Tuesday, March 08, 2011

How to Beat the Blues

The more I talk to people, the more I discover that very few people seem happy with their life. Every one gives me a different story, but at the end they all seem to mean the same thing. There is a serious case of the blues going around, we all would feel better without it. I figured I would write something that would give us all something to think about if not change lives entirely.

Let me begin with some lengthy disclaimers. I am not a psychiatrist and if you are hurting about something like abuse or loss of a dear one, you need something bigger and if possible to talk to a professional. This post is aimed at people who outwardly seem to have it all, but are not able to feel truly happy.

Again, this is not a "Look at me, I am sooo happee, nyah-nyah" post. I am human, I have bouts of depression too. I sometimes cry for no real reason and I am a pessimist. This post talks about some small things that have helped me overcome my bouts of self pity. And I hope this can help others too. If I sound patronizing, please be forgiving and know that that was not my intention.

1. Organize your living space
It is really surprising how something as insignificant as this and can cause such a great impact on how we feel. Start with just your desk for instance. First take inventory of all your possessions. You would be surprised at the number of things your find hidden in the corners. Have a trash bag handy to throw away everything you don't need. For the things that you do want to keep, make sure that you find a place for it. Don't lump all pens to the bottom drawer, find a pen stand so that the next time you need a pen you don't have to hunt. This is seriously the most important part of the process. Many times when we clean, we have the tendency to clean the surface and dump everything into an unseen closet. Take the time to find a place for it. So that the next time you clean, it's just returning things to their places.

And when you are done, it will feel good. Even people who don't find the act of cleaning to be therapeutic will find the after effect very satisfying. Every time we see a messy space, our mind cringes. For some it cringes really loudly (think Martha Stewart) and they are the kind of people who have a spotless home. But for everyone, I am sure have atleast a small negative reaction when we see the mess. If we get rid of this, this is one less time we feel bad on a daily basis. And it doesn't take that much time at all. A journey to a million stars begins with a tiny step. So take that step and you will realize that the stars are not so far off after all.

2. Have a To Do list
I have always believed in the power of the written word over the read word. You get an email about a bill that needs to be paid. Sure, you trust your memory and file it into your trusty mental file cabinet and decide to pay that bill when you get paid in a few days. Time rolls on and you get another email about the late fee that is now tacked onto your now delinquent account. Sound familiar?

Sometimes I think about all the things that need to be done and I feel overwhelmed that the chores will never end. But most of the tasks that need to be done require just a small amount of time. You just need to remember to do them. I find writing these down to be more effective than just thinking about getting them done. Also I find it therapeutic to cross items off the list. When I write things down in my planner, I try to make it so that each line item is something that can be accomplished in 15 minutes. For example, a year ago we decided to refinance our car loan. While writing that down, my to do did not say "Refinance car loan". It was
1) Call credit union to check eligibility
2) Collect required documents
3) Register car in Wisconsin
4) Make appointment with credit union to refinance.
Each of these are specific goals which take a definite amount of time. Even though it took a long time to register our car in Wisconsin, I was able to cross off 2 items in the process before that. This way I know that I am making progress in my plans and each small step is recognized. I know that the concept of a todo book or a planner does not appeal to everyone, but I really urge you to try it. And it doesn't have to be paper and pen, there are iPhone apps to do this. Or it could just be an unsent email in your drafts.

3. Get a hobby
I can see you rolling your eyes. I am sure every self help book out there talks about this. But trust me folks, it does really help. There are two parts to "get a hobby". First we need to find something that we want to do and more importantly we need to find sometime every week to actually do that. For this purpose, it helps if we pick something that involves going to a class. It seems too much of a commitment to set apart a few hours of the weekend every week for this, but after awhile you will start to appreciate the schedule. When it comes to choosing something, I am partial to learning a new language, because I find it fun. It can be anything - dancing, yoga, art, roller skating, swimming. The possibilities are endless. You need to pick something and commit to spending time on that for atleast a month. This is important because only after a period of time will you realize if that hobby is for you. For example, I joined a drawing class an year ago with a local artist. I visualized myself spending hours in front of an easel and producing magnificent works of art. But after 4 classes I realized that while I seemed to love the idea of drawing something beautiful, I didn't enjoy the actual drawing process. I found the process of perfecting strokes to be very tedious and resented the time spent on it. No harm done, I just stopped going to those classes and picked up swimming. And I cannot stress this enough, but once you find something you remotely like, start devoting a fixed chunk of time to that regularly. Something like Saturday mornings are for swimming.

Once you start spending more time on you activity you can see yourself getting better at it. And once you create that piece or art or the instant when you realize that you can string together complete sentences in that language is amazing to say the least. You don't have control over other parts of you life, but this tiny part that you control and nuture can give you the happiness that will spill over the other distasteful parts of it.

4. Eliminate/Reduce your time sink
Everyone has one of those. That thing you do mindlessly, all the while knowing that there are 100 other more useful things that you could be doing right now. For me it is playing Angry Birds while some sitcom rerun is running on TV. For S it is browsing through youtube videos. I am sure Facebook is a time sink for many. Make a conscious decision to cut that off for a week or if you are worried about quitting cold turkey, atleast impose a time restriction. The time you recover from this can be spent on the item I discussed above or the item I am going to discuss below

5. Meet new people
This is something I struggle with and trying my best to improve. As we become older, we become more set in our ways and I find that it is no longer easy to just go and talk to someone and make them my new best friend. We seem to subject friendships to higher standards and the fact that they are the same age as us doesn't count for so much anymore. But all this makes it more important to go out and meet new people. So many times my couch seems more comfortable and the TV seems to offer more familiar entertainment than going out to meet someone or invite someone we don't know very well for dinner. But we always build these things up in our head and make it seem like a super awkward fest where everyone ignores you. But that's not always the case. Most times the other person is also looking forward to meet people. I am not going to lie and say that it will be absolutely fantastic each time. But what do you lose? A few hours of your time maybe, and you get a story out of it too. :-) So join a book club, go to happy hour, go to a class, talk to the person sitting next to you in the airplane. Everything need not conclude in long lasting friendships.

6. Stop feeling sorry for yourself
Oh how we love doing this! In my mind I am the unluckiest girl on the planet and nothing good happens to me. But that's not true and it's not true for anyone. I am not asking you to beat yourself up for everything that happens, but give the universe a break and do not blame the stars for misfortunes. Just move on. There is nothing you can do to change the past. When it stops hurting so much, you can look back and see if you can learn some lessons from it.

This last step is easier said than done. I think that following the first five steps will help you with this one. You have a fancy to-do list with the half the items accomplished - there is no reason for you to feel sorry for yourself. It is also difficult to pity someone who is at a kick-ass party and is surrounded by people.

I am sorry for anyone who started reading, looking for an instant pick-me-up. I have said nothing new and this is something that any person on the road would tell you if you told them you were unhappy with your life. We have a tendency to ignore the obvious and use that as an excuse to not do anything. The cliche works, but only if you choose to do something about it. You can read about 1000 ways to improve your life, but it will not amount to anything if you don't do anything. So get off that chair now and go do something. Trust me, you will feel happier.


Mukundhan said...

Nice one. Seems to have come out of your experience and hence I guess will work.

janani said...

Thanks da. Yes, they all are things I tried when S was living away. And it helped.

Anonymous said...

Visiting your blog after a very long time


Jinguchakka said...

This is one among your top posts, up right there!!

It is spot on.


janani said...

@sundar - welcome

@srini - Thanks Srini. Sometime it helps if someone else tells us the obvious :-)

Manju said...

Very well written Janani!:) And very applicable too..

Anonymous said...

great post. Love the tips!

Alice said...

My friends, a good cocktail, a shopping session and a girl's night out; always work for me. This always gets me out of the blues.