Last January (wow, it’s been a long time, but almost feels like yesterday), I made a personal promise to myself to actively “choose happiness”.
Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t mean that I should only pursue things that make me happy. I didn’t mean that I should take the easy road, or overindulge in material things, or walk around with a smile plastered on my face. What I meant was that I would take an active approach to appreciating the things I already had, not lamenting the things that I didn’t. Instead of grieving for the lost opportunities, I would make my own. Instead of worrying incessantly about not having enough money, I would find ways to enjoy what little I have
Instead of looking for the bad in every situation, I would actively seek out the good. I think they call this gratitude or something. I’m slowly learning how to have more of it in my daily life.
I’m not going to lie — I definitely did not accomplish this New Year’s resolution. Instead, I spent the majority of the year being the exact opposite of grateful and happy. I was hit with a major depressive episode in the spring, have been lamenting my financial situation, and have gotten in a lot of petty fights with my significant other (sorry!)
I’m starting to see the damage that this negativity has brought upon me: I’m always on-edge, ready to snap at the first person who talks to me when I’m trying to complete a task. I nearly cried at work one day when a particularly difficult customer was harrassing me (outside of my immediate family, people NEVER make me cry, if that says anything). I’ve burned a few bridges with potential job opportunities. At the end of the day, I feel extremely guilty for being so easily angered, but the damage is done.
I don’t want to live like this anymore. I’ve always been plagued by anxiety — at the age of 7, I was already mulling over the impermanence of human life and the inevitability of death. At age 26, I still worry about this and much more. Some of these anxieties are a fact of life — I will never be completely panic-attack free, and no matter how hard I meditate, my student loan debt isn’t going to magically disappear. But many of these anxieties stem from my inability to let go.
There’s a common technique in mindfulness-based therapy that goes like this: you close your eyes and allow thoughts to pass through your mind, one at a time. There should be no active effort — you shouldn’t try to dig up specific thoughts, nor should you prevent any thought from bubbling to the surface. Once it arises, you allow it to sit. You experience it. If it causes you anger, allow yourself to be angry. If it is sad, allow yourself time to grieve. If it is joyous, smile and enjoy the sensation. But once that experience is over, you release it from your mind and move on to the next.
It’s a peculiar technique to those of us who are very process-minded. My inbox, my to-do list, my Google Drive… everything is organized such that specific items get done at specific times. I take an active approach to processing these items; I work on them until they get done, stress about them when appropriate. If I’m working on a large project and get interrupted by good news (such as a friend getting engaged), I have to mentally set aside one thought or another. Maybe I put a reminder in my to-do list to send congratulations. Maybe I block out more time in my calendar to finish my work project later that afternoon.
But this mindfulness exercise is different. Instead of being proactive and “go go go”, you step back and allow the thoughts and sensations to happen to you. You sit there and experience them — feel your pulse rise, feel your lips curl into a smile, feel your stomach churn. You become aware of all the little sensations an emotion brings… and then you release it.
You gain peace and fulfillment by letting go.
I encourage you, dear reader, to try this sometime. I still struggle with the technique from time to time, but I’ve found that when I can find a short break in the day — you only need 10 minutes or so — it causes me to return to work refreshed. It teaches me that not everything in life is worthy of a slot in my calendar or a sleepless night’s worth of worrying. It allows me to let go of the things that don’t matter to make room for the things that do.