How to Fake Happiness, Followed by the Three Types of Fun

August 11, 2010 at 4:27 am | Posted in Links, Sociability, Wellness | 6 Comments

Smile

Controlling your expression is the first step towards faking happiness.

Every morning when I sign into this blog, I look at my readership stats, including the most common search terms that send people to this space. Today I noticed that some poor soul came here looking to find out how to fake happiness. Wow, I thought, that’s one of those crucial skills that no one teaches you explicitly. I’ll have to try to fill that gap. So here goes.

For us gloomy folk with minimal spare energy, it’s worth going over the benefits of faking positive emotions of all types.

1. You may fool yourself into a better mood, since, to a surprising degree, emotion follows behavior rather than vice versa. If you fake a smile or a laugh, you will cheer up measurably, while adopting a severe expression can help you to focus.

2. It’s a brutal fact that people are drawn to people who are self-confident and cheerful. If you can fool others, they will respond more positively to you than if you simply expressed all of your misery.

3. Even if people aren’t fooled, they will appreciate the effort. Mood is contagious, and it’s wearing to spend time with someone who is consistently crabby.

4. Discipline is rarely wasted effort.

So, what are the mechanics of deliberate cheer?

1. Control your demeanor. Fake a smile. Don’t just grimace — involve your cheeks and eyes.

2. Control your conversation. Replace complaints and criticisms with positive remarks. If you start conversation on a negative note, others will follow your lead, and a downward spiral may result. Along the same lines, notice and follow others’ attempts to keep things positive. Don’t be that person who counters every upbeat remark with a “Yes, but….”

4. Control your movements. Move briskly like a happy person would, and choose activities that you would do if you were in a good mood.

5. Control your thoughts. Resolve to focus on the good and turn away from the bad. During this last hospital stint, I noticed that when mental patients suffer a slight or things don’t go their way, they tend to magnify the effect of the setback by talking about it endlessly and insisting that no one understands their pain. When you’re tempted to fume or ruminate, change the subject before you’re fully ready to let go. The good news is, if you smile and talk about other things, your thoughts will almost certainly follow.

How do you fake happiness? I’d love to hear about your efforts in the comments.

Moving along, there’s a good deal of wisdom in this post from The Happiness Project on the three types of happiness. In her tripartite division, Rubin identifies challenging fun, accommodating fun and relaxing fun. It’s worth reviewing all three briefly.

The first and best sort encompasses ongoing efforts to master a skill. In her book, Rubin tells of taking a drawing class when she hadn’t tried to draw a figure since childhood. She’s often self-conscious and anxious during the class, but it proves to be a source of pride and the skills she gains provide long-term pleasure. This is challenging fun: It entails difficult emotions, but provides long-term rewards.

Accommodating fun happens when you make the effort to enjoy yourself around other people. For example, when you take your kids to a movie that you’d rather not see or go to a good deal of trouble to plan a birthday celebration for a coworker. In the moment, you might prefer to be reading a good book, but by enhancing social bonds you’re providing for future fun.

The easiest and most common sort of enjoyment is pure relaxation, which comes from engaging in activities that require little effort or planning. Watching television is the obvious example here: It doesn’t require a huge investment of skill or effort, but the benefits end the minute you switch of the TV or finish that novel.

At the end of a rough day at work, we tend to gravitate towards relaxing fun exclusively. Rubin argues that one secret of lasting happiness is to push yourself towards the first two types instead. If you’re like me, you’ll cry. “But how can I do that when I’m tired all the time?” She ends her post with perhaps the best point of all: To improve your general level of happiness, you need to increase your energy levels by ensuring that you’re exercising, getting enough sleep, and eating healthfully. I found myself nodding along with that one — I’ve been shorting myself on sleep since I got back to work, and the results aren’t pretty.

In Which I Share My New System for To-Do Lists and Consider How to Avoid Alienation at Work

February 24, 2010 at 5:07 am | Posted in In the News, Productivity, Sociability, Wellness, Work Life | Leave a comment

Alone in a crowd

I've summoned up some strategies for feeling less alone in the crowd at work.

I’m excited by the following development: I’ve hit on a better (or at least different) way of formatting my all-important to-do lists.

My penultimate system entailed highlighting my MIT’s (Most Important Things), as well as any routine tasks that had to be completed by the day’s end (or COB, as we cube rats like to call it). When I would look for a new task, though, I found myself reading over every item and feeling guilty for anything that I knew I couldn’t complete.

Thus the new system. Now I break my to-do list into three shorter lists: MIT’s, routine stuff, and Other. I work them in order without peeking ahead, and so far it’s working well.

Some may say that my systems are unnecessarily elaborate. Whatever works, I say.

I’ve also become aware of exactly how alienated I feel at work. I hardly speak to the other data managers; I can hear them whooping it up in the office next to mine (the one my former office mate is squatting in), which makes me sad or sour grapes, depending on whether I’m depressed or enraged.

I do tell myself that all this will change when I move to my new cube near the test engineers, and that may be true. Even so, I made and began to follow a list of Tactics To Feel More Engaged in the Office. Here goes:

1. Seek out people whom I like. This means chatting with two data managers, Michele and Karen, who work near a manufacturing area that I frequent. So I’ve sworn to visit them whenever I pass. They greet me eagerly. After even a brief chat, I feel less like I’m from Mars.

2. Work to find common ground with people I find difficult, and notice qualities that I respect. This presents a challenge, given that we don’t actually share work, or even frequent each others’ offices. And since my office mate has seceded, I feel awkward addressing her. In fact, I castigate myself every time I see her. Things are bad enough that I need to make a specific effort.

3. I’m taking over one function from my former office mate and I need occasional training, so I make a point of asking her to show me things rather than turning to team members who make me less nervous.

4. Read articles about the industry and relevant government policy daily.

5. Soak up the frequent email updates from the engineers I work with, and ask questions when I’m curious.

6. List my strengths and note how I can use them at work. I got this strategy from an internal marketing campaign sponsored by our HR department. I often feel that there is no overlap between my job functions and my skills, but this isn’t totally true. I can seek out opportunities for writing and public speaking, for example, and when I do, it’s fun to excel.

7. Schedule weekly status meetings with my section head, especially now that she has moved to another building. I’d prefer to stay out of her way, but that’s unlikely to improve my rank and rating.

These steps aren’t easy for me now, and they’ll get more difficult when I’ve finally moved, but I will try.

A final quick note: I’m not at all motivated to make changes that seem trivial, and most of my Perfect Mental Patient project strikes me that way. It isn’t as life-improving as I’d hoped, and seems not to address the fundamental problem. More on the problem I’ve identified and ways to attack it tomorrow.

Love to all.

Oops — last quick note: I’m fascinated by this article from The New York Times. It confirms an idea that I’ve long taken as a maxim. Studies now show that sitting still for hours at a time can undo even the most vigorous daily exercise program. Aside from developing the dreaded Desk Ass, office workers who enjoy few opportunities to move around weigh more than people with more active jobs. They’re also at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses associated with sedentary habits. This is the case even when researchers match the two groups for after-hours exercise. Really, this should be obvious; anything that can give you deep vein thrombosis can’t be beneficial. So now I’ll feel even more justified in springing up every few minutes to pick something up off of the printer or visit the ladies’ room.

I’ve long cherished the idea of starting a Six Sigma project that would set aside a half an hour a day for people in particularly sedentary jobs to walk and do yoga. Maybe this is my cue.

Now I can say it: Love to all.

Get Thee Behind Me, Internet

February 11, 2010 at 3:38 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Productivity, Sociability, Work Life | Leave a comment

Yesterday, just for fun, I limited my time on the computer at work to about two hours. Before I got in, I would have sworn to you that six hours was a stretch, and that even that would risk curtailing my productivity. Not so. In fact, it looks like I’ve accidentally discovered a striking way to boost my mood.

The goal was simple: To stay not only offline, but off the computer entirely. When I needed to see people, my default setting was a face-to-face visit. If that didn’t work, I resorted to a telephone call. This resolution alone wrought enormous changes, and demonstrated the limits of electronic communication.

Surely, I thought, personal visits will take too long. What’s more, how likely is it that people will actually be at their desks? I was cast down early in the morning, for example, when I trotted the quarter mile or so to see IT regarding server access for two other data managers; my target had popped out for a smoke.

On a whim I stopped by my section head’s desk, and found out that I would be able to have lunch with the customer (who was visiting) despite a crucial teleconference I’d mistakenly scheduled from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. If I hadn’t seen her face-to-face, they almost certainly would have gone without me, and I’ve done enough damage to my career through social avoidance, thank you very much.

Next I poked my head into the cube shared by two women whom I find congenial. Since they’re in a distant building and on a different program, I typically see them only in meetings. We had a most excellent time chatting about nothing in particular, and strengthened a promising bond substantially.

I returned to my desk strengthened in my resolve. Within minutes, the IT guy who had ignored two days of plaintive voice mails called and asked what he could do for me. Granted, this gentleman is more “responsive,” as we say, than our usual Program IT people. Even so, it set a land speed record for IT service.

The trend continued. An engineer visited my cube to compliment me on my presentation two days ago on disability awareness; we enjoyed an enlightening chat about his reaction to a sudden, invisible disability, and he expressed interest in attending a brown bag seminar that I’m planning on behalf of the disabled employees resource group. I stopped by the office of the program manager, whom I fear and revere, to suggest a way of improving team communication (more on this revolutionary notion in a later post). I didn’t find him, but, again, he called back promptly, allowing me to stop by a second time. I pitched my idea, which he loved, then we discussed my presentation and problems that disabled employees face throughout the company. I wandered by the office of the gentleman who handles security for Mission Planning. He wandered back and took the time to explain a complicated issue connected with the Program’s telemetry data, which I process and store.

You get the point. These are just examples — I started dozens of valuable face-to-face interactions throughout the day, and I largely stayed off the computer. I also left my beloved iPhone at home. I started out downright alarmed — What if my car breaks down? Oh, yeah, I’ll call AAA on my company phone — but was converted by lunch, since I avoided spending my lunch hunched over a tiny screen reading The Times. You couldn’t pay me to take the thing today.

I had no idea how completely I relied on the computer to communicate, and how much time I frittered away sending and receiving terse, functional emails. That single activity apparently accounts for more than two-thirds of my terminal time. So what did I do online? I looked up people in our online employee directory and did some word processing — that’s it.

The key question is, was I productive enough? Yes and no. I sent fewer messages, certainly, and I did have less time to write. Even so, I’m positive that I came out substantially ahead: In one day I learned more about my colleagues and management than I had in the previous year, and they got to know me. This may prove to be a secret weapon: If I can strengthen my bonds with the Program, I stand to gain significant status and influence. And, of course, the Program gains from spontaneous brainstorming sessions and improved communication. I gathered and shared a tremendous amount of work-related information through spontaneous, free-form conversation, and this sparked ideas that wouldn’t have come to me had I sent even the most eloquent email. Hot damn.

Further radical steps: I’ve resolved to thank people specifically and honestly for their help once a week, and to cut out emails and IMs reading “Thank you,” or, more often, “Thx.” Visiting will be my default mode, followed by calls to people’s landlines. Only if those methods fail will I send an email. After one revolutionary day, I’m certain that email works well for broadcast communication, but is otherwise of marginal value. It turns out that people instinctively accord more importance to a face-to-face visit.

Three caveats: First, I’m still hypomanic, and I may find it tough to keep this up when the inevitable depression crashes over me. I suspect, though, that I vibrated with energy partly because the social contact lifted my spirits. We’ll see. Second, if others take my lead, the magical expediting effect of my visits may dwindle. I’ll take it — the detailed conversation alone pays off one hundredfold. Finally, for all I know, others may already be visiting each other and chatting away, of course. I may simply be catching up. I doubt that they conduct business face-to-face, however — I think that their face-to-face contact is purely social.

So, wow. I’ve got a lot more to tell, but my alarm went off, and it’s time to shut down my laptop.

Love to all.

I Hate the 21st Century Continued, in Which I Reject the Internet and Discuss an Article from The New York Times Concerning An Intriguing Academic Program

February 9, 2010 at 4:29 am | Posted in In the News, Philosophical Problems, Productivity, Sociability, Work Life | 2 Comments

Let me begin with bile and end, for once, on a hopeful note.

So. Lately computers in general and the Internet in particular have been driving me nuts. Several times a day I reflect gloomily on how much of my adult life I’ve wasted staring at screens small and large while pages load. I’ve definitely been either hypomanic or unusually irritable while entertaining this train of thought. Nonetheless, I think there’s genuine insight to be had here. Most days, between work and this space, I log a minimum of 10 hours online. Throw in an evening email check, a quick trip to, say, Amazon.com, and time squandered reading The Times on my iPod at lunch and in waiting rooms, and we’re looking at 12 or 13 hours. No wonder I’m still creeping through Victor David Hanson’s remarkable A War Like No Other.

(Digression that makes me wish for footnotes: When I searched Hanson’s book on Amazon, I was intrigued to note that he’s the author of Carnage and Culture, which I’ve long dismissed as a right-wing tract that blindly and possibly ahistorically that argues that a democratic tradition allowed the West to conquer and enslave New World indigenous cultures. Hanson’s book on the Peloponnesian war demonstrates the subtlety and reach of his scholarship; I’ll have to revisit Carnage and Culture.)

Back to the 21st Century, against which I hold a whole variety of grudges. My shoulders are perpetually sore from hunching over screens. Despite the hardware’s laughably superior processing power, the bloated software on my PC at work runs more slowly than the crude programs I installed on the Commodore 64 I had in high school.

To my endless irritation, the Internet has taken over my life. I date, buy books and clothes, correspond with friends, and work exclusively online. I text or email the gentlemen of my acquaintance to the exclusion of phone conversations (I’ll address the evils of cell phones presently). I’ve initiated, consummated, and ended key romantic partnerships via email (though never by text or instant message). This is crazy, and it has to stop.

Before you all begin to bristle at my Luddite ways, I will note that I reap benefits from it, too. Before online shopping no brick-and-mortar store carried my absurd clothing sizes (a 00 in jeans and a 30DD in bras). I’ve met some lovely people online. I adore Skype’s largely free VOIP service. So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t I brim with gratitude and plunge into every technology developed?

Overall, I think we’ve suffered more than we’re willing to admit. I’ve often joked that the Internet and smartphones are Gen X TV — that is, they destroy relationships and culture with their inexorable spread. Every now and then, I remind my office mate that Kierkegaard wrote Either/Or in its entirety in eight months using quill and ink. I’m here to tell you that hand-written 19th Century German philosophy beats the hell out of even the most learned contemporary discourse.

A few more examples:

1. Cell phones substantially reduce the quality of communication. Digital sound quality invariably muddies conversation. Everyone has a cell phone glued to their ear, yet complains about everyone else’s poor manners (phones ringing during sermons and seminars) and reckless behavior (talking and texting while driving).

2. Constant availability sucks. It also inspires complete submission. My life illustrates this neatly, since I carry two cell phones (company and personal) and a pager, and answer to a work landline, personal and business email, VOIP services like Skype, and instant messaging, which I loathe. Oh, and I text on both of my phones.

I hate, hate, hate this way of living, and I’ve resisted the innovations that irritate me most. It’s a radical step even to cut back on one medium, though. My coworkers, for example, rise indignant when I limit my emailing to two hours in the morning and afternoon; the evil minions of Mission Planning pestered me to get IM, and I gave in. Ever since, I’ve been subject to trivial and distracting interruptions throughout my work day.

3. As availability grows, so does the downpour of trivial requests. In their excellent book Send, David Shipley and Will Schwalby astutely point out that email and other forms of instant communication encourage people to ask for things that they could easily find for themselves. I’m as bad as anyone, demanding documents and contact information that’s easily searched out on our company intranet. This phenomenon causes everyone to fritter away precious work hours hunting down each others’ silly stuff and emailing it back and forth. Worse yet, we expect to get it now, and condemn people who fall behind in this insane environment. (I haven’t, but I’d like to.)

4. The data managers in offices adjacent to mine text me rather than sticking their heads around the door. Forget walking several blocks to the closed area to find me. When I get back, they whine that they needed me immediately. To which I say, then trot over to the next building and stop complaining about your expanding desk ass. They know perfectly well that cell phones aren’t permitted in labs and closed areas.

5. Sure, there’s Google. But that’s created three problems. First, it’s eliminated other sources of information, at least in my life. I don’t go to university libraries, and I have no phone book. I haven’t opened an atlas in years. This isn’t just nostalgia on my part. Each of these information sources carries distinct advantages over its online counterpart.

This trend becomes pernicious when writers argue, as Nick Bilton does in this New York Times article, that Twitter — Twitter! — is now mandatory. His arguments? Without Twitter, you might miss out on a coupon. Never mind that those very coupons will cause you to spend more money overall. Besides, everyone else is doing it, and you might fall behind. Being less available and connected than others is, in his world, perverse, irresponsible, and self-destructive.

This is idiotic. I hate Twitter, if only because it encourages illiteracy (as do texting, instant messaging, and email). For many people, it may be an excellent medium. I hold it in contempt, though, and I will not send or receive tweets.

Finally — and this sickens me — corporations sell Internet connectivity on the basis that it will allow you to find out anything, anytime, anywhere. You may ask, what’s wrong with that? I’m beginning to suspect that this has become a universal excuse for ignorance. Why know that capital of Peru when you can Google it with your smartphone? Why learn Japanese when their are translation programs? I’m serious about this — I think it contributes to our general contempt for education.

6. For all that people are connected, they’re no more available. It’s impossible to know which medium prompts the fastest response from any given person, so in a genuine emergency you have to take the time to page them, leave a voice mail on cell and landlines, send an email, and even tap out an instant message. I’ve done this in a pinch, and it’s an irritating time-waster to both sender and recipient.

So there.

But seriously, we’ve gotten to the point where we regard technology not as helpful, but as mandatory. Rather than scrutinizing and selecting among the various available media, we’ve created a regime under which we adopt everything on pain of being left behind.

There are holdouts. For instance, a couple of prominent bloggers have decided that email doesn’t serve their needs, and they’ve given it up. Others take a more passive-aggressive route, slacking off on their email in-boxes until they’re forced to declare electronic bankruptcy. (Two coworkers are near this point, and I’m annoyed that they never answer my plaintive emails.)

On the whole, though, we’re screwed. That’s why I’m launching an offensive to stay offline.

Starting tomorrow.

Moving along, I can’t stifle my ongoing interest in higher education. As a result, I’d like to share this article from The New York Times about programs that send at-risk high school students to community college early, allowing them to begin earning a two-year degree before graduating from high school.

I regarded the whole thing with skepticism when I first read the headline. Oh, Lord, I thought. Just what every college needs: A further surge of unprepared students. The article impressed me, however. The students go to community colleges (that’s not clear from the headline), which are much better prepared than four-year universities to tutor them in basic academic and study skills.

The numbers show that high expectations work. Not one participant in the North Carolina has dropped out; compare this to a 62 percent graduation rate at its feeder school. The students were far from being overachievers, but they still manage to outperform their older college counterparts. This interests me because community college students are often highly motivated. Two of the best students I know began their careers at a community college — my mom, who earned straight As through her college career, and a former colleague who earned a doctorate at the world-class graduate school where I got my graduate degree. The latter absolutely shames me with his erudition; he reads Homeric Greek and recently mastered Italian. He has a smattering of French, German and Russian (in which he was once reasonably fluent), and is studying contemporary Greek. Not to mention having one edited volume published and another in press. My teaching experience suggests that this applies to community college students in general — by the time they reach a four-year university, they are often well-prepared, and certainly mature.

So, yeah, on the whole community college students can be a force to be reckoned with. They’re often much more hungry for their degrees than the average student at a four-year university, and though many are less prepared when they begin (admittedly, my two examples were not), they can go on to whip more privileged students who go straight into a four-year program. The fact that troubled high school students can outperform an older, ambitious population speaks well for the North Carolina program.

It sounds, then, like solid academics and high expectations can do a lot to counter even a poor K-12 education. That gives me some hope for the future.

I’m finally signing off now after two and a half hours spent writing. I still have to answer my personal email, read my blogs, and look at the newspaper. Then I”l go to work.

Heaven help me.

Is It OK Not to Tell Some People That I’m Manic-Depressive?

February 8, 2010 at 5:19 am | Posted in Fighting Prejudice, Sociability | 1 Comment

Secret revealed

Will opening that door illuminate your relationship, or will it simply blind others?

Over the last few days, I’ve been getting to know an intriguing couple that I met at a party last week. The lady has just started grad school in English Lit, and she’s quite a bit younger than the gentleman. I’m inclined to regard this indulgently, since when I was her age I consistently and deliberately sought out much older men. I feel a bit protective of her because she reminds me of myself at that age. In short, I liked them both immediately, and wanted to deepen the acquaintance.

(Those of you who know me are thinking, Wait, back up — since when is a mouse like you going to parties? It was a very small party, and it’s the first one I’ve been to since grad school. And I have been hypomanic, which makes social situations effortless, even fun.)

The night we met, I didn’t mention that I’m bipolar; it didn’t come up. After the party, once I’d made plans to get together with this couple, I thought, Hm, I suppose I should come clean. I found myself resisting, however. Eventually I decided not to tell them, and went so far as to remove any books about bipolar disorder from my bookshelves before having them over. As I was stowing the books in one of the upstairs closets, I thought, well, I’ve crossed the line from omission into deception. After some consideration, I concluded that that’s acceptable, even that it serves a higher good.

Most bipolar people do struggle with the issue of coming out. Many people who aren’t bipolar have conditions that affect their relationships and identity, and that involve a coming-out process. It might be interesting, therefore, to review my reasoning.

1. Some things really are private. It’s important that I tell everyone to whom I’m close, because whether I like it or not, my being bipolar has a huge impact on my friends, family, and partners (something to investigate in these pages eventually). I certainly wouldn’t try to hide it indefinitely. If the friendship deepens, I may rely on them to watch and judge my symptoms. Like anyone, I need the people around me to tell me when I’m exercising poor judgment or mistaking being an overbearing blowhard for charm and wit. It’s not reasonable to expect this from relative strangers, and I have the same need of privacy and right to it that anyone would claim.

When you tell someone about a deeply personal problem, you deepen intimacy with them. That cuts two ways. It’s often a relief to peel off the facade, and it can be a genuine pleasure simply to get to know people better. Without a doubt, there’s a point in every relationship where concealing certain facts requires a series of omissions that limit intimacy sharply. At the same time, anyone who’s been the recipient of creepy TMI (too much information) will testify that there’s a stage in any relationship when this constitutes a violation.

Here’s an extreme (though funny) example. Once, during a first date, a gentleman not only told me that he’d been sexually abused by his older brother, but detailed his prostate problems and a distressing digestive issue. All of this came out in two hours, primarily over dinner.

Now, my family is in the habit of sharing even very private medical problems, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that. There’s no point in being mysterious about such things, and sometimes it’s helpful to get advice. But the prostates of strangers fail the “breakfast test” that The New York Times adheres to in its crossword puzzle. That is, since many people work puzzles at breakfast, the editors refrain from relying on nauseating or improper words and allusions.

In fact, TMI is unattractive for several reasons. Among other things, when someone lets you in on such secrets, it becomes clear that he is indiscreet, to put it mildly; he must also need an audience desperately, which is unattractive.

I think we avoid people who raise red flags, not just because we’re worried that they’ll be high-maintenance, but because we think, “Christ, if she’ll parade that out on the first date, then what sort of horrors is she saving up for later?” Everyone struggles, and every relationship is high-maintenance at times. That’s OK. It’s not OK to demand extensive support and sympathy where intimacy cannot reasonably exist.

2. I am tired of people, including myself, constantly seeing me through the lens of my disease. I admit that this drove me more than any other reason. It seems like everyone knows that I’m bipolar, since I am open about it even at work. This is for the best, but certainly there are days when it grates on me to have every person I run across ask, “How are you?” in that special tone that people trot out when they’re walking on eggshells. We preserve social facades, not just for others’ comfort, but because doing so allows us to experiment with different roles and behavior. That’s an enjoyable aspect of social interaction, and I believe that it’s natural and healthy.

3. It’s important to fight stigma, but I don’t have a responsibility to do it everywhere and all the time. In addition, one powerful way to fight it is to present my charming self for several months, then spring my secret on people. That way they have a chance to get to know me without pathologizing my every move and utterance.

That’s what I did with my last boyfriend — a first for me — and I think it’s part of what made the relationship possible. And I almost lost an important and ongoing connection by saying too much too soon. By now the gentleman knows that I’m responsible, even stable, but early on my illness gave him the heebie-jeebies. He later told me that he wished I’d saved that fact for later, since his negative but reasonable reaction nearly ended a relationship that’s become important to both of us.

4. Typically people experiment with different sorts of honesty during different phases of their lives, depending, among other things, on how much their identity is tied up in an issue. In my 20s I felt compelled to to tell every serious boyfriend that I’d been raped, since it would certainly affect our sex life. Now that it doesn’t, I often don’t think to mention it. It has simply lost relevance. (For which I say, Hip-hip hooray! People can overcome trauma!)

That’s my reasoning. Close relationships can’t reach maturity without absolute honesty, but in the absence of discretion they can’t germinate. In a like regard, I don’t have a moral responsibility to educate people every time I draw breath to speak, and eventually a fact may reach its expiration date.

I’d be interested to know what others think, and what sort of experiences they’ve had with omissions and TMI. Please do comment.

Love to all.

On the Sin of Self-Consciousness

February 6, 2010 at 7:33 am | Posted in Goal Progress, Philosophical Problems, Sociability, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

Snake and Apple

For me, self-absorption is the most destructive sin springing from a mood disorder.

I decided recently that it’s selfish to obsess about what others think and feel. This seems counter-intuitive at first. After all, if I’m constantly monitoring others’ reactions, am I not extraordinarily kind and sensitive?

Perhaps not. The following reasons persuade me that such sensitivity is actually another form of self-absorption.

First, my motive for knowing others’ opinions of me is entirely selfish. I don’t actually care how others feel; I’m not even certain that I attribute much agency or emotion to them. Certainly I don’t imagine that they might have drives and sorrows that I can only guess at. Nope, when I want to know what people think, my interest is limited to what they think about me. I’m overstating the case here — I am not a psychopath, and thus feel compassion for friends, family, and lovers. But even though I’ve figured out that I am not the heroine of a Georgette Heyer novel (not even the willful and mannish Lady Serena Carlow of Bath Tangle), I still place myself firmly at the center of the known world.

Specifically, in conversation I act as if people desperately need to find me bewitching, when they’d probably much prefer that I be drawn to them. I have to make a conscious effort to put people at ease, for example, and I’m reluctant to give them the satisfaction of knowing that I dote upon them.

As if that weren’t enough, when I’m ostensibly concerned about others, I’m paying little attention to them. Instead, I’m busily monitoring my reactions to them. I don’t ask questions — my yardstick for others’ inner lives is what I think about them.

Finally, there’s this piece of indirect evidence: In Christianity (or, at least, in the Catholic and Episcopalian traditions) self-reliance is a sin. To the extent that rely on your own perceptions and impulses, you have turned away from God. Christianity doesn’t place a Buddhist-style emphasis on compassion; instead, you should aim to know God’s will. This isn’t easy, since it entails communicating with someone who is by definition not perceptible though the senses. (My friend Al once saw an application for a tenure-track job that asked in all seriousness, “When did you last walk with God?” St. Augustine frowns from heaven upon that search committee.) Much of the paradoxical duty of Christianity rests in finding that “still, small voice,” which is neither internal nor located in the material world.

I’m familiar with the old philosophical argument that we are radically isolated from the natural world, let alone from others. I wonder if that’s really true, though. I’m not prepared to provide evidence to support my position, but I am intuitively inclined to think that we can commune profoundly with others, and that it’s not just a duty, but a relief.

I’m not sure what all of this means, but I have been thinking about it during recent social interactions. I try to devote myself to the other person by understanding that I comprise only a small part of their inner lives, and that they need more than to be charmed and entertained by me.

So, thought of the day.

While we’re on the subject of Me, Glorious Me, I should mention that though I’m making decent progress towards becoming The Perfect Mental Patient, I am still tormented by my many shortcomings and tempted to make dozens of resolutions for improvement. I know that if I take on several more projects I will end up discouraged, but I find it hard to resign myself to such slow improvement. My faults seem so urgent, you see. Nonetheless, I have been walking, praying, and socializing dutifully, and all three are contributing to my happiness.

Day Three in the Move Towards Perfection

January 4, 2010 at 4:24 am | Posted in Goal Progress, Sociability | Leave a comment

Dungeon entrance

Would you descend the stairs? A part of me would charge down, sword held high.

As I’ve mentioned before, on Sundays I’m prone to taste the Dark Teatime of the Soul. It’s no surprise, then, that yesterday proved more difficult than the first two days of 2010. I sulked, I moped, I was bored. The day was not wasted, however, since I learned to apply the following principles:

1. No one ever found happiness by staring at her cuticles.

2. You have to take your shots.

3. What would Inglorion do?

The first is pretty self-explanatory, but the last two require elaboration. Let me begin with a story.

Whenever I set out to do something that scares me — that is, morning, noon and night — I want to be assured that the doing will make me happy. If it doesn’t I feel cheated. For example, I was hungry after church, so I went to the Parish Breakfast, which is always a bit of a trial. Inevitably, I have to seat myself at a table with strangers and make conversation. This leads me to suspect that I have poor table manners, and I’m not any better than the next person at making small talk. This Sunday, when I sat with a couple in late middle age and an old guy, the conversation limped along in a particularly discouraging manner.

Me: That’s a lovely pendant — what is it?

Nice Woman: When I bought it, I thought it was a lion, but when I got it home, I realized it wasn’t. I’m not sure what it is.

Her Husband: So her next trip was to the optometrist.

Polite laughter, followed by the sound of the conversation closing with a thud.

Old Guy: It was mighty cold in church today.

Me: The car I was driving this morning had no heat, so I thought, church will seem toasty. And it did!

Polite laughter. Silence. Husband and wife begin to murmur to each other.

Eventually, we did get things moving — we discovered that we’d all lived in Southern California, and shared the usual comparison of communities we’d lived in (Whittier, Northridge, and Irvine) and what had changed since we lived there. It turns out that the old guy had lived in the L.A. basin when he was in the service during World War II, which I found intriguing. I followed up, and unfortunately he launched into a meandering story that involved his son, a contractor, building Nancy Sinatra’s Hollywood home, and the lingering death of the Whittier Elks Club. I tried to listen politely and to find aspects of his tale interesting — the poor guy was clearly enjoying his largest audience of the week — but I did excuse myself after 15 minutes or so.

I left church feeling dispirited. The same dissatisfaction came over me when I chatted with a friend on the phone and felt afterward that I’d somehow failed to give him the support he sought. Darn it, I thought without irony, isn’t all of this network-building supposed to make me happy? I’m almost ashamed of the simple realization that followed: When you try new things, some won’t be followed by an immediate burst of joy.

I managed to see this in the light of a dating principle of mine which I think is clever. It goes like this: You have to take your shots. Dating is like basketball, in that you will miss more than you make. If you allow yourself to get unduly discouraged by each failure, then dating becomes drudgery. If, on the other hand, you react with equanimity, you will enjoy the process more, and will have a much better chance of eventually meeting someone with whom you click. After a dead-end date, I’m pretty good about saying to myself, “Ah, well, you have to take your shots.” (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a weird knack for dating and job interviews — not surprising, since they’re similar.)

I’m going to try to carry this dating principle over to other aspects of my nascent social life.

I came across the third principle while making a tentative list of Things That Might Make Me Happy:

Add three new features to my blog (I’d like to have an RSS button)
Add sources of pleasure and remove sources of guilt (perhaps difficult, since I’m terrorized by guilt often and often)
Find more ways to be intrepid (the source of my third principle)
Resume activities that I enjoyed as a child (drawing, for instance, which I practiced fanatically through high school)
Think about what you have that other people might envy

About that last: Dating experience does come to mind, strangely enough. In some ways I wish I’d stayed married, although I still dislike my ex-husband heartily. It pays to reframe this, though, and to remind myself that I’ve reveled in much of my single life. I adore men, and I enjoy meeting them — it’s the one area of my life in which I’m not the least bit shy. I regard myself as charming creature, and as a result, I do charm men.

The funny thing is, I’m not especially attractive. A boyfriend (the guy with Hegel in his bathroom) once told me that my features are striking but not pretty. I think that’s accurate. Only one gentleman of my acquaintance ever waxed poetic over my beauty, and he had strange taste. (I was mortified to discover that he longed after the large-nosed actress in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Apparently he had a thing for bold profiles.) I am quite thin, which often stands in for beauty, but I’m not what you would call a looker.

That said, I pride myself in the fact that every guy who has expressed an opinion on the matter says that I “exude sexuality.” Ever since I started college and began to get the usual number of propositions, I’ve thought, hey, I’m a hot number. It came to me much later that any woman who isn’t missing a limb gets propositioned when she’s 19, but by then it was too late — I was convinced that I am enchanting, and as a result, many men find me so.

All of this is by way of saying that maybe — just maybe — I can fool my way into believing that I’m attractive in other ways. Say, that women want to be my friend. Certainly it’s worth a try.

(I’m enjoying writing this morning, and am inclined to go on and on. Feel free to quit at any time.)

About being intrepid … well, I have to begin by saying that when I was in junior high and high school, I played Dungeons and Dragons avidly, which is not normal for a girl, even an unusually geeky one. Unlike a lot of people who have grown out of it, I think D&D was an excellent use of my time, and I’m not at all ashamed to have done it.

So, I had this wonderful character. His name was Inglorion, and of course he was quite exotic, what with his platinum hair, fair complexion, and eyes the color of mercury. Through a quirk of the game, he worshiped a goddess named Anacin III, after the pain reliever. Oh, and he was the bastard son of a duke.

Best of all, though, Inglorion was perfectly intrepid. He crashed through every cobweved cave entrance, mysterious oak-and-iron door, and, naturally, into every sort of booby trap. He took on bullies in taverns, seduced anything in a skirt, and charged into battle with glee. When he found himself outnumbered or outwitted, he responded with unfailing good humor. As a result, he proved indispensable to almost every party I campaigned with.

I bathed in Inglorion’s reflected glory throughout adolescence, and I tried to act as Inglorion would have if he found himself attending high school in a smallish Southwestern town. I danced with abandon, protested various evils of the mid-eighties, and launched journalistic crusades. I cheerfully refused drink (no one offered me drugs) and stayed out until dawn anyway, reveling in grungy bars when I could get in, and all-ages nightclubs when I couldn’t.

One example: I went to the prom stag my senior year wearing a gorgeous vintage dress that cost $15. I skipped the after-prom to check out an obscure band called Mad Parade. I was one of three people in the audience, and I danced happily and flirted with the guitar player after the show. I’m now skeeved out by the idea of a guy who was probably in his late 20s making up to a 17-year-old girl, but at that age my innocence was impenetrable, and no harm came of it.

Why is she telling us this? Well, I recalled it all yesterday, and felt ashamed of my timidity. I don’t like to change lanes, let alone charge hordes of orcs. Therefore, one of my mottoes for the year will be, “What would Inglorion do?” You can’t tell me that this is silly. Inglorion is a part of me — I just need to invite him out more often.

(None of this addresses why I chose to be a guy for so long, but, hey, some unconscious tics are best left undisturbed.)

One last observation: I clearly remember feeling uncomfortable at the prom. Going stag was not just unusual, but unheard of. Even so, mine was the most beautiful dress, and I learned a valuable lesson: Many prestigious social events are dull. For me, a dateless wonder, the prom seemed like an unattainable paradise — until I got there. I enjoyed it, but it was a definitely a letdown, primarily because it was packed with fellow high school seniors whom I didn’t like. The anticlimax proved to be a relief: I conquered the magical prom, and found it commonplace.

I’m tempted to go on, but I’ve probably delighted my audience enough for now. More later.

Love to all.

Links, Including an Insightful Realization from If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going

October 22, 2009 at 5:05 am | Posted in In the News, Links, Philosophical Problems, Sociability, Spirituality and Religion, Wellness | Leave a comment

The author of the blog above writes: “I think my moods have reverted back to the way they were in Junior High and High School – medium to low functioning, and petrified to be around people.” Oh, so true. It’s as if all of the social lessons I learned late in high school and during my undergraduate — which, let’s face it, weren’t many — have melted away, leaving me the same bundle of exposed nerves that I was at about age 13, the age of my first serious depression.

Another excellent post about social functioning comes from Knowledge Is Necessity, John McManamy’s comprehensive blog and website reviewed earlier in this space. He gives a great description of how difficult it is to control the social impression we make, and of how our hypomania, or just what feels normal can send people “backing for the exits.” Well put.

Also on Knowlege Is Necessity: a review of Judy Eron’s What Goes Up: Surviving the Manic Episode of a Loved One, a shocking memoir about the possible consequences of going off of a mood stabilizer.

I continue to be impressed with the excellent writing on Farewell Prozac. In his latest post, the author gives an intimate description, both of the lingering effects of the drug, and of his returning symptoms. Last night a friend remarked that some people need to take antidepressants all of their lives, and others should come off of them, and that it’s nearly impossible to know in advance which you are. I agree with that remark. Here’s hoping that the author of Farewell Prozac is one of the latter.

If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going notes that antidepressant sales are up. Surprisingly, this is not because of increased diagnoses, which is what I assumed. Rather, people are taking them longer. I don’t know quite what to make of that, except to pass on my shrink’s observation that there are three elements to wellness with a mental illness: meds, social support, and spiritual development. In countries where antidepressants simply aren’t available, people rely more on the last two, and tend to do as well if not better than people in highly medicated Western countries. And certainly if I lived in a country with closer ties to extended family and a more structured approach to spirituality, I would feel more comfortable trying the high-wire-without-a-net act of going med-free. As it is, going off is not an option I would consider seriously, despite the most excellent support of my immediate family and of the most excellent congregation at St. Philip’s.

And that’s a good place to leave it. Happy Thursday, and the usual love to all.

Charity and Worth

September 28, 2009 at 7:40 pm | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Sociability, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

As I was driving home from my nearest pretentious natural foods store, I reflected that maybe I do deserve to earn what I make.

You see, ever since I got my current job, I’ve been hounded by the sense that I’m not worth nearly what they pay me. After all, I’m bipolar, and therefore a bad employee, right? Never mind that I’ve developed specialized skills in the two years that I’ve been there, or that I really do bring a special creative flair to my position; I have been haunted by the feeling that a jealous god will snatch it all away because I’m not good enough to have it.

And maybe it will be wrested from me; I can’t know that. But this evening I began to entertain the thought that, yeah, I work hard, and I’m not overpaid now, I’ve been underpaid before. I work for a company that really values its workers and treats them well, and to be honest, after being an academic for so long, I expect to be smacked around, shit on, and then paid poorly to work part time with no benefits. For two years now, it has puzzled me to be treated like I deserve, not just a generous salary, but excellent health and disability insurance, and respect and reasonable accommodations for my disability.

What got me thinking along these lines? Well, I gave money to a hobo outside the pretentious grocery store, and talked to him for a few minutes. Yes, it reminded me of how tremendously lucky I am – I couldn’t help but be conscious of the difference between us: me with my bulging Trader Joe’s grocery bags, he, largely toothless, begging for scraps. And yes, I thought as I usually do that there but for the grace of God go I. I could so easily be homeless. I’ve seen in my bipolar support group how quickly that can happen. But for once, instead of feeling unworthy, I felt moved to share, and I did. I gave him three bills without checking to see what they were first (it’s not like I was carrying 100s, or even 20s, so this was no great act of courage).

Now, normally when I’m moved to do something kind, I avoid doing it, not because I think the other person is probably unworthy (i.e., will spend it on crystal meth), but rather because I dread having the human interaction. I dread a lot of different kinds of social interactions, and being cast in the role of Lady Bountiful is definitely tough one to swallow. But in this case I followed the quick movement of my heart, and damned if it didn’t benefit me tremendously. We spoke briefly — for less than five minutes — but it was something of a human interaction for both of us. Since the closest I’ve come today to a friendly exchange is discussing automatic email notices with my supervisor, I probably needed it as much as he did. And afterward, like I say, I felt strangely worthy of my salary. It’s not that I earned it in that moment, precisely — it’s just that I realized that when I allow my heart to think for me, I am capable of kindness. Also, I’m no more worth my salary than he’s worth $7 — but I’m also no less worth it.

So I decided how much to pledge to my church for the coming year, knowing that they work very, very hard for the hungry and homeless in this town. And, yeah, it’s more than I feel like I can afford. But part of recognizing the element of luck in our circumstances is being willing to give away some of what I have.

Love to all, and a shout out to anyone who’s feeling depressed or grieved tonight. You’re in my prayers.

Ending (or at Least Ameliorating) Phone Phobia

September 24, 2009 at 4:39 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Sociability | 1 Comment

It's for you.

It's for you.

If you’re like me (that is, bipolar or depressive), you probably put up with a certain amount of social isolation. While people-seeking and pressured speech (i.e., extreme chattiness) are symptoms of mania, most bipolar people fight depression — and tend to withdraw socially — much of the time.

Taking a page from cognitive therapy, I thought I’d review some of the thoughts that go through my head my head when I’m avoiding social contact and try to come up with more positive, realistic ideas. Remember that when I say “you,” I’m pretty much talking to myself — please feel free to leave your tips and ideas in the comments section.

When the phone rings or I contemplate making a call, I think the following:

1. I don’t have anything interesting to say. However, the other person may. She may need your empathy and compassion, she may have good news to share, or she may just need a friendly voice. You don’t need to entertain, or even talk much, in order to communicate with people. You may meet your own needs by listening and thereby helping a friend.

2. I complain so much about my depression, and this person can always tell when I’m depressed, so when she asks how I am, I’ll have to tell the truth and, yes, complain. Your friends may not like it when you complain, and they may occasionally chafe at it, but they love you and put up with your oddities much as you put up with theirs.

3. This person never responds to my complaints in the ideal way. Perhaps he minimizes them (“It can’t be that bad!”), gives unhelpful advice (“You need to get out of the house”), or launches into his own set of complaints (“Life is rough. At work today…”). As your therapist is always saying, you can’t expect a perfect response to much of anything you say; it’s not realistic to grumble in the hopes of getting the perfect response. Your complaints may irritate your friends and family. They may be angry, worried, or bored. And if someone is consistently unhelpful, you can say (avoiding a plaintive tone), “Sometimes I just need you to listen and say, ‘Wow, that really sucks. I’m sorry to hear that you’re not feeling well,’ and then change the subject.” In other words, you can ask for what you would find helpful.

4. She won’t understand. Actually, I’m always surprised at how well my friends understand and relate to my distress. Yes, my depression has some nasty bipolar features and is extreme at times, but many of my friends have felt some level of depression, and they understand pretty well.

5. It will distress him to know that I’m depressed. It will probably be even more distressing if he can’t get in touch. Chances are, he knows darn well that you’re down when you avoid the phone, so he’ll start to worry if you disappear for any length of time.

6. There’s such chaos in my head — I can’t possibly have a rational conversation right now. Sometimes this is true. More often, though, interacting with others forces you to organize your thoughts and turn your attention outward. This is all to the good.

7. I don’t know this person very well, and I can’t put on a social mask right now. How much you should reveal to a new friend is a delicate question, certainly. It’s not appropriate to dump on someone who you hardly know; not only will it alarm the other person, but you need to know that someone is worthy of your confidence before you launch into a description of your nuttiness. So this one can be a legitimate objection. However, if you hope to develop a close friendship with someone, then you might want to pick up and start sharing a bit.

8. After a long day at work of trying to normal, I can’t do it for another hour. I need to decompress. This is a toughie for me. My job can be awfully demanding (it was yesterday, certainly), and by the end of the day I do feel ready to collapse into sleep. I typically write off Monday and Tuesday afternoons — for some reason, I’m just whipped early in the week. I think everyone struggles with this issue, though, bipolar or not. Remember that just like everyone else, you need a life outside of work to keep your sanity and balance, and to ward off further isolation. You need to make the effort whenever you can.

9. I don’t recognize that number. It will be bad news, and that will just upset me further. This reflects remarkable faith in your psychic ability. In fact, when I get a call from a strange number, it’s positive or neutral 90% of the time.

10. Christ, who the hell is it now? Why can’t people just leave me alone? This is just reflexive negativity; I often swear when I first hear the phone ringing, even if I’m feeling lonely and could use a friendly voice. For this one, I just try to remember all of the times when a phone call ended up relieving stress rather than heightening it.

So those are my suggestions. Answer that phone; even try making a call. And if it’s me calling, you should definitely pick up.

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