Five ideas that have helped me on my quest to be happier.
In mid-December, I celebrated my 30th birthday at a little Scandanavian restaurant in a quickly-changing part of DC. I was surrounded by great artwork, brightly colored vats of aquavit, and the people I loved most. Throughout the cocktails and the courses of heavy winter food, I kept looking around to marvel at all I have to appreciate in my life. Professionally, I am a decently busy photographer and yoga teacher. I just marked a year and half with my boyfriend (we’re an OKCupid success story). I have lovely friends and a great home and opportunities to travel. Most importantly, though, I feel good in my own skin and confident in my ability to handle the hard times.
It wasn’t always this way. Five years ago, I was going through some serious soul-searching. I was just back in the States after living abroad. Confused about what I wanted to do, I took a job at a dysfunctional non-profit, where I soon felt trapped. I had been single for a while and thought this meant something big about me. I tried to be myself, but each date I went on only confirmed how far I was from having the kind of relationship I wanted. There was nothing really wrong in my life, but nothing felt like it fit.
It took a lot of change to get to where I am now. I got a therapist and a life coach. I got serious about my yoga practice, sat for 10 days on an intense meditation retreat, and took ayahuasca with a shaman in the Peruvian Amazon. I took a lot of risks and was super honest about what I wanted—and what I was willing to do to get there. These days, I still feel fear, anger, anxiety, and shame. But I see these as temporary moods within the larger framework of a life I love.
I want this for us all. Although I am skeptical about most New Year's resolutions—my brother says we just use them to make ourselves feel better after overindulging in the holidays—I think now is as good a time as any to make the changes you’ve been thinking about. These are five ideas that have helped me on my quest to be happier.
1. Put the cart before the horse. The most important—and at times perhaps the most annoying—piece of advice that I’ve gotten is just to straight out be happier. We get so caught up in trying to look perfect, get promoted, be cool, find a partner. All of that stuff is awesome, but it's not going to feel good for long without a certain base of personal contentment. You’re just going to want more and more. If you really think about it, we seek things because we think we will feel better once we have them. So why not just feel better and then see what comes?
2. Dream big and challenge yourself. To me, making a "resolution" feels like a punishment and a chore. I’ve always preferred to think of these goals as "dreams," which stirs up the feeling of possibility for me. There is a special energy and real power that comes from talking about your dreams, even when they sound totally crazy. Around this time of year, I like to make a list of what I really want to see happen in my life. I may not get to everything on that list this year (or even in my lifetime), but at least I can understand what direction I want to be moving in. (If you are interested in learning more about the art of dreaming, check out the online class Mondo Beyondo.) If dreams don't appeal to you, think about your change as more of a challenge. In 2011 I challenged myself to take and post a photograph every day. Taking 365 pictures was fun at times and annoying at others, but in the end I learned that living an artistic life is about doing a little work every day, not just the occasional inspiration.
3. Act small. "Micromovements" is a term used by the inspirational author and dreaming advocate SARK. Twenty-eight years ago she was an unemployed artist in San Francisco who suffered from chronic procrastination. What changed her into the author of 16 bestselling books was learning how to take the first step. Her advice is that if your dream is to write a novel, then your first micromovement could be to turn on your computer. After that you can decide whether or not you want to keep going. If you do, from there you can open and name a Word document. If you decide to go further, then you can write a bad sentence and then maybe another will come. I’ve also heard this used as a way to motivate yourself to exercise: If you don’t feel like going for a run, just put on your shoes and see what happens. The key is to alleviate any pressure to do everything at once. Every project is made up of dozens of small steps that are all pretty doable.
4. Practice. “Practice and all is coming.” This is my favorite quote from Patabi Jois, the father of Ashtanga Yoga. His students—who were mostly Western—would come to him seeking help to escape their neuroses and destructive behavior. He would flash his beatific smile and tell them to go do their practice and everything would be ok. Of course, your practice doesn't have to be yoga. It can be biking or painting or anything that challenges and centers you. My boyfriend spends his weekends experimenting with new baking recipes, pushing himself to get the right consistency and trying again when his cakes fall. The simple act of baking makes him feel good. So what is your practice? Once you figure out what that thing is for you, make a point of doing it a few times a week and notice how you feel within the consistency. Bigger goals and dramatic changes are very real, but I’ve come to see that daily routines are really what sustain me. The best creative work often happens within the stability of practice.
5. Take refuge in yourself. The most incredible practice I’ve found is free-writing for 30 minutes each morning. I learned this from The Artist's Way (another great tool for tapping into your creative talents). I’ve done "morning pages" as consistently for over two years, and they have made such a big difference in my attitude about life. I grew up in a family where I was discouraged from talking too much about myself, especially when I was complaining. To me, there is no comfort that can compare to the privilege of being able to sit down for 30 minutes to write about whatever is going on inside. This writing practice has made me my own best friend. It has shown me that I have infinite amounts of strength and humor if I look for it, and that I deserve all of all of good things that happen to me once I make the decision to get out of my own way. So I just do it. I wake up and write until I feel clear. Then I close my notebook and make a bowl of oatmeal and enjoy my day.