I’m pleased to share this talk at Responsive Conference 2017 with Meg Poe, professor at New York University.
Megan Poe is a psychiatrist and interpersonal psychoanalyst who teaches one of New York University’s most popular and fastest-growing classes. Her topic? Love! At this year’s Responsive Conference, she’ll explore with us what it takes to live, love, and work well.
In addition to her professorship at NYU, Meg has a private practice in New York City. Meg’s mission is to help people feel most present and alive in their creative flow and inner life. She specializes in helping adults create more-intimate, fulfilling relationships in their lives and work.
Happiness is an overused term, and rarely well defined.
The Happy Idiot
Usually, when we think of a “happy” person, what comes to mind? A kind-hearted, somewhat bumbling buffoon. Charlie from Flowers for Algernon in the earliest and latest stages of his development. And yet we spend most of our lives, in innumerable ways, trying to achieve fulfillment and satisfaction.
What I Strive For
When I was eight years old I wanted to own a drum set and to be a drummer. Why? Because I thought that becoming a musician would make me happy.
When I was eighteen and had never been kissed, I wanted a girlfriend. Why? Same answer.
I’m twenty-nine years old and I’d like to think that my aspirations are a bit loftier. Certainly, I strive for a fulfilling personal and professional life, which includes financial success, satisfying relationships—all the usual. But I can want those things and still celebrate the moment. In short, I strive for happiness.
How Will You Define Happiness?
Define happiness however you like: fulfillment, gratitude, gratification, achievement, joy, or something more personal. But inevitably, we find that everyone is seeking the same thing. The toddler and the jihadist, though they seem to have nothing in common in their pursuit of specific goals, are actually both doing what they’re doing because that’s what they want to be doing. Because they believe it will lead them to more happiness, now or in the afterlife.
These are personal questions, without clearly defined answers. Consider them.
Fair Warning: This post is more personal than many of my solution-oriented articles. If you are more interested in specific tools for cultivating successful habits, the blog is full of them. I think it is only fair to share stories of challenge, too.
I have fallen over more times that I can possibly say. Literally, in my variety of movement disciplines, and figuratively, into wells of recrimination and despair – I am no stranger to feeling like shit.
One particular evening a few weeks ago I rushed out of ballet class early to see the dance company Batsheva. The performance was simultaneously inspiring and deepened the gulf between where I am and what is possible.
That performance was the capstone on a challenging couple of weeks. I had been trying and failing bring all of my attention to ballet, and learn as quickly as possible. Instead, I was floundering through four hours of ballet technique every evening in a self-referential cycle of feeling awkward, making a mistake, and then feeling worse. To compound matters, though my professional life and dance life are mostly not directly overlapping, some of that despondency did seep into my workdays.
I’m on the mend from a whirlwind of activity, action and misery, and I’m excited to report that there’s bright sunlight at the end of this tunnel. Every tunnel I’ve ever been in the midst of seems to eventually reveal sunshine.
In reflecting about my experience of that period of a few weeks that culminated in the Batsheva performance I notice that this fall into a descending cycle, like the last and all the others, wasn’t any easier. I’m quite as capable of making myself unhappy as I was as an angst-ridden teenager just beginning to date, or a hormone-heady early-twenties scared of my place in the world. If anything, these days my unhappiness is more nuanced and more complicated. I’m more aware, and feel like I have more to lose. It turns out that falling down doesn’t get any easier.
There is an upside to this story. From the middle of my ballet upset or in watching Batsheva and wondering how I could fall so far short of what is possible, my assent to joy seemed impossible. And yet through my writing practice and asking myself a few loving questions, I realize that no matter how inadequate I feel, I will keep on trying.
It is probably a combination of the passage of time and application of specific tools I have cultivated, but I am pleasantly surprised at my rapid return to normalcy. While the fall was no less arduous than any I’ve experienced, the return to comfortable action was. Through practice, we can get better at picking ourselves back up and trying again.
I chose the header of this blog for a very specific reason. The up and down arrows are a reminder to me that learning anything has ups and downs. Last week I wanted to punch things and felt like sleeping all day to avoid reality, but had to get out of bed, answer emails, issue refunds, and make sure I wasn’t sued. Within the course of 3 days, the project that I have put 80 hour weeks into for the last 4 months folded, I and two friends lost $60,000 in business, and I was threatened with a lawsuit over the publication of an e-book. Rough and cause for a step-back.
So, what do you do when life knocks you down? For a start, watch this video…
A couple of things I’ve learned already from last week’s dip:
Build the Habit of Self-Care
I cannot emphasize self-care too much. For the last four months I’ve exercised 6 days each week. I always eat (at least) 3 meals every day. These two components made getting through the more difficult moments last week possible. I build habits that reinforce taking care of myself because they feel good on a day-to-day basis, but I am really, really grateful for them when the going gets rough. Last week there was never a doubt when I would exercise or what I would eat for breakfast. Similarly, I find mediation (or my preference: gratitude training) works best though daily practice.
We all know theoretically that being playful is not only more fun, but can be useful. And yet we give ourselves so little freedom to explore and play with freedom and curiosity. I am often struck by the specific circumstances in which people do give themselves permission to play freely. My 10-month old nephew is prime example. As soon as people see him, they bend down, squeal, and join his games.
In some situations I am extremely playful. The first time that I entered a gymnastics gym at 18 years old I was overwhelmed that such a place existed – and that I could be allowed in! I remember running the distance of the gym, between trampoline, high bar and tumble track, marveling that all of this equipment existed in the world and that I could play on it.
But what gives us freedom to play under certain circumstances and not in others? Why, with my nephew, do strangers on the street allow themselves to say hello when otherwise they would look away? How did my enthusiasm in gymnastics make it possible to do the impossible?
The Body In Pain
When someone is in pain their brain literally shuts down. fMRI show that there is much less neural activity when the body is in physical or emotional pain. Pain therefore literally leaves less room for learning. Thus, one function of play is to expand neural activity, increasing the likelihood for new connections to be formed within the brain.
The Humor Shortcut
If I’m uncomfortable I cannot be playful. Fortunately, the reverse also hold true: when I am playful I automatically become comfortable. Lat week I made my first I attempt at stand-up comedy. I joked about getting beat up in middle school. On stage the events were so exaggerated that the results were funny (at least to me!). The experience of talking about experiences that were at the time very challenging required a degree of mental flexibility that I found freeing. Creating a humorous situation out of a controversial one is just another way of stretching the brain and creating new connections.
If play allows for a flexible approach to the study of anything, seriousness limits the ways in which we can explore. When we are stubborn or stuck there are literally fewer options available.
In addition to playfulness allowing for broader exploration, it creates the possibility for more active, enthusiastic engagement with the material presented. How come? Playfully presented material is more likely to be remembered. We remember experiences we enjoy.
Play Is Fun
Finally we have reached the simplest and most compelling reason of all: play is more fun. Simple as that. Who has a more enjoyable experience: the man who awkwardly averts his eyes or the woman who squats down to look my nephew in the eyes and make funny faces? I know which activity I enjoy more (and – of course – I have never awkwardly averted my eyes! Not ever…)
Where This Leaves Us
In the last few weeks I’ve been noticing where I am playful and where I’m not. By noticing trends I’ve begun to take the level of flexibility and enthusiasm I have in certain areas and transfer into others. Begin to notice where you are the most playful in your life. To begin, I suggest noticing where you are playful in your life, too.
I’ve talked before about one of the reasons I love working with autism. Kids on the spectrum are constantly violating my assumptions and in order to be effective I have to continue re-evaluating my beliefs and discarding what doesn’t work.
This week I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina working with several families with special needs children. And I’m experiencing a whole new model for breaking down my assumptions. Growing up I was taught that it was useful to travel because it “expands horizons.” I never really questioned that that means. On this trip I’ve come to see why traveling can be extremely useful and how expanding horizons actually works. To make a long story short – it can be hard, but it is very worth doing.
First off, my work can be challenging. I am work with children who may bite or scream or both. (Theyareincredible, too.) But on this trip I’m also in a new city, speaking a non-native language, and practicing tango. The number of challenging factors has increased by several exponents! So let’s look at how exactly this is a good thing…
One Habit That Will Change Your Life, which I posted during Thanksgiving in 2012, has been shared more times than anything else I have ever written. In that post I described one habit I’ve cultivated, What Went Wells (or WWWs) as described by Martin Seligman in Flourish. This is just one of many behavioral patterns I’ve begun to cultivate in the last couple of years – shortcuts and simple tricks for getting myself out of a funk and leading a more fulfilled life. I create these and practice them, so I thought it useful to share them here. If you missed the bandwagon, take a look at this post, read Flourish and skim the “Shortcuts to Happiness” chapter in Happiness Is A Choice.
Leave It Behind, at Least for a Moment
One quick way I have found to shortcut to comfort and ease is just to leave behind whatever I was doing discomfort about in the first place. (And it sounds so simple!) Often I have found that when I am unhappy I intentionally stay in the environment in which I began my discomfort in an effort to “solve” the situation now. Instead, practice leaving. Growing up I was taught that “running away” was to show weakness. In my family leaving a difficult conversation was considered bad form. Over the years I’ve changed and now see stepping aside to be a useful step towards resolution. Just as we might give a child a time-out if she is tantruming, try taking a time-out from whatever you are struggling with. This isn’t a permanent solution or resolution to the problem. It isn’t meant to be! But when you return to the challenging situation you will find you are often much happier and better equipped to handle the situation.
I spent the month of January 2013 at the Option Institute – an international learning center and home of the Autism Treatment Center of America. I am now one of 125 people in the world ever to be certified as an Option Process Mentor. I’ve brought in a friend from the Institute – someone who spent the month of January on the other side of my training program – to describe what is like to be an Explorer within the Option Process Dialogue and why this process can be life changing.
What is it like to be an Explorer in The Option Process® Dialogue?
Being the Explorer in an Option Process Dialogue is a bit like being in the driver’s seat of a really nice car with a good friend and trusted companion in the passenger’s seat. You’re in complete control of the conversation and where it’s going. The Mentor is merely there to ask where you’d like to go next. They’re along for the ride, ready to follow you anywhere you want to take them. The most amazing part of having a Mentor as your passenger is that you can feel at ease because, with them, you’ll never get lost.
I’d like to share with you my experience of exploring with Robin, who I had the pleasure and privilege of Dialoguing with when he was in Mentor Training at The Option Institute.
The volunteers who were scheduled to Dialogue with our Mentor trainees would sit in a room, waiting patiently for our Mentors to arrive and whisk us away to our Dialogue room. Robin, always smiling, popped his head into the room, gave me a grin, and cheerfully led me to the room where we’d be spending the next 50 minutes talking about what was going on for me at the time.
I ushered in the New Year on the social dance floor – until 5am. There is nowhere I would rather have been and no people I would have preferred to be with. 2012 has been the best year of my life, so far. In the last year I’ve formed more close personal relationships that I’ve ever had before, trained myself to a higher level of physical condition (and founded a dance company), been consistently more joyful in my life while doing more. My experience upon waking today was a combination of thrilled and humbled – I am profoundly grateful to be living my life. All this has me thinking about where I’ve been and what’s coming next. To start off, here’s where I was in December 2011 (this from my introductory SF Toastmasters speech)…
Four Things I’ve Learned in 2012:
1. Play to your strengths. Though I’ve had people hinting at and hitting me over the head with this idea for years I’ve just begun to apply this concept in the last few months. The best discussion of these principles I’ve seen is the book Now, Discover Your Strengths. In the simplest form, examine what you are good at and master that. Ignore or delegate the rest.
2. Attitude is Everything and Attitude is a Choice. Earlier this week, as a complete novice I tried 15 types of Ballroom Dance for the first time. You might not believe me but one of biggest fears in 2011 was social dancing! Last month when a little autistic boy adjusted himself and then pressed himself against me, I judged him, quickly got over it, and went on to make amazing progress with him. What I’ve come to see is that I’m in control. I’ve just begun my study of what I call the Attitude That Works. What I’ve learned so far has radically improved my life and I’m thrilled for more. Take aways: Act from love. Be more grateful. Accept yourself and others. Ask questions.
3. Really Good People Matter. I’ve heard it said that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. In the last year I’ve cultivated many remarkable people and I am continually in awe of each of them. I still think I have to solve some problems myself but more and more I’m relaxing into the recognition that we are in this together. There’s no shame in developing relationships that compliment your own strengths. Be the friend, lover, spouse, family to those you want and they respond.
4. Do the work your love. In the last eight years I’ve built an amazing set of skills to help neuro-challenged kids and improve the performance of high-level athletes. I don’t start work at 9am and finish at 5pm. I never will. I don’t ever stop practicing, and I don’t ever start, because ever moment I live my practice. If you haven’t discovered something you love that will support the lifestyle you want yet, keep looking.
Two Things I’m Going Towards in 2013:
1. Business. I want more. I currently have a lot of projects underway. As my housemate said: “Give 175%. Throw it all against the wall and see what sticks. Prune from there.” I am writing a book, putting on a workshop, running a practice, building an educational product (more on this very soon!), and in my spare time performing dance and studying practical philosophy. This year I want a steady stream of clients in my private practice (an average of 40 lessons each month) and an equal portion of my income from product sales. I want to teach workshops in 2013 and put into practice the public speaking practice I’ve accumulated in 2012.
2. Humility and Gratitude. Over my life I’ve flip-flopped between bouts of depression and thrilled euphoria. Remember that scene in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? with Babyface Nelson?
I have days when I don’t want to get out of bed and other days that I get more done than most people do in a week. This is me. And I am slowly, slowly learning to love myself throughout. At my best I celebrate the highs and apologize when I bump into other people, on and off the dance floor. I am going to continue practicing gratitude, even for my low moments, and humility, even during my highest of highs.
Thanks for sharing this journey with me and here’s to an even better 2013!
Gratitude works. What I mean by this is if you want to have a good life – be grateful. Try this short exercise: think of one thing in your life – be it a friend, an object, or an experience – that you are grateful for. Picture that thing clearly. I find it helps to write out a short paragraph. I guarantee that as you describe this thing that you are grateful for you will feel good. It is not possible to feel bad while simultaneously experiencing gratitude.
So here’s your homework. Three things each day that went well for ONE WEEK. That’s it. If you do this for five days you will have an amazing week. If you do this every day for the rest of your life your life will improve beyond recognition.
You might be saying: “That’s a nice idea Robin. But come on…”. In this I have clear scientific evidence to back me up. Remember last week when I was reading Marin Seligman‘s Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being? Next time I see Marty shopping at Whole Foods I will shake his hand. He has conducted exhaustive research proving that as little as three statements of gratitude written each day substantially improve many different aspects of well-being. (Well-being, in this case, is a technical term.) And I have a couple of extra bonuses, even more exciting. One of my concerns is about building the habit. I might do an exercise for a week but who’s to say I’ll continue? Marty addresses this by discussing how a vast majority of tested subjects from universities, middle schools, and the US Army all maintain the practice of writing down statements of gratitude because doing so is extraordinarily implicitly rewarding. Best of all Marty has done the work for me of coming up with an acronym that I will never forget. WWW stands for What Went Well. Write three things that went well during your day just before you go to sleep at night. You’ll get a profoundly better outlook on life.
As I write this I am covered in sweat having spent the last hour pushing a 600 pound motorcycle up San Francisco “hills.”
Had I stopped–paused for just a moment–and considered why the bike wasn’t starting up I would have realized that I had forgotten to turn the fuel valve back on. No gas, no engine. Instead of taking that moment to reflect I pushed 600 pounds of steel up a steep hill, rode it down and it died at the bottom every time. I was dead set on fixing the problem now (or maybe just getting home and taking a shower) that I didn’t take the moment I would need it to recognize my error.
So what could I have done differently? Things turned out okay: I’m home, safe, sweaty and the bike is fine. And I could have saved myself a lot of effort! But how–in those moments of stress–could I have done it differently?
Call a friend
I could have called a friend. I have a few people in my life who would have gotten really upset that I was having so much trouble. The owner of the bike. My mother. But most people would ask me a few questions starting with “What’s going on?” and “Why are you upset.” A calm voice in the background would’ve been enough for me to reconsider my situation.
Ask a question
I could have asked myself a question. Just like those in the previous paragraph asking “what,” followed by “why” would have led quite quickly to (at least) a distraction from the current situation and (at best) happiness and calm leading to a quick resolution.
Change the channel
I could have stopped. Just that. Stopped, taken off my sweating gear, walked around the block and then come back. What was I pushing the bike uphill for anyway? So that I could get home, take off the gear, and take a shower! Why not do that first and then reconsider the situation?
I didn’t because I was regarding the sweaty motorcycle situation as urgent. If I were on a train track with the train bearing down on me I would not have time to call a friend, ask a question or change the topic. I would need to act! Now! I was treating this motorcycle stall as a life-and-death situation, one that I needed to resolve immediately. But why? This is a motorcycle, stalled on a quiet road with plenty of parking and walking distance from my house. I could leave it for days! I was treating it as a life-and-death situation because that is how I know to handle what I label as “important” situations. Like the old adage “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a jail” one of the tools in my belt is the idea that important situations should be solved now! In my childhood there was often a feel of urgency. Our culture, too, that doesn’t teach that slow and gentle are the best ways to handle the unexpected. It was assumed that I would be nervous when I was taking AP exams. I was taught in college that stress is good for you. More recently I have found many ways in which this is untrue. I learn movement best by going slowly and with great care. As a result I love learning and learn very quickly. And in some places – like with the motorcycle today – I treat the important with urgency and upset.
As a take away for this whole affair, I have a couple of new skills. Next time my bike stalls I’ll recognize my own freak–out, call a friend, ask a question, or take a break. I live, I learn and I keep improving. And you can be damn sure that I won’t leave the fuel valve off again!
I would love to hear from you: what is the situation (the more specific the better) where you freak out and what are some tools you use to calm and learn yourself out of the situation?