Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Rules of Happiness

The folks at TED kinda misled me when they titled this piece, but I kinda figured that was the case. I get extremely skeptical when anyone claims they know how everyone can be happy. So when I saw Seven Rules for Making Happiness, I knew it was probably gonna fall short of my expectations. I was happily (pardon the pun) surprised.

What surprised me was Stefan Sagmeister hit on points that really resonate with my life. That, in the US, $50,000 adjusted for cost of living, is about baseline happiness for money. Anything more than that gives such a low payout as to not be meaningful. That, if people have a good social support network (married/meaningful friendships with several people), they are far more happy than people going it alone. And lastly, if a disease is managed well, it can still have an impact on happiness, but generally healthy people aren't any happier than diseased people. The key phrase here is, of course, "managed well."

Elizabeth Kubler Ross revolutionized hospice care, and I am forever grateful for her work. But I was a little dismayed reading the chapter "Anger" in her famous book, On Death and Dying. In it, her example for the Anger phase is a man with skin lesions all over his body. The doctors don't know what is causing it and he's in constant, chronic pain. The sentiment in the chapter is how pitiful this man is because he just can't move on to the acceptance phase. Excuse me, seriously??

So it was absolutely refreshing to have Sagmeister make the distinction that they have to be manageable health problems. It absolutely validates what I and other patients have been trying to tell the health community for ages. If the symptoms interfere with my choices, my ability to be happy is stymied. Manage the symptoms of my disease, and I'll get over it!  And it's not so much a conscious choice as an unconscious one.

Sagmeister talks about a bit from Freakonomics where it's more likely for a guy named Dennis to become a Dentist, and that Paula is more likely to marry Paul. And the thought this was silly American statistics at first, until he looked at his parents names. And his grandparents names. From this, he brings up that we like to believe our conscious mind is the all controlling element in our life. But really, the conscious mind is like man riding on elephant the subconscious. Sure, you can direct things a bit, but the elephant is largely in charge.
The real-world evidence for these unconscious effects is clear to anyone who has ever run out to the car to avoid the rain and ended up driving too fast, or rushed off to pick up dry cleaning and returned with wine and cigarettes — but no pressed slacks.

The brain appears to use the very same neural circuits to execute an unconscious act as it does a conscious one. In a study that appeared in the journal Science in May, a team of English and French neuroscientists performed brain imaging on 18 men and women who were playing a computer game for money. The players held a handgrip and were told that the tighter they squeezed when an image of money flashed on the screen, the more of the loot they could keep.

As expected, the players squeezed harder when the image of a British pound flashed by than when the image of a penny did — regardless of whether they consciously perceived the pictures, many of which flew by subliminally. But the circuits activated in their brains were similar as well: an area called the ventral pallidum was particularly active whenever the participants responded.
[Who’s Minding the Mind? Benedict Carey The New York Times 2007.]

I've learned the hard way to trust my intuition. That is, it took a whole lot of mistakes. I used to push myself past the feelings I was getting from my body in order to perform. That invariably lead to crashes and me feeling like a failure personally because of what I couldn't do physically. But I know to trust myself these days, and not listen to the well-meaning advice of others who tell me to "push on." Sometimes it is absolutely okay for me to push myself. Sometimes it's not. I'm the only one who can really tell. And since I'm the one who ultimately has to pay the price, I'm the one who needs to listen.

It's paid off. I can now tell from my symptoms, within about a 3 hour window, when my migraine will hit. That allows me to plan responsibly. I can tell that when start to get my "Princess and the Pea Syndrome," that is, when I become hyper-aware of my hands and feet, that it's not a safe time for me to be driving as my 'neuropathic-type pain' is coming. I will slow my walking pace without thinking about it. It works in reverse too. When I'm well, I move faster and I engage in more activities without a second thought. Sometimes the difference is dramatic. I'm so used to being on the couch, that once I'm well, I'm up and half-way across the room before I realize I couldn't do that the day before.

And I couldn't listen to my intuition when I was listening to everyone else. I was so busy ignoring my symptoms and reaching for 'normal' that I wasn't learning where my new levels were at. It wasn't until I allowed myself to rest and restructure my life to my pace that I was able to find out what I was still capable of. It was scary, at first, and not everyone accepted. Some people don't accept still. I've been personally blamed for when my symptoms have stopped me. I can't let that be my problem. My health is my problem, and that's big enough.

My rule of happiness? No one else can tell me what's going to make me happy, because they're not the one riding the elephant. It's not always under my control, but I can influence it depending on where I choose to focus. My happiness is my responsibility, and when I'm able to take ownership of that, I get there.

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