Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, a Book Review

Walking on Sunshine, by British author Rachel Kelly, is a quick, easy read that is not really intended to be read through all at once. In a similar vein to Jon Cousins’ Nudge Your Way to Happiness, Walking on Sunshine provides bite-sized ideas for increasing happiness. In this case the happiness prescriptions are delivered one week at a time for one year, instead of one day at a time for one month, as was the case in Cousins’ book.

Kelly organized this book by seasons, beginning with spring, loosely defined as March, April and May. Personally, this organizational calendar did not appeal, for two primary reasons. The main one stems from one of my own happiness struggles—self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder. Just seeing the word “Autumn,” although less depressing than its alternative, “Fall,” causes me to feel heaviness in my body. In a book intended to promote happiness, that feels counterproductive. I recognize that is my own issue, and others may not have the same visceral reaction to the season that I do. The second reason that I would prefer a different structure is that it seems somewhat potentially difficult for someone to pick up the book and start at the “right” week, since the weeks are numbered, but begin with March, not January. Maybe there is no real “right” way to use the book, but for those of us who like order and logic, this feels a bit unnerving.

Those minor criticisms aside, I really like Kelly’s message, which, like Cousins’, is essentially that we have some power to help ourselves when we are feeling down. It does not always have to involve prescription medication or weekly therapy (although those things may have their places). Proactively brightening our own spirits can be as simple as a self-administered relaxation exercise, connecting with a beloved animal companion or volunteering for a worthwhile cause.

As someone who reads a lot of positive psychology and has made significant conscious effort to boost my own mood in a variety of ways, Kelly’s simple, accessible suggestions resonate with me. She makes references to poetry in several places. While it is not poetry, specifically, that centers me, words are extremely important to my mood management. My collections of quotes are some of my most powerful happiness boosts. Kelly seems to find some of her strongest boosts in poetry.

I recommend this book for its simplicity and accessibility. There is nothing Kelly suggests that can be harmful, and her easy-to-implement strategies may be just the spirit boosts someone needs.

Book Review: Nudge Your Way to Happiness, Jon Cousins

I initially read Nudge Your Way to Happiness, by Jon Cousins, all the way through because I wanted a feel for the entire book, but it is not really meant to be read that way. The book is designed to provide a customized, 30-day program for edging up one’s happiness. Reading it through initially, I found myself annoyed because Cousins frequently made statements such as, “Right now, when things are better . . .” and “Although you may be feeling well at the moment . . . .” I kept thinking, “How does he know how I am feeling right now?” Then, it dawned on me that the issue was with how I was reading the book vs. how it was meant to be read. Actually, a unique and interesting feature of the book is that Cousins provides three possible “nudges” each day. The reason he might make a statement about how the reader was feeling is that the particular nudge was designed for either a low-mood day, an average day or a high-mood day. Once that occurred to me, I was better able to appreciate the features of each exercise.

I read a lot of positive psychology and happiness literature, and Cousins utilizes strategies from many well-respected researchers and authors. The exercises he recommends are solid, practical and simple. They are brief enough and accessible enough that even someone experiencing depression could perform them.

After reading the book through once, I began my journey to work through the book day by day. Today is Day 21. Reading and utilizing the book as it was designed to be used is more rewarding than simply reading it as a typical book. Cousins suggests doing the exercises first thing in the morning, and that is what I am doing. I think the most important thing is to choose a consistent time.

I like the checklist that Cousins provides each day, creating an opportunity to check in with myself and see how I am feeling across 10 variables. As someone who is very introspective, I find myself looking forward to my morning assessment. Perhaps even more interesting or useful is the graph at the back of the book that provides an opportunity to plot the trends in my happiness score throughout the project. Each day, Cousins asks the question, “What happened?” This allows me to reflect on the reason for my current happiness score and to better understand the peaks and valleys in the graph.

Nudge Your Way to Happiness is a simple, but well-written and useful, book that draws from the existing happiness and positive psychology literature and translates it into a practical formula for thinking about our own level of positive vs. negative emotions and reflecting on the reasons for those levels. In addition to providing daily exercises that can serve as tools, not just during the 30 days of working through the book, but on an ongoing basis. The book’s value derives from both those tools and from the introspection the daily tracking inspires. Understanding more about the things that boost our mood and the things that drain us of energy and joy allows us to take action to incorporate into our lives more of the former and less of the latter.

I recommend this book for people who are seeking to enhance their happiness, ward off seasonal blues, push back a natural inclination toward the melancholy or to combat depression. It is a strategy that can do no harm and certainly can teach us something that may help us in both the short term and the long term.

Reflections on #100HAPPYDAYS

When I started my #100HAPPYDAYS journey, I did not take time to calculate when it would conclude. Although just a happy coincidence, as I drew closer to completing my quest and realized that it would culminate along with 2015, I thought there must be some symbolism to that—or at least I could assign significance to it.

I could let this be an ending, or I could turn it into another beginning.

Concluding at the end of the year, it felt appropriate to reflect on what the project had meant to me and how I had changed by participating in it. The number-one influence that the #100HAPPYDAYS project had on my daily life was inspiring a proactive daily search for the positive. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have a daily practice of writing in my journal each night about “3 things that have gone well today.” This practice allows me to recognize and appreciate something encouraging, even on very difficult days.

Rather than retroactively reflecting on the positive bits that I could tease out of my day, #100HAPPYDAYS required me to look for, think about where I might find, or sometimes even create, happy moments that could be captured in a photograph. This was beneficial to my overall outlook because it empowered and challenged me to insert happiness into each day.

This was easier or more obvious on some days than on others. I found myself at the end of rough days, in a less than stellar mood, thinking, “What (the heck) am I going to photograph today for my #100HAPPYDAYS?” On those days purposefully looking around reminded me of the good fortune that that has permeated my life as a whole—a photo of my much-loved grandma, a box painted by a special friend, the mischievous smile on my active little boy’s face. This was an effective way of “counting my blessings,” even on days that were characterized more by stress than by bliss. Our lives are generally dominated by mundane tasks and obligations, rather than by dramatic highs (or, thankfully, lows). So, this habit of noticing the good on an ordinary day was a healthy one.

On some days, it would have been easier not to post, and there were times that I worried that my Facebook friends must be sick of seeing pictures from my life or that I would look like I was seeking attention. The bottom line, though, is that I value keeping the commitments I make to myself. I am what Gretchen Rubin calls an “Upholder,” someone who “responds readily to inner and outer expectations.” If I set a goal, especially one with a clear finish line and specific parameters, I am generally determined to meet it—whether it is posting for 100 straight days about something that makes me happy, training for and completing a marathon or finishing an 82-mile bike ride in torrential rain and 45-mph wind. This perseverance is what makes Kenny call me stubborn (among other adjectives), but it is something I consider a strength and a characteristic for which I am grateful.

I decided that finishing #100HAPPYDAYS on the last day of the year meant that I should begin the new year with a fresh quest. It seemed the perfect segue to a kickoff of the pursuit of what I am calling Vision 2016—my two primary goals for 2016. I am not ready to go public with what those two goals are, but I have adapted the #100HAPPYDAYS format to a strategy to track my progress toward those goals. Rather than posting photos on Facebook, I have created a spreadsheet where I will track my daily activities related to my dual-pronged Vision 2016. This will work for me because I am self-motivated and self-directed and do not necessarily need to make a goal public in order to feel accountable to it. I feel excited at the prospect of this new challenge and am grateful for a structure within which to frame my goal pursuit.

I appreciate my experience with #100HAPPYDAYS and am grateful for my friend Andrea, whose Facebook post introduced me to the idea. I would say that my overall mental health and happiness have tipped a little farther toward the positive. While this emotional uptick is not solely because of this project, I do believe that #100HAPPYDAYS contributed. Even though I won’t necessarily be sharing something positive every day, I hope that I will be able to keep alive the spirit of proactively spotting joy amidst the mundane moments that characterize human daily existence.

Wishing all, human and non-human, a peaceful and happy 2016!

Gameful, If Not Playful

“We all sometimes take ourselves and our thoughts too seriously. By reframing things in gameful ways, SuperBetter can help us gain some perspective and separate ourselves from unhelpful thoughts.”

–Ann Marie Roepke

Playfulness has never been my strong suit. I have always felt that the absence of playfulness in my character was a weakness as a mother, and maybe as a human. I am probably less fun because of my serious nature, although I certainly have fun doing the things that are meaningful to me. I have been called rigid and told to lighten up. This is just who I am. So, it was a bit of a stretch for me to purchase and read the book I just finished, SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting, Stronger, Healthier, Braver and More Resilient, by Jane McGonigal.

Intrigued by what I heard on NPR, I debated the purchase for a few months because of my admittedly disdainful view of video games and my general disinterest in most forms of “play.” However, each time I saw or heard something about the book, I felt a twinge of curiosity. So, I finally ordered it for Kindle. I finished it Friday night, and I am so glad that I read it.

I read a lot of applied and positive psychology, as well as a great deal of personal and professional development literature. While much of what I read has meaning and value for me, a good portion of it cites the same research and presents similar (worthwhile) ideas in a variety of ways. SuperBetter takes a decidedly fresh approach to growth, development and healing.

Jane McGonigal is a game designer who suffered postconcussion syndrome and battled associated suicidal thoughts by using what she knows about the science of games. While I admit that I struggled a bit with some of the “game” language, and some of the concepts push my comfort level with personal playfulness, I have accepted McGonigal’s challenge to take on three adventures that she outlines at the end of the book. These three adventures are designed to strengthen social connections, improve health and fitness and increase the perception of time affluence. I am interested in growing in all three areas, so I started the social connection challenge yesterday and plan to work through all of them, using McGonigal’s gameful approach, over the next six weeks.

McGonigal refers to “quests,” “bad guys,” “power-ups, “allies,” “secret identities” and “epic wins.” Quests are mini-challenges that take us closer to the epic win of achieving a major goal. Both quests and epic wins increase our sense of self-efficacy, which then fuels our initiative to take on additional challenges. Bad guys are common pitfalls, for which McGonigal suggests scientifically backed battle strategies. Power-ups are simple techniques to energize ourselves or clear our heads. Allies are people in our physical or virtual lives whom we trust to be partners was we face down our challenges. McGonigal’s secret identity during her recovery was Jane the Concussion Slayer. While I recognize the potential helpfulness of objectivity, adopting a secret identity and thinking about myself in the third person doesn’t resonate with me.

I was fascinated, however, by the discussion of post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth. McGonigal and her co-researcher Ann Marie Roepke have found that major growth often happens in people’s lives following either very traumatic or very positive events. Either of these circumstances can be life-changing, prompting reconsidered priorities, closer relationships, clarification of purpose and stronger focus. McGonigal teaches a gameful approach to recovering from trauma or working toward a meaningful and challenging goal. Both can result in epic wins.

Cycling provides me countless opportunities to take on quests. Each ride, or even a tough stretch of headwind, gamefully can be considered a quest in pursuit of the epic win of completing another successful BAK or century or of increasing my average speed or even my baseline level of happiness. Cycling helps me battle bad guys like stress, anxiety, depression, lack of confidence, hopelessness and all the negative emotions that threaten my mental and physical health and happiness on any given day. McGonigal has given me some new tools for utilizing cycling to achieve positive results in my life. I also learned power-up strategies and off-bike techniques for battling bad guys. Most of what McGonigal presented really was new to me, and learning it can help me to take a more lighthearted, yet courageous—gameful—approach to facing life’s challenges. I am grateful to have the SuperBetter tools at my disposal.

My Happiness Strategies

I am excited to share some of the strategies I am using to boost my happiness and manage stress in a healthier, more life-affirming way, but I am writing this post as much for myself as anyone because I feel the need to collect my strategies in one place. My progress on this journey feels a bit tenuous—like a setback could make me forget everything I am learning about living a more mentally healthy life. If you read my last post, you know that I had been internalizing stress to the point that I felt desperate enough to overdo B6 supplementation, resulting in self-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy.

I see these happiness strategies as dynamic lifelines. Their comparative value may fluctuate as I move through life. They are presented in no hard and fast order. All have value to me, and all are making a difference.

  1. Mantras: I have mentioned previously my love of quotes. My mantras derive from my quote collection in most cases. Usually, a quote inspires me to personalize the words into an affirmation or reminder for myself. Some mantras remain constant for years. Others are more fleeting, serving me well for a time, until I seem to outgrow them or to move into a different phase in my life. I repeat these to myself, usually in my head, sometimes aloud, often many times a day. Here are the mantras that are currently serving me most effectively:
    1. I do what I can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then I let it go. Derived from an Elizabeth Gilbert quote, this mantra is arguably my most important mental lifeline right now. I am in an intensely busy phase at work. There is really no way to get everything done that I would like to get done “within a reasonable time frame.” In order to sustain myself through this intensity, avoid burning out and resist a spiral back into unmanaged stress, I had to redefine what constituted a reasonable time frame and adjust my expectations. This is difficult for me because excellence is one of my core values. But, I cannot sustain excellence if I am so stressed that I am damaging my health. So, I have Gilbert’s quote posted above my computer at work, and I repeat the personalized mantra countless times throughout the day to calm myself and to remember that I am only one person, trying hard to do good work, in a limited amount of time, with multiple responsibilities pulling me various directions.
    2. I am deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that I do. This mantra is a balm to counter resentment at the bureaucracy, the mundaneness and the minutiae of life that can wear me down and leave me feeling discouraged. Louise Hay deserves credit for this mantra, because it was inspired by her words, “Find a way to be deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that you do.” (Also posted above my work computer.) “Finding a way” is a crucial aspect of the effectiveness of this mantra. When I repeat this mantra to myself, I challenge myself to identify meaning in my activities of the day or even the moment. How does what I am doing right now (or what I did today) fulfill me? What meaning have I created? What value have I added? It is a useful mental exercise that helps me to keep or regain perspective, when I feel the threat or reality of being swept up in the tide of constant appointments and/or obligations. When I challenge myself to identify and acknowledge the meaning in what I do, I feel calmer and, truly, more fulfilled.
    3. My thoughts shape my perceptions, determine my actions and behavior and create the world I envision. This mantra has been part of my daily self-talk for years, and I often use it to ward off fear and to remind myself how powerfully I shape my own reality by the way I approach life. Although I don’t fully subscribe to the Law of Attraction, I do believe that how I choose to define myself and my circumstances influences how I experience life. I find myself repeating this quote while cycling as I approach an area where I have had problems with a dog. It gives me strength and feels a bit like a talisman. Whether or not it actually wards off chasing canines, I can’t say for sure, but it allows me to feel more powerful and more capable and it reminds me to expect the best and to do as much as I can to help myself.
    4. I am happy. I am healthy. I am peaceful. I am free. This is an adaptation of the Loving-Kindness Meditation. These words calm me and induce gratitude. I enhance the benefits when I extend the meditation to friends and family, those who don’t understand me and all beings. (e.g., May all beings be happy. May they be healthy. May they be peaceful. May they be free.) My heart expands when I take the time and make the mental effort to extend these wishes to others. I feel more generous, more peaceful and happier.
    5. I choose happiness. I use this to shove unproductive thoughts out of my head. Sometimes I couple this with an emphatic, often audible, “This is my time!” I do this especially on my bike. Processing emotions and issues is one thing; allowing myself to haul the baggage someone else (or a situation) creates is another. I shed the baggage by remembering that I choose happiness, not the weight of victimhood.
  2. Three things that went well today: I mentioned this practice in a previous post. Each night before I go to bed, I write in my journal three things that went well during the day and why. I have done this practice, recommended by Martin Seligman, for several years, and I treasure it as a way to center, reflect on the day and focus on the positive. Even on very difficult days, I challenge myself to find three good things to record. Sometimes they are profound; sometimes they are mundane, but the practice makes a big difference to my overall outlook. I practice on a miniature, mental scale throughout the day. If I leave work feeling stressed, I recall three good things from the day as I walk to my car or drive home. Sometimes, I use a variation of this in the morning. If I feel draggy and reluctant as my alarm sounds, I find three things to which I can look forward that day.
  3. Does it/will it bring me more peace or more stress? This question is a very important strategy for me. I ask myself variations of it many times throughout the day, particularly when I am at a decision point. Will eating this chocolate bring me more stress or more peace? Which item on my task list is causing me the most stress? Once I identify it, completing it becomes top priority. If I attend this function, will it bring me more stress or more peace? To the extent that it is possible, the choice that adds peace and/or minimizes stress is what I select.
  4. “I have three criteria to apply to any item trying to make its way onto my to-do list: Is the activity fun, meaningful, or absolutely necessary?” – Amy Tiemann: When I read this in Amy Tiemann’s Mojo Mom, several years ago, I was struck by its wisdom. There are so many obligations and options competing for our time; it made sense to have some criteria with which to choose those most worthy of my precious minutes. I try to ask myself these questions before accepting a responsibility, taking on a task or attending a function. Of course, these are subjective criteria, but they promote awareness and conscious decision making. They minimize the risk that I will agree to do something solely out of guilt, thus lessening the chance of resentment.
  5. Year-round cycling: Cycling is such an important part of my life. Its value cannot be overstated. I am unquestionably a nicer, healthier, higher-functioning person because I have cycling in my life. I am a proponent of exercise, in general, and I look for ways to add movement to my day. But, cycling is special. I cherish the time I am on my bike, even on rides like yesterday morning’s, when I was battered by a raw north wind for most of my 50 miles. I have typically declared the end of daylight savings time in November until it begins again in March to be my off-season. This year, acknowledging how hard fall and winter are for me, I have decided that I will maintain some level of cycling throughout the year. I will still have an off-season, in that my rides will be relegated mostly to short (15-20 miles) weekend rides. I will need to invest in more cold-weather cycling gear, but I think it will make the winter months easier to bear and will allow me small doses of the mood boost I get from cycling throughout the year.
  6. Reading: Like cycling, reading is invaluable to me. I am always reading a book (99.9% nonfiction), and I always have books waiting for me on my Kindle and in a stack. Having a book with me wherever I go serves as a security blanket. I grow so much through reading and through processing many of the ideas I encounter in books while I am on the bike. I have been focusing heavily on positive psychology and happiness literature recently (currently reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home), but I read many other types of books, too. I read whenever and wherever I can. While an undergraduate, working full time during the day and going to school at night, I got into the habit of reading while brushing my teeth, getting dressed, folding laundry, etc. I still do that. I can read while washing dishes by using my elbow to change the pages of my Kindle. I love to learn, and reading is one way I can take control of my lifelong education and personal development. As I drive home from work, a joy often pops into my mind: “I will have opportunities to read!”
  7. Quotes: Beyond personalizing quotes into mantras, I refer to my five volumes of collected quotes multiple times throughout the day while at home, randomly selecting words of wisdom through a ritual I have used for years. One change in recent months is that I give myself permission to select another random quote if the first (or subsequent) one doesn’t speak to me in the moment. I then ponder these quotes, especially in situations where I won’t have the opportunity to read or will have the opportunity to think (before turning off my book light to go to sleep, before leaving in the car, before getting on my bike, before getting into the shower, etc.). This practice calms me or sometimes excites and inspires me. Even quotes I recorded years ago suddenly may be particularly resonant.
  8. Blog: This blog arose out of my personal quest for happiness. Writing is one of the ways I center and process, plus, I have found myself with an urge to share the lessons I learn through cycling and reflection. I have a loose vision for the future of this blog, but, for now, it is a creative outlet that I hope others find helpful. However, its value to me is not dependent on whether or not it benefits others. Writing it is an end in itself. Taking the time to do so feels like a luxury. It would be easy to say that I can’t afford the time, but I think the truth is that I can’t afford not to take it.
  9. #100HAPPYDAYS: When I saw a post about this project on Facebook, I knew that I was ripe to participate. Having recently learned the cause of my neurological symptoms and being struck by the reality that stress, anxiety and depression contributed to them, I was committed to enhancing my own happiness. #100HAPPYDAYS extends beyond “three things that went well today” because it forces a more active pursuit of happy moments. Since I have to take a photo to post some symbol of happiness that occurred during the day, it is not enough to retrospectively reflect and choose good things; I have to look for them actively and capture them with my camera. This turns my focus more often to the positive.
  10. Push myself: For me, this mostly involves cycling. I find that I am more energized if I ride on the other side of comfortable several times a week. I feel good about my gains, and my body benefits from the endorphins released by the vigorous exercise.
  11. Vocation: I owe my renewed appreciation for the word and the concept of vocation to Elizabeth Gilbert. In Big Magic, her discussion of vocation helped me to recognize an often-missed coherence to my daily life and to my lifelong personal and professional journey. At this point in my life, “vocation” is a more useful construct than “mission” or “purpose.” My vocation encompasses both the way I live my life and the work I do. I see the value that each leg of my journey has brought to the whole of my vocation. I find peace and comfort in this view. My blog, my paid work, my veganism, my cycling—all are components of my vocation.
  12. Devaluing “busyness”: I recognize that, for several years, busyness has been my signature state. When people asked how I was, I often responded, “Busy.” I equated commitment to busyness, excellence to busyness and responsibility to busyness. Now, I can see where that got me, and I want to put busyness in its appropriate place. Yes, my calendar is still full—very often fuller than I would like or fuller than my introversion would choose—but I have pushed busyness off its pedestal and recognize that whatever benefits wearing that label may have given me, the costs were greater. I have changed my language so that I try to refer to my schedule as “full,” rather than busy. The difference may be semantic, but “full” connotes abundance to me, while “busy” connotes stress.
  13. Redefining success: As someone who has always pursued straight A’s and high academic achievement, I have too often felt shame at my nonlinear career and income trajectories. It is easy to say to myself that someone with two master’s degrees should be making more money than I do. But, have I ever really chosen my work for the salary? That has always been a secondary or even tertiary or lower criterion, probably to my fiscal detriment, but integrity and, yes, vocation, have always been more important. I can acknowledge that the financial return on my academic investment is probably lower than I would have hoped or than most people would expect, but I do feel like the work I have chosen to do throughout my career has generally made positive differences in people’s lives and to the world, albeit in incremental ways. A quote I found in UU World magazine several years ago (I believe this is a paraphrase of a quote by Mother Teresa.) said, “Every action makes a ripple. The ripples change the world.” I hope that I will make enough positive ripples that there will be more compassion and less suffering, more excellence and less complacency, more integrity and less insincerity and more fitness and less squandering of potential in the world. If I accomplish those things, then I will have been successful.
  14. Limiting exposure: Sometimes the world can feel so heavy. As an ethical vegan, the suffering experienced by nonhumans and humans alike can be seriously depressing. I have found that I simply must limit my exposure to the sad stuff. Compassion fatigue is real, and I have a strong tendency toward it. I am aware that there is a line between burying my head in the sand and overdosing on vicarious suffering, sadness and bad news, and I try to stay reasonably balanced between the two. My veganism provides an example. I have been vegetarian for over 33 years and became vegan over seven years ago. For the intervening 26 years, I wanted to believe that being vegetarian was enough. Finally, I knew that, in order to live my values with integrity, I needed to educate myself more thoroughly about the suffering of animals in the dairy or egg industries. As soon as I allowed myself to learn the truth, I became vegan. I continued to learn more, but reached a saturation point, especially after the heartbreaking loss of my special dog Andy in 2011. I realize that, in so many ways, Andy’s death was a crucial turning point in my life, representing far more than the pain of that loss. I am a committed vegan. There is no turning back for me, so there is no point in continuing to torture myself by reading or watching animal suffering. It is more productive to focus on what I can do to contribute positively to the world, rather than to become unbearably weighted down with the sadness of the world.
  15. Adjusting my expectations: This is related to the first mantra I discussed in this post. Living this mantra means that I have to adjust my expectations, but I am careful to distinguish between that and lowering my standards. Instead of demanding that I address every email before I leave work, I use my “more peace or more stress?” strategy to determine my highest priorities for the following day, and I move on “in a reasonable time frame.” It makes a difference. Another area where I have adjusted my expectations is this blog. Initially, I committed to posting at least once a week. I have found that life doesn’t always allow that without undue stress. Since Just Wind is one of my happiness strategies, pushing myself to produce substandard work, just for the sake of staying on an arbitrary and unrealistic schedule, makes no sense. I will emphasize quality over frequency.
  16. Strengths: Related to being fulfilled by what I do and finding meaning in my daily life, I focus on identifying the ways that I am using my strengths—those character traits and talents that most empower me to make a difference—to contribute to the greater good in the world. I know that life feels more rewarding when I am putting my strengths to good use.
  17. Adding movement: A practice I started several years ago (and resurrected after a brief hiatus when I changed jobs) is to add a little movement to my work day by taking the long way to or from the restroom every time I get up for a bathroom break. This takes only a minute or so, but it helps me to get a tiny burst of physical activity and clears my head for a moment.

While I hope this (admittedly long) post will add value for my readers, my primary objective is to create a collection of my most useful happiness strategies, as a reference for myself.

Please share your happiness strategies in the “Comments” section. (If you tried to comment on previous posts and couldn’t, I think I have fixed the problem.) I would love to learn from fresh perspectives. We can all contribute to the happiness in the world by pooling our accumulating and evolving wisdom. It is one of the ways we make ripples.

A Cautionary Tale

On a long bike ride at the end of May, I noticed a strange sensation on my shins and knuckles. The breeze felt much colder than it should for the actual temperature. I had never felt anything like it and even wondered if I was imagining it. Over the next few days, though, it became apparent that I was not imagining the sensations. Washing my hands in cold tap water felt like I was dipping them in ice water. Pulling frozen fruit or vegetables out of the freezer was painful, causing my fingers to sting for several minutes, like I had just come in from playing in the snow. The sun felt absolutely blazingly hot, inordinately so, like the breeze that was too cool for the true weather conditions. For some reason I had become hypersensitive to temperature.

I also noticed that a little bump or scratch was disproportionately painful and that itches were “itchier” than usual. Other neurological symptoms developed. Over the next several weeks, which included Biking Across Kansas 2015, the symptoms became more pronounced. I didn’t tell anyone at first, but after we returned home from BAK, I made a doctor’s appointment, which led to referrals to a neurologist and a hematologist and to several unpleasant tests. Blood work at the neurologist’s office revealed that my B6 level was high, and the doctor told me to stop immediately all supplements containing B6. Another test indicated probable borderline small fiber peripheral neuropathy (SFN). After extensive testing, the best explanation for the SFN is B6 toxicity.

I feel fortunate because there are many scary things that could cause SFN, and I don’t have them. However, I also initially felt deeply disappointed in myself because I realized that I caused the SFN.

Over the past few years, stress management has been an increasingly difficult struggle for me. I think hormonal changes, job demands, parenting challenges, overstimulation of my introvert sensibilities, grief over the loss of beloved animal companions and perceived relational support circumstances are among the contributing factors. My stress is not extraordinary, and I am well aware that countless people face far tougher challenges, but, for whatever reason, management of my stressors has been a bigger problem in the last several years. I share all this, in part, to progress along the road to recovery that I am paving, but also because I think there is important information in this story that may be able to help others.

During a particularly stressful time in 2013, I Googled “mood support” one evening. I think I was looking for online support, but the natural supplement NOW Foods Mood Support popped up. I saw right away that it was a vegan product and thought, “It’s meant to be!” The product contains St. John’s Wort, Valerian root and B vitamins. I take full responsibility for what happened, but I did clear it with my primary care provider, who deemed it completely safe and encouraged me to take even more, which is a good reminder that we all need to be informed patients and consumers who think for ourselves and listen to our wise instincts. I was also taking a multivitamin at the time, as well as a B12 supplement that contained B6. In addition, I frequently included nutritional yeast, supplemented with B12 and B6, in my smoothies. In the spring of 2015, feeling really overwhelmed and stressed, I doubled my dosage of Mood Support. After my neurological symptoms appeared, I stopped my multivitamin and went back to a regular dose of Mood Support. Although I never suspected B6 as the culprit, I think I had a gut feeling that Mood Support might be involved in some way. I continued to take the regular dose, along with the B12/B6 supplement until the neurologist told me to stop. In retrospect, I can recognize that each reduction in B6 dosage has improved my symptoms. In fact, they are almost gone now. Many types of neuropathy are not reversible, but my internet research indicates that SFN caused by B6 toxicity may be. I go back to the neurologist in December and am encouraged that I will have a complete recovery. I am thankful to have had good medical care that got to the root of the problem before permanent, serious damage had been done.

This is not a condemnation of Mood Support, but a cautionary tale of what can happen when we function from a place of desperation, rather than a place of good sense, reason and compassion for ourselves.

I aspire to translate my level of attentiveness to bodily and environmental cues on the bike to the rest of my life. When the wind conditions change or an obstacle in the road appears, I make adjustments to my body position, level of effort or bike handling. When I plan a fast ride, but the wind is blowing 35 miles per hour, I adjust my expectations. I often remind myself to “take what the road will give me.” That doesn’t mean I am always entirely satisfied with my performance on the bike, but I find that I am satisfied, even quite pleased, more and more often because I have learned from my years of cycling, and I have implemented those lessons to improve my performance—and happiness—on the bike. My challenge is to apply this same strategy to the rest of life, in order to manage my stress more holistically, rather than trying to cover up or wipe out the ramifications of the stress, while simply pressing forward and feeling increasingly overwhelmed.

I take such care to eat a nutritious, compassionate diet, yet I took supplements with abandon because my emotions felt out of control. It is my responsibility to practice the same compassion with myself that I try to practice with all human and nonhuman others. This means knowing when to set and implement boundaries and creating time and space to recharge when I feel overloaded. As an introvert, I need more quiet (even if active, on the bike) downtime than extraverts may need. This is not a character flaw; it is just who I am.

I haven’t solved all my stress management issues, but I am trying hard to pay close attention to my needs and to use my bike, journaling, mantras, quotes, reframing and positive psychology to manage my stress instead of pressing blindly ahead and covering it up. Riding and reading are my two major lifelines to mental and emotional health. Right now, I am immersing myself in positive psychology and happiness literature, and I am feeling the benefits of that. I process much of what I read while I am on my bike.

I wanted to share this experience because I know we are all under stress, and the temptation exists to look for a quick fix so that we can keep plowing forward. I have prided myself on not doing that; however, retrospectively, I recognize that my excessive supplementation was just that.

As my paid work enters a particularly intense period again, while the rest of life keeps on coming, I plan to keep these words from Elizabeth Gilbert visible in the physical spaces I inhabit and in a prominent and readily accessible place in my mind:

You do what you can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go.

Like a bike ride.

I ride as well as I can while I am on the bike, and then that ride is finished. I move on, let go of any disappointments or frustrations and start fresh on the next ride. I owe the world nothing more than that in the rest of my life. I am one person, trying to do the best I can to make positive contributions where I live and work. I choose to view this experience with SFN and B6 toxicity as a gift and a wake-up call. I refuse to let stress, anxiety or depression suck the life out of my life. I will listen to my body and to my heart and do my best to adjust, based on the cues I receive when I pay attention to how I am feeling and what those feelings may mean.

Journey of Strengths

Cycling frequently strikes me as an excellent metaphor for life, particularly when I reflect on life as a journey, which has seemed more and more apt as I have covered more ground, both in life and on the bike.

I recently finished reading The Happiness Advantage (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOGAp9dw8Ac), by Shawn Achor. This excellent book directed me to www.viasurvey.com, where I took a quiz to determine my “signature strengths.” This is not the first time I have taken a strengths test. Naturally introspective, I enjoy taking personality assessments and quizzes that teach me something about myself. I can’t locate my results from some of the other strengths tests I have taken (Strengthsfinder 2.0, http://strengths.gallup.com/110440/about-strengthsfinder-20.aspx, was probably the first.), but I can still recognize that there has been some change. On this Via Survey, my top five strengths are: Honesty, Love of Learning, Perseverance, Gratitude and Judgment. As I recall, some form of several of these appeared in earlier results. I know that Love of Learning, Perseverance and Judgment (although maybe called slightly different names) have been persistent. Honesty may have been represented previously as Integrity, but I am not sure that Gratitude has been in my top five in any past. Of course the survey instruments are different, so that may explain some differences, but I also believe that my journey continues to shape me, and that some strengths have become more deeply imbedded in my character, while others have grown in importance.

Honesty (which resonates more as Integrity for me) is now my top strength. I have long identified Integrity as one of my core values, but I have found more ways to live it in the past year. I have grown to trust myself more, while relying less on input from outside sources. There are at least two ways that cycling has helped me to develop this strength. Although my education and background have qualified me to design training plans, I have not always trusted myself to design my own cycling training plans effectively. I have found some great resources (That will probably be a blog post at some point.), but I sometimes had to force myself to use some of the recommended training plans. While there is value in stepping outside of my comfort zone, I decided to listen to myself and design my own training plan this cycling season. Doing so has resulted in increased enthusiasm for my bike rides, as well as some of the consistently fastest riding I have done in several years. Getting honest with myself about what felt right paid off and reinforced my commitment to integrity, which has elevated honesty as an essential strength for me.

Another way that cycling has increased my strength in honesty is through fostering my courage to leave a group when I found that my participation in the group was increasing my stress, rather than my peace. I joined an online plant-based eating group last winter when I was feeling down. I had high hopes for the group because it originated around a book that I really like and an author whom I respect. Part of the group culture was to track our daily food intake. When I did this early in cycling season, I was surprised to be assailed by several group members with criticism about my cycling nutrition. I am open to learning from others and considered their input, but found that it did not resonate with my experience. I explained this and hoped that the group would adopt a live-and-let-live approach, but it did not. After another round of criticism, I immediately withdrew from the group, even though I had paid for a full year of membership. I felt free and relieved. Clearly, being honest with myself and having the courage to maintain my integrity in the face of criticism was the right answer.

Gratitude has also risen in importance among my character strengths. I believe that a key factor in this has been my commitment to a nightly practice I borrowed from positive psychology (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOGAp9dw8Ac). For several years now, I have had a nightly practice of writing in my journal “Three Things that Went Well Today,” along with the reason they went well and were meaningful to me. This has transformed my life in many ways. When I am feeling stressed during the day, I often remind myself to take a moment to think of three things that have gone well so far during the day. This is immediately uplifting and gives me hope. I ALWAYS finish my day this way, and it makes a tremendous difference. Cycling plays heavily in this practice. One of my three good things is frequently something like, “I had a safe, peaceful 52-mile bike ride.” Then, I elaborate on why it was positive. Sometimes, I will write, “I felt strong and powerful on my bike ride.” Then, I analyze why. I love this practice, and I truly believe that it has moved gratitude into my top five strengths. I believe that I am more grateful for the positive elements in my life and better able to find a bright side in difficulties, in large part, because of this practice.

Love of Learning, Perseverance and Judgment have been signature strengths for years, but my journey has influenced the direction I have taken with those strengths. Reading, right up there with cycling, is key to my mental health, but it also allows me one avenue to continue learning and growing. Perseverance and road cycling go hand in hand. Because I value perseverance, I am drawn to cycling, and cycling reinforces my strength of perseverance more than anything else I do. Kansas wind; unexpected, torrential rain; rough roads and other trials of cycling teach me the value (and necessity) of persevering to finish a ride. I have grown to trust my own judgment, as I have been tested on the bike. When I am alone in the middle of nowhere, judgment is critical to my safety. Practice reinforces our strengths, so I am able to carry this over into the rest of my life.

I will write about journey in other capacities in the future because I reflect on it frequently these days. I believe that our journeys shape who we are, and I am more committed than ever to honoring that journey, both in the past and in my current experience.