05 February 2014

On Happiness and Mental Health

A friend asked me recently if I consider myself a happy person. I do. Most people would say I am. One of the most frequent comments I get is about how much and how often I smile. Even in spite of the I love humanity/I hate humanity dichotomy that lives in my brain, my default is positivity. Sure, I'm happy. Easy to answer. The next question was a little tougher.

What makes you a happy person?

Well, hell. That's a hard one to verbalize. It's sort of like asking why my hair is brown. Short of the scientific explanation offered by genetics, the short answer is "It just is." I can chemically alter my hair to make it a different color, and I can do that for a multitude of reasons, but it doesn't change the fact that my natural state of being is to have brown hair.

Same goes for my happiness. It's how I am and how I've always been, at my core. My default position is to smile, to trust, to love, to go with the flow, to see the good and to actively look for it if it's not immediately evident, to laugh, to be content. How do you break down something that's as much a part of you as the nose on your face so that someone else can understand it and adapt it for their own life?

Depression, Anxiety, Sadness, etc.

The fact that I'm generally a happy person doesn't mean I haven't had my own emotional struggles. I know sadness and fear and anxiety. In my teens and early 20s there was an undercurrent of tension and sadness in my head that most people wouldn't have known was there. Being a shy introvert probably didn't help matters, since talking it out with someone didn't even register on my list of coping mechanisms. I preferred working through it in my own head, or on paper. My "standard" of happiness didn't go away during that time, though. It coexisted either simultaneously with the sadness or as a reminder of who I really was during those times when I could not figure out why I was feeling so bad.

I didn't learn to drive until I was in my mid-20s and even then it took me a couple years before I actually got my license at the age of 28. My anxiety about it was that overwhelming that I truly had no desire to get behind the wheel of a car. I'm coming up on three years with my license and I still get slightly anxious when driving to new places, or driving more than a few miles in the dark, or in the rain/fog/snow. I won't go anywhere for the first time without my GPS. When I joined a choir last fall I used the GPS on my phone to get there and back the first time... but also for every weekly rehearsal for three months after that until the anxiety about driving in unfamiliar areas subsided.

The struggles I've been through are the equivalent of coloring and cutting my hair. My hair has looked all kinds of crazy ways temporarily, but there's nothing that will change the fact that my natural state is brunette. And while I've had moments where my mental health looked a bit different, I honestly don't think there's anything that can change my happiness default. For some reason, that was a big surprise when I realized that.

Is Happiness Rational?

My fear of driving was not rational or logical. The sadness and frustration that sometimes crashed over me when I was younger was not rational. But that didn't make them any less real to me at the time or any easier to conquer. They just were. I couldn't really explain those things to other people without feeling a little silly. But the same things goes for my happiness. I don't know how or why I'm happy, and trying to dissect it makes me feel weird. There's no logical reason for it.

Part of me believes strongly in the power of positive thought. I don't mean thinking about being a millionaire so you'll magically attract all the right things to make you one. I mean having the ability to recognize and change thought patterns to reclaim my happiness when I feel it slipping. A teacher in high school would often say "Today is going to be a good day" out loud in class and I find that helpful still. It's not about ignoring or denying the negative. When I find myself drifting into one of those irrational funks, I look at it and ask myself Is there a reason I'm feeling this way? Has something happened to make me feel this way? and if the answer is no I'll ask myself Is this mood serving any purpose besides making me moody? and if the answer is still no then I decide right then and there that I will strive for something more positive. There are times when what I'm feeling is the direct result of something happening in my life and/or what I'm feeling is driving me to make positive changes or get things done that I need/want to get done. And when that happens, I acknowledge what I'm feeling and even embrace it for a short time before sending it on its way in favor of my usual happy disposition. It sounds easy, but it's not. I don't mean to imply that it's easy. It's just a place to start. (Let me be clear that I'm not trying to say that anyone can and should just "positive think" themselves out of depression or mental illness. Please don't be afraid to seek professional help.)

Positive thinking is more a coping mechanism for when I feel unlike myself. I wouldn't say it's why I'm a happy person because it's something I've had to learn to do. And like I've been saying, being happy and upbeat is just who and how I am without reason. In talking with my friend it hit me:

It's likely that all the people who've ever asked me about my positive outlook on life and my happy disposition were just as baffled by my explanation as I was about the notion that I could do or be anything other than how I've always been.

I don't like to think that I've been so oblivious that I haven't realized that not everyone is happy. I know they aren't. But it was a bit of an epiphany to think that not only are some people unhappy, but some are unhappy (or at least "less" happy relatively) because they just are and always have been. We have different baselines and my happiness doesn't make any more logical sense than their unhappiness.

My friend and I have always had certain different ways of approaching things and that's part of why we're such great  friends. I like to think we've challenged and checked each other over the years in ways that made us both better people. But I admit to qualifying my feelings and private thoughts now and then with sentiments like "if only you were happier." How things would just be so much better "if only you were happier" because I was convinced that that was the answer to my friend's troubles. I never understood that our differences in how we see the world extended so far beyond political and social ideology all the way into that non-rational space of happiness. I never thought that other people weren't equally as happy as me, down in their core. I figured their unhappiness was either a temporary state of being brought on by whatever biochemistry is responsible for our mental health, as mine often was, or the result of any number of external factors and experiences and that they would return to their natural state of happiness with time or counseling or medication. Those things can affect happiness, no doubt, but that's not the point.

I can't change my friend's baseline any more than they could change mine. It's not a huge revelation, although it feels like one to me. But it does change the way I'll think about, talk to, and empathize with my friend. I love this person like mad and it breaks my heart to see them struggling with something that comes so naturally to me. All I can do is continue to say I love, I'm here for you. Most importantly, I hope my friend and I can take a bit of the pressure off - me off myself for feeling like I should somehow be able to explain my own happiness in a way that they can make it their own, and my friend for feeling like my or anyone else's happiness is the gold standard.

Happiness doesn't make any more rational sense than anything else. My happy isn't your happy. Mentally healthy is what we should strive for, not the amorphous sliver of happiness in anyone else that they likely have no more control over than anything else.

And to my friend, who may be tired of hearing it by now: I love you. And I'm sorry if I've ever made you feel like you should just look at things through my happy lenses in order to make all your troubles go away.

01 February 2014

The Journey of Self-Acceptance

Believe it or not, this is a GIVEAWAY post! I've teamed up with four other lovely ladies for a giveaway just in time for Valentine's Day.

As most of us know, there's a certain amount of self-acceptance that you need to have to be happy and fulfilled, both in and out of romantic relationships. The five of us chipping in for this giveaway all have books that feature strong female characters who struggle with their own self-acceptance on some level throughout the book, and it's only when they've learned to love themselves as they are that they can achieve their goals and transform into the women they want to be.

In Sorry's Not Enough, Charlotte is pretty good at convincing others that she's strong, confident, and independent. But it's pretty clear to the reader and to those who are closest to her that she's lying to herself. She pushes away painful memories from her past instead of dealing with them and as a result they haunt her for years, affecting friendships and romantic relationships alike. Steven wants to love her wholly, wounded heart and all, but she can't accept his love until she also accepts just how broken she is. The question is how long will it take her to confront her past to make way for a healthy future, and will Steven still be around once she's able to love him back?

Since Evelyn Adams doesn't blog, I'm hosting her here on Jello World so you can learn all about her book, Love Uncovered.

Evelyn Adams
Love Uncovered

Thanks, J Lea for sharing a corner of your blog with me and for all the wonderful writers participating in this giveaway!

Love Uncovered came out of conversation I had with my husband one night. We were laying in the dark, talking and I asked him what men wanted their wives to do? His answer surprised me because it was exactly what I wanted from him.

Pay attention to me and what I do for our family. Really see me. I think that is true for many couples, especially those who’ve been together for a while. It’s certainly true for Max and Julie. Max worries about being a provider and taking care of his family while at the same time wanting to be more than just a paycheck. Julie is so used to putting her needs on the back burner, she has a hard time even remembering what they are any more.

It would be easy for them to keep plodding along angry and unhappy, burdened by their responsibilities and expectations. Instead they make time to really pay attention to each other and rediscover what drew them together in the first place. By learning to accept themselves and each other they find their way to an even deeper love. And there’s plenty of spicy sex along the way.

Other participating authors:

A.T. O'Connor
Whispering Minds

Jean Oram
Whiskey and Gumdrops

Julie Farrell
Driving Me to You

Grand Prize gets all FIVE books! Dead tree books from me, A.T. and Jean and e-books from Evelyn and Julie. Only U.S. and Canada entrants will be eligible for the grand prize.

There are 10 additional prizes listed below. Individual e-book prizes will be open internationally.

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