hello to happiness

Friday, 7 April 2006

Hello to All That by John Falk Hello to All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft and Peace by John Falk (2005), a fascinating memoir of Falk's battle with depression, reminded me of my own here-now-gone-again depression issues. Falk lives what most would call a charmed life, but finds himself unable to appreciate it. For years he is filled with self-loathing because he cannot make use of the many advantages life gives him:

I became hyper-aware that I was somehow shut out from whatever it was that made other people tick. What the fuck did I have to do? I had tons of friends, family that loved me, had accomplished things, but it meant nothing. Why the hell did I feel so dead inside? I had tried so long and so hard to keep it together. (p 114)

For Falk, Zoloft is the magic bullet, bringing him out of clinical depression. However, living with depression for a decade and a half meant he did not learn to fully live and connect with people. He seeks a way to live deeper, fuller experiences, he has to push the envelope in order to catch up on all the living he's missed. Passing himself off as a war reporter, he enters beseiged Sarajevo, where he discovers that connections with other people — especially through helping others — are necessary elements of his recovery.

For some, Zoloft isn't the magic bullet it promises to be. I took Zoloft for eight years, but still struggled with these issues. So the search goes on. It's about learning, establishing habits that keep me healthy, and always, seeking inspiration to keep me going.

Harvard professor"Finding happiness in a Harvard classroom," a recent story on NPR's All things considered, discusses the most popular course at Harvard these days. According to the course description, it covers the "psychological aspects of a fulfilling and flourishing life." While some laugh it off as not serious enough for Harvard, students are flocking to this course; required readings include philosophical treatises on happiness, Ellen DeGeneres comedy, the Dalai Lama, and articles from the new field of positive psychology. If I were there, I'd probably enroll too. During my student years at University of Washington, I took an honors seminar on The Examined Life. While it didn't focus directly on happiness, the seminar asked the question of whether we are better off living without thinking, or if examining our life can lead to more understanding and awareness. I guess I believe the latter. Hence, writing this journal on-line…

The Harvard course's instructor, Tal Ben-Shahar, offers NPR listeners the following advice:

Six Tips for Happiness

1. Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions — such as fear, sadness, or anxiety — as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.

2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.

3. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well being is determined by what we choose to focus on (the full or the empty part of the glass) and by our interpretation of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity?

4. Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much.

5. Remember the mind-body connection. What we do — or don't do — with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.

6. Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.

I guess ultimately it's a balance between getting your biochemistry in place and the hard work of learning to accept life while taking care of yourself.

By the way, the Center for Positive Psychology at UPenn is looking for on-line study participants.

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