Stress versus Happiness

I’ve come to believe that happiness is not so much the absence of unhappiness, but the absence of stress.

I also can’t understand why deciding to not be stressed isn’t enough to kick the habit. I have over time tailored my life so that it should be possible for me to work towards my goals without putting myself under undue pressure. I thought that doing things I love would eliminate the stress even if I was very busy. But now I wonder if stress is more innate to my brain, and it’s something that will take more invasive intervention.

I actually feel sometimes that I made a choice at some point between stress-free and doing something I love. The job I work now is largely stress-free; more than most other things I could be doing. But I’ve chosen to work part-time and gradually ease out of this career. Why? It’s just too boring. It’s not meaningful to me. I have nothing invested in it.

So if you are invested in your career, does it have to be stressful? I don’t think so, but I’m still trying to figure out how. If stress is a personality trait or a habit, then I just need to train myself out of it. I’ve been gradually working on living in the now, and perhaps that is my ticket towards greater well-being.

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Over-thinking

The last couple of weeks have been a rollercoaster of emotions for me. I don’t deal well with transitions in my life, usually – and the past couple of months have been one transition after the next. Getting back together with my boyfriend after two and a half years, getting one of my molars pulled, finishing my Masters, realising how emphatically I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being a librarian, realising how much I do want to get serious about my writing, trying to decide whether or not I want to do a PhD in the next few years… the list is practically endless.

My biggest problem is not so much to do with the turmoil and readjustment that comes with change – conversely, I do relish the freshness of a new start – but with the way I over-think things. As soon as a new world of opportunity opens up for me, I start trying to plan it.

Planning is good. Planning can help to alleviate anxiety, can lead to greater productivity, and can even provide motivation and inspiration. Planning the next few weeks, or even the next few months, seems to me to be a generally positive activity. The problems start when you realise that you are trying to plan things that are going to happen in 10 years, 20 years – when you start trying to plan out the rest of your life, and think you can act now in a way that will influence these things directly.

This is my downfall. As soon as I decided I was going to give writing a real go, that I was going to actually start writing a novel, I started to worry that I wouldn’t have enough money in 10 years’ time to settle down and have a family. Not to mention all the worries I had about the 10 years running up to that – whether I should be trying to get a part-time job, how difficult it might be for me to get a job later with a big gap on my already sparse CV, how I was going to keep paying my rent if I wasn’t making any money.

Last Friday, I got turned down for yet another library job, and I decided to partake in National Novel Writing Month this year. I got up the following Monday at 9am (early for me, shame on me, I know I know) and started planning not one, but two novels – I wanted to work on something different for NaNoWriMo in order to avoid the paralysis that might ensue if I tried to work on my “actual” novel. I was excited, enthusiastic, and felt like I had a purpose in life for the first time in a long time.

But meanwhile, every night when I went to bed I started thinking about careers and mortgages and how many words I might be able to write in a day and what I could do part-time on the side of writing and…

By Wednesday I was exhausted. I went to bed early, feeling anxious, and fell asleep almost instantly for an hour – then woke up and couldn’t sleep again until after 4.

Yesterday was not pretty.

I’ve no idea why I didn’t just stay in bed for the day. I turned into a ball of misery and ended up sitting my boyfriend’s flat crying about EVERYTHING.

I knew that my thinking pattern was highly self-destructive, but it just helped to hear him say it. He looked at me and said: “No-one can plan what they’re going to be doing for the rest of their lives. Even if there’s something you really, really want to do, all you can do is try, or just do it as long as you want to or can do it. Sure, what you do now affects what happens in the future, but decisions you make and how you spend your days right now does not have a direct bearing on what you’ll be doing when you’re 40 – not in the way you think it does.”

Wise words. I really hope I’ve learned my lesson on this one. Sometimes you just need to take each day as it comes. I do have to do some thinking about whether I need to look for a part-time job, but beyond that I really should be taking this year to just try things out and see how I enjoy it. See if I can bear sitting down every day knowing I have to write a certain amount. See if I can actually do it.

So I’m taking the rest of today off. And if I have insomnia next week I’ll sleep in as late as I want to!

Living in the moment…

…how do we go about it?

It’s amazing how such a simple, almost clichéd idea can still manage to have a profound impact on me every time I am reminded of it in any well-thought out or well-articulated way. And it makes me wonder – am I ever going to stop “forgetting” to do this? Will there come a time when it truly becomes ingrained in my day-to-day existence?

But the problem isn’t just with forgetting to do it – the problem starts with managing to do it in the first place.

Essentially, a call to living in the moment should be a reminder of the insignificance of material things, the pettiness of small irritations with loved ones and days whiled away in boredom. We might feel moved to reach out to a loved one, or to engage more in what we’re passionate about. We might engage in such activities as meditation, and attempt to think only about what is happening to us right now without reference to the past or the future.

The problem is this: we are, as human beings, hardwired to be constantly thinking about both the past and the future.

And this tendency is present instinctually, emotionally, and intellectually.

Our ability to reason, to compare, to analyse, has led us to this evolutionary point. It is the secret to our success. And so, letting go of this tendency seems to run contrary to our very nature.

So what are we to do about it? It is often true that we would be happier if we let go of memories of incidents in the past, no matter how recent – if we allowed our consciousness to reset and focus on the now. But it is almost impossible to avoid bringing things up in your mind and assessing the probability of it happening again. And if we do consistently focus on the present and avoid this type of analysis, how are we to look at the bigger picture of our life and assess our own happiness, and the successfulness of how we are going about it?

It’s also true that we may be happier if we avoided obsessively thinking about the future – attempting to plan out the weeks, months and years ahead. This kind of thinking can be inspiring and exciting, but leads to one of our greatest barriers to happiness – waiting to be happy in the future rather than focussing on being happy right now. But again, without this future planning, we cannot build lives for ourselves.

So I suppose this goal of “living in the moment” is rather qualified. Perhaps it is something we should aim to do every day, but perhaps just for a few hours, or even for a few minutes. But is it really possible to do, when the rest of our lives revolve around the-moment-just-passed and the-moment-about-to-happen?

I feel I have been struggling to find the answer to this for many years now. At what point do I give up on this particular holy grail, and decide that the answer to happiness lies elsewhere?

Arrival

Those of you who have been reading my last few posts might be glad to hear that today for the first time in a while, I am starting to feel a bit more emotionally stable. At the very least, there might be a reduced amount of whiney posts for you to be bombarded with! The last few days have been really, really nice – spending relaxed time with my boyfriend, meeting a friend I hadn’t seen in ages for brunch. And I just feel very happy.

I think the freedom has finally hit me. It’s seeming less scary – as I was saying in this post, I am excited about properly thinking about a career for the first time, or even just trying out some kind of real job. And the trepidation that goes with that is finally started to leave. I have realised today that I really don’t need to worry about my finances. I am used to watching all the people around me struggling with student loans, PhD funding and poorly paid first jobs, and I have a tendency to want to be able to feel immediately financially secure and independent. But the truth of the matter is – I know it’s going to be fine, whatever way it turns out.

I’m also starting to feel for the first time in a while that I may actually turn out to be a “real writer”. I have set a target for myself this year, and have already started chipping away at it. I’ve accepted that being a prolific short story writer may not be for me, and that’s ok. I’m quite happy to keep posting here, and to chip away at a bigger project on the side. I think this blog has done wonders so far – even when I’m just writing off-the-cuff updates like this one, I am at least sitting down and putting metaphorical pen to paper, and it’s kept my hand in more than ever before. Now when I sit down to write “properly”, it flows much better than it ever did before. I feel prouder of my writing than I ever did before.

Sure, it would be wonderful to walk into a nicely paid, interesting part-time job and be set up for the next few months, but I always knew that it would be a slow process, so the important thing is not to get stressed about it, and to just make a plan for the meantime.

I’ll probably try to get up something a bit more creative later today – and tomorrow I’m finally buying my own camera! So expect more creativity and less whining very soon!

Emotions

When the tears come, she doesn’t know what to do with them. She lies in the dark and her pillow becomes damp and cold, but she can’t be sure what she is crying about.

At times like this, she wishes more than anything that she could pinpoint the source of her misery. There are always triggers, but never anything that warrants the depths of despair she plummets into. Is she lonely? Dissatisfied with her life? Bored and stagnant? Or are these just chemical imbalances that flood her brain, as random as nature?

Usually, when the morning comes, the sadness has washed away, as though sucked out of her by her dreams. It takes a day or two, maybe, for her to slip back into contentment. And she forgets that she was ever miserable.

It’s like the difference between waking and dreaming. When she is happy, these emotions feel as though they are her real life, and the sadness becomes a shade, a dreamworld. It seems less real, illogical, and unimportant. A character flaw she needs to move away from.

She fears the dreamworld of sadness. Because in her fantasy of life, this dark side of emotion is a bad sign, a red flag, an indication that all is not right, that something needs to change. It feels like a setback to happiness, to everything she has worked for in the wakefulness of contentment.

So she wakes in the morning and feels better, but worried. The sun is struggling to break through a soft blanket of cloud, and she struggles with it. She knows everything is fine, but the niggling worry still holds tight to her ankles, slowing her down. Because how can you tell when enough is enough? Where do you draw the line?

Together

There have only been a few times in my life when I feel like the person next to me is an extension of myself. It happens very occasionally – that someone understands you, you understand them so well that the walls of identity slip, just a little. There are probably very few people, of all the hundreds of people you meet in a lifetime, who you could ever feel that close to.

And when it doesn’t happen for a while, for a few years, you forget how it feels. Other kinds of closeness start to seem just as special, and you forget what you’re missing. You can become consumed by people, totally immersed in them and your love for them, whether romantic love or just pure friendship. But that feeling of slotting together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle – you know it when you feel it, and suddenly you see what you’ve been missing for all these years.

With other people, it has only happened maybe twice or three times, with one or two very close friends. People with whom I shared transforming moments, moments of epiphany and growth. Often, it’s helped along by alcohol, on those hazy nights when identity becomes so blurred that I have full conversations with myself in the mirror.

But only you make me feel this nearly every time I am with you. Only you can look at me in that way that makes me feel like you can read my soul. With other people, I don’t even believe in souls – I am a sceptic, rational, an atheist and a nonbeliever to the core. But lying in your arms gazing into your eyes, I could believe in anything.

The ticking forward of the world draws gently to a halt. The thoughts and feelings dispersed in my mind rush together like the tide, becoming a single unified feeling washing over me. I become still. And this life that we all embark on alone becomes complete – because I am no longer alone. Because you are in it.

Busy Bee

I knew August was going to be a very busy month for me. On top of the thesis I’m finishing, there is unanticipated stuff going on with my life too, and while it’s a nice kind of busy, it hasn’t left a huge amount of time or energy for anything else except the thesis and watching the odd episode of something funny.

I’m definitely not complaining. The summer (autumn, whatever) has finally started to be what I had hoped it would be. When I’m not stressing about my thesis or worrying about my suicidal tooth (which will have to be pulled in September) I am happier than I have been in a long time. Or maybe happier than I have ever been, really.

Measuring your own happiness is a difficult task. So usually I don’t bother trying to compare current feelings to past feelings. And yet. There are some times in life that just stand out above all the others. It’s not that all the bad stuff goes away – or even that it’s perfect, and you’re never worried, anxious, upset. But some things just feel right. And you find yourself unable to stop grinning from ear to ear.

A part of me is terrified. Once you’ve seen the abyss, it’s hard not to fear falling into it again. It’s hard, sometimes, when you’re tired at the end of a long day, not to start picking apart potential problems.

But mostly I’m excited. It’s just as well to have an ear to the ground, so I can exercise damage control if it comes to that. But although I’m scanning the water for sharks, I have jumped right in. And the water feels good.

Tears of joy

Everyone should cry tears of joy at least once in their life.

I probably cry more than most, but I still feel lucky that this has happened to me already so many times. Most of these occasions have been down to one person in particular.

The only other time I can recollect was when my cat came home. We had her only two days when we tried bringing her outside in the garden. She was on a cat leash, as we didn’t want her to wander off and not be able to find her way home. But in a moment of sheer bad luck, just as we got outside with her, a helicopter came by overhead. She was skittish at the best of times, and she completely panicked – she struggled out of the leash and ran off. She was out the front gate and down the street before I could even run after her. I was inconsolable, sure that I would never see her again. But that night, in the wee hours of the morning, my dad woke me up to tell me she was back in her room. That was the first time I cried tears of happiness.

It hadn’t happened to me in a very long time. And even when it did before, it was tinged with relief or sadness, as they came after making up after a fight, or realising I hadn’t lost someone I thought I had. But over the last week, I have experience some of the most purely happy crying of my life.

It’s a strange feeling. Because it’s very close to the physical feeling of grief. It doesn’t seem to turn into actual sobbing, but the tears are copious and the loss of control is similar. The same overwhelming of emotion – with so much feeling, it has to come leaking out of you somehow. It worries me slightly when it happens – I have to take a minute to register what’s happening emotionally, to double-check that I’m not, in fact, sad. But after a second, after a moment of clarity, it is the greatest feeling in the world.

I spent a lot of years thinking that all the crying I was doing was a bad thing, and worrying that I am too emotional, let things get to me too much. But now I am realising that it is a beautiful thing, an expression of pure emotion. It can be almost unbearable when you’re caught up in the grief-stricken sobbing. But these happy tears make up for it.

Happiness is

I think I need to figure out how to write about being happy. Seriously. I realised today that I haven’t felt like writing as much in the past few days, and then also realised that I’ve been (mostly, stupid research project excluded) very happy during that time. The two things, on closer inspection, seem to be connected.

I suppose I tend to write about “deep” things like feelings and major life crises etc etc, and those things are just more usually connected to negative feelings. I actually remember having this exact conversation with a friend over a year ago, where we agreed that there seem to be very few emotional states that are conducive to expression. Mundane feelings don’t cut it, but weirdly, it seems equally difficult to sit down to write about anything on the happy spectrum from mildly pleased to ecstatic.

Maybe it’s a good time for me to write about things other than myself, as that’s another thing I’m bad at. To be fair, I’ve rarely tried to write when I’m in a mood like this – the whole problem is that I don’t feel like it in the first place. Or maybe that’s not a bad thing? Unless I decide I want to make a living out of creative writing, I guess.

But I think I’d like to be able to express everything, to record everything. As it is, what I do record tends to be the more negative aspects of what I’m feeling about things, and the days when I smile all the way home slip between the cracks. I’d like to be moved to write simply because it’s a sunny day, or I’m excited about something, or I woke up feeling particularly happy. I know it happens sometimes, that the creative mood strikes at the same time, but I’d like it to happen more often.

Maybe this counts? It’s a start.

Fleeting summer

Our wonderful weather came and went, as it tends to do in this country. We’ve had nearly two weeks of dull, rainy weather now, and although I was unhappy about it at first, today I’m relishing it. The last two days, the rain has been coming down properly, rather than depressing us all with a constant, pathetic drizzle, and today a gale has struck up, buffeting the attic in my parents’ house where I’ve come to visit. I went out for a walk earlier, when the rain had died down, and fell in love with the wind all over again.

It’s a happy kind of time for me now, though I am occasionally paralysed by moments of doubt and despair. I am the kind of person who fears, most of all maybe, repeating my own mistakes. If I cannot learn from past unhappiness, it is rendered pointless. And as a person who feels emotions very keenly, I sometimes feel I do not have the strength to face some of what I have in the past.

But these dark patches are few, and even the dullness and boredom of this mandatory research project I don’t care about cannot bring me down. Maybe I will finally learn to stop over-analysing, and to simply step into and live in the moment. I am full of hope.

Still, some nicer weather would be good, if only to encourage me to take photographs again!