For the New Year

Conventional New Year’s resolutions don’t interest me much. At least not before careful consideration. Here, then, are suggestions to help reconfigure your 2018 list. They fit with the notion of the road not taken; or the direction not discovered. They are ideas to apply to your resolution-making, not a set of 2018 goals themselves:

  • Slash the resolutions you’ve already made! The more things on the list, the less likely you will attend to any of them. Achieving one or two life changes is remarkable enough. By reducing the number, you must decide what is important to you. The exercise has value by itself. When you consider the rest of the items below, keep this in mind.
  • Challenge your intuitions. Research by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt suggests we quickly and intuitively come to our positions on matters as serious as politics and religion. According to Haidt, our brain acts as a kind of post hoc lawyer to defend instinct-driven moral beliefs and to fool us into thinking we reasoned out our convictions before arriving at them. Opening your mind to rejected ideas isn’t easy, but might enlighten you.
  • Don’t borrow trouble. Most of the things about which we worry never happen. Beyond taking proper precautions over what you control, worry is an anxiety-inducing waste. Yes, look both ways before you cross the street, plan your financial future, eat well and exercise, but don’t obsess. Consternation offers you nothing. Need help? Check out Craske and Barlow’s cognitive-behavioral program with your therapist or consider ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy).
  • Realize the road is not always comfortable. A good life depends, in part, on knowing rocky and smooth stretches are unpredictable, inevitable, and usually temporary; all part of the highway we travel. Years ago I asked a wise financial advisor, Rick Taft, “How do you think stocks will do in the New Year?” His answer? “The market will fluctuate.” We could just as easily describe the inconstant fate awaiting us as an unavoidable fluctuation. No matter how smart you are, Fortuna (the Roman goddess of luck) spins her wheel. Good emotional shock absorbers are essential. Failures and tears add to the richness of our existence, however much you and I wish they could be avoided. You can learn from them, but only if you reflect on your life and keep a mirror handy for an occasional self-inspection.
  • Whose life are you living? The one you want or the one designed to make people love you and accept you? Evolution led our ancestors to concern themselves with reputation. Those who did increased their chances of survival and mating success. Like a number of the qualities evolution “selected for,” a preoccupation with public opinion can drive us crazy. Happiness is not the aim of evolution, only passing on your genes to a new generation. Once again, you might need to fight instinctive tendencies if you wish more than an average measure of satisfaction. Anticipation of the world’s disapproval leads one to display a false self and worry about being unmasked. Remember, this is your life (not theirs), and tuning out some of the voices who criticize is part of creating a strong and resilient personality.
  • Relationships are the most fulfilling thing on the planet. Try to have some! (Oops. I offered a goal).
  • Research suggests generosity to others is more fulfilling than spending your nickles on yourself. Similarly, experiences will offer more pleasure and more satisfying memories (say, of a vacation) than things like an attention-getting sweater or a hot car. Think back. Do you feel warm inside as you remember the set of wheels you had 10 years ago? I don’t need to think hard: until three years ago I was still driving the well-used car I bought in 2000! More on how to get from here to happiness from Daniel Gilbert:

It is said that “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Not always, but often. Just so, maturity is achieved by surviving life challenges plus the passage of time, with some learning thrown in, of course. I’m not suggesting disappointment and mistreatment are equally distributed among us, but each of us knows suffering and, fair or not, it is in our interest to learn from the bad breaks.

All the above considered, here are ideas to push your sail boat off the dock and into the fresh waters of the New Year:

  • It is not that you have done wrong (you have), but whether you do more and more good.
  • It is not that you fall, but whether you get up.
  • It is not that you are a victim, but whether you are a survivor.
  • It is not that you make mistakes (you will), but whether you learn from them.
  • It is not that you get angry, but whether you get over it.
  • It is not that friends and lovers disappoint you, but whether you still believe in friendship and love.
  • It is not that you erred, but whether you took responsibility.
  • It is not that you take life seriously, but whether you also recognize its laughable absurdity.
  • It is not that you’ve forgotten what’s been lost, but whether you are grateful for what you have.
  • It is not that you see life’s ugliness, but whether you seek its beauty.

To close, the following old words from the nineteenth-century Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, seem right for 2018:

“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare us to our friends and soften us to our enemies. Give us strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death loyal and loving to one another.”

New Year’s Thoughts

Babynew

Conventional New Year’s resolutions don’t interest me much. At least not before careful consideration. Here, then, are suggestions to help reconfigure your 2015 list. They fit with the notion of the road not taken; or the direction not discovered. They are ideas to apply to your resolution-making, not a set of 2015 goals themselves:

  • Slash the resolutions you’ve already made! The more things on the list, the less likely you will attend to any of them. Achieving one or two life changes is remarkable enough. By reducing the number, you must decide what is important to you. The exercise has value by itself. When you consider the rest of the items below, keep this in mind.
  • Challenge your intuitions. Research by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt suggests we quickly and intuitively come to our positions on matters as serious as politics and religion. According to Haidt, our brain acts as a kind of post hoc lawyer to defend instinct-driven moral beliefs and to fool us into thinking the “defense” — the reasons we give for our stance — preceded our convictions. Opening your mind to rejected ideas isn’t easy, but it might enlighten you.
  • Don’t borrow trouble. Most of the things about which we worry never happen. Beyond taking proper precautions over what you control, worry is an anxiety-inducing waste. Yes, look both ways before you cross the street, plan your financial future, eat well and exercise, but don’t obsess. Consternation offers you nothing. Need help? Check Craske and Barlow’s cognitive-behavioral program with your therapist or consider ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy).
  • Realize the road is bumpy on occasion. A good life depends, in part, on knowing rocky and smooth stretches are unpredictable, inevitable, and temporary; all part of the highway we travel. Years ago I asked a wise financial advisor, Rick Taft, “How do you think stocks will do in the New Year?” His answer? “The market will fluctuate.” We could just as easily describe the inconstant fate awaiting us as an unavoidable fluctuation. No matter how smart you are, Fortuna (the Roman goddess of luck) spins her wheel. Good emotional shock absorbers are essential. Failures and tears add to the richness of our existence, however much you and I wish they could be avoided. You can learn from them, but only if you reflect on your life and keep a mirror handy for an occasional self-inspection.
  • Whose life are you living? The one you want or the one designed to make people love you and accept you? Evolution led our ancestors to concern themselves with reputation. Those who did increased their chances of survival and mating success. Like a number of the qualities evolution “selected for,” a preoccupation with the opinion of others can drive us crazy. Happiness is not the aim of evolution, only passing on your genes to a new generation. Once again, you might need to fight instinctive tendencies if you wish more than an average measure of satisfaction. Anticipation of the world’s disapproval leads one to display a false self and worry about being unmasked. Remember, this is your life (not theirs), and tuning out some of the voices who criticize is part of creating a strong and resilient personality.
  • Research suggests generosity to others is more fulfilling than spending your nickles on yourself. Similarly, experiences will offer more pleasure and satisfying memories (say, of a vacation) than things like an attention-getting sweater or a hot car. Think back. Do you feel warm inside as you remember the set of wheels you had 10 years ago? I don’t need to think hard: I am still driving the car I bought in 2000! More on how to get from here to happiness from Daniel Gilbert:

It is said that “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Just so, maturity is achieved by surviving life challenges plus the passage of time, with some learning thrown in, of course. I’m not suggesting disappointment and mistreatment are equally distributed among us, but each of us knows suffering and, fair or not, it is in our interest to learn from the bad breaks.

All the above considered, here are ideas to push your sail boat off the dock and into the fresh waters of the New Year:

    • It is not that you have done wrong (you have), but whether you do more and more good.
    • It is not that you fall, but whether you get up.
    • It is not that you are a victim, but whether you are a survivor.
    • It is not that you make mistakes (you will), but whether you learn from them.
    • It is not that you get angry, but whether you get over it.
    • It is not that friends and lovers disappoint you, but whether you still believe in friendship and love.
    • It is not that you erred, but whether you took responsibility.
    • It is not that you take life seriously, but whether you also recognize its laughable absurdity.
    • It is not that you’ve forgotten what’s been lost, but whether you are grateful for what you have.
    • It is not that you see life’s ugliness, but whether you seek its beauty.

To close, the following old words from the nineteenth-century Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, seem just right for 2015:

“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare us to our friends and soften us to our enemies. Give us strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death loyal and loving to one another.”

Why the Holidays “Bum You Out” and What to Do About It

We are about to enter one of the darkest times of the year — and ironically are expected to feel great about it. I’m talking about the period from just before Thanksgiving through January 1st, also known by therapists as “six weeks from hell” for a good part of their clientele. But while the therapeutic community knows it is a tough time, much of the rest of the world works hard to look upbeat despite suffering inside.

What’s going on?

1. Fall and Winter. Things are dying. Nature is cold and wet, not warm and bright. Driving takes longer and is more dangerous. Days grow shorter until December 21st.

2. If you are looking for work, you are entering the season of waiting for the New Year when, you hope, job openings and hiring will begin again. Waiting is rarely easy.

3. People have less time for you and you have less time for yourself. Holiday gifts must be chosen, crowds must be endured, parties must be planned, food must be purchased and prepared. Budgets get stretched. Planes are costlier; while airports, train stations, and roads are more crowded. Lines are longer.

4. You dread the fact that you will have to see Uncle Ralph and Aunt Matilda over the holidays. Your uncle will drink too much and make dirty jokes that aren’t funny and your aunt will criticize your homemaking, while you are expected to smile through it all and be a good host or hostess.

5. TV and the Internet shall offer inescapable images of other people having a wonderful time, a striking contrast to your own existence. You can begin to feel that you — you alone — are out of the mainstream; and that the world really doesn’t care. This will be particularly hard to endure if you are without someone who recently was important in your life or if your social options are limited.

6. Many therapists go on vacation at this time of year (“Those SOBs!”), leaving their patients feeling abandoned.

7. You might begin to ask yourself where the year went, reflecting on all the things you hoped to do that somehow didn’t get done. The media will remind you of New Year’s Resolutions that you failed to enact and encourage you to make more of them.

8. Much about the holidays involves shopping, surely one of the emptiest, most soul-slaying activities ever invented. Yes, it can give you a “sugar rush,” but it is one that usually leaves you emptier after the thrill of purchase is over than you were before.

9. New Year’s Day — especially if you failed to get a date for New Year’s Eve — offers the possibility of capping the season in a truly miserable state. You will have a full 24 hours with nothing to do but reflect on your existence, compare yourself to all those people in sunny California having a good time at the Rose Parade, and look in the mirror and realize (to quote Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable) that

…every year you get to look less and less like the little kid with the diaper and the banner across his chest and more and more like the old guy with the beard and the hourglass and the scythe.

What to do?

First, realize that there are tons of people like you who are suffering silently — who don’t want anyone to see them in their unhappiness at a time of the year when everyone is “supposed to be” happy, and when lots of people are faking it.

Second, remember that if you don’t have someone to spend the holidays with, many people will be welcoming if only they are informed that you would be open to an invitation. Yes, it can be embarrassing to admit your lack of holiday plans, but it could lead to having a nice time.

Third, find activities to fill your day, even if it is organizing your photo collection. Shelters and soup kitchens where you might volunteer will remind you that there are usually people who are worse off (and more cut-off from the world) than you are. And you could discover, as some psychologists suggest, that giving does actually feel better than receiving, and make you feel better at a difficult time of year.

Fourth, if you sense your mood dipping as you enter this period you might consider calling your MD and asking for antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. Most general practitioners are comfortable with prescribing these if they know you well. Many of the antidepressants can take a few weeks to have a positive effect, but the anti-anxiety drugs generally have a more immediate impact.

Fifth, recognize that the holidays will pass and that you’ve probably endured them (and things that are worse) before.

Sixth, if your mood typically plummets during the dark months, you might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The use of a “light box” to provide you with the full spectrum of light found out-of-doors can provide relief. Have this possibility evaluated.

Seventh, avoid relying on drugs or alcohol to deal with the holiday blues. Whatever immediate benefit they might provide, they can quickly make things worse. Take care too, that your nutritional intake not be thrown out of whack by too many parties and big dinners; perhaps also, your exercise schedule. Get back on the track in all senses.

Eighth, make a list of those things that you are grateful for. Things you take for granted — the health of your children, the roof over your head, a good book, and even a single friend — can help you reframe your current condition.

Ninth, take some time to plan activities for January and February. Once the “low-grade frenzy” of the holidays is over, there may be an anticlimactic let-down. Without preparation and a return to normal social contact, the weather-challenged months of the early part of the year can be much too quiet.

Finally, you might want to read a portion of a benediction by William Sloane Coffin. Take it as a holiday wish for you, whether or not you have religious faith:

May God give you grace never to sell yourself short.
Grace to risk something big for something good.
Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for
anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.
So may God take your minds, and think through them.
May God take your lips, and speak through them.
May God take your hearts, and set them on fire.
If you know anyone who might benefit from reading this, please do pass it on. For most of you, clicking on the Facebook icon makes that easy.
The top image is The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The second comes from a Wikimedia Commons post of a 1910 New Year’s Post Card by Frances Brundage.

To Your Good (Mental) Health: One Hundred Resolutions for the New Year

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c3/New_year_streamer.jpg

Just a few random thoughts on what you might choose to resolve (begin, stop, or continue) in 2012:

I

  • raise your hand
  • take a chance
  • diversify both your economic and emotional life: resist putting all your eggs in one basket, financial or human
  • learn to say “no”
  • there will always be someone better, someone smarter, and someone better looking; get used to it
  • exercise
  • don’t text or tweet the day away
  • give up on TV news soundbites and actually read something in-depth on the state of the world from a relatively unbiased source
  • look in the mirror at what is underneath the surface
  • make friends

II

  • when upset, imagine how you will feel in a week, a month, or a year; in other words, know that most turmoil is passing
  • don’t be a doormat
  • deal with your childhood
  • be honest, not just when it is convenient
  • work hard (don’t learn the tricks of the trade before you learn the trade)
  • sometimes the rain won’t stop, so discover how to dance in the rain
  • be grateful and express it
  • learn to apologize without excuses
  • pay it forward
  • pay it back

III

  • before sending an angry email, write down 40 ways your missive can be misunderstood or ruin your life; then wait some more before sending
  • find some hobbies
  • eat right
  • beware of hopelessness, but do not became a slave to hope’s capacity for illusion
  • avoid too much self distraction
  • remind yourself that there is no such thing as “must-see TV”
  • don’t abuse substances
  • laugh
  • you have a shadow; best that you get to know it since you most certainly can’t outrun it
  • stand for yourself, but also for something bigger

IV

  • have humility
  • be careful about judging
  • have new experiences and learn from them
  • don’t wait until your feelings change to act (act and your feelings are likely to change)
  • recognize that luck plays a part in life
  • be flexible — don’t inflexibly resist change
  • grieve when necessary, lest things build up
  • make eye contact
  • if you are anxious, learn to be less concerned about others’ opinions
  • realize that money isn’t everything and that the American Dream is a fraud

V

  • know that your kids aren’t all the same and that each one needs something different from you
  • sample things — try them before you say you have no interest in them
  • don’t wait for your savior, save yourself
  • choose your battles, but don’t permanently lay down your arms
  • treat your body as if you might just need it for a while
  • recognize that you are not as important as you think (unless you are the President, a brain surgeon, or the second coming of  Shakespeare)
  • spend less time worrying and accept that most bad things are survivable
  • be an informed citizen, learn about history and vote
  • make haste slowly
  • don’t accept easy answers

VI

  • embrace the opportunity to perform
  • every committee has work horses and show horses; choose the first role lest you look like an ass
  • stay out-of-the-way of people who are bulldozers; it’s only a matter of time before they run you over
  • get out of the city into nature and be dazzled
  • spend time with a few members of a different faith, color, religious group, or political party and get a new perspective
  • As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do”
  • do your best to ignore Ashton, Britney, “The Donald,” Kim, Lindsay, Snooki, and “The Real Housewives;” emptier lives are not to be found unless it is among their fans
  • keep your cell phone off the dinner table and make public cell phone conversations as private and rare as possible
  • don’t text while driving — ever
  • remind yourself every day that (with luck) you are going to get old, wrinkled, and die

VII

  • practice, practice, practice
  • remember that this is not the rehearsal, this is the performance
  • don’t be self-righteous
  • get some rest
  • consider whether those guys carrying signs that say “Repent, the end is near!” might be on to something
  • ask yourself “What would Jesus do?” before you foreclose on someone’s house or stiff your waiter
  • realize that being confused might be an opportunity to learn
  • ask questions
  • when you say you are going to do something, do it
  • keep secrets when asked to do so

VIII

  • don’t be a gossip
  • recognize that a life of logic (without a counterbalance of feeling) is the equivalent of becoming a mathematical formula or a computer
  • learn to be direct
  • don’t have sex while chewing gum; and, for sure, don’t make it as unremarkable as chewing gum
  • do one thing at a time, with all your attention
  • don’t talk over others; listen when spoken to; be polite
  • get over yourself
  • trust, but verify
  • find the poetry in the prosaic and the cool in the quotidian
  • earn your life

IX

  • have a good time
  • meditate
  • live with intensity
  • be kind
  • surrender to intimacy
  • make your life matter
  • live by the “golden rule”
  • study all your life
  • be an enemy of routine
  • love someone or something

X

  • make new mistakes
  • test yourself
  • swing for the fences; shoot for something big
  • try to figure out where you are headed; it’s harder to get there unless you know
  • learn to tell a joke
  • take time to smell the roses
  • keep a lid on the number of complaints you utter and the number of excuses you make
  • get off the cross, we need the wood
  • whether you are a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond, be sure you learn to swim
  • and, to quote Studs Terkel: “Take it easy, but take it”

The above photo of a New Year Streamer is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.