I wrote this post a year ago for someone I love who was suffering from depression. Having suffered from it too, I asked myself to come up with the top five things that most restored my spirits. A quick look tells me they still hold true, but this year, I’d add one important thing: investigate whether illness, medication, diet, or vitamin deficiencies might be darkening your mood and robbing you of vitality. Sometimes you just need a B vitamin or a can of Pop-Eye’s spinach.
Already discouraged about your New Year’s Resolutions? Here are five simple, sunshiny, and free things you can do to brighten your life right now.
- Go outside and move around. When you close your eyes and remember when you were most happy inhabiting your body, aren’t you sailing on a rope swing above a river, building a tree house, skiing the local golf course on the first winter snow? Okay, I’ll admit, when I ask myself when was I happiest, I was standing at the kitchen counter at midnight bingeing like a wild dog on my own chocolate birthday cake (I’ll never forget you, Birthday Cake, September 2, 2003, RIP).
But I also remember nights my swing dancing friends and I pulled up to Clearwater Beach and jumped out of the car. We kicked off our dance shoes and ran in the cold sand in our twirly skirts toward the surf. Its slim breakers rolled to meet us in the dark. Another happy time I swam underwater in the crystal clear Withlacoochee River as if flying in fresh air (until I saw an alligator considerably bigger than me doing the same thing). Happiest times found me hiking, trail riding, and biking in the mountains in PA, CA, and NC, my attention always on the roots and rocks and cliff edges, the sun on my arms, the shade swaying in the wind, the fatigue in my thighs. You get the picture. I was outside, I was moving, and I was happy. Falling in love with yourself is a simple, organic, neurological event. To court it, you need to do something equally simple and organic. In fact, we all need a little “rewilding.” When I escape the habitat of four walls and a roof and meet my planet in her more natural state, I fall in love with just being.
If your body won’t let you build a tree house or ski, or if your present bone density means you shouldn’t go extreme skate boarding, try something else, like Tai Chi or succulent gardening. Promise yourself you’ll do it at least once a week. If you take your upright hominid self for a nice walk someplace leafy, sunny, and sweet, well, who knows where the romance will lead?
- Socialize with people breathing the same air with you. Just as you were made to move around outside, you were made to “conspire”—that is “to breathe together.” But, you might say, I read a study somewhere saying the virtual friends of Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook are as significant as so-called real friends, so why bother leaving the laptop? Some of my most valued relationships were with pen pals in the seventies, email pals in the nineties, and now social media pals. But nothing beats the full-range, animal joy of improvising interaction with one or more real-world, real-time people. It’s banter with a full range of body language and tone of voice. It’s not always easy to keep on my toes or to respond to others with attention and compassion, but the social-animal, full-brain exercise feels so refreshing. Why is that?
My students and my daughter have all reported astonished joy at finding themselves in the company of others without a cell phone, tablet, or laptop. They promise themselves they’ll do this more often, and then get sucked back in.
There’s something cramped and tinny about virtual interaction that exhausts me, like realizing, late in the day, that my shoes have been pinching me for hours. Don’t let social media fool you into thinking your social needs are satisfied. Nothing beats a hug, a smile, a fist-bump. You’re a primate, not a botnet.
Maybe that’s why I’m so attached to Mick—he never texts me.
- Pay one sincere compliment to everyone you talk to. Don’t forget self-affirmation, but do this too. I discovered this little secret to happiness years ago. If I credit one thing to the fact that I’ve been largely depression-free for over decade now, it would be this one small habit.
After a bad break-up, I was fighting depression, and a counselor suggested I challenge my own lousy self-talk by giving myself credible evidence to the contrary. It really helped, but before too long, self-affirmation seemed, well, selfish. I decided I’d say something nice to one person a day. That way, I’d cheer us both up.
The rules I gave myself were these: I had to pay a compliment and mean it, and the complimentee had to believe it. Plus, it couldn’t be sappy. I loathe sappiness, (although I’m sometimes guilty of it). The more precise and authentic the compliment, the more likely I could stomach it. A compliment could be as simple as, “Love those wild yellow shoes,” or “Ooh, what a stylish twine bracelet! Did you make that?”
As I sought nice things to say in spontaneous and credible ways, all the boors, bitches, and nitwits around me transformed into pretty cool people. Soon I was saying more potent things:
- “You’re a conscientious person, and people will respect you;”
- “You have an admirable wit;”
- “You’re easy to be with.”
Paying a sincere compliment made me feel so good, I started complimenting more people for more good moves:
- “Impressive use of the word ‘brabble;’”
- “Expert grocery bagging;”
- “Hilarious tweet;”
- “That was a nice thing you did for those marmosets.”
Each time I paid an honest compliment, someone got to feel snazzy or smart, I felt kind, and we shared the endorphin rush, like a long pull on a good hookah.
Sometimes, I worried that even if the compliments were sincere, the exercise was phony. But it really changes your perspective. You discover you’re surrounded by happy, grateful people—and you’re one of them.
- Practice the three-gripes-and-you’re-out rule. A long time ago, a friend and I happened to be divorcing our husbands. No one was more articulate, incisive, and witty than we when we autopsied the conflicts with our men. I started to notice, however, that as clever as she was, my friend’s conversation was repetitive, painful, and exhausting. I realized I too might be straining friendships with my own sniveling, hand-wringing, carping, and grumbling.
Why was I babbling day and night about the same miserably myopic, self-centered sorrows? Because I believed I was problem-solving, but I solved nothing. I’d wake in the middle of the night to find the same mental reel already looping. It was slowly poisoning my friendships and my mental health.
I talked to my friend, and we invented the three-gripes-and-you’re-out rule: we could complain to each other about something or someone three times, and then we had to do something about it, something pragmatic, life-affirming, and kind to ourselves and others. Even if all we did was make peace with the unhappy situation.
Pretty soon, I was applying the three-gripes rule to my own thoughts. When I heard myself weep and gnash my teeth over and over, I stopped ruminating and started doing. My mind cleared. Little by little, my circumstance improved. I didn’t need to slosh my bucket of woes all over friends so much anymore. I slept better. I trusted myself to take care of myself. I weaned off anti-anxiety meds and sleeping aids. I liked myself more. I enjoyed my place in the world.
The three-gripes rule also meant that if a friend complained three times without trying to solve her problem, I could redirect the topic, distance myself, or better yet, share the three-gripes rule.
Sometimes I worry distancing myself is callous. It’s not that I don’t listen to and feel others’ hardships. Remember, I listen at least three times, and like many adult children of alcoholics, I’m an emotional sponge. A lot of us suffer from emotional sponginess. If we lend you our ear and you’re depressed, we’ll get depressed too. For those of us who weren’t raised with healthy boundaries, the rule seems harsh, but maybe it has to be to deactivate dangerous mental malware. That’s why, when the media blare a tragedy for a third time, I change the radio station, shut off the news, and log off Facebook. Otherwise, I start thinking the world is an uglier place than it really is. “Mean World Syndrome” isn’t nice, true, or fair to our home planet.
The three-gripes rule also keeps me from inadvertently sanctioning or enabling a downward spiral. If a friend is somehow toxic, say, because that friend is an alcoholic or in some other way self-destructive, or if he or she has been cruel to me or to someone else, I give myself permission to protect my boundaries and recognize my limits, even if it’s counter-intuitive, even if this person might not like it or may even turn on me. The three-gripes rule spares you from compassion fatigue, minimizes heartbreak, and mitigates despair.
Overall, the three-gripes rule has made me a better listener. Despair doesn’t drown me so easily. The three-gripes rule has taught me how to float myself back to the breathable air without getting the bends. My mind is clearer, my heart more buoyant, and my circle of friends more kind, sane, and stable.
- Indulge your novelty-seeking nature. Humans are innately innovative and curious, retaining a childlike wonder all their lives. When we say someone is “full of life” or “youthful,” it may be that that person has a healthy case of novelty-seeking or “neophilia.” Maybe when you crave travel—or an affair—it’s a sign that you’ve been neglecting this need. Whether you’re in a new city or a new lover’s bed, you’re intoxicated by novelty. You feel wonderfully alive, but novelty wears off, of course. You need novelty, it’s actually good for you, so love yourself by seeking it in ways that won’t rack up STD’s or attorney’s fees.
But wait—how can any of us be starved for novelty nowadays? On the Internet, you can learn anything new, any time, and you don’t have to remember it—it’s still on the ‘Net! How does a sandblaster work? Should I pour hydrogen peroxide in my ears? Where do birds go during hurricanes? What are gold weights and how much are they worth? Let’s find out! If you forget what you learned, heck, look up something else: new beet recipes, new coffee-brewing blogs, new TED talks, new Algerian rap music, new Bo Burnham vines—enough! In some ways, the newness of the Internet has made novelty one big amorphous blob of SAME.
Instead, log off and do. It’s time to play the harmonica, attract wild birds to your garden, crochet, hybridize carnivorous plants, cook with tempeh, volunteer at shelters—human or animal, become a Justice of the Peace, parasail, make string gardens, run for County Commissioner, raise bees, or build that underground zombie apocalypse shelter you’ve always dreamed of.
Do it. You’ll love yourself for it.
And so will the world.