The Happiness Project – Weeks 1 & 2

Weeks 1 & 2 of the Happiness Project have left me exhausted, achy and pondering the possibility of a meningitis diagnosis, although Lyme disease is probably more plausible. Hey, I don’t want to blame the happiness project, because it’s really not its fault. But the reality is that I’ve been teaching two nights a week until nearly 10pm, which makes for nearly 12 hour work days, coupled with 2 hours of commuting and prep time in between. Not exactly the recipe for high life satisfaction. And then I received this from a student:

“Some discourage me to either be a writer or a psychologist. So when I hear that you are a writer, and a writer, I was inspire. I said to myself, me and this lady have something in common. If she can do these two things together, then I can do it. One of the thing that really touch me when you was teaching was when you said, “If you don’t know yourself, you won’t know what you want.” I learn from that.”

I left all of the grammatical errors in because this young writer is from Liberia. She comes to class everyday and is basically awestruck by the ability to be in this country and have the opportunity to learn. She is young. She is hungry. She is ready to take on the world. I remember those days.

The greatest part about the happiness project is that my students, who span the ages of 18 to 65 are genuinely interested. I was so worried they would take one look at me and walk out the door. Instead, they have really embraced the process.

Day 1 of the project, the students took two pre-assessments to gauge their current levels of life satisfaction. The hope is that after applying the evidence based curriculum over the course of 5 weeks, they will score higher on the assessments at the end of the semester. I’m not sure if that’s feasible, but we are going to try.

The most consistent intervention we are using is gratitude. Students are required to submit gratitude journals at the end of every class, which record three things they are grateful for. While they can simply list the three things, I do ask that they explore one more fully. I have to say, I am so impressed with their answers. I really thought the majority of my students (specifically my young males) would pay me lip service. I was so wrong. Here are a few examples:

  • Gym: It seems like a silly thing to be thankful for but for me, it’s an outlet/stress reliever. No matter what’s going on in my life when I’m there nothing bothers me. I get in my zone and I think everyone needs a healthy escape.
  • I am grateful for my car. While it seems weird to be thankful for just a car, I worked hard to earn the money for my car and enjoy working on it, and making it better, faster, and nicer.
  • International Food Market: With my four days off this week, I get a chance to go to Upper Darby and buy all of my spices and special curry that I haven’t had in a while. My spices I have purchased from the same person for the last 10 years.

We fail to find gratitude in our everyday lives. We rush through life and seldom stop to really think about how lucky we are. And then we think we have meningitis.

Another small project I’ve had the students working on is savoring. Savoring is an extension of Mindfulness. It is a conscious and deliberate positive attention to the past, present and future from a multi-sensory experience. Think about when we really slow down and savor a meal. When you stop and bask in the best steak, wine, chocolate, etc. that you’ve ever had. That’s savoring.

I’ve asked to student to savor something and write an essay explaining the experience from a multi-sensory experience. It isn’t due until next week but a few students have already submitted the essays, along with photos.

 

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This is a milkshake that has been and is currently being savored.

It’s clear to me that the happiness project was as much for my students as it was for me. Actually, it was way more for me than it was for them. But they are reaping the benefits, so it’s all good.

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The Happiness Experiment

I’ve been teaching General Psychology for 4 years and at least 20 times at last count. I’m on autopilot, to the point where I refuse to teach anything else anymore because I just want to show up, do my routine and collect a paycheck.

I had cut back on my teaching  last year because I was trying to determine if I could work less and still enjoy life and the answer is…..it depends on how you define enjoy. I’m pretty good at living a simple life and can make do without many material possessions but after a year of cutting my second income in more than half, I had to get back on track. So I asked to teach a summer class.

Teaching summer session is not just cramming 15 weeks into 6 weeks. I’ve tried that one other time. It doesn’t work. Not to mention, after this last painful semester of being stared at by a bunch of Millennials for 4 months, I knew there was absolutely no way I was going to lecture four hours a night, 2 nights a week. I also know that as much as students say “I wish we had done more group activities” that in reality, when you put them in groups, often, they just stare at each other until one person gets uncomfortable enough to break the silence. I had to come up with something creative. So, here’s my plan.

I am going to take a 6 week Introduction to Psychology course and I’m going to frame the entire semester around the concept of happiness as it relates to the biology, psychology and socio-cultural learning objectives of the course!!! Isn’t that AWESOME??? Oh, and I’m going to do it in 5 weeks because I’m going away the last week.

Before I go any further, I want to answer some of the more obvious questions from my detractors.

  • No, I am currently not under the influence of drugs or alcohol as a family member suggested recently.
  • No, I don’t care if you don’t care. If you don’t care, why are you still reading this?
  • Yes, I am absolutely a cynic. But that really has nothing to do with the study of happiness.
  • Yes, I hate Donald Trump. He interferes with my ability to feel happiness. I’m hoping this project will increase my ability to push my feelings about Donald Trump to the back of my mind and focus on warm and fuzzy things.

On a more serious note, I became very interested in the scientific study of happiness about three years ago after seeing the documentary “Happy” (See it. You need to see.). Positive Psychology is a pretty new area of research but in essence is really just the flip side of all of the other stuff we have been studying since the beginning of time. The opposite of depression is happiness. The opposite of adversity is resiliency. The opposite of grief is healing. The opposite of post traumatic stress is post traumatic growth. If I can teach my students how Pavlov conditioned a dog to salivate to the sound of a bell, I’m sure I can teach them how we are conditioned to feel happy when we hear a song.

My loose plan (still working on this…I’ve got like 10 days) is to do a pre and post happiness assessment and in between have a series of evidence based activities that the students take part in.  I’m hoping not only will the students actually learn something but that I will finally have something to focus on other than Donald Trump.

I stopped writing about six months ago and this is the best excuse I could come up with to start again. I intend to blog periodically throughout the semester to track progress along the way. I’m pretty excited.

 

 

15 (or about 15) Lessons I’ve Learned in 2015

Every year I dedicate the last blog of the year to lessons learned over the course of 365 days. I’ve thought a lot about this one, mostly because I haven’t written since September and am not sure if I can come up with 15 things this time around. The last few months have been a whirlwind and honestly, I haven’t had time to process it. I’ve spent much of the last six and half years wearing my heart and mind on my sleeve for all to see. I’ve been uncensored, raw and truthful to a fault. I’ve alienated friends and family members along the way. I’ve questioned myself more times than I can remember. It’s truly been an exhausting process.

I didn’t believe my world could be up ended again in such a profound way as it has been in the last six months. And for once, I’m not ready to talk about it. Go figure. I have let you into my broken heart and let you watch me while I dissect it over and over again. And I didn’t think anything was off limits when it came to this blog but apparently I was wrong. Again, go figure.

Here’s what I can tell you: I have been fundamentally changed by not only the last six months, but the last six years.  Much of it has been open to criticism, as well as great support. Much of it has been defined by incredible loss, and in return, incredible growth. I have learned to surround myself with a few key people whom I have put an enormous amount of trust in. If I have learned anything in the last six months, it truly is that you will quickly find out who your true friends are in your lowest moments. And I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve learned a few other things along the way this year. Like, I am one of the most underinformed people you will ever meet when it comes to current events. And I could care less. The media is total bullshit. I’ve also learned that I can live an entire day without my cell phone and feel relieved that I don’t have to worry about people tracking me down or who may have texted me over the course of a day. I’ve learned that a Get The Led Out show is a great way to spend an evening. I even learned that I can plan, coordinate and execute a fucking light parade.

I’ve learned that outliving my father’s 44 years of life has had a profound effect on how I view age and quality of life. I’ve learned how much of my life that he missed when I look at Max and see him evolve.

I’ve learned that I struggle with trust and only in my darkest moments have I been able to let my guard completely down. And I’m so thankful for that.

I’ve learned that I am more capable than I ever imagined in putting the past behind me. Six and a half years of processing two major losses left me at that “come to Jesus moment”. I will never be the same after losing my brother. A sibling death is a completely different than a parent death. But, the losses have taken on an integrative quality and the holes look different and feel different than they did a few years ago.

I’ve learned that there is a huge difference between true giving and being a martyr.

I’ve learned that life is so much better when you let people in. And kick some out.

I’ve learned that even I need my privacy. And privacy is a hard thing for a girl who has been putting it out there for all to see for the last six and a half years.

Huh. I guess I did learn a few things this year. Happy 2016!

I Have A Dream

I hate entitled kids. I just do. I hate kids who grow up believing the world owes them something. The world owes you nothing. If anything, you owe the world. You owe the world your kindness and compassion. You owe the world tolerance and understanding.

Entitled kids grow up to be entitled adults. And entitled adults are assholes. The only people who want to be friends with entitled adults are other entitled adults so basically, if you hang around long enough, you are bound to end up happening upon an asshole convention.

But, as much as I hate entitled kids, I hate the fabricated pressure we put on children during their most crucial years of development. When did the idea that every kid has the potential to be a Rhodes Scholar, a Dr. Ben Carson or Michael Jordan happen? When did we start thinking we could buy our kids way into greatness?

I have a theory about entitlement. Entitlement stems from a world that believes that if we don’t start NOW we will fail our children. If 3 year old Jenny isn’t reading NOW, she will never make it into Harvard. If 6 year old Johnny isn’t playing quarterback NOW, he has no shot at a college scholarship to Notre Dame. If 10 year old Olivia isn’t in every accelerated class NOW, she will never be able to compete for a slot at Yale. And guess what? The world is fucked up enough at this point, that probably all of those things are true. And I could care less.

So, when Jenny starts recognizing her letters, we rush her to an enrichment class and boast about her brilliance. When Johnny lobs the football to his dad ten feet away, we cheer like he is Tom Brady (before Deflate-gate) and call around to see if we can get him private lessons. And when Olivia brings home straight A’s in 2nd grade, we call the school about having an IQ test administered because how many other kids can being getting all straight A’s? Then when Jenny scores a 115 on the IQ, we discuss whether or not we need a private evaluation.

Adults teach entitlement. Adults teach entitlement in such a way that we probably think we are teaching responsibility.  We think we are teaching responsibility because we put an adult spin on a child’s “thing”. Jenny likes books. She finds them interesting. We run with that. Instead of letting her just like books, we force an expectation that she needs to excel with books. Johnny likes football. It’s fun to play. Instead of letting him enjoy the game, we focus on the future and his potential. We force an expectation that he needs to excel in football. Olivia likes to learn. It’s fun. Instead of letting her have fun with learning, we focus on her income potential. We force an expectation for greatness. And when those things don’t necessarily happen, kids don’t get it.

When adults label their children as special and unique, two different things tend to happen. One, the kids believe it. They believe that they alone are poised for greatness. The problem is….so does everyone else. That is entitlement. The other thing that tends to happen is a child may actually find out they aren’t all that special or unique.  Those kids develop insecurities even before the natural insecurity of the tween years emerge.  And I happen to have a problem with both of those things.

I have a child who believes he is poised for greatness. He believes that because he just does. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy tempering his enthusiasm with a healthy dose of reality. Because, while my child may certainly excel in life, things could fall short of his expectations too. I’d rather he balance his natural drive to excel with the security of knowing if he falls short, life will still work out.

When I watch Max beat himself up over an 89 or striking out, I think, who the hell cares? Where does he get that from? I was the most apathetic student at Unionville High School (okay, maybe in the top 100 apathetic students). But I’m a pretty driven adult, so he sees that even as I tell him it doesn’t matter. In the meantime, all around him, he sees other kids being pushed to be the best. Because everyone is being given the same message. They are all being told they are the best. Even if they aren’t.

A complicating factor in entitlement today is our educational system. We know longer teach kids for knowledge. We teach them how to pass a lame ass test. We give them every tool to ensure that they “win”. We prep them with the same material over and over. We push things like social studies, art and gym to the back burner. Those things won’t secure federal funding and attract home buyers. This mentality has landed students in my college classroom asking “Are you giving us the questions before the exam?” or “I’m sorry I plagiarized but can I have some extra credit to bring my grade up?” This is a not only entitlement but a mentality which is rooted in a fear of not being the best in a world where best barely exists.

I want my message to be Martin Luther King like…..I have a dream. I have a dream that one day society will figure out that kids deserve to be kids. They deserve to be less than perfect, less than special, less than unique. They deserve to know they are owed nothing. They deserve to be taught to excel and fail. They deserve to be kids. They deserve not to grow up to be assholes.

 

 

 

Shining A Spotlight On…..BOB

I love my Spotlight Series because it’s reserved for a select few in my life, who have made a lasting impression in a positive way. And, let’s face it, sometimes, my writing gets a little morose. I need these posts to balance my perception on life and to remind myself of all that is right in my world. My buddy, Bob is one of those people who is worth a few gushing paragraphs.

I met Bob in my late teens/early twenties, during one of my many stints working at the Kennett Square Inn (side note…almost everyone I have spotlighted is tied to the Inn in some way, shape or form). Bob was a background character in my life. He was no Norm or Cliff, hanging out at the bar. He was more like an extra. He was there but I didn’t think much of him. He was pleasant, but cynical. That’s what I remember; a nice, yet cynical, quiet guy.

Along the way, background characters move into the forefront. This isn’t Cheers. This is the real, bar life. In real life, people get aggravated with Norm and Cliff, eventually throwing them out. Or they get pissed because they didn’t get the special treatment they believe has become their birthright and they leave. Bob stuck around.

Bob is a book editor. He edits a variety of books, primarily related to military history, best I can figure. That’s the thing about Bob…..he’s quiet, an introvert and keeps to himself unless he wants to know you or cares to know you. At some point, I was lucky enough to have Bob want to get to know me.

My first real interaction with Bob was one night at the bar when I was waiting tables. I think I was about 19 or 20 because my age came up. Bob looked across the bar and almost yelled, “What??? I thought you were 28!!!” My reaction must have been one of offense because he quickly followed with, “You’ve worked here forever!” Nice save, Bob. Nice save.

Over the years, Bob and I became friends. Bob was one of the first people who I really spoke to about my love of writing and my secret desire to write a book of essays. Bob turned around one day and encouraged me to apply for a job at the publishing company where he worked. I did and ended up being offered a job in public relations. Ultimately, I turned it down after my employer convinced me to stay with a hefty raise and a promise of a graduate degree. While my hefty raise went into effect immediately, I spent the next 18 months helping them close their business in a nasty, custody-like battle. I can honestly say, I regret not taking the job with Bob and seeing where it would have taken me.

Over the years, Bob cycled in and out of the background of my life,yet remained a constant. I find that interesting. There are people that we take for granted that will somehow, someway, always be there. And Bob was. He just was.

When Stephen and I were looking for a home in 2003, it was Bob’s grandparent’s house we ended up buying at auction. It was my relationship with Bob that ultimately led to his grandmother accepting our offer during a hellish auction process where the neighbors attempted to interfere when they were unhappy with the final bid. 60 days later, we moved our things into the house where Bobby and his siblings roller skated in the basement, right next to the concrete “wine cellar” Bob’s grandfather built to house his Dago Red.

When I sporadically spoke about wanting to write, Bob urged me to start my blog. In fact, Bob named my blog. MaximusRed is Bob’s brainchild. He set the stage. I just wrote. I’m not sure this is exactly what he envisioned but at the time, I didn’t know what my life was going to end up looking like.

Over time, my relationship with Bob became more central to my life. Before texts and cell phones, I’d call Bob out of the blue to come out for a drink. He’d show up 10 minutes later. As stoic as he seemed, he always, and I mean, always listened to me wax philosophical about life. He told me the truth when I didn’t want to hear it. He liked my kid. And I don’t think Bob particularly liked kids at the time. He was, and is, a real friend.

Then, gasp……Bob found Denise. Or shall I say, “refound” her. Bob’s crush from childhood popped back up on Facebook and for the first time ever, I had the privilege of being Bob’s confidante. As Bob explored the possibility of reuniting with Denise, I was lucky enough to see a side of Bob I wasn’t even sure existed. My stoic, cynical friend started talking. And fell in love. I was even part of the committee that vetted Denise on her trip north. I fell in love with her too. So, like a Pope, I had them bow in front of me and I blessed the union. It was very dramatic.

Bob moved south and married Denise a while back. As happy as I was for him, I secretly didn’t want him to go. I wanted my stoic, cynical friend who sat quietly and listened to me complain about life at my disposal. Instead, I now get surprise, random texts asking me how I am, how Max is and when I’m moving south to be with him again (Side note….Denise knows about these texts).

In the meantime, Bob’s brainchild of a blog has lasted 6 years and I’m pretty proud of that. I’m also pretty proud that he’s my friend.

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Six Years Later: Remembering My Brother

Over the past six years, I read and studied extensively on grief in an attempt to try to fully integrate its impact on my life. Much of what I have written has been raw; almost combative, daring anyone to question my right to process it publically. It has always left me feeling a little left of center, misunderstood and secretly wanting someone to say it was okay. There are very few that have ever said it was okay.

The interesting thing about grief for some of us is that the profound influence it has had on our lives puts things in perspective in life changing, permanent ways. It can up-end your world, alter your perception and change how you relate to every single person in your life. That is what has happened to me.

I have moments where I wish I wasn’t so in tune with how I feel. That maybe this mission I’ve been on has lead me to be more in touch with my feelings than is good for me. And I probably feel that way because I recognize that the further I have delved into my feelings, the farther I have moved away from an increasingly detached world.

In my lifetime alone, we have seen the world become more disconnected from feelings, interactions, and people in general. We mistake technology for communication, emoticons for emotions and online interactions for relationships. Quite honestly, it’s fucked up.

I recognize that technology has been my savior and outlet in the processing of my grief. I don’t think I could have grown in many ways without blogging and interacting with others via the internet. But it will never substitute for a touch of the hand, a hug, or a look in the eye that, six years later, I still need occasionally. A soft place to fall…..so many times, I have said that over the past six years.  There is nothing soft or comforting in real moments of grief that I derive from the lack of actual human connection. And I still have those moments. They are not every day, or even every week. But, it still happens. I don’t imagine it will ever truly go away. It’s different now; I’ve intellectualized it probably because it’s the only way I end up not feeling like a total leper when I talk about something everyone else is avoiding having to discuss.

As for what I learned in the last six years since losing my brother, I’m not sure there are any new lessons that I haven’t written or spoken about before. It sucks. It sucked then and it sucks now. It sucks that my greatest growth and accomplishments were born out of a senseless loss. It sucks that the fallout has been catastrophic in some respects in my family life. It sucks to have to bury a sibling. It sucks to have to bury anyone. But we will all do it or have done it. And it sucks. I learned to have a voice. A voice that comforts some, aggravates others and make others want to slink away to a happier place. But I am happy. That’s the thing….even with all of this uncomfortable self-disclosure, I still love to laugh. I love to be with the people who make me happiest. I love to experience life, not through things but through moments. I love living. Warts and all.

Where Ever I Look, There I Am

She walks down the rocky path, along the side of the pond. She’s been there many times over the years. It’s what she does. That path has brought her to many moments in her life; moments of reflection, moments of hope, moments of despair. Regardless of the emotion, that rocky path is comforting. She knows it like the back of her hand. She’s learned its curve, the juts, the exposed roots, and of course, the rocks. They’ve been there forever. They’ve accompanied her on many journeys.

She rarely stops along the path. She rarely looks into the water. Often, it just doesn’t make sense. Onward, right? It’s what we do. It’s what we are supposed to do. Right? People don’t like to stop and look. People don’t like when others stop and look. It’s a lot of work. What might one find?

Today, she stops. Not on purpose. She just happens to stop to take it all in. She looks down. She looks into the water. She feels her breath catch. It’s quick and unexpected.

Down there, in that pond, is a young girl. She hasn’t seen her in ages. She looks again to make sure it’s who she thinks it is. She’s right. She’s standing right in front of her, wide-eyed and ready to take on the world. Her first instinct is to say…..wait.

Wait. Stay here, for this one moment and breathe. Don’t wish this moment away. You have no idea what’s in store. Breathe. And look around.

I know it feels hard right now. Guess what? It’s not. It really isn’t. Just stop. And breathe. This is nothing.

This path is part of your journey. You will find yourself back here time and time again. You will seek this path out over and over again. You will try to find new answers to old questions on this familiar route. And every time you return, another answer will appear. I promise you that.

Embrace every part of your journey, even the painful moments. You are strong enough to make it all worth it. You will find lessons in every loss. It’s what you do. It will feel unfair. It will feel exhausting. I get it. Because it is unfair and exhausting. But there are rewards along the way.

You will know love in a way few ever will. You will find it in the obscure, quiet, unassuming moments of your life. You probably won’t recognize it until its gone. But you will see grace. And you will keep looking. You will never settle for anything less.

It will be worth it. Just breathe.

Why We Chase Happiness

Seems like a perfect day to think about what makes you happy. Happy Happy Day!

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Since this is phase 2 of my blog, I thought I’d add something a little different than what you are used to seeing from me. Don’t worry, I’m sure I go back to the deep depths of my soul in the not too distant future. But in the meantime, I wanted to add a little psychoeducation to the mix.

In my work in Behavioral Health, I am the Psychoeducation Nazi. Ask anyone who works with me and they will confirm my insistence that you cannot make real change without first understanding why you need to do it in the first place. For example, many of the parents of children with developmental disabilities or behavioral disorders that we work with have not been given vital information about their child’s diagnosis on the most basic levels. For example, individuals diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome lack developmentally appropriate impulse control. It’s part and parcel…

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Remembering My Mother 4 Years Later

Just like June for the last 33 years of my life, March has now become a month that sneaks up on me quietly, with a tension that builds as the days pass. My mother lost her battle with lung cancer on March 26th, 4 years ago, the same day Stephen turned 42. Just like last year, I thought there was nothing left to say; at least not in blog format. And yet, it’s March 5th and it’s weighing heavily on my mind.

I let myself “go there” today while the snow fell. I replayed those last days, the last night and the morning after. I thought hard about how well my mother knew me. She knew my limits and was selfless to the bitter end. My mother ordered me to leave the hospital in a brief moment of lucidity in the midst of liver failure, days before she came home to die. Two days later, on the day before she came home, she and I had one of the most intimate moments I had ever spent with my mother. Not understanding the process of “letting go”, I mistook this calm, upbeat surge of energy to mean we had time. We did not, but we had one of the best conversations of my life. There was nothing extraordinary in the dialogue, instead, my mother, the one I knew before cancer, had returned briefly and we spent the day talking about nothing. I had hope. Today, I realized that she may have done that just for me.

I thought about that terrible night when death was imminent and my mother used her last words to tell me to stop. Stop crying. Stop cussing. Stop freaking out. I was being me and my mother was being my mom. She also let me leave before she died, giving me permission to be that scared little girl that I’ve been ever since that June day, 33 years ago.

I thought about the next morning. Apologizing to Stephen for ruining his birthday. Walking back in to see my mother finally at peace. Calling my friends and listening to them cry with me. Letting myself make an ass of myself in public that afternoon when I fell into my friend Steve’s arms in front of a group of strangers. Thank God for my friends. They have done more than they will ever know.

Tonight, my sister told me things I never knew about the morning my mother died. Things I’m so glad I never knew or saw at the time. I had a brief moment of guilt because I missed every single second. Then I remembered my mother. She knew me well enough to never want me to see it. And for that I’m eternally grateful for my mother. I’m thankful that in the end, my mother gave me permission to be me.

Four years later, I can be brought back to those moments like it was yesterday. The feelings come to the surface easily and with no other notice than the month of March.