Wednesday, May 1, 2019

If There's a Map to Happiness, Send Me Directions, Please.

So I've started listening to podcasts lately.

I don't know why it never occurred to me to listen to them; I guess I thought they'd be boring, just like I thought NPR was boring only because of my preconceived notion about it. (I still don't know if NPR is boring or not - I'm just proud I've started listening to podcasts.)

After sifting through a number of show titles, I landed on a podcast entitled The Overwhelmed Brain, hosted by a guy named Paul Colaianni, whose title says he is a personal empowerment coach; however, he stresses that his advice is just his opinion and will always defer to professionals - so he's not pretending to be something he's not. Anyway, the title captured my attention, because, well, Overwhelmed Brain = ME. But what really intrigued me was Paul's introduction:

"Life presents the toughest challenges. Every day you are faced with decisions that test your ability to express who you really want to be in this world. We're told to keep saying affirmations and keep thinking positively, but what do you do when that stuff doesn't work? Welcome to The Overwhelmed Brain, where you'll learn to make decisions that are right for you so that you can create the life you want, now."

What? I don't have to tell myself I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me? I can stop telling myself to "look on the bright side" then get all depressed when I can't find one? I can quit exhausting myself by wondering if there is anything else I can do other than "think positively"?

He had me at hello.

Obviously I know that one podcast isn't going to change my life, just like one self-help book or TED talk won't. But as I've said before in my writings, "Take what you want and leave the rest." If I gathered just one nugget of wisdom on how to create my best life, I'm willing to give up my music on my walks for this guy.

I sifted through the episodes and was pretty amazed at all the topics that stood out to me: "Purging negative emotions as soon as they happen"; "The regrets and upsets from the past that you just can't seem to get over"; "Making decisions that are right for you and tackling obsession and overthinking" … omg is this guy IN MY BRAIN?

I settled on one that really intrigued me: "When you just can't figure out why you're unhappy." The synopsis read, "What do you do when you've done a lot of work on yourself and feel like you've addressed the toughest issues in your life but still feel as if there is something missing? What's the secret to figuring out what's keeping you from feeling fulfilled? By asking yourself the right questions, you'll get the answers you need."

I'm not sure that I've ever been truly happy, and I really don't know why. I didn't have a bad childhood and I don't have a bad life. I have lived with depression all my life, and sometimes it can be debilitating, but even when it's managed, like now, I still feel a void that I can't quite put my finger on. Paul realizes that it's easy to feel overwhelmed and think, "I'm just not a happy person!" when in fact maybe you just need to drill down a bit and get to the source.

Instead of necessarily giving advice, Paul gives you tools - asks questions. I like that, because it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. He says that affirmations work great WHEN THEY WORK but when they don't you feel like you're lying to yourself, and if you feel that you create resistance - so eventually they work against you. You can tell yourself, "I'm beautiful." But what if you don't FEEL beautiful? What if you just can't program your brain to agree with your affirmation? That's me.

I've done a lot of work on myself on this front and at 52, I'm kind of at a crossroads. But Paul offers an exercise that I have been working on that's actually helped me figure out where some of the sources of unhappiness may lie in my life, why they're a source of unhappiness and ultimately what I can do about it.

He calls it mind mapping, but in looking up the term, his example is on a very basic, general scale. First, consider everything that's in your life right now - people, where you live, where you work, everything that makes up your life. On a piece of paper, draw a circle in the center with your name. Now, draw lines out to other circles which contain all the components in your life: your spouse or significant other, children, parents, siblings, friends, where you live, where you work - everything you can think of. Now erase a single line to any component and check in with yourself to see what your immediate reaction is now that it hypothetically doesn't exist. How do you feel with that component out of your life? Then draw the line back in and check in again.

For example, if you're in a relationship that you're not quite sure about and you erase the line, what do you feel? Relief? Loss? What about your job? Excitement? Sadness? What about family? Of course erasing the line to my kids doesn't make me feel good at all, but for some it may make them realize that the source of their unhappiness is something connected to their kids - maybe their child has been tough to raise, maybe you harbor guilt about how you raised them … all of this is simply to help you IDENTIFY what areas may be contributing to you not living your best life.

You can take this so much further - I see mind maps that go into goals, challenges, skills, dreams, etc. but I'm just starting with the basics. I'd love to share it with you, but it's a little too personal even for this blog. Suffice it to say, it's allowed me to really compartmentalize the areas of my life that may be contributing to my unhappiness, whether that's what they are or my approach to them. It gives me something tangible to focus on, rather than just wondering why the hell I can't just be happy.

For some of you, this is unnecessary - and that's fine. If you have it together and wake up every morning blessed to be alive, I envy you. Some of us just aren't wired that way, and no matter how many affirmations we say in the mirror, it just doesn't seem to click for us. For people like me, this exercise may help.

I invite you to check out The Overwhelmed Brain podcast or visit the website. I don't get any money for this so it's no skin off my back if you don't. And if you have a podcast that really speaks to you, feel free to share it in the comments section below.