Thursday, 5 September 2013

Searching for Happiness

I love positive psychology. Regular readers will have heard me mention it many times - it's an area of psychology that focuses on wellbeing and happiness. In short, it's about how to achieve good feelings. I find the approach refreshing because so much of psychology focuses on the bad stuff. It's necessary, of course, for psychology to address mental illness, criminal behaviour, how people cope with trauma, etc. but as someone who has lived with mental illness for years, I can vouch that there have been many times when I felt like my illness was ruling my life and I wanted to scream "there's more to me than this!"

I've been feeling this way more lately, as my mental health has improved since earlier in the year and I'm trying to move past my symptoms. When depression and anxiety prevent me from doing so much, it's easy to lose track of who I am and what I can control. I had already been seeking solace in positive psychology when I came across The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

The book's premise is simple: one woman, one year, a list of resolutions that will (hopefully) improve her happiness. Rubin did loads of research into happiness, much of which comes from the school of positive psychology, in order to decide how to improve her life. She comes across as a very rigorous and dedicated person - reading her reading lists in the back of the book made me feel exhausted!

The Happiness Project is, above everything, inspiring. Not because its author has made gigantic discoveries or overcome terrible situations, but because she's like many other women who have no time and wish their partners would do the chores without having to be nagged. Rubin points out that her book is not about dealing with mental illness and that you should seek professional help if you are suffering from depression or another illness (as I have done and would reiterate), but I nonetheless found her book extremely helpful. Unlike other books on the subject, The Happiness Project is full of practical advice on how to apply scientific findings to your own, everyday life.

Gretchen Rubin is full of tricks and strategies. My favourite is the resolution chart, an idea which she adapted from Benjamin Franklin. It acts as a checklist for the new behaviours you are trying to adopt and you can see the whole month at a glance. It's very motivating to see how your small actions add up.

So I decided to start my own Happiness Project!

I'm keeping it low-key and while I won't be blogging specifically about it, I will probably mention it a lot in future posts so I thought I'd better explain. My initial resolutions are simple and include:

1. Exercise
2. Meditation
3. Writing 3 things I am grateful for every day
4. Finding ways to be kind to myself and to others
5. Writing

All of these are proven to make people happier (in this case, writing counts as following one of my passions) and I'm hoping that the small steps will lead to bigger ones.

For some of the areas of my life that I'm working on, I have an idea of where I want to go. For others, I don't have an inkling! I'm taking things slowly and aim to add more resolutions each month as I build the older resolutions into habits.

One thing I would advise people with a mental illness to bear in mind if creating their own Happiness Project is to start with resolutions you know you can do. Don't say you're going to go for a two mile walk every day if you haven't left the house alone for months or years and have nobody to accompany you. Don't say you'll run three miles if you struggle to walk briskly for half a mile. There's no shame in starting from the beginning and progressing at a slow pace. Build a foundation and add more challenging goals once you get going.

For example, I know that working actively on my confidence would make a huge difference to my life, but I also know it will be difficult to achieve. The last thing I want to do is force myself into anxiety-inducing situations and lose the little confidence I have when something goes wrong. I've tried that in the past. Instead, focusing on things like fitness and doing what I enjoy will gradually build up my confidence for when I'm ready to push this goal.

However, there are also some things I know I ought to push myself on right now...

After weeks and weeks of dilly-dallying, I've decided to enter the Mslexia novel competition. I hadn't looked at my manuscript for a few months and knew it was too short, but I also knew I didn't want to regret missing an opportunity. The novel was planned and plotted before I wrote it, so the last draft was in a pretty good state despite its lack of length.

The deadline is 23rd September, by which time I hope to have redrafted the whole thing to the length of a novel. (Okay, so it's only a few thousand words under and I'll probably add several thousand more, but 'too short' feels too short however far away it is from the desired length. As anyone who has ever worn a mini skirt shorter than was comfortable can testify.) I should also have time for a final polish/edit if I work fast.

I think I must be mad, but my friends are encouraging me and I admit that it's something I want to do, even if I fail miserably. Besides, embracing the fun of failure is one of Gretchen Rubin's aims in The Happiness Project, so it must be worth doing!