what makes you happy?

Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash

I find joy most days and in most situations. I am generally optimistic and look for the best in people. My faith tells me God is good and so are His plans. Even so, sometimes sadness or stress lands heavy on my shoulders.

The other day an article captured my attention. It offered four practical activities, supported by neurology, that will help make us happy. The four actions are not difficult to apply, even if we are not brain researchers, and they are simple yet powerful. I want to share them with you:

1. Ask, “What am I grateful for?

“Gratitude makes us feel better” + “A grateful attitude improves our mood and increases our energy” = TRUTH. Gratitude activates our brain to produce dopamine and serotonin – chemicals that enable us to see rewards and take action to move toward them. As an additional benefit, when we are grateful for something or someone, those chemicals give us a natural “high” which motivates us to feel it again and so repeat the process.

The article also taught me something new:

Even when life is hard and we can’t find anything for our gratitude list…
it doesn’t matter! The simple act of searching has the same effect!

2. Name your negative feelings.

Pretending not to feel bad or suppressing negative emotions does not work to make us feel better, and sometimes has the opposite effect. Even if we can fake it on the outside, our internal limbic system is reacting.

On the other hand, if we voice our feelings, it reduces the amygdala reaction in our brain. Describing our emotions with a word or two helps diffuse the intensity.

We will increase our happiness
when we state how we feel when we are not happy.

**An interesting side note: Labeling is a primary tool used in hostage situations to diffuse negative emotions.

3. Make a decision.

Making decisions also calms the limbic system, reducing stress and worry. We do not have to make a perfect decision – a good enough decision will help. Deciding gives us a sense of control, and feeling in control reduces the stress hormone cortisol… and increases dopamine activity. In addition, if we do something because we “should” or because we “have to”, we do not get the same benefit.

We feel better when we choose to do something that produces a good result
than when something good happens by chance.

4. Touch people.

When we feel rejection in relationships, our brain circuitry reacts the same way it does for physical pain (activating the anterior cingulate and insula). We all need to feel love and acceptance.

Small touches like handshakes and pats on the back release oxytocin which activates pain-killing endorphins. Holding someone’s hand during a medical procedure lowers the discomfort level. Massage also increases dopamine and serotonin activtity. And the more we care for the person, the more their touch helps.

Hugs are powerful.

So there you have it. Four “easy” activities that can make you more happy. 🙂

Which of these activities can you practice today? What else makes you happy?


You might also want to read: got the gratitude attitude? or learning to be thankful

grief comparisons

sadness

Photo credit: Wendy Longo photography / Foter / CC BY-ND

It has been three months since my mom died. Sometimes it feels like years ago. Sometimes it feels like yesterday.

I have not been able to write a blog post since that day. My mind has been foggy, scrambled, gray, and unclear. Some days my heart felt heavy, sad, and lifeless. Other days, I have sensed the warmth of her memory in the flowers and sunshine that she loved so dearly.

During the past months, some friends have asked how I am doing and others have kept an awkward distance, unsure of what to say.

Family members have all processed their grief uniquely, sometimes drawing close to each other, sometimes pulling apart because of tensions, anger, or a desire to process pain alone. Some have cried; others held their emotions in check; still others could not find tears even when they tried. Some went right to work arranging details; others were paralyzed by their loss.

In these three months, numerous other friends have also lost loved ones – children, siblings, parents, friends. Sometimes the deaths arrived as expected, peaceful, a long-awaited transition to a better place. Other deaths came suddenly, violently, shaking family foundations of faith and security.

Some of my friends experienced death much like I did… at the bedside, providing care and comfort, counting the minutes as they turned into hours. Other friends had no opportunity to sit nearby at the end or intentionally chose not to go there. Some appear unaffected by their grief; others are clearly rattled, and others experience a bit of both depending on the day.

I have found myself occasionally comparing my particular experience and my emotional response with others. However, I am learning that we cannot compare our different experiences with death any more than we can compare our different experiences with life. 

There is no right or wrong way to do this. There is no standardized approved amount of time, feelings, involvement, or impact that death brings to a person. Each birth, each person, each death is unique.

And so, for me and for you…

Take all the time you need.

Feel whatever it is you feel.

Do what you can and leave the rest.

Give grace, especially to yourself.

Chose safe people and safe places.

Sleep. Cry. Dance. Work. Laugh. Yell. Remember.

Don’t judge.

Don’t compare.

It is grief and so it will be.

∼∗∼

emotional roller coaster

roller coaster
I have always loved roller coasters – the bigger and the scarier the better! I love the sense of risk and adventure and speed… all while feeling safe and secure by the buckles or bars that hold me safely inside the car. I enjoy the views and sites from above the highest peaks… and I never mind the flying-stomach sensation as the car dives down to the lowest levels or squeals around the curves. Wind in my hair, screams in my throat, hands lifted high… I intentionally look for that kind of fun at the amusement parks.

…but I do not want that same experience when I get back home.

Somehow when life’s happenings have the same character of risk and speed and change, it does not feel like fun anymore.

The last few days have felt like an emotional roller coaster to me. I have been on the high peaks of new friends, stimulating and encouraging work, and progress towards settling in a new home. Within hours, I have also traveled to the low valleys of family struggling with death-at-the-door illness, fear and exhaustion, carrying the guilt that I can not do more, and grieving the loss of my once-vibrant father who now hardly recognizes my voice when I call.

These ups and downs also affect my stomach, but now it is groaning and aching rather than flying, and I do mind it, and I wish it would go away.

I spoke at a retreat this weekend about how much we need to invite others into our life adventures and look for something to appreciate even in the hard times. The heart attitude and the help of others make a big difference for me when my life is twisting and spinning in all directions on short notice. I feel more secure on the wild journey when my faith holds me tightly and my friends sit in the car beside me.

I recognize that the peaks and valleys will be part of my experience until the ride ends. Sometimes I will slowly chug along on a mellow straight path, but adrenalin-pumping crazy tracks are often just ahead. I am learning that if I consider life’s challenges as an adventure, as an inevitable opportunity to grow and trust, and if I do not attempt the ride alone, it is not as scary for me. It is even fun at times.

Do you like roller coasters? How do you ride the emotional roller coasters of life?

rainy day – muddy heart

photo

This rainy morning is my heart today – gray, foggy, cold, muddy, and deplete of any desire to do productive work. I want to return to bed, wrap myself in the comfort of soft blankets, drink coffee… and forget about the real world.

Do you ever have days like this?

Intellectually I battle my mood… We need the rain. It is good for the plants. We’ve had such a drought – I should feel grateful. The rain will end soon, and sunshine will cheer me up again. I can DO this. Just get up and get moving.

My reasoning doesn’t really help much. I am simply out of sorts today.

There are legitimate reasons for my mood. The rain really is p.o.u.r.i.n.g. down, the mountain dirt road is truly very m.u.d.d.y. and not conducive to driving.

My husband’s father is dying in another city, and our conversations center around hospice decisions, flight options, keeping family informed, and the schedule implications for my “other” life and future international trips. The emotions in my heart and the thoughts in mind are as gray, and foggy and muddy as the world outside my window.

Understandably so.

Some days are not full of sunshine. Some days are gray and sad and not my favorites. Some days are not productive… or are they? Sometimes doing less means time for quiet reflection, soul-level conversations, nourishing prayer, healing grief, needed rest… 

I am normally an active, optimistic, sunshine-loving, type-A person, but I am learning to accept my rainy days and foggy thoughts too. They are a part of my life, inevitable and unavoidable… even purposeful. Cleansing and new growth come from the rain… for the earth and for me.

How do you handle the gray days in your life?

____

*Update: My father-in-law died on Saturday, Sept. 14. My husband flew to be with him in his last hours. We appreciate your prayers for the family.

authentic – my word for 2012

Lots of people are picking a defining word for this next year… so I decided to ask God to give me one too.  This is what I heard – AUTHENTIC – my word for 2012.

                                     Authentic means: not false or copied; genuine; real.                               Also entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; reliable; trustworthy and true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.

authentic emotions – We are going through a lot of change this year – moving from our 17+ year international home in Mexico back to the States. This huge change creates anticipation and loss. In the next months, I want to be authentic about what I feel – not pretend to feel more than I do…not pretend to feel less… It is not easy for me to say good-bye’s; sometimes I want to stuff the pain. This year I want to genuinely grieve and let people know how much I have appreciated their impact in my life and how much I will miss them.

authentic fears – Change is hard. I am often afraid that I will not measure up to new expectations; I won’t have something worthwhile to contribute to new situations; I won’t know enough for the task. I wonder if I will “fit” in the new place; will I like it? Usually I control and conquer those fears and take on the challenge anyway, but this year I would like to be more real about the process and the struggle I go through.

authentic needs – I don’t like to feel stupid, uninformed or un-involved in important causes (a bit of a pride issue here?). I like to do things well, and I don’t like having to ask for help. The truth is, however, that I have a lot to learn, and there are many who can help teach me. I want to read more this year and ask more questions. I want to discuss what I am reading with others and learn from them. I want to make difference with my life, and I want to do it together with others. I will need to honestly admit my needs to do that.

authentic me – I want people to like me and enjoy time with me. I want people to ask my opinion and read what I write.  Sometimes I pretend to be more like others – and less like the real me – so that they will like me. Sometimes I want to believe that I have it all together instead of considering what others actually see in me. Sometimes I want to be like someone else, but in 2012 I am going to work on being “ok” with being me – true to my personality, spirit and character.

authentic relationship with God – This will be the most important area and the basis for all the issues above. It should be easier, since He already knows what I am really like. I wonder if God shakes His head and rolls His eyes when He sees me faking it? Or does He cry… wanting me to just contentedly accept how He made me? I plan to have some very authentic talks with Him this next year about that.

How about you?  Want to be more AUTHENTIC with me this year?  Or what is your word(s) for 2012?

I’d love to learn from you!