Reflections on the First 100 Days of 2016

When I completed my #100HAPPYDAYS challenge with the turn of the new year, I committed to myself to undertake two new 100-day practices. Last Saturday marked the 100th day of 2016. As I was on my bike that morning, I reflected on the first 100 days and my progress toward the goals I set for myself.

First, because I finished Michael Greger’s How Not to Die at the same time the new year was dawning, I committed to myself to use, and strive to complete each day, the goals in his wonderful Daily Dozen app. Although I wasn’t perfect in my completion of the nutrition and exercise goals set by the app, I am very satisfied with my success in this aspect of my first 100 days. Eating according to the Daily Dozen goals has become an engrained habit that has improved my physical, mental and emotional well-being. I am confident that this will remain a daily part of my life.

In addition to striving to eat each component of the Daily Dozen (like three servings of beans, one serving of cruciferous vegetables and two more servings of greens daily), I also internalized the practice of thoroughly maximizing the consumption of green-light (whole, plant-based) foods and minimizing the consumption of yellow- or red-light foods. I was close to this in a lot of areas anyway, but there were a couple of types of food that consistently had a hold on me.

At times I ate a high-volume of (reasonably healthful, always vegan) energy bars. In these early days of 2016, I have not consumed an energy bar. There are certainly worse things I could eat, but the added sugar (even less-refined sugars like agave nectar and brown rice syrup) had a tighter grasp on me that I acknowledged for years. The bars I ate were comfort foods, often consumed in stressful times throughout the day. Replacing these admittedly convenient snacks with fruit, vegetables, whole grains or nuts has been easier than I expected, and I find that I am often less hungry throughout the day than when I was eating one, two, three or even sometimes four of these highly caloric bars throughout a work day.

Additionally, vegan dark chocolate held me in its sway. At one point, when my son was two and we had recently moved, I realized to my horror that I was completely addicted to chocolate. I awoke thinking about how to get it, and I would panic if my supply ran low. I cut myself off from any form of chocolate for three years. Then, I thought I was safe to return to eating it. Sometimes I was. But sometimes stress got the better of me, and I would eat much more than I planned. A dependence crept back in, if somewhat moderated from the dark period years prior.

With Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen, I am striving toward nutritional ideals, not running from fear and controlled by dependence on comfort foods, and I have found that this has healed my relationship with food. Many might be surprised (at least I think) to learn that I have often had a fairly disordered relationship with food. It was not an eating disorder exactly, but an unhealthy expectation for food to comfort, soothe and fix me. There have been periods (especially in recent years) when I felt guilty every time I ate. I constantly disappointed myself by not living up to my expectations around eating. The first 100 days of 2016 helped me to release my disordered thinking, like my body better (although I still have room for improvement) and feel truly good about almost everything I am putting into my body. Food should nourish me. Period. It can’t fulfill any other emotional need or fill a void. The habits I cultivated over the first 100 days have put me on the path of true nutrition and healthy, guilt-free enjoyment of nature’s abundance.

My second goal for the first 100 days was to make writing progress every day. That goal has proven to be more elusive, but, as I reflected on my bike on the 100th day a week ago, I think it has evolved into something bigger and arguably more valuable. What I have realized is that not everything fits into my life every day. That is the bottom line. I have to make choices, and I have to give myself room to breathe. In my ideal world, I would ride, read and write to my heart’s content daily. But, I have to pay the bills, so work consumes my time and my mental energy more often than I would like. And, I am mom to an 11 year old who is increasingly involved in activities (but nothing like some kids). And I am a wife and part of an extended family. And I have to sleep. Nourishing my body takes time and planning. So, some days I get to make progress on my writing. Other days, I think about it and wish I could do more, but have to make a choice.

My encounter with B6 toxicity and small fiber peripheral neuropathy last year was a wake-up call. At base, it was the result of poor stress management and feeling like I had to find a way to fit everything into my life. I tried to do that through over-supplementation, and it had negative results for my body. It scared me because I realized that my attempts to mask my stress had led to something that could have done permanent damage. So, I had to make changes. And make choices. My mantra and my guiding beacon has been Elizabeth Gilbert’s quote, “You do what you can do as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go.”

Those words have been such comfort and salvation for me. They remain posted above my computer at work, and I continue to get better at living them. I have had to adjust my expectations at work, as I have in my writing and the rest of my life. I no longer demand of myself that I get through all my email daily. I already give up almost every single lunch period, eating and working at my desk most days of most months. I finally gave myself permission to go home even if I had many unopened emails in my inbox. When I am booked with appointments, back to back, all day, every day, for months, it is simply not possible to fit everything else into the serendipitous minutes when I finish an appointment early or a student runs late or (jump for joy!) no-shows. I enjoy my job, but I have had to adjust my expectations, and I have made it a practice to manage students’ expectations. I let them know that it may take me a couple days to get back with them when they contact me, but I assure them that I will respond, and I do. Ideally, I would get to everybody every day. But I can’t and remain healthy.

Writing is the same. I make it enough of a priority when I can that I keep up a semi-regular practice of progress, but I have released the guilt of not accomplishing my stated goal every day. That outcome of my 100 days has probably been more significant than the prolific production of written content would have been. I have learned (and am still learning) better balance and patience with myself.

I have had to apply Gilbert’s words and the internalization of them to other aspects of my life as well. I fall prey to worry that dear friends may feel hurt that I can’t make it to all the events and activities I would like. I have to push aside concerns that I may be perceived as neglecting causes that are deeply important to me. Ultimately, I have to do what fits. I have to prioritize inner peace over constant activity. I have to know my introverted self and how much stimulation and interaction I can handle until downtime is a must.

There was a long period in my life when one of my biggest fears was “settling” in any arena. That concern still arises from time to time. Have I sold myself short in terms of my temporal and financial investment in my education? Do others think so? Am I limiting my success because I am afraid to take risks or to make sacrifices? Have I been inconsistent? Indecisive? A disappointment to myself or others? There are times when those questions and concerns still seep through the cracks in the walls I have erected to shield myself from them. Ultimately, though, my 100 days and last year’s health scare have made it clear that I simply have to take care of myself. Trusting my instincts regarding personal limits is a vital aspect of that self-care.

I feel good about my first 100 (now +7) days of 2016, and I feel ready to move forward in a way that maximizes my nutrition and allows me to find a measure of satisfaction with my writing progress and the expectations I have for it in my life. Additionally, the lessons I have learned through the 100 days practices will continue to nurture me in every component of my life. I am grateful for the #100HAPPYDAYS challenge and for the habits and method it has instilled. I fully intend to move forward with those lessons in my toolbox for personal growth.

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!

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.