December rolled around in a haze of bitter cold. It seemed colder to me than past Decembers. “When did Baltimore turn into Alaska,” I kept ranting in my head as I grimly marched the 10 minute walk to and from my office. It was getting dark by 4:45 PM and the nights stretched out forever. I’d sit in front of a computer all day, answer phone calls, attend long meetings, absorb my coworkers’ sarcasm and arguments, and leave in the dark, shoulders aching from typing and tension. The holiday season was upon us in full force. “How can you have a holly jolly holiday when you don’t really celebrate it, and you’re just an outsider looking in?” I pondered, driving past lit up neighborhoods with a queer sense of desolation. In short, I started December feeling like the Grinch.
My year long Happiness Project was drawing to a close, and I kept feeling like this was not how it should end! I did not find happiness lurking at every corner. My friends and family seemed to believe that happiness was still a facade, and were MORE stressed this time of year… It was as if someone had made a huge obstacle course and suddenly upgraded my Happiness Project to Level 7.0 in the very last month!!
Studies have talked about “seasonal affect disorder” or SAD, a type of depression that comes at the same time every year, usually during the Fall and lasting through the Winter months. “It is not news that depression has become a kind of invisible epidemic, afflicting approximately 121 million people worldwide,” states Dr. Deepak Chopra. I can not stress it enough: mental illness is just as important to treat as physical illness. If you seek treatment for Diabetes, for Bronchitis, for Kidney Disease, it is as crucial to seek treatment for Depression, for Bipolar disorder, for Anxiety disorders. I’ve finally learned to talk about it, instead of letting shame keep me quiet. But the stigma or lack of attention to this issue felt by many of my friends and family members keeps them in denial, not choosing anything different, and there was nothing I could do to help anyone- but myself.
Through my career as a social worker, I see a world full of issues that I can’t fix. But what can I, Shamyla, do to be the change in the world, as Gandhi says? What did I learn all year from this?
Here are some lessons I took away from the Happiness Project this year:
★ Happiness is a choice. I used to think it was the cards that life dealt you, but I was wrong: it’s really how you play those cards. I always had the power to create and nurture my own happiness – I was just too afraid, too stuck, or too suspicious to believe it.
★ I know how to help myself out of an unhappy situation or a depressive state much faster because I find my thoughts shifting into how to look at the situation in a different way.
★ Anxiety doesn’t go away by itself. It takes work. There’s a reason people talk about the benefits of exercise, meditation, prayer, deep breathing, yoga, etc. Sitting on your duff and thinking nice thoughts is helpful, but being active has excellent benefits.
★ Hold on to gratitude! Writing these blogs had me looking back at each month and realizing “this month was actually pretty good.” Even through the darkest moments and struggles there was an opportunity to learn.
★ My insecurities speak volumes about what I need to keep working on. I still criticize, I still get angry and defensive. It’s really important to keep on working on it.
★ I don’t have to say everything that I think. For an extrovert, that is hard, but being more thoughtful is not a bad way to go – you hurt less people.
★ For every sad moment, there is so much joy in so many tiny moments! I tried to reach out and take, take, take every opportunity afforded to me to be happy all year. It was important to think about what I liked, what I wanted, and how I could achieve it -this year, I confidently did more of that than ever before.
★ Sarcasm will not make me look cooler or improve the quality of my life. Being mean does not give me more recognition or a higher status.
★ Unhappiness can be used as a way to control other people – sometimes for years. That takes a lot of energy that could be used elsewhere, and is exhausting.
★ An older relative once told me that he was doing me a service by being harsh with me, because he was teaching me that life is unfair and the world is cruel, so it was his duty to prepare me. After so many years, I’ve decided: if you think life is Hell and a warzone, it will be. If you want it to be sweet, it can be that way too – if you let it. It’s important to teach younger people about the beauty in the world, too.
★ Being happy does not forestall tragedy; anticipating trouble can’t stop it. What’s going to happen is going to happen whether you’re on top of the world or down in the dumps. Being superstitious about admitting happiness out loud does not tempt the fates. So why not be happy while you can?
I was watching the popular TV show “Scandal” the other night and leaned forward in my seat when the White House Chief of Staff accused the President of being a “moron” for trying to be happy, saying that it was unnatural as he was too intelligent and had too much education. I thought “once again, society is glorifying unhappiness… making happy people look like simpletons… SO untrue!” I know how much work, education, research and dedication it has taken me to work on happiness.. As it states in the “Happiness Project”, “Zen and enthusiasm take energy, humility and engagement.” People take it for granted that you’re just a happy person, but it’s not effortless! As Robert Louis Stevenson stated, “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.”
This morning, as I write this, I’ve been watching my friend’s 3 year old daughter. She woke up in a good mood, opened my bedroom door, gave me the biggest smile and came running to give me a “huggie.” I watched contentedly as she chattered and played, using her imagination, amusing herself and all of us. She didn’t stay stuck in a bad emotion – she cried if things were unfair or painful, pouted for a minute if she didn’t get her way, fought back if her big brothers pounced on her – and then she moved on. I marveled at her command of language and humor; six months ago she was barely able to hold a conversation! She doesn’t worry what other people think of her. She is never bored or not creative. She doesn’t try to be anything but herself. She laughs a lot, and finds joy and wonder at the smallest things we all take for granted. When do we lose this innate ability to be naturally happy?
“The days are long but the years are short”, writes Gretchen. The little things add up and the grey hairs will keep coming. Six months from now, anything could happen. So what makes you happy? Are you making plans to make sure you do more of it in 2014? I sure am. As of now, only four people are coming to my New Years Eve party, and I am going to start 2014 with being thankful for that! To be healthier and happier is all we ever wanted for our loved ones. Let’s start that today for ourselves… shall we?