On any given day, there is almost nothing I have to do. I’m not working. The nest is empty. You’d think, as I did when I was busy with work or children or both, that this life is paradise. Uh, no. I’m not complaining, mind you. But it turns out happiness isn’t just about not getting bossed around. Not just about removing external demands on your time. Because you are always subject to the demands of your self. And the self can be a pretty persnickety master.
Some days I am giddy and happy, almost all day long. Some days I am nagged by little jabs of distress, or an underlying feeling of dread. A very first world problem, as they say, but when that’s where you live, that’s what you face. Time without demands has focused me on how to put myself into a good mood as much as possible. I’m not kidding. I’ve been experimenting. Seems that if I have the privilege of not working, it’s my responsibility to enjoy my freedom as much as possible. Which requires a good mood.
If the attempt below hints at hubris, please excuse me in advance. High WASPs believe in prophylactic apologies. I do not mean to imply that I am wise, or evolved, or even a spokesperson for the project of happiness. Just had some time to spare.
Here’s what I have found.
1. Get a good night’s sleep or you are man down from the git go. Drink little alcohol – or none, eat a very light dinner, shut down the computer at least an hour before bed, make sure you have a good book for those final moments awake under the covers, let in cool night air or engineer some, drink just enough and not too much water. There is nothing more predictive of a good mood day than a good night’s sleep.
2. Spend some time noticing and enjoying the weather. That’s easy in a California summer. It’s hard to feel gray under so much blue sky. But almost every kind of weather has something good about it. The noon light on a gray day, the sound of rain hitting windows, evenings when high humidity locations cool off a little bit. Dinner at 8pm, as the temperature finally falls to 80 degrees. Or, if none of that is possible, internal weather. A fire in the fireplace. Do not discount your really strong air conditioner.
3. Create a to-do list that matches your capabilities. A couple of short-term things, tasks with deadlines, or stuff easily done that creates more mental health that it takes away. For me that’s removing visual clutter, folding laundry, clearing up a counter. But also make daily progress on what you really care about. Your heart-felt priorities. For some people, that’s helping others. Contributing to the world. For some, it’s moving towards a personal goal. Again, I’m not talking about how to be a good person here, who can say what that means? I’m just presenting my research on how to have a good mood day.
4. Develop a routine that allows you to accomplish a lot on your to do list without having to think about when or how. Structure your habits so they support your tasks and goals. I find I exercise better if I schedule in classes to attend. I go to yoga at 1pm, while the walk I meant to take at 8:30am is mysteriously postponed until it’s too late. And why it’s too late is one of those metabolic mysteries that must simply be obeyed. I write when I have finished my first cup of tea. That way I don’t have to think about it. The effort of planning and deciding takes a toll on cheer. Why do you think people take cruises? Apply a cruise ship mentality to your day. A Lindblad cruise, more than Carnival, but a cruise nevertheless.
5. Move around. Music is good. I love Pandora radio. Note that I am not saying you have to “work out.” Just moving around as much as possible is enough to start up a good mood. Formal exercise is a long term effort for health and vanity, but it doesn’t make me any happier than dancing while I clean the house, or weeding in the back yard for an hour or two.
6. Get outside. Scientists think they can prove that nature makes us happy. Glorious redwood forests and wildflower meadows may lift our hearts but we can even find a little nature in some plants on a balcony. If you stop reading and consider, my guess is that you know exactly where your nearest nature is. We tend to know these things.
7. Find a vista, if you can. A beach, a hillside, the 15th floor, doesn’t matter. Studies show that people feel better with an uninterrupted view where someone or something has their back.* I can see the sky out my living room window, as I sit on my sofa. I look up a lot.
8. Use food like medicine. Not as an addiction, but as preventive, curative, medicine. Lean protein will help you to feel full. Definitely a good mood moment. Lots of vegetables and fruits are good for digestion. Another good mood moment. Chocolate, in moderation. And comfort food from your personal history – with the caveat that in this day and age, given what we know, it’s going to be very difficult to sustain a good mood if you have eaten in a way that doesn’t support your health and appearance. Sometimes our histories subvert our happiness, and that’s a larger project. Worth undertaking.
9. Talk to one person you love, only to connect, only to enjoy their being and remember why you love them. Talking to people about whether they have finished the estimate, or where they put their sunglasses, or how they need to get to the table now or dinner will be cold and disgusting, isn’t a moment of connection. When we let the presence of someone we love fill our hearts, to my way of thinking, that is the goodest of all good moods.
10. Some days you may wake up and know that you are going to suffer. There is nothing wrong with one day spent lying on your sofa with magazines, DVDs, Hulu, a good trashy novel. A mental health day, if you will. Indulging in recreation has few repercussions.
11. On the days when all this fails, go easy on yourself. You eat too much chocolate, tomorrow is another day. Don’t fall into a spiral of eating more just because you ate some. Same with alcohol. You left all those papers on the desk, unsorted? No matter. We are humans. We wrap buildings, we aim for peace, we cry at commercials. We get confused. There is value, on occasion, in acceptance.
12. Finally, don’t borrow trouble, as our grandmothers might have said, then. Stay in the moment, as the Buddhists might say, now. And do. Any time you have a minute that belongs to you, notice. And if it feels you have no time that belongs to you, make some. Because even I, with no boss, no job, no children at home, no deadlines, can feel as though I have no time that is my own. So it must be something we set up, that feeling. And must be something we can break down.
If I try to pinpoint the things from this list that I have found to have the most impact, I’d say sleep, movement, and accomplishing any absolute deadline tasks. Then, don’t borrow trouble, because at bottom most of us are natively glad to be alive. We can set our bodies up to feel cheerful, and quiet our minds to give that feeling some space.
This is all rather touchy feely. Let’s pretend we’re not talking emotions. Our human frailty. The short sweetness of life. Let’s pretend it’s just research. Dry, rational, objective. Thank you. Much appreciated. Otherwise I’d have to put my tongue back into my cheek. Thank you very much. Have a wonderful weekend.
* I read about this vista study a long time ago, before the Internet. I’ve never forgotten it, but can’t find it now. Apparently random natural patterns are also good for us, like leaves in the wind, light on the water.
**I know that for some, body chemistry means that native happiness is elusive. Depression is a different kettle of fish, one which I don’t know much about.