Category Archives: Health

Life Well-Lived

I just read another Litemind post, which I quoted last time in my post about expertise and problem solving. I hate to post negative comments about other people’s ideas, but this most recent Litemind post really made me mad. The post, by Mark Foo,  starts off completely wrong, suggesting that you “keep in mind the following 50 tips” to streamline your life.

Um. . . 50?

Worse, Foo’s 50 tips consist of things we all know we should do–schedule preventative doctor’s appointments, throw out old clothes, drink lots of water, organize our photos. But is a list of 50 things that we should do (and that there’s almost no way we actually doing) the way to a happier, healthier life?

Maybe the post made me mad because I have worked so hard to get myself out of this kind of mindset–I am trying to truly understand and believe that happiness does not equal checking every single item off of my to-do list.

Au contraire. The only person I know who tracks the amount of water she drinks per day is my 85 year-old grandmother. I’m not trying to imply that her life is empty–she has a very busy social and volunteering schedule. However, I sincerely doubt she kept track of glasses per day when she was in the thick of raising 11 children.

Is organizing your photos a key to an enjoyable life? Well, for some people, yes. I know people who derive a great deal of pleasure from scrapbooking. And for some, showing people photographs is a frequent part of their social activity. I enjoy a well-curated photo album myself. But for a lot of other people, unorganized photos make them feel vaguely guilty–and if they chucked the guilt, the chaotic photos would have no negative effect on their lives whatsoever. After all, would I have a picture from the 1970s of the Future Mister Doctor’s parents dressed in ridiculous outfits on my refrigerator right now if the Dilworths kept their photos organized? No, I would not. I would have looked at the photo once and forgotten about it, instead of discovering it in a messy pile on the coffee table one day and deciding to put it on display.

My uncle once gave me a Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul anthology, and it was mostly cr–well, it was mostly not useful for the doctor or the future doctor. However, one piece of advice in it stuck with me . . . ha! I just found it on Amazon.com . . .the quoted advice is actually from Reader’s Digest. I’m really digging into the non-academic stuff today!

Anyway, this advice was from someone named Nardi Reeder Campion’s Auntie Grace, who developed a short checklist of six things to do every day:

  1. something for someone else
  2. something for herself
  3. something she didn’t want to do but needed doing
  4. a physical exercise
  5. a mental exercise
  6. an original prayer that always included counting her blessings

Now, this advice, I still think, is quite excellent. First of all, it’s manageable . . . only six, and some of them, you could probably combine. (You could cultivate gratitude in yoga class, for example. Or you could talk on the phone while washing dishes. Maybe the thing that needs doing is the dissertation, which surely counts as mental exercise.)

Anyway, I like this advice for dissertators because it focuses on balance–it asks you to do a little bit for your happiness, mental acuity, and physical health every day. And it asks you to be social! You and your book are not the center of the universe, and that’s why something for someone else tops the list. And yet, this list doesn’t ask you to be a selfless saint.  And that thing that “needs doing” could be organizing photos–but it’s only one reprehensible task, which is then offset by that thing you do for no other purpose that your own pleasure.

Auntie Grace’s checklist is still a pretty tall order–I haven’t done half of these things yet today. But I like how unquantified it is, those activities don’t have to be monumental in scale.  If I do some sit-ups and make dinner for the Future Mister Doctor, and take one moment to be happy with what I’ve accomplished instead of worrying about making preventative doctor’s appointments, I’ll consider the day a success.

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Bad Habits

In the months of November and December, I did more panicking about my dissertation than working. Witness the lack of insightful blog posts. Even after all this time, my bad writing habits still take over occasionally.

I will say that I did a better job working while traveling than I ever have, and I think this last bout of depression and anxiety was a) based partly on real-world worry & grieving, not just self-torturing for no reason, and b) still more short-lived than many other bouts of depression and anxiety that I have experienced over the past eight years. Also, c) I did do *some* work. In this dry spell, it at least drizzled once or twice a week.

I’m beginning the new decade in a spirit of self-forgiveness. I don’t have A+ or even A – writing habits yet, and I’m close enough to the end of this process to realize that I’m not going to attain–or, more accurately, I’m not going to maintain great habits in the time that’s left before graduating.Instead of saying, why haven’t I learned anything? Why do I still make the same mistakes? I will celebrate the fact that I can recognize my mistakes more quickly.

During the months of November and December, I knew I wasn’t writing because I was scared. And I had strategies to deal with it: I forced myself to go to the library, where there were no distractions, when visiting Chicago. I spent long periods of each work session reading over the parts of the diss that were finished–which made starting much less daunting, and continuing where I’d left off easier. When I was really paralyzed with the FEAR, I read from my reading list until I got a new idea for something to add to my dissertation, and, more importantly, remembered that I have ideas. A particular background photo on my laptop dissuaded me for opening computer games because it reminded me, in a very gut-punching way, that life is short. (That particular strategy didn’t stay powerful for very long, because that life-is-short sensation is fleeting. But I milked it while it lasted.) I worked from bed a couple of times because I was dreading my desk and somehow it seemed less taxing that working in an upright position.

I also knew, in light of the real-world worries, that I couldn’t demand of myself to be as productive and focused as I wanted to be. And I also knew, after two weeks of not exercising, that I needed to help myself get happier. And I also knew that I couldn’t just snap right back into my exercise-addict routines after such a big break, so I eased myself in with 15 minute walks every day to help my body and mind get excited about physical activity again. Along the same lines, during those first few days of being “back” in dissertation mode, I let myself work for short periods of time and then get huge rewards (watching movies in the middle of the day).

After all, if it was easy to do what we know is best, if humans could live in uncomplicated states of contentment and productivity–there wouldn’t be anything to write dissertations about in the first place.

The Skill of Joy

After posting about positivity the other day, I went into a yoga class themed around joy. We read a passage about joy from Barbara Kingsolver, and then Keith, the teacher, talked about how joy is a skill. We practiced the skill in yoga by attempting to notice three things in 90 minutes that we thought glorious. At the end of the class we shared those “finds” with each other.

Another thing we did in class to discover joy was partner assists in different poses. We gave our partner a quick massage, but before we began, we silently said to ourselves, “I come in peace.” We also briefly meditated across from our partner, and were encouraged to notice something beautiful about them.

Once I got going, I noticed a lot of glorious things: the rich tones of Keith’s “om,” the clean wooden floor, the red curls of a woman named Anna, my own ability to put my foot in my hand and extend my leg (almost) all the way out, the excitement of discussing Kingsolver’s books with my classmates before we left to go home, and the beautiful skin of my partner.

Here is the Kingsolver passage, from High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never:

In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: a perfect outline of a dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with life again, like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

I try to shut off the part of my mind that objects to the corniness of this passage and the practices in yoga, and keep looking for the joy. And as I sit down to my computer to start work for the day, I try to say I come in peace.

Praise for Students & for Selves

My great friend Rebecca Zook just started a blog about learning that I highly recommend called Triangle Suitcase. Her post on praise follows up with my last post on positivity.

Part of the point of Rebecca’s post is that praising students for effort is an effective way to motivate them. When trying to generate positive emotions in oneself, though, I think that effort is something dissertation-writers often overlook. Thoughts like  Wow, I’ve been in school for 24 years! That’s dedication! or I’ve read over fifty books on this topic–I’ve gone to great lengths! could be a way to generate positivity even when the writing itself is not going particularly well.

Positivity

Awhile back, I posted about positive-to-negative ratios in meetings, and how the ideal ratio in meetings between positive and negative comments is at least 3 to 1. Danuta McCall helpfully posted a link to the original research (my information came from an interview Barbara Fredrickson did with The Sun).

My goal for graduate school has always been to enjoy the experience. At times, that has seemed impossible–even laughable. However, Fredrickson & Losada say that even fleeting positive emotions can accrue over time, giving one a storehouse of positivity that can:

  1. widen the scope of attention
  2. facilitate flexibility and a broader range of thoughts & responses
  3. increase intuition & creativity
  4. promote adaptability to new situations
  5. increase immune system functioning
  6. promote resilience to adversity
  7. reduce inflammatory responses to stress

You don’t have to be happy every moment to get these benefits–brief positive emotions help you in the present but also the future. This is partly because positive emotions trigger more positive emotions.

Let’s go back to #2 for a moment: positive people are less predictable, which indicates a greater ability to come up with original thought and meaningful insight. (Incidentally, positive people have better marriages, too, precisely because they are less predictable.)

Interestingly, there is an upper limit to how positive one should be. At a positive-to-negative ratio of 11.6 to 1, flourishing decreases. Intuitively, this makes sense to me: people who are incessantly cheery often seem fake or just ignorant. Indeed, the research shows that positivity perceived as fake is basically the same as negativity.  And you can imagine how hard it would be to learn in an environment where you were never criticized.

The Future Mister Doctor is my role model for positivity: he has a great capacity for gratitude, confidence in his accomplishments, and a tendency to dwell on the positive in conversations. Work colleagues of his frequently gush about all the wonderful things he’s told them about me. In contrast, my friends know about the Future Mister Doctor’s hot temper, his chronic lateness, etc. Indeed, during marriage preparation workshops we discovered that he was, in a sense, in a better relationship than I was. But more importantly for the purposes of productivity, the Future Mister Doctor works long hours, has a huge number of meetings and social interactions per day, and yet succeeds because he is  what he calls “actionable”–he gets his clients results. Not only that, but he has liked every job he’s ever had.

In a way, I don’t want to praise the Future Mister Doctor too much, because I don’t think he works at being positive. For whatever reason (nature/nurture), it comes easily to him. But I do think it’s possible for the more chronically negative person to build up their stores of positivity–exercising to release endorphins, keeping a “gratitude diary” of good things in one’s life, saying small prayers of thanksgiving, wearing ultra-soft socks, etc.

Experiment Results Part 2

The other half of my experiment, exercising five days a week, was a brilliant success.

I don’t look dramatically different, and I’m still basically a weakling, but I feel physically and mentally much better.  I barely took any naps for the whole month, so I know I had more energy. I didn’t cry at all, about anything — except in yoga class, which I consider to be cathartic and healthy. In general, I was less anxious and felt more positive about the state of my life.

I should say feel, because I have continued to exercise five days a week beyond my public commitment to do so. I think this is working for me because:

  1. I didn’t specify a type of exercise or duration, so if I’m really squeezed for time, I can do push-ups and sit-ups for fifteen minutes.
  2. It pushes me to move beyond my much-loved story-time (TV, books, movies) for recreation. The Future Mister Doctor and I took a memorable walk last weekend during which we outlined our plan to get rich, make an awesome charity portfolio, and lend our expertise to our community. The conversation was a vivid reminder of why we got married in the first place, and–though I won’t belittle the joy we get from watching football together–it was a needed injection of deeper, bigger-picture connection into our relationship.
  3. Since exercise is a “must-do”–I have more structure in my day. If I know I need to go to yoga at 5pm, it can get me moving on the dissertation because I have a deadline.

Meaningful Work

I think most of us get into academia looking for meaningful work. Like Lloyd Dobbler, we don’t want to “sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed.”

When doing meaningful work, it’s easy to conflate your identity and your career. And that’s not good, especially when your dissertation writing isn’t going well. The natural cycles of writing and revision that involve frustration, inspiration, procrastination start to feel like endless cycles of self-destruction and self-reconstruction. It wears a person out.

In my undergraduate days, I believed I could have an extreme version of loving my job, where I was happy all the time. But that’s not what teaching or writing have been for me. And here I am in Missouri, surrounded by people who have made a commitment to meaningful work–they grow their own sustainable food, they tend their chickens and their bees and their maple trees. But guess what? They did not leap out of bed with glee yesterday in their non-air-conditioned houses on a 97 degree day. They complained all through lunch. And the rain that brought relief from the heat also brought a little relief from work–most of them weren’t sad to delay some of their outdoor projects.

In trying to dissociate my dissertation from myself sometimes I have pushed it too far away–it seems irrelevant, uninteresting, and not meaningful. Today I am thinking about how to work outside of these extremes. The dissertation is not me, but there is something about it that I want to keep pursuing.