Buoyancy, Baggage and Beyond
I’m reminded this week how similar we are, even in our differences.
- Maggie worries about her godmother, Aunt Iris, and a blogger buddy named Iris who’s gone ‘radio silent’
- Jen is determined to remain buoyant as anxiety monsters threaten to pull her under
- Joey vexes over cold sores and cabbage while craving restful sleep
- I’m reading a book about ‘happiness‘ while thinking the least we deserve is ‘resilience’, and we’d all be better off if experts touted ‘contentment’ rather than ‘happiness’
No matter what Maggie, Jen, Joey, the Mayo Clinic or I call it, we’re all talking about resiliency: the ability to cope with who you are and what life throws at you.
Taking the long view, if you fill your quiver with arrows of resilience, you are well on your way to a life of contentment.
Happiness, while not overrated, is certainly over-hyped as the optimal state of emotion. A math concept I remember is reversion to the mean – for every moment of happiness, there will be an equal, opposing force called sadness to pull you back to equilibrium.
I like my moments of happiness – the days my body doesn’t hurt and I’m not ruminating about the past or playing what if’s with the future. There are never enough of those days.
Like some of you, I skew towards the anxiety of undesirable scenarios with an aversion to the many things I can’t control. Reversion to the mean hasn’t brought equilibrium in my innermost self where we suffer the most. If I dwelled on that, I’d be tempted to feel disappointed with some aspects of my life.
That’s where resilience and contentment come into play. In my worst years of mind/body ailments, I learned the cyclical nature of the day to day: on my worst days, I knew I’d eventually feel better; on my best days, I knew they wouldn’t last.
You learn to withstand the worst and cherish the best – for me that’s where resilience meets contentment, and life’s equilibrium is achieved.
It applies to everything, doesn’t it? From our mental and physical challenges to gardening – where weeds grow prolifically and favored plants succumb – to friendships that seem like they’ll last forever and fall apart at surprising junctures. We don’t control any of it. We won’t ever achieve an uninterrupted life of happiness.
But we can acquire tools of resilience, hoping sooner rather than later to understand and rejoice that we live contented, but not trouble-free, lives.
I’m not discussing medications or extricating yourself from unhealthy relationships, although I highly recommend considering both when needed!
What I want to pass on are insights from the Handbook for Happiness (but I’d call it the Handbook for Contentment and I wouldn’t show a woman jumping for joy).
I re-learned that our brains were developed for one evolutionary purpose – keeping our species safe. Thus our brain’s default mode is to constantly search our environment for what’s not safe; what threatens us; what evils lurk to do us in.
Honestly, I was relieved to be reminded that my tendency toward preliminary pessimistic frames of reference is the norm for human brains!
The alternative to default mode is to consciously engage in learning, challenging, pleasurable activities and thoughts. The book has many chapters about cultivating the focused mind. While those tools are important, what I find more beneficial is the tools to turn off my default mode.
If you are like me, turning off the default is more complicated than solely turning on the focus. Perhaps our default modes are on the extreme end of the catastrophic spectrum, and we require more tools to quiet that mode.
One recommended tool is ‘Check Your Baggage’. Our minds carry three loads: the burdens of the past, the reality of now, and the anxieties over the future. Yesterday and tomorrow aren’t real; all that matters is now. Why not draw a mental image of a suitcase and pack past burdens and future anxieties for the rest of today? You can open the suitcase tomorrow, but there is no reason to do so today and you’ve lightened your load by 2/3.
I just used this concept successfully. Two weeks ago I received a letter from the IRS. One of those incomprehensible letters with four paragraphs of government-speak closing with ‘you will hear from us no later than 45 days from now’.
In the past, I would have flipped out, calling the IRS immediately, waiting on hold for an hour or two, begging the know-nothing agent to explain, and raising my blood pressure over what could turn out to be nothing.
Instead, I decided ‘WTF, I can’t control this and worrying won’t help. I’ll hear something in 45 days. Or I won’t.’ I stashed the letter in my tax folder then – literally – washed my hands of worry.
You can decrease your baggage even more. Statistically nothing catastrophic happens in the next hour of your life. You will be fine for the next hour. When you consciously choose to carry only the next hour’s load, or simply remember that you will be fine for the next hour, those pounding drums of doom can be quieted, if just for a short while.