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


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.

Tackling the Problem of Motivation

February 27, 2010 at 6:49 am | Posted in Goal Progress, Wellness | Leave a comment

Rock Climber

Would I dangle from a precipice to bring about world peace? Perhaps. Would I do it to develp ripped arms and maintain my six-pack? Oh, absolutely.

It’s easy to come up with good reasons to make major life changes such as starting an exercise program, improving your diet, or sticking to a rigorous prayer schedule. Here’s the problem: Having reasons and being motivated are not the same thing. If your reasons don’t much motivate you, virtue doesn’t stand a chance in the face of inertia.

I’m not the first person to have noticed this, but it hit me with particular force yesterday morning while I was flossing my teeth. Up until recently I’ve slacked a little on the flossing bit (repulsive, I know). I’ve been flossing swiftly and sheepishly before dates and dentist appointments, but that’s about it. Of course, I’ve lied about this to every dentist who has peered into my mouth. However, several weeks ago I became anxious about my breath, perhaps because I’ve been weirdly preoccupied with the act of swallowing. Suddenly flossing seemed less wearisome, and I took it up enthusiastically. I still feel the urge to skip it when I’m in a hurry. All I have to do, though, is think, “Do you really want to feel self-conscious about your breath every day? I didn’t think so. So floss already.” That makes me floss with gusto.

So yesterday it struck me: Vanity is one of my chief motives. If I think that developing a habit will make me more charming and beautiful, I’m more likely to stick with it than I would if I just lectured myself primly about, say, increasing my bone density.

The key to change, then, is not to generate a list of excellent reasons; it is to discover my chief motives and connect them to a change I’d like to make. Here’s a list, then, of my strong motivations:

1. Vanity. Pimples, wrinkle, and sun damage are all unattractive, so my skin has long been my work of art. Ditto manicured feet and hands. Oh, and I will probably go to my death dressed with flair.

2. Feeling productive, and therefore virtuous. This is the only reason that I don’t procrastinate chronically.

3. Avoiding physical or psychic pain. For instance, I will work out to avoid backaches.

4. Consistently feeling better in the short term by, say, chasing a yoga high.

5. Dreading coming across as a blowhard or a name-dropper. When I catch myself thoughtlessly bragging about money, I cringe at my own vulgarity.

There are probably several more, but those leap to mind. You may have noticed that they’re not especially noble. They work nonetheless, and I’m all about doing what works. So I plan to spend time today recording even my most base motives and plotting to apply them to important goals. It’s sad that I don’t respond well to more noble incentives, but I’ll take it.

Love to all.

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.

How Much Can I Control My Moods? In Which I Turn Back to God

February 19, 2010 at 5:18 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Dealing with Mania, My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Wellness | Leave a comment

St. Augustine, Bishop of HippoFor me, the question above torments me at times; the answer seems to change from day to day, whiplashing me from guilt to hopelessness to a fragile hope.

When I did a swan-dive from mania to depression on Sunday, the speed and seeming inexorability of my descent awed me. When I’m depressed, I flog myself to stick to even the mildest wellness routines. When I ascend into mania, everything that I ought to do is effortless, a pleasure. I walk, socialize, and pray without thinking and with enjoyment. I see God working in my life. And just as I’m leading a more or less blameless life, the depression crashes back over me, and I’m like King Canute in the fable, commanding the waves to turn back. Canute wets his feet; I drown. God turns his face from me.

Yesterday, despite withering guilt, I left work sick. I’ve been missing too much work lately, but I felt that I couldn’t stay. To my intense humiliation, when I told my section head, I wept and shook so hard that she escorted my to the nurse’s office and refused to let me drive home until I’d spoken to him. Oh, God. My madness on display for the whole section to see.

As I set off on my commute — so much more pleasant now that I have my lovely and perfect Charger — I suddenly knew what was wrong. On Saturday, when I was still incandescent with mania, I’d had an encounter with a friend that shook my sense of myself. I used him, he used me back, and we both left feeling alarmed and frankly repelled. I didn’t feel precisely guilty, but I know that I had harmed him and the relationship, and that I would have to talk to him about it. This came to me with the force of a religious revelation; in fact, it was a religious revelation.

Typically I will suffer any indignity or commit any crime without apology if either will help me to avoid initiating a Relationship Talk. In connections of all sorts, more than anything I dread finding myself in the role of Demanding Woman. As a result, I am easily controlled. If anyone accuses me of “drama,” I fall right into line. My most recent boyfriend, God bless him, caught on to this quickly and used it remorselessly. At the very end, his sudden, bizarre descent into cruelty would have plunged any rational woman into hysterical rage; he branded my mild attempts at rational communication “drama,” and I cut him off entirely rather than play out the role of Dido.

Imagine my dread, then, when it came to me that in order to ease my depression I would have to call a meeting and express my needs clearly. Yikes.

The meeting itself proved instructive (he was free to stop by immediately, since like every last one of my friends, he’s been laid off). It’s strange — for all that I loathe them, I’m good at difficult conversations of all sorts. I cruise through critical evaluations at work, for example, watching myself respond without a trace of defensiveness and formulate a plan for improvement on the spot. I carry out these plans, too. Accordingly, my supervisors come away with a higher opinion of me, and I become a better employee. So I conducted myself well with my friend, and he responded with relief and similar candor.

As we spoke, I realized that he had been waiting for me to set the tone for further interactions. If I’d accused him of horrors, he would have accepted the charges; if I’d said that our bad behavior fulfilled me as a woman and begged him to treat me accordingly, he would have made every effort to do that, despite his instinctive revulsion. I approached the incident with calm curiosity, explored the issue with him, then set a new bottom line for our interactions. I expected him to reject my request out of hand, even to end the friendship. We’d discussed numerous times how we wanted to treat each other and be treated, but I’m not naive, and I know that people will often express a desire to change only to reject every opportunity to do so.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when he agreed to my suggestion with relief. I expected him to hate me for telling him what I wanted; I’d behaved as if wanting anything at all was a cruel imposition. He’d done the same, which led to a hilarious-from-the-outside waltz in which we tried to discern each other’s wishes, and to lead accordingly.

So my depression lifted markedly. Somehow knowing that I can control it humbled me as much as the feeling of total helplessness that I’d had earlier in the week. I responded with near-indignation, asking God (who had turned back when I approached him), Wait, does this mean I have to do the right thing, even when it’s hard? And that I don’t need a therapist to tell me what the right thing is? If my mood depends upon conducting myself well, it’s worse than I thought.

Since last week I’d suspected that the my campaign for perfection was trivial. Getting off the Internet and leaving my cell phone at home delighted me independent of mood; whether I dutifully walked, for example, depended entirely on my preexisting mood. The latter is trivial, the former profound.

Another humbling reflection: I know what I need to do to feel better. Typically it’s the very thing that I am sure will leave me a Bad Employee and an unloved outcast. I’ve adopted certain habits because I believe they stand between me and oblivion. As I discovered when I quit my antianxiolytic, the only way I can find relief is to let them go. Hm.

So, yeah, I need to re-read St. Augustine’s Confessions and reacquaint myself with that brilliant and very human saint. Perhaps, in a characteristic burst of irrelevancy, I’ll discuss them here.

Love to all.

Book Review: Gretchen Rubin and The Happiness Project

January 5, 2010 at 2:31 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Wellness | Leave a comment

The Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project

It’s funny how the book that I pick up — or that comes in the mail from — is so often precisely what I need to read. That was certainly the case with Gretchen Rubin’s brand-spanking-new The Happiness Project.

Rubin’s book belongs to a favorite new genre of mine, blog stunt books. Like Judith Levine’s Not Buying It and Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man, The Happiness Project, chronicles a year spent carrying out a particular challenge — in Rubin’s case, the mission of becoming happier. Each month she works on a different aspect of happiness, from organization to spirituality.

In the beginning, Rubin seems a bit defensive about her project, wondering if it’s a self-indulgent reflection of pure privilege. The longer she works on becoming happy, the more confident she becomes of her enterprise, until, by the end, she’s a Happiness Evangelist, barely restraining herself from waxing pedantic about the pleasures of happiness.

I admit that a part of me was skeptical for the first chapter or two. Who is this woman to tell us about happiness, I thought, when she’s got the ideal life? She’s married to a guy who sounds great, she has two lovely daughters, and she’s self-employed as a professional writer. She took a law degree from Yale and lives in New York, for Christ’s sake. Anyone could become happy under those circumstances. What’s more, she admits that she’s never been depressed. What does she have to say to the exquisitely miserable?

Plenty, as it turns out. I enjoyed her book tremendously, and, more importantly, discovered several principles and practices that will help me with my own enterprise of becoming The Perfect Mental Patient.

Before she launches her project, Rubin reads and digests innumerable books on happiness and misery, from Aristotle to contemporary catastrophe memoirs like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Now, here’s a woman I can relate to — her response to a challenge is to research it. She also comes up with 12 Commandments, a list of reminders which, she explains, are tailored to her own situation and psychological needs; she encourages readers to write their own. I particularly liked the First Commandment, “Be Gretchen,” which encourages her to follow her own tastes and passions. She often pushes herself out of her comfort zone, but again and again she returns to pursuits that she knows make her happy, such as reading, and turns away from pursuits that she feels she ought to enjoy but doesn’t, like listening to jazz.

What really won me over was Rubin’s modesty, humor, and eye for the details of family life. She admits that she is often snappish and sarcastic. She bickers with her husband and yells at her kids, worries incessantly about her career, and shies away from tackling straightforward technical tasks out of a misplaced sense of pride. Her kids throw tantrums that remind me of my own whiny childhood. Her husband can be neglectful and distant, but is also tremendously sweet and considerate. Throughout, she maintains respect for the complexity of her subject matter and her own aptitude for unhappiness.

Though my circumstances differ from Rubin’s (to say the least), I identified with her ultra-normal and largely happy family. Though a part of me grumbled throughout (“She has so many friends — I don’t have any friends!”), I could really see how her maxims and observations apply to just about any situation. her First Splendid Truth is particularly impressive: “To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” In other words, she strives to add sources of pleasure, remove guilt and anxiety, and do the right thing. Her aim in all of this is not simply hedonistic — she hopes to become a better person in every regard; this, too, resonates with me.

I especially like the growth part of the First Splendid Truth, since it acknowledges that long-term happiness often involves short-term difficulties. For example, when she takes a drawing class so as to advance beyond the stick-figure level, Rubin suffers from intense self-consciousness and frustration — in the end, though, she gains some mastery, and her pride more than outweighs her initial unhappiness. She works hard to conquer fear, and often does so; since I struggle with fear, I found her example inspiring. Her sheer imperfection makes it easy for even a grouch like me to think, “I could do that!”

Rubin’s conclusions are encouraging. She ends the year a much-improved and happier person, and I came away from her book with strengthened resolve for my own project. I may struggle more with depression as the year goes on, but I feel much more confident that I really can become The Perfect Mental Patient.

Rubin has a web site (who doesn’t?) that offers various tools for setting up your own Happiness Project. Since I’d already launched my project when I read her book, I don’t think I’ll be using these resources. I can see how they would be useful, however, and I would heartily recommend them to others.

I’ll end by emphasizing that The Happiness Project is both fun to read and a practical guide. It’s not a typical self-help book, and Rubin is not your average cheer guru. She studies her subject intensely, lives her principles day to day, and derives her ideas from her own successes and failures, which she chronicles in detail. I’m sure I’ll be returning to this book again as the year continues.

Love to all.

Things Are Getting Worse, Not Better — What to Do? What to Do?

November 17, 2009 at 5:23 am | Posted in Cognitive Problems, Wellness, Work Life | 2 Comments

Over the last several days, I have been wrestling with a difficult issue: in three crucial ways, I am getting worse, not better.

Most people around me deny it, but I know damn well that my cognitive problems are getting more serious. I’ve gone from mild difficulties with word recall to forgetting that entire conversations ever occurred. This has led to several incidents at work ranging from embarrassing to near-catastrophic, and I am afraid — and I think this fear is realistic — that eventually I may not be able to work.

I’m also becoming more withdrawn socially, and this affects me in a couple of ways. First of all, during my depressed phases, I find it nearly impossible to carry out commitments I’ve made. For instance, if I sign up for a class, as I did at church, I know damn well that depression will prevent me from finishing it.

At the same time, because of my bouts of severe depression, I find it hard to maintain the social supports that I need. When I am truly down I simply withdraw. I can’t talk to people that I don’t know well or enter unfamiliar social situations. I don’t have a good social network now, and despite my best efforts, I don’t seem to be able to keep it together long enough to expand it.

All of this leads to a larger existential question which I will certainly not answer today, but which I’d like to pose to you, the readership: I think it’s fair to say that my adult life up until now has not been a happy one. I’ve been crushingly depressed, in and out of hospitals, and unable to maintain the sort of stable relationships that preserve sanity. Given that things are getting worse and not better, what kind of quality of life can I expect as I grow older? It’s unlikely that I will enjoy a fruitful retirement that includes a loving spouse, friends and hobbies, and travel. In fact, I’m facing the very real possibility that I may not be able to work to retirement age. If my life was unhappy at the height of my intellectual and social powers, what is it likely to be in the future? Tied to this is the question of what I have to offer potential friends or a hypothetical spouse.

As I said in my last post, both of those questions may be the wrong ones to ask if, as I suspect, the answer could lead to further depression. I don’t want to torture myself with unanswerable questions or insoluble problems. So I’d like to set the larger issues aside and start with a relatively concrete piece: my cognitive lapses.

First, what am I doing already to cope? Well, at work and at home I keep detailed lists of things to do, and this does help to prevent any given task from falling through the cracks. I’m also extremely organized. I do not count on memory to help me to locate files, for example — I just file them properly. These two strategies are not enough, however, since I tend to forget either that I’ve had a conversation regarding a particular issue — say, that I’ve asked the preparer about the status of a data deliverable — or I can’t remember what was said a day later.

So what else could I be doing? I could document every conversation that I have, or conduct all important conversations via email. However, the first is a little too obsessive even for me, and email is often not the most effective way to either get information out of people or get them to take action. So I’m not quite sure what to do.

When I don’t know what to do, I look for resources that will tell me. So:

1. If my shrink can’t help, maybe there’s a local therapist or psychiatrist who specializes in dealing with early memory loss. I can ask my therapist for a referral, and I can Google local resources.

2. I can also call the Employee Assistance Program at work, which is amazingly efficient when it comes to finding everything from cat-sitters to house cleaners. Granted, this is more serious than finding a good accountant. Nonetheless, it might be worth a try.

3. I also wonder if there are books that address these problems. I’ve never seen anything in a book on bipolar disorder, though the research shows that cognitive problems are inherent in the illness. People do have memory loss for other reasons, however: chemotherapy, normal aging, and the various forms of dementia being obvious examples. So it might be worth my while to search Amazon for books on coping with memory loss.

One thing is for sure: I can’t continue to pretend this isn’t happening. It’s a threat to my livelihood, and thus to the core of my identity; I need to confront it, and to try everything in my power to reverse or compensate for my cognitive deficits.

So here’s the plan: I will hit Google, the EAP hotline, and Amazon, and report on what I find. I will also continue to write about these three intertwined issues, as frightening as they are.

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.

How to Make and Maintain a To Do List (and Do the Items on It)

October 19, 2009 at 4:30 am | Posted in Productivity, Wellness | Leave a comment

Don't let this be your system -- you need better tools to acheive your goals.

Don't let this be your system -- you need better tools to acheive your goals.

I’ve been writing all along assuming you keep a list of things to do, but perhaps you’re part of the puzzling majority that just does things without writing them down.

Perhaps your memory is better than mine, or you prefer to let things slide, figuring that if you don’t remember it, it’s not important. There is some wisdom in procrastinating about certain items until history overcomes them and they no longer need to be done.

However, if you have detailed goals; if you’re bipolar, or just breathing; if you have a poor memory, or are just a little bit obsessive-compulsive; why, then you should probably keep a running list of things to do, and indulge yourself with the minor but satisfying sensation of checking them off as you march through your day.

You’d think there would be no particular trick to making a to do list. You get a pencil and paper, you write down everything you can think of, maybe you prioritize a little, and you get started. As it turns out, though, there’s a lot more to a to do list than just writing things down and doing them. If you really want to be as productive as possible — and for me, productivity is the Holy Grail of wellness — then it pays to learn a couple of tricks from the self-development trade.

I’d like to begin today with the best-known system, that of Dave Allen, the management guru who wrote Getting Things Done: That Art of Stress-Free Productivity, or GTD as his acolytes like to call it. The system includes several excellent elements, but overall is needlessly (or, rather, dauntingly) complicated. Here’s how it goes:

1. First, you keep a little notebook or PDA with you at all times, and every time you think of something you need to do, you dutifully write it down. I follow this rule, and find that it works well. Let’s face it: a lot of things that you need to do, you think of only when you’re in a particular situation. You remember that you need to get your oil changed when your gaze settles on your odometer; you remember to scrub the tub when you climb into a grimy one for the dozenth time (or, in my case, hundredth time). You don’t keep paper and pen in the bathroom, though, so the nasty tub ring nags at your subconscious without graduating to your list. Allen’s system helps to overcome this phenomenon, though it means developing the habit of bringing your little notebook literally everywhere and committing to writing tasks down the instant they occur to you, whether you’re meditating on the toilet or driving on the freeway.

2. Periodically — typically daily — you sit down and transfer all of the items you’ve captured to a series of lists. You distinguish projects — items with more than one step — from tasks, which have a single step, and you break these into two separate lists. Each project gets its own sheet of paper, and you list as many steps as you can think of for each project. Your list will almost certainly be incomplete because when you begin a major project, it’s almost impossible to see to the end. Once you’ve broken each project into tiny steps, you transfer the next little task or “next action” to your to do list. As you complete a task for a given project, you move the next task onto your list. The project/task distinction may seem a tad OCD, but it’s actually quite powerful, since most of us shudder and turn away when confronted with list items such as “Write dissertation,” or even “Work on dissertation.” Specificity engenders productivity.

3. There’s another step to all of this, alas, and this is where Allen loses me. He insists that you break up your task lists into mini lists by context. That is, by where you do them and what equipment you will need, so your context lists might include “Phone,” “Housework,” “Work Desk,” and “Online at Home” or whatever. That way, the thinking goes, when you’re in a particular context you’ll be faced only with tasks that you can do there. So when you’re sitting in a waiting room you can read or answer phone calls, and when you’re online you can do your banking or check in with your online dating site (or if you have a smart phone you can do anything, short of brushing your teeth, anywhere). I find this to be needlessly time-consuming and not, as they say at work, value-added, so I skip this step.

4. When you’re done with all of this, you do have some very powerful tools, but you’ve also spent an hour or more creating your day’s lists, as opposed to actually completing tasks. If you’re going to follow Allen’s system, it’s a time-saver to use either a web-based app like Toodledo (which is my fav), or to keep specialized paper lists like those found on the DIY Planner website. In fact, DIY has a GTD flow chart, which confirms my determination not to use the whole system — I hate processes so byzantine that they require a flow chart. Flow charts mean nothing to me. They might as well be random shapes labeled in Cyrillic characters.

If you’re depressive and easily overwhelmed, as I am, GTD probably isn’t the ideal solution. That’s why I was so excited to discover Gina Trapani’s Upgrade Your Life, a book put together by the widely worshiped founder of the rightfully famous site Lifehacker, which is devoted to a series of tips that make every aspect of your life speedier, simpler, and more manageable. I’ll cover Trapani’s streamlined system in tomorrow’s entry.

Love to all.

Book Review: John McManamy’s Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder

October 5, 2009 at 3:01 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Dealing with Depression, Resources, Wellness | 4 Comments

McManamy's message: though it will be a bloody battle, you can defeat your demons.

McManamy's message: though it will be a bloody battle, you can defeat your demons.

About three weeks ago, I picked up a copy of John McManamy’s Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Tell You … That You Need to Know. It’s a tribute to the richness and complexity of the book that it took me until now to get around to reviewing it.

To be honest, I’m a little intimidated. McManamy is the author of McMan’s Depression and Bipolar Web, an encyclopedic site of the sort that makes me wonder what aspects of this disease haven’t already been hashed over on the internet in some detail. I highly recommend both the book and the site; I’ll discuss the former today, and the latter tomorrow — or when I get to it, whichever comes last.

The book is divided into four parts: “Diagnosis,” “Brain Science 101,” “Roads to Recovery,” and “Special Populations.” We’ll travel through the book by sections.

It is, perhaps, unfortunate that McManamy begins the book with such a lengthy and, well, depressing discussion of the two diseases. Unlike so many books and sites, he doesn’t pull any punches. He makes it clear that mood disorders are brutal, and that it will take plenty of hard work and all of your ingenuity to avoid suicide and live a decent life. While most books candy-coat the diagnosis, merely saying that you have a “broken brain” that can be made right with meds, McManamy argues that existing meds are at best crude tools, and that for most people, a diagnosis is the beginning of a long — perhaps lifelong — carousel of medications and side effects both trivial and crippling. The first section, then, on diagnosis, is a downer, and it’s a bit of a struggle to get from there to more hopeful sections on recovery.

I don’t blame McManamy for his approach, however. Too often, as David Karp points out in The Burden of Sympathy, health care providers both oversimplify the impact of the disease, and, at the same time, tend to give up on patients, essentially telling them that they will never live a normal life. While the latter may be true, the first two are inexcusable, and though McManamy’s approach may sadden you, it is realistic. After all, either disease can prove fatal, either through suicide or comorbidities, and existing medical therapies are partial at best.

In this first section, McManamy gives an excellent phenomenological sense of mood disorders — that is, he describes the feeling of having them from the inside. He also presents an argument that he will stick to though the next 300 pages: he considers depression and manic depression to be two faces of the same illness, bipolar spectrum disorder. In essence, he believes that many depressed people are just one bad antidepressant trip away from a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and, as he points out, bipolar people spend most of their time depressed, and with a diagnosis of major depression. In his opinion, then, a firm distinction between the two is a false one. Though both diseases take many, many forms, and we can draw some distinctions between bipolar and unipolar depression, the two are intertwined, both in the experience of sufferers and in treatment.

In this first section, McManamy describes and analyzes the most terrifying and discouraging aspects of both diseases, and lays out clearly their ability to destroy the lives of patients and the people around them. He provides an unflinching picture of the isolating effect of depression, and lays out how common co-occurring conditions such as substance abuse and anxiety are. Neither disease is to be taken lightly, he writes; both require tremendous determination and resources if sufferers hope to live with dignity and some enjoyment.

The second section, “Brain Science 101,” should probably be titled, “Brain Science 401” — rather than the same old outdated and oversimplified description of how neurotransmitters work, McManamy explores cutting-edge research that suggests that therapies directed at boosting neurotransmitter availability may be crude at best compared to the subtle processes of the brain.

McManamy also provides a nuanced account of the current confused state of genetic research into bipolar spectrum disorders. Again, he moves beyond even the more subtle discussions one typically finds — the ones that talk about a combination of genetic vulnerability combined with triggering events — to explore the complexities of how genes turn on and off production of various proteins, and how these proteins appear to work in the brain and elsewhere. I learned more from this section than even the most sophisticated extant textbook, Goodwin and Jamison’s tome Manic Depressive Illness, which does, after all, date back to 1990. His discussion of depression, in particular, goes well beyond what is available elsewhere.

Once the reader has negotiated these two formidable sections, she finally gets some useful, if limited, good news. It is possible, of course, to combat the diseases on several fronts, from nutrition to exercise to mindfulness meditation and yoga, and that’s what McManamy recommends. He states unequivocally that it is never enough simply to pop a pill, or even a half-dozen pills, and to expect to recover. His refreshing decision to deal with complimentary treatments before turning to meds places the emphasis on what you can do — must do — to combat either malady with some success. Only then does he move on to a thoughtful and detailed dissection of available medical treatments and talk therapy.

Though there is, in his words, “No Magic Bullet,” it is, he argues, our right to expect remission and normal functioning. This is a remarkably optimistic stance given the litany of horrors that take up the first two sections. Even so, I find myself totally agreeing with him. If your doctor writes you off and suggests that you’re incapable of working or sustaining a relationship, in my opinion, you need to find doctor who will work tirelessly with you to find a combination of medical and alternative treatments that will help you to achieve the highest level of functioning of which you are capable — which is probably higher than either you or your doctor may expect upon initial diagnosis.

From here, McManamy moves on to discuss “Special Populations” — children and the elderly — and to consider the special challenges facing each of the sexes, from postpartum psychosis to “Why Psychiatry Fails Men.” He even weighs the question of whether we should have children, given the severity of the two diseases, concluding that the chances of raising a normal child outweigh the odds of passing on either disease.

Each part of the book contains many more intriguing details than I can possibly convey here. A few tidbits that caught my attention:

His assertion that “We may hate our illness, but we can hardly hate what our illness has made of us,” which goes hand-in-hand with his claim — true, I believe — that our courage is incredible even when our outcomes and behavior are less than stellar;

A large study that indicates that “symptomatic individuals [are] only half as likely to marry and twice as likely to separate or divorce,” a finding that has been borne out in my own life and the lives of many of my bipolar friends;

A spirited debate on whether we are special and sensitive, or simply cursed

The excellent suggestion that “[t]hose who are unable to work … do a day or two a week of volunteer work” to lend structure to their lives and gain the feeling that they contribute to society;

Advice that you enjoy “the serotonin benefits of a pet”;

And the recommendation, when it comes to reaching goals, you “start anywhere” rather than getting bogged down in calculating the perfect place to begin;

Finally, he concludes with a truly compelling statement:

Writing is what helped to bring me back from the dead. For me, it is a healing activity. If I were a basketball player, I would be shooting hoops; if I were a gardener, I would be out with the petunias. Healing is about finding something that makes you feel alive and doing it.

So true. I keep telling you that here because I believe it. As with anyone, the more you pursue your passions, the more likely you are to succeed in all areas of life, and to become a person you’d like to meet. He ends, then, on a surprisingly upbeat note: It’s a bloody struggle, but it is possible to survive and thrive. I couldn’t agree more.

It should be clear by now that I give this book the highest possible recommendation. Combined with more specific works that will help you to implement his suggestions for wellness, it may bring you a good deal of relief. Certainly it will reward you with a tremendous store of knowledge with which to make informed decisions about your treatment.

Book Review: You Can Do It! The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls

October 1, 2009 at 3:08 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Resources, Wellness | Leave a comment

Man, You Can Do It! is an awesome book. The premise is ingenious: the author offers six categories — Dare, Create, Learn, Play, Deal (as in, “deal with it!”), and Connect — each of which contains 10 intriguing projects, ranging from walking on fire to basic saving and investment.

This book is not specifically tied to bipolar disorder, obviously, but it’s jam-packed with fun projects for those of us who have a hard time thinking of or maintaining hobbies. On those days when you’re absolutely bereft of ideas, this is a great book to pick up. In fact, this book has had a substantial influence on my life, since two of the projects — yoga and beading — have turned into life-improving near-obsessions.

The author, Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, divides each project into several sections, including basic information on how to get started, “The Payoffs,” a mentor spotlight on a woman accomplished in each discipline, project-specific sidebars (the section on starting a rock band includes a list of “rock music Meccas”), and resources that include websites, books, movies, and classes and workshops. For each project, she really does provide all of the information you need to get started.

Though the book focuses on women, men could benefit from the step-by-step instruction as well — certainly most guys can use advice on gardening, budgeting, negotiating, and basic car repairs, though they may be too cool for the sections on, say, knitting and flower arranging.

Unfortunately, Grandcolas won’t be writing any more kick-ass books. She was one of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 during the 9/11 attacks. That’s the flight on which the passengers rebelled and succeeded in crashing the plane in a deserted area before terrorists could ram it into a fourth target. A trained emergency medical technician and all-around resourceful gal, she may well have been involved in that courageous uprising. Proceeds from the book go to a foundation named after the author that supports scholarships and aid for abused women and children. Yet another reason to shell out.

Happy doing!

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