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Negotiating Happiness in Today's World

As a psychotherapist with a thriving practice, I think a lot about how to help shift my clients’ thinking from a negative thought track into something more positive. Research demonstrates that positivity feeds upon itself- in other words, positive thoughts generate more positive thoughts. Similarly, people who want to stay happy do best when they surround themselves with happy people.

However we live in trying times. It is almost a year into the Trump administration, and the cultural and political chaos it engendered. As was acutely obvious around some Thanksgiving tables, families have been divided by their yea or nay for Trump- his actions, his policies, his appointments, and his statements. While the conversations about racism, white privilege, LGBTQ, and sexual assault and harassment are critical, the conversations are not easy, and have left many feeling discouraged, disaffected, and disempowered. The thought of another three years, at least, is enough to make some people extremely unhappy. When change seems more impossible than an uphill battle, how do you keep pressing on?

One of my favorite books as a young child was The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster. Although I read it long enough ago that I no longer remember most of the details, I carried two important lessons with me that have helped frame my life: love of adventures and anything is possible. It is the second lesson that is most relevant to this conversation.

Milo is the main character in this allegorical book. He was a young boy, bored with his life. Sound familiar to those of you who have raised children? He is given a package from an unknown party, opens it to find a toll booth, and enters a new world through it. Fairly early on he meets King Azaz, who sends him off on a mission that will save the Kingdom. The King tells him there is one thing that he cannot tell Milo until he returns. Understandably, Milo wants to know, but the King holds strong.

Milo heads off with his companions, Tock and Humbug, and after numerous adventures returns to the Kingdom having successfully accomplished his mission. He demands that King Azaz tell him now what he would not share before about his task, and the King did. The task was impossible!

If I reread the book now I imagine I would find the book overstated and forced, but as a young child I never forgot the message: anything is possible if you work hard enough. What an ambitious and idealistic view of change!

It is probably no coincidence that today one of my favorite stories is Don Quixote and The Man of La Mancha. Perhaps that story helped to moderate my young enthusiasm about the ability to transform. The Man of La Mancha, a fool to some, carries on with his self-appointed mission in the face of all odds. Unlike Milo, he does not succeed; however he does not compromise his ideals, keeping up the fight for the good cause. His fight was memorialized in the song To Dream the Impossible Dream, well worth a listen if you do not know it.

How, then, does one temper despair with action, hope with frustration, energy with dismay, positivity with reality? Like Don Quixote, it is important to stand up for what you believe in and fight to uphold your values. I believe that there is a sanctity to life, and that we each have a spark of the divine within. Our responsibility therefore cannot be narrowly defined by our immediate self-interests, but must broadly reflect the world at large and more specifically, the needs of the people within it. However, that does not mean we can all fight each battle every time; it is exhausting and enervating and can lead to “battle fatigue,” “combat stress,” or “post traumatic stress.”

Since the Ancient Greek civilization 2,500 years ago, when Herodotus first reported on a soldier losing his eyesight without any physical injuries after an intimate brush with death, we have recognized the dangers of prolonged exposure to warfare. Soldiers at Thermopylae were filled with shame and guilt, and were trembling and unable to fight. From the Civil War on, extreme psychological distress has been noted in a significant percentage of combatants.

Our country is not at war with itself on a physical level, but in point of fact, for at least the last four election cycles, public loyalties have been very closely divided between Republican and Democrat. We are in a high stakes battle over power and politics and that battle has entered into many of our homes. Civil discourse has degenerated, with people increasingly siloed into their own thought groups. We are living in a quiet state of heightened alert, creating enormous stress over time, particularly without the practice of self-care.

How can we practice self-care in light of this stress? Recognize that you are not alone. There is a time to fight and there is a time to recoup.

  1. Separate yourself from the news and social media periodically; turn off your phone and ignore Facebook updates.

  2. Enjoy the positives in your family; don’t focus on the negatives.

  3. Take time every day to walk.

  4. Experience nature.

  5. Exercise.

  6. Smile.

  7. Breathe.

  8. Surround yourself with other positive people.

  9. Express gratitude for what you do have.

  10. Give back to the community.

These practical tips are evidence based; studies have demonstrated the efficacy of these strategies on improving mood and positive well-being. Using them will preserve your energy to follow your values and simultaneously live your life. Of course, there are times when we must not stay silent, and speaking up will enhance well-being. Most importantly, know your self, know your limits, and use that to guide what you must do.

Call me at 201–875–5699 if you are interested in setting up an appointment.

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