Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Happiness Project

I have been absent from this blog for a long while, for a variety of reasons practical, emotional, temporal and financial. In plain English, I've been busy, distracted, and miserable. But no more! Here I am today to lay out my plan to be happy both now and in the future. This is only a starting point - it will probably expand and evolve as I go along.

1) Set targets. Reasonable, visible, achievable targets are crucial to step one of my plan. I try not to berate myself for my inability to 'live spontaneously' as the trite expression goes. I like plans, I like goals, and if I don't have them I incline towards lethargy both spiritual and physical, which leads to boredom and is a recipe for frustration and misery. This is just one of many vicious circles that my happiness project intends to negotiate.

2) Make lists. This is obviously related to the above: lists are a way of visualising my targets, whether they are lifelong lists of goals or daily lists of chores. It's so well documented as to be a cliche, but there's nothing more satisfying than a meaty list of tasks that can be regularly whittled down. Lists also remind me that my life is varied, if in a seemingly trivial way: my daily list might include doing some laundry, reading a chapter of something for my PhD, preparing meals to take to work, painting my toenails, texting a friend to suggest a catch-up, and checking my tax documents. Inconsequential things, perhaps, but by documenting the trivial I find it easier to keep my life in perspective, remember 'the big picture' and more successfully circumnavigate the bleakness of the endlessly-trivial.

3) Work hard. Self-explanatory? Perhaps it ought to be, but by writing it down (typing it down? this post is alarmingly meta) I can, again, remind myself of its importance. Every single time I emerge from my pit of despair I see that the pit has produced no work of any kind, except the work of making myself feel like arse for days/weeks/months on end. How to avoid the pit of despair? Work hard. Although I sometimes dread my work - I'm talking specifically about my academic pursuits here, although this is really applicable to any endeavour I undertake - the more I do of it, the better I feel about it, regardless of the success / quality of what I produce. Not working hard is likely to lead to the pit of despair, in which I do no work at all, then castigate myself when I emerge for the failure to achieve anything. Another vicious circle, and one which I need to break if I'm ever to achieve anything at all, let alone anything worthwhile!

4) Get exercise. This is for both physical and mental health. I intend to return to regular judo training, partly because I love and miss judo, partly because I want some frequent and structured exercise and judo seems like an 'easy' option since I have a decade of it under my belt already (albeit with a decade of gap in between then and now!). I'd like to identify and work on a physical skill, not urgently but slowly and methodically, starting from a position of enthusiasm and commitment and seeing where it takes me. This has the double advantage of being good for my body (physical exercise makes me feel strong, healthy and capable, helps me sleep better, increases my enjoyment of food, and improves my performance at my physically demanding jobs) and good for my mind (rightly or wrongly I feel morally 'good' when I exercise; more importantly, I theorise that a commitment to development of a skill will make me feel good about myself, both in and of itself and by giving me a focus for growth discrete from my academic pursuits and my employed life).

5) Be discriminately sociable. This starts with recognising what kinds of sociality are mentally good for me, and which are not. I have a crude idea of this, which begins with the notion that small-scale socialising (one-to-one coffee dates, intimate-ish dinner arrangements with friends etc) is more enjoyable for me than big group outings or parties. There are exceptions, of course, and there is also plenty of potential to integrate the two, by which I mean incorporate the former into the latter. A group outing which includes one or two close friends can be enjoyable: a group outing of mostly acquaintances and casual friends (people I would hesitate to confide in) is very bad for me. This is in no way a criticism of those people or those events. Those people are not inadequate and I have not deemed them unworthy of my oh-so-worthwhile confidences. Those events are not superficial and I don't think that every occasion requires the potential for confidence-exchange. The important part for me, I think, is that there is someone there with whom I can exchange/have exchanged confidences. It's something of a security blanket I guess: even if I am highly unlikely to bear my soul at a work bowling trip, the presence of someone with whom I would feel comfortable doing that if the need were to arise is crucial.

6) Practice radical caring. I want to avoid engaging in forms of socialising that are harmful to me, but I also want to be an active friend to those who desire it. This is not really radical at all, but I use the word radical to highlight the purpose behind the notion: radical as opposed to casual or passive caring. I don't want to be the person that someone asks - or doesn't ask - for friendship. I want to be available for that, and I don't want to push my friendship or caring on someone who doesn't want it, but I also want to actively participate in a friendship, which to me means simply keeping in touch. This is flexible depending on the people and the dynamic involved, of course. In some cases it may mean checking in by text once a month, in others it may mean a bi-weekly dinner or drink. Some might require structure, some may be more freely arranged. Some friendships mean "how are you feeling today?" texts, some mean "fancy a drink after work?", some mean long email exchanges or skype chats with little physical contact, and most involve a combination of these and other interactions. All I mean by this little point is that I love my friends and they are important to me, and I want to invest our relationships with the time and care that they deserve.

7) Be diverse. To finish up today, I am going to explicitly highlight the importance of variety. I find it all too easy to focus my negative energy on one aspect of my life, which ends up feeling like the end of the world, and then negatively impacts on the other aspects of my life, until everything is infected with despondency and misery. One way to combat this is, I think, to expand the parameters of my life. It will be easier, I hope, to keep in perspective the not-so-greatness of one aspect of my life if I have plenty of other aspects which are great, or pretty positive, or plodding along tolerably. This blog can be one of those things! It hasn't escaped my notice that, when things started to go downhill, I stopped working on my blog completely. Although there was nothing wrong with my writings here, and they often made me feel good about myself, they were infected in my mind by negativity from other parts of my life and I simply stopped engaging. I think it may be more helpful to me to continue engaging if I possibly can, because one thing I know about myself is that I am always more miserable about what I don't do than about what I do do. The more things I have going on in my life, no matter how small or trivial, the less likely I am to fall at the hurdle of an obstacle in only one thing.

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