One last “Happiness Project” thought

Last Monday in May – Happy Memorial Day, and one last look back at Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful book, “The Happiness Project”.  If you have not read it already, I hope you do, I really enjoyed it.

In honor of the holiday, I will keep it short, and quote (italics and all) Gretchen’s “Second Splendid Truth”:

“One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.

One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”

Gretchen’s “Truth” was a reminder for me that I could create the life I wanted by thinking and doing more for others; dropping my scorecard and my complaints; turning-down my whining a notch or two, and washing away any lingering grudges with the soft soap of friendship, love and family.

A good reminder on a holiday that honors the many, who faced their fears and gave their lives so we could exercise “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Special thoughts today for all who have served in the armed forces or have loved ones currently serving, and sincere condolences to those who have lost a loved one while he or she was serving our country.

Thinking ahead . . .

I never read the obituaries, well practically never, but I have a sister who does, and one morning after I had a wonderful visit with her, I flipped though The Fort Myers News Press and discovered the life of Vera Jane Clapper-Richter. 

I don’t know Jane, nor do I know anyone who does, but I liked her immediately.  She is the kind-of person I would want as a friend, and the kind Katherine Hepburn would play in a movie. 

Jane died at 85 after a struggle with Alzheimer’s, but what struck me is not her death, but how she lived, which I quote, except for the links I added:

She was born July 6, 1924 to Maurice and Elizabeth Stover Teasdale in Brownsville, PA. Jane will be remembered for her feistiness tempered by cheery good humor. She was always up for adventure.

In 1960s, Jane, her mother and her daughter could be found at 2 a.m. hanging off the “wooden bridge” angling for snook with cane poles. Few snook were caught, but much beer was drunk.

Janie married “the boy next door,” Bob Clapper, in 1941 in Arlington, VA. They made it through the war years and, like everyone else, started a family. By 1951, they were ready for sunshine and fishing.

After a brief stay in the Koreshan trailer park in Esterothey settled in Fort Myers. Bob worked as a surveyor and civil engineer for Carl Johnson in Fort Myers and Cap Prewitt in Clewiston and Jane dived into community activities. She taught local Red Cross first aid classes, was Lee County Chairman of the Gray Ladies and worked with Veronica Shoemaker in the first Head Start program in Dunbar.

Her pride and joy was her Girl Scout Troop 29, which she led from Brownies in 1954 until the girls graduated from Fort Myers Senior High School in 1965. She taught them outdoors skills and wilderness survival. Protective of her girls, she once used a flashlight to fight off a wild hog that tried to take over their Fisheating Creek campsite. The hog fled squealing back into the woods.

After Bob’s death, she pursued her dream of investing in real estate, buying and managing several rental properties, then married Clarence Richter, a retired federal air traffic controller, in 1983. She and “Ric” were active in the local chapter of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees and Save Estero. Ric died in 2005.

She was a friend of Bill W. for more than 30 years and will be remembered by the old timers at YANA. She’ll also be remembered by her pals on Memory Lane at Park Club assisted living, her home for the last few months, for her sweet helpfulness, lovely singing voice and fashion flair.

On her, even at 85, a paper sack looked like Prada . . .

Jane was predeceased by her two sisters.  She is survived by her daughter, grandson and granddaughter, both of whom helped care for her in her later years.

I hope this is not too morbid for you, but I think Jane’s obituary reflects a well-lived life, and whoever wrote it obviously loved and admired her.  Reading it got me thinking – ahead. 

I decided that I am going to live my life for my obituary.  I wish I had thought of starting at the end and working backwards sooner, I would have been nicer, more courageous and much more interesting, and would not now be faced with having to cram so much stuff into so little time.  :-) 

The reason I am bringing this up now, is summer is on our doorstep.  I know it doesn’t officially begin for almost a month, but when I was growing-up Memorial Day signaled the beginning of summer, and I think summer is a great time to begin fully living the life I want.

This summer I will watch the moon rise and set from a mountain or a rooftop without interruption, or at least from my backyard with a really good friend.  I will also watch the sun rise and set at least two days in a row, and I will run through a sprinkler.

I will sleep on a front porch or a patio, in a tent or on a beach, and with the windows open more often.  (Yes, I know, it will be hot and sticky, and maybe I will sweat and the bugs may bite – but who cares, I will have more stories to tell and the teeny-tiny scars to prove them.)

I will spread more blankets out in the grass, and spend more time looking up at the trees, day dreaming and listening to the thoughts and wisdom of people under the age of 10.

I will ponder theories large and small – relativity, the chicken or the egg – without worrying about the answers.

I will be kinder and gentler; listen more and speak less; give more hugs, and send more hand-written notes.  I will give people what they want, not what I think they need.

I will read more books, light more candles, and sing out-loud more often.

If you are in the mood to join me, please do.  Summer is a great time to be a bit more courageous about being us.

This weekend find your sleeping bag, or your bike, or your racquet or your glove, or your paint brushes and easel, or the book you have been meaning to read or paper and pencil to begin the one you have been meaning to write. 

Open an ice-cold beer or bottle of Coke, pour yourself a tall glass of sangria or lemonade, sip it slowly or with gusto, and then get started on the rest of your life.

Do what you think Jane might do.  Or better yet, what you would do, if no one was watching, or if they were and you didn’t mind – not one little bit, which come to think of it, might be exactly how Vera Jane Clapper-Richter lived.

What would you tell them?

Commencement season is winding down, and Ann Curry is in the news for making it more memorable than I am sure she would like it to be. I have always enjoyed listening to Ann on the Today Show. She comes across as interesting, knowledgeable and nice. I hate to see her embarrassed, and I love Wheaton College’s (Massachusetts) response. 

Her situation reminded me of two things:

1. Not to take myself too seriously – mishaps and mistakes happen, best to make sincere amends and gently move on, and now moving on . . .

2. Graduation speeches I like. One of my favorites is often attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, who is one of my favorite authors, but credit for the speech rightfully goes to Chicago Tribune columnist  Mary Schmich for mentioning the importance of wearing sunscreen, among other things. 

Rereading Schmich’s words inspired me to ask myself, “What would I say to the Class of 2010?  What tidbits of wisdom would I pass on?”

What would you tell them?

(Did something surprising just pop into your head?  If so, it might be an honest reflection of how your life is going at the moment. Sometimes our mental pop-ups can be valuable to us; I get them all the time – who knew I was even thinking that? They are actually good, and mean we are willing to look at who we really are. If what popped-up wasn’t what you wanted to hear, remember any awareness is good awareness; note it and move on.)

I would love to hear your speech, I truly believe we each have unique wisdom to pass on. Here’s what I would tell any and all graduating classes, because it is what I keep trying to do. 

Patrice’s short and sweet commencement speech:

1. Let people have their say.

2. Don’t let being afraid stop you from doing what is right – for the world or for yourself.

3. Sometimes doing “right” is just listening.

4. Sometimes it is reaching out and touching someone.

5. Sometimes it is doing something.

6. Sometimes, way less than the others, it is saying something.

7. Learn the difference and do that.

And, then I would share Christopher Robin’s (aka A.A. Milne’s) immortal words to Winnie the Pooh: “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”      

Because you are.

Move, quick.

This is my 4th post about Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project.” (Oops, 5th if you count the first one I wrote announcing I was going to  write about her book.) 

I am writing about her book because:  

  1. It is good.   
  2. Whenever I think about it, I feel happier. 
  3. The more we talk, read or write about something the more likely we are to respond to it.  

My happy feelings about the book come not just from what Gretchen wrote, but from what she did: Gretchen created the life she wanted.

She did it by identifying her desire to change; believing she could; coming up with a plan and taking action. 

Sad, but true, change takes all those things: desire, belief, planning and action.  The good news is Gretchen’s book skillfully outlines her approach to all of them.

Desire, belief, planning and action; desire, belief, planning and action (picture yourself skipping down the yellow-brick road sing-saying it); desire, belief, planning and action; desire, belief, planning and action; desire, belief, planning and action . . .

Well, if we say it that way I guess it isn’t so bad. Actually anything we say while walking or skipping sounds less intimidating. Our brains are wired to work especially well when we are moving.  

Gretchen notes in her book that our bodies need a minimum of 10,000 steps a day for good health.  She also notes that this is the number we need to keep from gaining weight, and that science has shown that “exercise-induced brain chemicals help people think clearly.” 

Other studies show that seniors, who walk at least 1.5 miles a week have the least thinking impairment.  And, that walking may reduce dementia. (I know dementia is a long way off for all of us, but good to know.)

My favorite walking and pondering scenes in books and movies always include a proper 1800/early 1900’s gentlemen walking along a wooded path with his hands clasped behind his back.  Very scholarly.  I think Nietzsche might agree; Gretchen notes he wrote “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”  (He probably came up with that idea on a path in the woods.)

I am happiest along a wooded trail myself.  (I never do the hands clasped behind the back thing, I know this is sexist, but I think walking that way looks better on men in tail-like grey suits with little black collars.)  But my morning walks on steamy Florida sidewalks in my plain old black bike shorts have provided me with lots of wonderfully philosophical and insightful moments, such as this one: movement is good for me. 

I have learned that if I want to change my mind or my mood, moving my body helps.

Walking, skipping, running, hopping, dancing, bending, twisting, turning, and stretching make me feel better. 

Just getting out of your chair right now can change your perspective, and maybe your life – go ahead, try it.  I did and it felt great. Change can start that simply: moving increases our thinking-oriented brain chemicals, which changes our brains and perhaps our minds.

And, remember, even something as simple as a smile is movement in the right direction.

Today is my birthday!

I am going to:

Run like Phoebe . . .

Dance like  . . .

and Ellen (I do the chair thing every morning.)

Then I shall sip a bit of very dry, light-bodied red wine; eat some rich dark chocolate and follow that up with whipped cream from a can.  Perfect.  (Ate the cheesecake yesterday.)

Best wishes, hope you have a great day, too!

Mental sludge, emotional oil spills

I just began reading “Joyful Wisdom: Embracing change and finding freedom” by Yongey Mingyur Rinchope, a well-respected Tibetan meditation master. Ten pages in and I was already making notes to share with you.

He describes our feelings of helplessness as sludge; I am calling it “mental sludge.” 

Are are you picturing the horrible, thick, gooey black substance that clogs your bathtub drains (sure, sure, not yours) – Yuk, or maybe your sewer lines – Gross, or worse yet, the beautiful waters of the Gulf of Mexico – Devastating? 

Mental sludge is just as big a threat to our happiness and to creating the lives we want as the oil sludge in the Gulf of Mexico is to our environment. 

Rinchope describes sludge as the feeling we get when we are in the middle of a negative or sad thought or situation, and we begin to think “this is the way I am, this is the way life works, there’s nothing I can do to change it.”

Mental sludge. 

Okay, so that got me thinking: I have areas of mental sludge in my life – and, if we are really being honest, which I am – I have, at times, had vast wastelands of mental sludge, which have led me to what I am now calling “emotional spills:” nasty little outbursts of thoughts and words that just like the oil spill in the Gulf, have ripple effects that spread far and wide and can affect me and those around me for years to come.

Sometimes, I have let my fears such as: being late; not getting the job done; not doing it well enough; not making the best __________; being the best _______ ; having the nicest or cleanest  ________; the smartest  ________ or whatever my momentary complaint is, lead me to think and say things I would rather not.

Most of the verbal oil I spew is directed solely at myself, but sometimes, it seeps out toward others: Hey, that guy just cut me off; She looks _______; I can’t believe they expect me to _______; She/he is always ________; They never _________; and one of my favorites” You/they should . . .  (All of these are hard to admit and, of course, there are much uglier examples – I am honest but not a masochist. :-)

I believe that most of the negative comments we make to ourselves, our loved ones and anyone else, who happens by when we are “spilling,” are the result of some level of mental sludge clogging our spirits and preventing us from creating the life we want.   

I began facing my mental sludge years before I named it, which was just a few days ago, thanks to Rinchope – and noticed that when I do face the sludge, my emotional spills became less frequent and much less intense. 

Here’s what works for me:

1. Being aware of my mental sludge: the negative thoughts and thought patterns that keep me stuck.  Awareness is always a good first step.  Notice what you are thinking in times of stress or sadness. Then, look for patterns. 

2. Learning to recognize them for what they are: thoughts, not prophecies.  Try not to judge yourself.  One mistake or failure does not a loser make.  In fact, a million mistakes and failures do not, and all the negative stuff we tell ourselves is just us telling ourselves negative stuff. It is not fact, nor written in stone – anywhere. (Same for all the stuff others tell us – their thoughts, not fact.)

3. Mentally rewarding myself for being able to recognize and label my thoughts:  Hey, good job, Patrice. (Sort-of like my friend’s adorable two-year old nephew, who tells her all the time, “Good job, I am proud of you!”)   

By the time I make it to Step 3, the original thought(s) has passed, and that big old pile of mental sludge that was so overwhelming has disappeared.  Pretty, simple, huh?  And, it works.

Rinchope calls that mindfulness.  I call it wonderful.

To clean-out your spiritual pipes, repeat Steps 1-3, which you will probably need to do often in the beginning, but try not to judge yourself or your progress, just repeat the steps, as needed.

Now, let’s find a solution for the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A RARE approach: “The Happiness Project”

Good Monday morning!  As promised, here are more things I like about Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project.

1.  It was fun to read, had a nice flow to it, and was a bit like listening to an interesting friend.

2. She had a great way of blending her skills as a researcher with her talents for storytelling.

3. I liked the approach she used to create the life she wanted, which I am describing as RARE:

Gretchen did her Research (R), took Action (A) and time to Review (R) her findings while remaining Enthusiastic (E) throughout the process. I like that, and think it is pretty RARE for someone to do in their personal life.

Research: Gretchen conducted two types of informal research: internal and external.

The internal stuff:

Gretchen took time to figure out what she cared about – living a fuller life – and what she thought was missing – happiness, well, a deeper, richer happiness – then she spent time researching the topic – happiness – to find out if there were already answers to the question she was asking herself: Could I change my life without really changing my life? I am sort-of putting words into Gretchen’s head – but they represent the idea of what she was thinking.  She did not want to reinvent the wheel – her life – she liked her life, but she felt she could improve the way it was rolling along.

The external stuff:

Gretchen read everything she could get her hands on related to happiness from “Aristotle to Martin Seligman [father of the field of positive psychology] to Thoreau to Oprah” (Her words, except for the [ ].)

Action

The research she did was her first action step; her second step was organizing what she read and devising a series of “experiments” for herself – she tried all sorts of methods for increasing her happiness; her third was creating charts to guide and track her progress.

Sounds like a lot of work, and it was, but she made it fun, and as simple as possible.  Gretchen knew if she tried to change her life in a haphazard fashion, she wouldn’t see the results she wanted – so she planned, charted and even started a blog.  Very cool.

Review

I love this part of her approach. Gretchen reviewed what worked and what didn’t work for her, and then made adjustments when needed instead of abandoning her efforts.

No, throwing the baby out with the bath water for her!  No, “Why can’t I ever follow through with anything?”  No, “Why do things never work for me?” Gretchen reduced her self-incriminations and ramped-up the getting-up and dusting-off her pants part.

She never gave-up, she simply gave herself feedback and listened to it!  I like this, but not this.  Hmm, this seems to be working, but I feel it would even better if I . . . I really do not like this aspect, but I still want to keep going, so maybe I will try this instead! Okay, I am once again putting words into Gretchen’s head, but she knows what I am up to – so I am hoping she doesn’t mind.

And, last but certainly not least, Gretchen remained . . .

Enthusiastic

She celebrated her successes – big or small – and rewarded  herself along the way.  The celebrations and rewards kept her enthusiasm high, and allowed more time for positive results to develop, which improved her life and gave her the energy she needed to keep going.

Gretchen’s approach reveals she valued all the plotting and planning she did: she put her time in, paid her dues and committed to the process.  (Please note: doing the plotting and planning almost always makes the process more valuable to us –  if we do the work we tend to want to make it to the finish line. Good strategy for change.)

I am not saying she never felt disillusioned, she did and explains when and why in her book with humor and engaging humility, but she did not let those feelings stop her.

Gretchen used a RARE year-long approach to finding happiness, and it worked.  Join me Mondays in May for the details.

Have a great day, and remember May is a time of new beginnings and the perfect time to begin planning the life you want.

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