'll just check my email, it will only take a minute. Yes, it may only "take a minute" (or a few seconds to "check your mail"), but a minute later you face the same decision. Hours later, you're still checking mail, updating your facebook . . . where did the task go?

ILLUSION #6: I work better under pressure. No you don't. You ONLY work under pressure.

ILLUSION #7: That assignment is due months from now, it's not that important. Oh, how we like to discount future rewards. Future tasks seem abstract and lack a sense of urgency. It really is an illusion of our task perception.

ILLUSION #8: I'll feel more like it tomorrow! No you won't, but you may do the task tomorrow because "your back is up against the wall."

ILLUSION #9: (After a poor performance due to procrastination) It could have been worse! OK, this isn't truly an illusion, but we are deceiving ourselves to make ourselves feel better in the short term. We focus on downward counter factual thinking to make us feel better now.

ILLUSION #10: Oh, procrastinators are perfectionists. Not so, only those perfectionists who have internalized maladaptive standards, often involving a lot of negative self talk.

Monday, December 17, 2012

For the children

In light of what happened last week in the States, the only topic that is on my mind is children.

The worst part of this tragedy is that those innocent victims are not the only ones.

Every day in this world, childhood is stolen. Taken away.

Another story that is making the headlines right now is that of the two little ones who were killed by their father in Quebec in 2009. (The man has just been released.)

And then there are all those children in the world who do not even have the right to survive past their first years from a lack of access to food, water and medical attention. (About that, read Race Against Time, by Stephen Lewis.)

And what about those children who do survive, but to live a life of misery?

I have never been more aware that having a healthy, happy childhood is a right that is denied to thousands of human beings.

This morning, as I was watching the children play, I couldn't help but think about how wonderful it is to witness genuine childhood, full of its big joys and small conflicts. Too often we forget how precious it is.

It is our responsibility, as adults, to protect those children, to provide them with guidance and support, to help them bloom and grow into balanced and happy adults. This is the only way they will not turn into either the victim or the perpetrator of some sordid act of violence. We also have to educate them about global issues that affect children, so that they become involved and feel they have a responsibility in making this world a better place.

Take a child who has been blessed with a "normal" childhood, and you will see that it is in them, naturally, to do good. Look past their tantrums and other acts of naughtiness. See those for what they are, signs of immaturity (that we, as adults, have to help overcome). Look instead at their spontaneous acts of kindness. I was a firsthand witness of children's kindness last week, after we lost our cat Azraël to a terminal illness. Here is what I have received in the past few days:

By E, age 8

By R, age 8

By A, age 6

By A, age 6

By O, age 9

By E, age 8

Each and every one of those pictures touched my heart. Thank you to all those wonderful children who put sunshine in our lives.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

'Tis the season

'Tis the season... but the season to what, exactly? To be jolly, that's all?

To me, the Holidays, the New Year, and the approaching Winter are much more than that. They represent the ideal time to reflect on the past year and to plan for the next. To rethink my priorities. This is the time I sit down to reassess... my life.

Granted, the choice of doing this now is kind of arbitrary. This yearly exercise does not need to happen at this particular moment; and it probably doesn't need to be performed on a precise yearly basis. It could probably be done every 6 months or every 2 years, with the same results.

But to me, the whole atmosphere of celebration/gatherings, along with generalized over consumption, followed by the anticlimax that a cold, Canadian Winter can bring about, constitute the perfect moment to work on my own personal "end of year report".

Let's examine the headers of this "report" more closely.

'Tis the season to rethink STUFF

Ah, the ubiquitous "stuff". We long for it. We accumulate it. We desire more of it. Yet it fails abysmally to create lasting satisfaction.

Another drawback: none of us, even the most well-off, can have it all. Think about it for a moment. If you listed everything that you want to own (for example, I would love to own the most exhaustive, sophisticated, luxurious wine cellar - and, while we're at it, I would love to hire all possible employees/servants), how much money would it amount to? Corollary question: assuming you were to acquire it all... how content would you feel? More importantly: for how long?

Stuff is a constant source of frustration. There is never enough. It always ends up being too expensive (especially if you're looking for quality - and who isn't?) Then it either requires specific maintenance (even if it was just the cleaning of it), or it falls apart faster than you can pronounce "credit card statement". Most of the time, the positive effect on your mood simply is very ephemeral. Truth is, no matter how intense the initial high, we rather quickly take things for granted.

How to get all we want? How to maintain the "high" that comes with getting new things? And on the other side of the medal: what sacrifices are we making in order to acquire this and that?

As I was pondering this on my way back from the running apparel store (another personal weakness of mine), where I had been intensely frustrated by the fact that I couldn't possibly afford everything they sell there (because yes, I would buy the whole contents of the store if I could), I read the following quotation on Facebook: "Someone else is happy with less than you have". How silly am I to let all that stuff upset me, I thought. I don't need all those running clothes, sneakers and accessories. I have a healthy body, two good legs and a good heart; what else do I need?

In the past months I have tried to apply the notion of "Less is more" to my life in a more consistent way. One implication of this new frame of mind is that I have started to get rid of stuff. Of a lot of stuff. What I am discovering with marvel is that getting rid of stuff feels as good as acquiring new stuff. Especially when you give it to someone who really needs it and who will appreciate it fully.

As bag after bag of stuff leaves my house, I am amazed (or should I say appalled) at how much stuff we keep for no obvious reason. (Need I mention I am in no way a hoarder.) What's wrong with us that we need to surround ourselves with more and more objects all the time? What deeper need are we trying to fulfill?

In the same vein we seem to need to surround ourselves with constant stimulation. There's not a moment of boredom to be had (too scary, maybe?) How about noticing, for once, the sound or the sight of nature? How about paying attention to the fact that we are alive and breathing, here and now? For that you need nothing else than your senses, and some stillness...

'Tis the season to rethink RELATIONSHIPS

I won't say much about this one because you know more than anyone else what relationships you might have been neglecting, and which ones you have been giving too much importance to. Who do you really connect with? Who do you want to connect with more? Who would you love to reconnect with? Take a step in that direction. It's never too late to make a change for the best. You can at least try.

'Tis the season to rethink HOW YOU TREAT YOURSELF

What have you done for yourself that you genuinely enjoy, and that is truly good for you (as opposed to some kind of compensation or addiction)? Have you denied feeling tired, bored, stressed or depressed? Have you been putting junk in your body, unconvincingly trying to persuade yourself that it was actual food? Have you been eating to the point where it made you feel yucky? (Yes, there can be too much of a good thing - I realized that an hour after gulping down an eight-ounce steak... ugh.) Have you been denying the vehicle that carries you through life, your own body, what it needs most (fresh air, exercise, or the pleasure that comes from singing, dancing, making love)? Have you tried to excessively please others, stepping on your own needs and wants in the process?

'Tis the season to rethink your ROLE IN THE WORLD

What would you like to have changed when you leave this planet? Can we, as adults, afford to be here only to go to work, look after our immediate family and closest friends, and to enjoy ourselves? Don't we each have a role to play in improving this world, even if it was just a little bit? Don't we need to each take some responsibility for the state this world is in? What do you do to educate, inspire, make better? Do you put your foot down when something seems wrong, or do you just shrug? How do you use your own unique passions and talents to make a change for the best, no matter how humble the contribution?

'Tis the season to make PLANS

What have you achieved this year? Think hard. There must be something. Doesn't matter if you haven't reached your goal 100% yet. If you've been working toward it, and making progress, take some time to appreciate your efforts and your accomplishments. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will your "new life" happen overnight. But if you've made some positive changes, acknowledge them. Pick one that you are particularly proud of, and celebrate. Find friends or family members or a loved one to celebrate with you. It's too easy to disregard our improvement as insignificant a posteriori. How hard did you work to lose those 10 pounds? To drink less? To lower your debt? Be happy about it!

Of course that is only the first step. The second is as exciting: now is time to make plans for the new year. Where will 2013 take you? We are not talking about distant, idealized resolutions, but rather about realistic goals. And how are you going to reach those goals? What are your baby steps going to be? On  a daily basis? Write it down, starting with the big picture goal and working your way down to the small daily actions.


And for this one I will pass the torch to philosopher Alan Watts:

(If you enjoy this, search for more by Alan Watts on YouTube. My friendly advice.)