A licence to live?

how-to-live

Recently, a couple of my close friends—and a new friend—have been having a particularly rough ride. Career choice troubles, romantic break down, family illnesses… And I’ve taken the role of consoler & kind ear, as we all do for friends in need.

I’ve also had a difficult year in many ways. And so, I’ve been pondering the fact that we—all of us—need a little help to live.

Where does help come from?

Some of us might get help in living without even having to ask. Some of us seek it out from trusted friends, mentors and loved ones. Yet, many of us may not even, for whatever reason, be aware that we need this help, that we can ask for it. Some of us are too ashamed to admit to needing help.

Most of us, in the western world, live outside of a religious system to help us understand our traumas. Therapy still has a stigma attached to it. We don’t always want to readily admit to reading so-called ‘self-help’ books. Even receiving life coaching, or journal writing, might be embarrassing for some to admit. I wonder why this is.

I wonder why, though in both the UK and US you need a licence to drive a motor vehicle, we are left unlicensed in life. No wonder we experience so many life ‘crashes’—pile-ups, even! We are—each of us—behind the wheel of a life we may or may not have been sufficiently instructed to operate (and usually not.)

What I suppose I’m saying is:

It’s okay to look into finally getting your proverbial licence.
It’s okay if you haven’t ‘got this’ just yet.
It’s okay to live in the world your questions create.

And it’s okay to ask for help, because we’re all on the same road.

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The Story of Happiness

happiness-is-a-story

Last week I wrote about how the self – our identity – is considered by many psychologists to be a kind of narrative; that the self is a story.

I briefly mentioned that, if our own identity can be seen as a story, then certainly our sense of happiness might be seen that way too.

But, to suggest such a thing, don’t we need to get to the heart of what happiness is? It seems obvious, but have you ever tried to pin down exactly how you conceive of happiness? Few of us do, and as a result it can remain abstract and half-considered, despite the hunger to pursue it that defines much of the western world.

A History of Happiness

“Since we all of us desire happiness, how can we be happy?” asked Plato in 380 BC, and – despite varying definitions of across cultures and eras – this fascination endures today. In recent years, the science of positive psychology has sought to define and measure the assorted shades of happiness, with varying success. Perhaps that is the real seduction of happiness: that we can’t quite define it in truly fixed terms because it is as intricately woven and unique as our DNA.

Is happiness simply an emotion, or a state of being? Is it a gift, or a skill? Does it rely on quality, or quantity? And what does it look like? Is it big, or small? Loud, or lightly whispered? Does it sparkle, or sigh?

Happiness is a tricky mistress; because everybody
 seems to classify her differently, and sometimes what we think will make us happy doesn’t quite do the job in the way we’d hoped. This is why it can be helpful to try to define (and, perhaps, regularly redefine) happiness, because the more sincere the definition, the more it can serve us; offer us a reason for being; be our mission should we choose to accept it…

A good way to begin to conceptualise your own story of happiness, is to think about what you stand for.

What kind of happiness do you stand for?

John Lennon famously said, in regard to his politics, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Similarly, if your happiness doesn’t stand for something – if your idea of it is vague, or simply inherited from others (the media, your culture etc.) – you might find you’ve being accepting mediocre and unfulfilling versions of it. Maybe for you happiness is political; maybe you believe in a universal basic income, or a share-economy. Maybe happiness is freedom: from the dreary office cubicle or student debt.

Far be it from me to supply you with a narrative for happiness, the task is yours and yours alone. Yet, if you’ve ever pondered “will [insert person/job/object here] make me happier?” then it stands to reason that you should have a clear (albeit evolving) definition – a story – of happiness. How else could we ever hope to glean authentic answers to such questions?

One of my favourite definitions of happiness is this one:

“Happiness can’t be reduced to a few agreeable sensations. Rather, it is a way of being and of experiencing the world—a profound fulfilment that suffuses every moment and endures despite inevitable setbacks.” — Matthieu Ricard

 

I think I’m pretty happy with that as my ‘story of happiness.’ What about you?

Try It: Write the Story of Your Happiness

If you want to explore your very own story of happiness – to begin to paint a clearer picture of this oft elusive seductress – as always: I suggest you write it out. Start a blank page in a journal or notebook, and begin with the words:

Happiness is…

Then, without stopping, editing, or censoring yourself, write for five minutes. Inevitably, you’ll have been carrying around some definitions that you’ve inherited but that may not suit you anymore, and in my experience the longer you write, the further you get beyond these ‘stock’ answers. You might find it helpful to write a ‘Happiness isn’t…’ list too, if you sense you’ve got some pretty stubborn definitions to shake off.

This ‘free-write’ doesn’t have to make much sense, think of it more as a cleansing ritual: a way to rinse away any particularly sticky or stale stories. You may even choose to do the exercise two or three times. As I say, the longer you write, the clearer you usually get.

My hope is that, eventually, you’ll strike gold, and by that I mean you’ll get a definition that makes you think, “hallelujah, that’s it! That’s what it’s all about!” It might be as succinct as a few words, or a long and elaborate manifesto, whatever feels right. Keep going until you get there.


Share?

If you want to share a snippet of your story – or a favourite quote like mine – I’d love to see it! You can either post it in the comments below, email it to me megan[at]meganchayes[dot]com or share it on Instagram with #happinessisastory and tag me @megan.c.hayes so I definitely won’t miss it.

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6 Tips for Getting Unstuck with Journal Writing

tips-for-getting-unstuck

We’ve all been there. You’re engine is revving but your tires are stuck in the mud. You want to be someone, get somewhere, do something; to make yourself proud, to escape the day job, to pay the bills, to finally get over it.

Whether it’s a break up you can’t get past or you’re fuzzy on your plans for world domination, here are six tips for getting unstuck with journal writing.

You’ll need: A pen, paper, & a commitment to possibility.

  1. Write this sentence-starter: “Being a bit stuck right now is okay because…” Then finish it. Instant self-compassion. (FYI: compassion is always the best place to start.) Rinse and repeat a few times.
  2. …then this one: “I want to get unstuck because…” This gets to the root of your longing, and sometimes the root of your problem. If you want to get unstuck to impress your parents or pals, for example, then it might be a lack of integrity in your goals that is keeping you in stalemate. Explore this a little.
  3. Create a simile for your stuck-ness. (Like the metaphor of tires I used in the opening paragraph.) Think of jazz-singer Norah Jones and her song Turn Me On, which is basically a simile party and all the similes were invited: “Like a flower waiting to bloom… Like a light bulb in a dark room.” I find seasonal analogies helpful, because they remind us that nature is always in flux, i.e. that stuck-ness is never permanent. Something like, “I feel like a leafless, lifeless winter tree waiting for the spring.” Use your imagination. Pick what feels right.
  4. Build on your simile. If you’re like my leafless tree, then the good news is that spring is coming, you might just have to wait a while. If your tires are stuck in the mud, then you might need a good push from a friendly passer-by. If you’re Norah’s light bulb then you might need someone to (ooer!) turn you on. What’s the solution to your simile? How might that solution relate to your real-life situation?
  5. Switch your perspective. There are lots of ways to do this, you can ‘zoom out’ and pretend you’re looking back to this period of your life from ten years in the future. What would you say to comfort yourself? Or, you can pretend a close friend of yours is feeling stuck. What would you tell them? Or, you can imagine your childhood self and what it would be like to have that little you in your arms. How would you reassure her? The key is to see the situation from elsewhere, because amidst the proverbial trees we often struggle to see the wood.
  6. Write some happy endings. The trick with this one is to be playful, have fun, and second-guess yourself a little. The first time you write a happy ending it will probably be some variant of “and everything worked out exactly as I wanted. The End.” Bad news: it probably won’t. But sometimes, I promise you, it works out so much better. Write three or four alternative, imaginative happy endings to get you unstuck from thinking everything has to look the way you thought it would.

These tips are not instant fixes, more like de-icers for your car windshield (here I go with the similes again…) The frost might keep coming, but you’ve got some tools to keep it at bay. As a bonus tip, stop using the word ‘stuck’ and start thinking of the word ‘becoming.’ The chrysalis, the rose bud, the grain of sand in an oyster shell… we wouldn’t think of any of these as stuck would we? Rather, they are in a state of becoming, as we are.

“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it.” – Anaïs Nin

 

Sometimes we can stay in these stifled periods of becoming for months, even years at a time, but with trust and self-compassion, these can become periods of deep insight and even, ultimately, growth.

Happy writing.

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