On Happiness

Yesterday evening, I was sitting with a dear friend at one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Café Degas. It’s a little french restaurant with killer french onion soup and a great bartender. Uncle Nick makes the best Sazerac in town, and gracious lords over a bar of just four stools — and it may be my favorite bar in town.

Chez Degas, as we call this little corner of Faubourg St. John, is host to the best character study in New Orleans. I have sat there many a night, whether with friends or alone, and met the most incredible residents and visitors and exchanged stories and always learned something. The first night I visited it was almost at closing: I had my first sazerac ever (and after many, many more, I stand by my prior endorsement) and met a horse trainer who makes his living at the track nearby and the Commodore of the Southern Yacht Club. I have sat in one of those few stools discussing crime in New Orleans with a staff photographer of the Times-Picayune, and the joys of dining alone with an art director in the burgeoning local film industry.

But last night, I sat with an old friend and a new friend, and we met Mohsen. A slight man, with wire-framed glasses that are always a little tinted, Mohsen has a palpable accent despite immigrating here from Iran 33 years ago. He came to the U.S. alone at the age of 17, and has created his own life, which now involves working seven days a week at a coffeeshop he owns, that I happen to love.

Mohsed overheard us talking to Uncle Nick about the recent catastrophe in Norway. We all hypothesized on why someone would kill 80 (or 90+, from varying reports) innocent young people — regardless of your political beliefs. The rumor is that he was afraid of an Islamic takeover of Europe.  It was at this point Mohsed made an ironic comment about “those muslims – never trust them” – which is clearly a joke – and that set us out on a conversation about how many people are killed every day, every year, in every country in the world.  He referred to hundreds of thousands killed in Iraq, I thought about Sudan and a missing generation.

He made an apt point: at least 16,000 are killed in the U.S. every year.  He feels safer walking the streets of Tehran than the streets of New Orleans.  He may be right.  His underlying message – we all live in danger, and killing happens everywhere.  We are not told about all of the fear-making things because they aren’t always good news (as in, news that interests people – not new that is good) – so it’s easy to have a skewed perspective on our own reality, let alone foreign reality.

My friend Erica changed the subject to Mohsed’s life – in the typical way I think that U.S.-born Americans are fascinated with the American Dream we have never really had to pursue.  He is impressive – building his own business out of nothing, and now about to close for a month and travel to see family all over the country.

Erica asked the question: “Are you happy?”

Mohsed, without hesitation: “What is happiness?”  It seemed a useless question to him, unnecessary. “Define Happiness.  Tell me what this ‘happiness’ is?”


This has been a constant challenge for me, especially of late.  How much happiness is about fulfillment?  How much happiness comes from a decision to be happy?  Is it about being content with what we have, and striving towards a Buddhist idea of non-attachment?  Does our capitalist-commericialist society constantly telling us (via advertising) that we are missing something, do not have enough, and are not enough set us all up for constant discontent?

Is that discontent the secret to happiness?  Is working to overcome challenges the secret to being happy?

Or, as Mohsed went on to imply, is Happiness a figment? Is it some imaginary concept we have all been promised to give us something to do?

There’s a lot of philosophy written about this, and I don’t pretend to be well read in all of it.  But it is something we all constantly mull over, I believe.

As someone who manages her depression, this is a particularly fascinating question to me.  I’ve talked some about my depression publicly, and would like to talk more about it.  I am especially fascinated by the growing proportion of people who are diagnosed with some variety of mood disorder (depression, anxiety, and so forth) – and with the suggested reasons why.

Part of my depression comes from a feeling of paralysis about how to be happy.  And that being happy is the “correct” state — so when one is unhappy, one is incorrect.  Where did this come from?  When did this start?

There is no easy way to wrap up this thought.  I am thankful for Mohsed, for asking this question: “What is this ‘happiness’?”

Sickness: Reality Check

I have been sick.  Like, actually sick.  For four days.  And it’s killing me.

Well, it’s not actually killing me.  That is the point of this post.

After having a vague sore throat for a few days, it hit me in the middle of a work day.  That “I have to go lay down RIGHT NOW,” feeling.  This may be my body’s way of telling me that I’m sick, because I’ve felt it before.  So at 3pm on a Thursday, I went home and got into bed, and basically stayed prone for the next 48 hours. I’ve had visits from terrific friends to bring me breakfasts and dinners and movies and well wishes.

This morning a marathon ran past my house.  It felt sort of like pouring salt into a wound.  There I was, watching hundreds of people run thousands of (cumulative) miles, and I am tired after standing up for 30 minutes.

A good and wise friend told me “the exhaustion is so hard to deal with when you are used to being on the go.”  She is quite right.

This makes me realize how spoiled I really am.  Every time I’m sick, I think of people who live with this level of exhaustion on a daily basis.  I think about those chronic fatigue, or fibromyalgia, or chemo or… anything.  Exhaustion is a major symptom of so many illnesses, and so often we judge those suffering – claiming it’s “all in their head.”  We have developed a bias in our society towards people who don’t need to sleep and can work 20 hour days and be superhuman, that we begin to think that’s real.  Or even possible.  So someone who isn’t able to do those things is somehow not just deficient, but delinquent.

So here I am, laying on my sofa, blogging (first world problems, anyone?), feeling sorry for myself because my house isn’t as clean as it should be and I have to go back to work tomorrow after not having a “real” weekend.  And disappointed because I wasn’t out running 13 or 26 miles this morning.  When did it become ok to feel that being sick makes me deficient?  As opposed to simply human. Mortal.

When is our hubris going to catch up with us, as a society?  When is my hubris going to catch up with me, as a sane human being?

 

 

What I Learned About Life… from Weight Watchers

I don’t talk about it all that much anymore.  My history as a “fat girl” stays pretty hidden – I may even be a little embarrassed, or possibly even ashamed, of it.

So for the fun of it, I’ll out myself once and for all: I am a fat girl.  I was 9’8″ when I was born, and I looked like the Michelin baby when I was 6 months old.  I always thought I was a fat kid growing up (I wasn’t, ironically – but that’s one of the lessons, so hang tight).  I started dieting in high school, and I lost some weight, but by the time I graduated I was 215.  I’m 5’6″.  It was not pretty.  I was muffin topping out of my size 18s.  Not. Pretty.

I went off to college, and thought about it a lot, and was conflicted about it, as many young women are about their weight – regardless of reality.  I lost the Freshman 15 – mostly because I lived in a 4th floor walkup and dorm food is lousy.  But 5 years later, when I came back to New Orleans, I was still in the same place.  Fat.

It was then, thanks in part to a very dear friend and soulmate, I went to Weight Watchers.  We went together.  We were both heavy, we both wanted to do something about it.  I lost 40 pounds, she lost 50.  She still had more to lose, and that was about when she lost track. But I became “lifetime” in 2005, and I have maintained at least 25# of that loss ever since.  I changed how I ate.  I started running, and changed how I thought of myself — instead of being a “theatre kid,” I realized I had some athleticism.  Katrina threw a wrench in a lot of it, and I’ve had some weights better than others.

Full disclosure: I am not at my goal weight currently.  I could stand to lose 20 pounds.  And so that leads to lesson #1…

1. It’s all about the journey.  When you’re “losing” on program, it’s easy to stay motivated.  When you have a destination in mind, when you have something to work towards, there’s tons of reinforcement.  When you arrive, it’s incredibly exciting.  And pretty quickly, it gets boring.  Contrary to what you thought, you STILL have to work just as hard (if not harder, on occasion) to “stay at goal.”  It’s like running to stand still.  Initially, that’s demoralizing.  Until you have your first taste of regaining, and then you realize: it’s about setting new goals. It’s about ALWAYS working to better, always striving towards something.  Our goals change in life, but you must always have a next step – a higher height. After I hit goal, I started running.  I’ve run 4 half-marathons.  I think part of the reason I haven’t run a full marathon is because then I’ll have to set a new goal.

2. Feedback, not failure.  Weight Watchers teaches some of the best positive thinking around.  This is one of my favorites.  It’s easy to beat yourself up when you have a setback.  A job interview doesn’t go how you want.  That perfect first date never calls you for a second. When you’re working really hard at something and it doesn’t work out (whether because of luck or just imperfect behavior) – its easy to give up.  It is human nature to allow your brain to go down that negative path, into the “spin cycle” of self-defeat.  And very quickly you realize you’re on a completely separate track going somewhere you don’t want to go.  When something doesn’t go your way, take a step back.  Stop asking and dwelling on what you did wrong, and ask instead “How could I have done that differently?”  This is also about always looking forward instead of looking back.  Feedback, not failure.

3. If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.  This is a phrase borrowed, of course, and one that I recently got in a fortune cookie.  A very similar one, that I also love, is the Einstein quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  If you don’t like the results, change what you’re doing.  Period.

4. Don’t ever assume anything about another person’s journey.  In a Weight Watchers center, when a “thin” woman walks in, there is often a vague feeling of disdain that is almost palpable. “What is she doing here? She doesn’t need to be here.”  It’s amazing how quickly we judge someone by how they appear.  It only takes once or twice for that “thin” woman to stand up in a meeting and say she lost 80+ pounds that you start to get it.  In many ways, you need meetings more once you hit goal weight.  You must constantly remotivate yourself.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  And just because a woman is thin, doesn’t mean she wasn’t once fat.

5. Finally, just because a woman looks “thin” doesn’t mean she’s happy with her weight or her appearance or her clothes fit.  I alluded to this above, and I suspect it will fascinate me my whole life.  I am relatively happy at my current weight, ironically.  I can shop in “normal” stores, I still think I’m attractive and sexy, and it seems men do too.  My physical self-esteem is tied far more to how I treat my body (sleeping enough, exercising enough, eating right) than how it looks.  And I have known women who are perfect size 6s who are far more troubled about their weight than I ever was.  So the last lesson: It’s all in your head.

This is common self-help speak.  You can change your reality if you can change how you think.  It’s that last part that I don’t even have an inkling about how to do.  Suggestions welcome.