Shiny, Happy Person

jar of glassOn Monday, I posted about the first permaculture principle, Observe & Interact, and asked if you’d like to choose an area of your life to observe over the coming week. How’s that going? Are you having difficulty refraining from labeling what you observe as good or bad? Do you want to explain immediately why the thing you have observed happens? Do you have the urge to jump forward to a “solution” rather than just staying with the process of observation?

I consider myself to be a fairly self-aware person, but I know that if I am not clear with myself that I am only observing, I will be judging myself left and right and planning little changes (or, more likely, dramatic ones) at every opportunity.

Which is why it is helpful for me to have someone partnering with me in my observations, as well as in the behavioral experiments that will follow. At various times in my life, these partners have consisted of friends or my husband, but since August, my observation partner has been my therapist. And because depression was the main reason I had sought help, it only made sense that my first project be that of observing my depression – in the hopes of eventually diminishing it. It is true that once you start observing a phenomenon, the phenomenon shifts. The mere act of finding a therapist, taking an hour each week to focus on my well being, and being able to talk to someone about why I felt so sad and overwhelmed helped the depression begin to lift.

I knew from experience (observation!) that focusing on the behaviors I wanted to change was not the most effective way for me to make change. A strategy that seemed more useful to me would be to focus on filling my life up with the things that make me happy rather than trying to rid my life of the things that made me unhappy. The hope was that the happy things would slowly squeeze out the unhappy, depressing things and the balance would tip.

So then began the process of observing which things, people, activities, and ideas in my life already brought me some happiness. It turned out that despite my longstanding night-owl nature, getting a full night’s sleep actually made my life easier and happier. It also turned out that eating a vegan diet with recipes from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine 21-Day Vegan Challenge brought me both pleasure and satisfaction. The recipes were quick and easy and always, to my surprise, really flavorful. I already knew that yoga made me happy, so I began doing it three nights a week with my husband in our living room and found the practice even more rewarding. It was one more thing I could share with my husband and the gentle moves and deep breathing helped me release stress at the end of my work day. Similarly, I knew that exercise, writing, spending time with my family, being outdoors, and cuddling with my dog all made me happy.

So next came the process of implementing these things in my life in small doses to determine how much of each thing is enough to make me happy, how much lands me in overwhelm, and what is the right balance of all of these things so that I feel I’m hitting all the right notes and recharging my energy instead of draining it.

This is where I still am and probably will be for many months. Things are definitely moving in the right direction, but there is still much experimentation and skills-building to be done.

Of course, the easy, and maybe even advisable, strategy would have been to begin taking an antidepressant immediately. I went so far as to obtain a prescription from my doctor, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin this course of treatment. Research has shown that 30 minutes of exercise is as effective at reducing depression as medication, and since I needed the exercise anyway, it made the most sense to me to try to figure out a mechanism that would help me get to the gym on a regular basis. So, I hired a personal trainer and have worked with her for the past six weeks. She has helped me get stronger and stay focused on improving my physical health. There have definitely been days when I would have stayed in bed if I didn’t have her waiting to meet me at 6:30 a.m. One day I hope to have such a strong exercise habit that her assistance is no longer needed, but for now, I’m still building the systems I need to help me self-regulate and I am happy to pay her for her service.

Even though I have moved on to the “interact” portion of this permaculture principle, it only works if I also continue to observe my feelings and thoughts throughout the process. It’s fun to think of my life as a series of little experiments and it reduces my anxiety level because if something doesn’t cause the desired effect, it is not the end of the world; I can just try something else.

Shiny, Happy PersonOne last tip I would like to offer, if you are observing something in your own life and want to experiment with behavior change, is to make sure that even the ways in which you are tracking your observations and data make you happy. I found that creating a check list of every activity and behavior I wanted to participate in caused me anxiety and focused my thoughts on all the things that I didn’t accomplish on any given day. Counting calories and fat and carbs was too complicated to keep up with and made me feel deprived. So instead I found a tall, pretty juice bottle and a bunch of glass beads in various colors that I had bought for an art project that I never started, and began using them to track the behaviors that made me happy. For example, if I ate a vegan meal, I dropped a blue bead in the jar. If I went to the gym, I dropped in a green one. The small pink beads were for writing sessions and the large clear ones were for tackling an activity that scared me. This is fairly simple to keep up with (I played around with much more elaborate schemes, like trying to use the beads to make an image but knew, again from experience, that they would end in failure) and it’s shiny and colorful and makes me happy when I see it. Plus, dropping one of the glass beads into the jar makes a satisfying “plink” that is reminiscent of how good it felt to put a quarter in my piggy bank when I was a child.

I hope your observation experiment is going well, and I would love to hear about your process! Please leave me a note below, and I’ll be back on Monday – provided I survive tomorrow’s Camp NaNoWriMo novel-writing marathon! (Wish me luck!)

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