How to be Happy: Compare Yourself to Yourself

As a therapist and a person, I hear time and time again “I just want to be happy” or “I’m not sure why I am not happy.” Upon further discussion it almost always leads to the other person comparing themselves to others around them. Whether it is a single person comparing themselves to all of their paired-up friends or a person in a dead-end job comparing themselves to people they know that are successful. Comparisons.

I’m not sure when humans as a species first learned to compare themselves to others around them but I bet it is similar to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” After all, how did we determine who the fittest was or how could we be fitter than the fittest if we first did not compare ourselves to our fellow humans?

This logic might have worked for us back when we had to run from wild animals, but like many evolutionary traits (like the fight or flight response!) they don’t have nearly as much use as they did way back when.

Now, in the modern world, we use that “comparison trait” to compare ourselves to others who already excel in one area where we are weak. Like my earlier examples of single vs. in-a-relationship or in a dead-end job vs. successful. This is not a very fair comparison at all since the other people already have something that you desire. Sometimes this type of comparing can lead to people working harder to surpass others, but more often it leads to unhappiness.

So how does this all relate to happiness?

I’m not sure we can do away with the “comparison trait” all together, but we can turn the focus more inward than outward.

Instead of comparing yourself to what others choose to show you, you can compare your current self to your former self.

Make your own happiness dependent on whether you are growing as a person and completing goals you set out for yourself. Every person is unique and has unique ways they grow. This cannot be fairly compared to the growth or success of someone else. It can be as big as taking a chance and asking someone out that you’ve had a crush on or as small as cleaning your house. Both examples create a sense of personal accomplishment that involves no comparisons.

Three Ways in which to do this:

  1. Start a happiness journal/log and log 3 things you were grateful for that day. Do this for a month and see what happens.
  2. Have a bunch of hobbies you never have time for? Make a list of hobby goals (for yourself!) and set out to accomplish them. ie. learning to cook, learning a new language etc. Make sure it’s easily measurable so you can compare your progress and growth!
  3. Comparing yourself to others looks-wise? Make fitness goals and keep track of your progress. Fitness goals are a good choice because they are about YOU and are easily measurable.

There you have it–whether or not you choose to focus on internal or external happiness is on you.

 

5 Common Obstacles That Stop You From Practicing Mindfulness and How to Overcome Them

One of the first skills I often teach is mindfulness since it has many different uses and benefits. A simple definition of mindfulness would be focusing on one thing at a time, in the present moment, with awareness and acceptance. There are two main types of mindfulness: informal and formal. Informal mindfulness practice involves taking something you are already doing such as taking a shower, eating breakfast, or walking to work, and trying to do it more mindfully with awareness of what you are experiencing in the present moment. Formal mindfulness practices occur when you take five or so minutes and practice focusing on the present moment whether it is focusing on your breathing, an object, your pulse, etc. Meditation would be more of a formal mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness

Just like any new skill, mindfulness can be very hard to implement and incorporate into your life. I like to practice mindfulness myself and often run into the same problems my clients do when trying to practice. Here are a few of the common obstacles I have found clients (as well as myself) have encountered throughout the years.

 

“I can’t do it.”

When clients tell me this, what they often really mean is that they find it very hard to do. Think of mindfulness like you think about working out. Most people find working out hard to do at first, but if you keep at it, it gets easier. The same goes for mindfulness. The key is to keep practicing in spite of it being hard.

 

“I don’t have time.”

This is often my problem with mindfulness! It’s also the easiest to fix! You do not have to take time out of your day to practice mindfulness. You can do it with any activity, anywhere, anytime! That’s the beauty of informal mindfulness — taking an activity you already do and doing it more mindfully. One of my favorite informal mindfulness exercises to do is to pet my cat mindfully. Often I pet her so she will stop annoying me, but when I turn it into a mindfulness exercise for myself, I focus on what her fur feels like beneath my hand, listen to the sounds she makes (if any), and look at the features of her face. When you are practicing formal mindfulness, it also does not have to be for a long period of time. Customize the length of time to suite your needs. I often practice focusing on my breathing for 2 minutes.

 

“I can’t stay focused!”

This is another one of my favorite problems. Not being able to focus is perfectly normal! Our minds are thinking a million different thoughts a day! It’s what our minds are designed to do!  The key here is to throw your agenda and expectations out the window. Holding onto goals such as being able to focus actually get in the way of being able to be in the present moment. Mindfulness is less about staying focused and more about noticing (without judgement) when your mind drifts and bringing it back to the present moment.

 

“When I practice, I start to think of things I don’t want to think about (grief, sadness).”

Part of mindfulness is training your mind so that you are in control! Mindfulness is not about avoiding or suppressing painful thoughts or emotions, it is about accepting them and not judging whatever comes up. If you are practicing mindfulness and focusing on certain things (sounds etc.) brings your mind back to past painful events, it won’t be helpful to let your mind take you where it wants you to go (back to that loss etc.).  So instead of letting your mind take you to an unhelpful place, simply acknowledge your thoughts and focus your attention back to the exercise.  Being able to realize when your mind drifts and bringing it back to the present moment is one of the most powerful aspects of mindfulness. Once you have completed the exercise, you can explore the feelings that arose.

 

“It makes me tired.”

For people with sleeping problems, drifting off to sleep while practicing mindfulness might be a good thing! You can practice it before bed and get to sleep faster. But mindfulness is being aware of the present moment, and how can you be aware if you are asleep? Relaxation is not the goal of mindfulness, but it is often a secondary benefit because people often choose relaxing activities such as mindfulness exercises (taking a bath, focusing on your breath, body scans). Some people are so busy in their lives and don’t spend time focusing on one thing that when they finally do this, they get bored and sleepy. The key is to treat feeling tired or bored like any other urge. Make room for it, acknowledge it, and focus your attention back to the exercise.

 

Hopefully these common obstacles and solutions will help you further your mindfulness practice! Don’t give up! With more practice, you will soon be the master of your own mind! For a quick introduction to mindfulness, check out this video.

 

 

 

Tips on How To Re-do Your To-Do List

Common problem, right?  So much on your “to-do” list, but not enough motivation to get anything done. One look at your “to-do” list sends you looking for something else to do instead. I used to do this constantly. I’d make long “to-do” lists, take one look at them and my mind would start coming up with its own list — the “reasons why not to do my to-do” list. My “to-do” list that I made in hopes of motivating myself suddenly did the opposite! I started thinking thoughts such as “I will not have enough time to get everything done,” As well as,  “I think (insert the first thing on the list) will take too much effort.” Does your mind come up with similar thoughts when faced with your daily “to-do” list?

The solution? Well, you could stop these thoughts from happening (not likely), power through and not let these thoughts affect you or change up your “to-do” list.

For the sake of this post, I’m going to opt to do the third option. Let’s take an average “to-do” list and tweak it a bit as to not get so overwhelmed, discouraged, and unmotivated by the actual list.

To-Do:

  • Catch up on bills for 2 hours
  • Exercise for 1 hour
  • Go to the grocery store
  • Clean the house

Wow, just looking at the small list I’ve made gets me a bit overwhelmed! While this list is fairly specific, I find the time limits of one and two hours to be a bit constricting and daunting. Bills for two hours? No, thank you! Cleaning the house? Right away my mind is saying “I really do not feel up to cleaning the whole house.”

The usual acronym when setting goals is SMART or Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. I really like to focus on the first four letters. I feel like people get confused with the time-bound piece and adding a time constraint or a “time due” can be un-motivating.

What is helpful to do with a list like this is to break the goals down into even smaller tasks (specific and attainable) thus being able to get rid of the timeframes. Let’s start breaking some tasks down. “Catch up on bills” can be broken down to “pay the cable, gas, and electric bill” and clean the house could be broken down to “clean the kitchen and living room.” Notice I am not saying you have to pay all of the bills, just three. Nor am I saying you have to clean the whole house, just two rooms, which seems more manageable. Plus, you might even get into a rhythm and keep cleaning, but you cannot find this rhythm if you are unmotivated by reading your “to-do” list. You can also break down the exercise task to a more specific “do favorite workout video.”

Another tip: organize your list in order of importance and urgency. Tasks that are more important and more urgent should be done first (I like to highlight or star these items) and should be at the top of the list. A task of going to the grocery store can seem less daunting if you prepare a list ahead of time (and bring it!).

Lastly, I always like to write a few keywords about why I am doing these tasks in the first place, values, if you will. These words help keep me on task and motivate me. For this list, I’ll use responsible, healthy, and peace. Paying bills makes me feel responsible, when I go grocery shopping I tend to make healthier choices about what I am eating, and having a clean kitchen/living room helps me feel more at peace in my home.

Let’s re-write this to-do list:

  • Pay the cable, gas, and electric bill
  • Go to the grocery store (bring list!)
  • Do favorite workout video
  • Clean the kitchen and living room
  • Responsible, Healthy, Peace

Doesn’t this list seem more doable? Sure, there are fewer tasks and you might not “clean the whole house” in one day, but this new list seems to be a great deal more motivating. Plus, you will get more satisfaction when you cross more tasks off your list rather than looking at your list and realizing you did not “pay all the bills.” If you stick to broader more complicated tasks, you might not complete them.

“To-do” lists are great, if you know how to word them for success and motivation! Happy list making!

Simple goals mean more progress and more motivation.

Simple goals mean more progress and more motivation.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Portrayed in Grey’s Anatomy Scene

Does anyone out there watch Grey’s Anatomy? If not, no judgment, if so, no judgment. I was catching up on episodes when I came across this scene that was so on the money with a type of therapy I use in session that it inspired me to wrote a post!

To set the scene for those who are not familiar, (or who have not seen the episode–SPOILER ALERT!!) Amelia, whose brother just tragically died, tells Owen that she is handling it very well and is doing “amazingly.” She also admits to have gotten some prescription drugs that she might take (she is a former prescription drug addict) due to not being able to “manage” her emotions anymore.

Owen (in a very Acceptance and Commitment Therapy kind of way) explains that grieving after the loss of a loved one is very “normal” and that feeling sadness/pain is a part of life. Instead of allowing painful emotions and feelings to happen and moving through the pain, he realized that they both run from their pain. She takes prescription medication and bottles up her emotions. He enrolled in the army again and leaves the country on duty. He expressed that they are supposed to “feel, love, hurt, grieve” and they are “supposed to break” and that that is the whole point of being alive. Owen, I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Clients often say to me in session, “I wish I never felt sad again” or “I wish I never felt heartache again.” That’s all fine, but personally, I would choose to feel painful emotions. If we allow ourselves to feel pain and work through it, we give up the struggle with the painful emotion and are better able to move past it. If one never feels pain or unpleasant emotions they also block out the ability to feel the pleasant ones such as joy, love, and happiness.

Who would have thought– all that insight in one Grey’s Anatomy clip!

Note: This clip seems to no longer be available on Youtube. Sorry!