I’ve tried a variety of recommended, rumoured and personal strategies for rethinking my life over the past few weeks and I just thought I’d do a little survey about what has and hasn’t worked so far.
Exercise – such a simple one, but done right, it does make a difference. I know recent studies have poo-pooed the idea that exercise can counteract depression, but as far as I can see, those studies focused on the notion that exercise alone can cure a troubled soul. Arguments about serotonin levels aside, exercise is just a great way of changing the pace of your day, breaking up the monotony of working at a desk, getting outside and spending time with people. Those aspects of exercise, as well as spending time really focusing on being in your body, experiencing what it can do and feeling yourself improving a little more each time, can change your day. I think the crucial thing is to keep it guilt-free and flexible, so you exercise in a way that responds to your day rather than try to enforce a regime that leaves you feeling inadequate or guilty. So have it in your head that you’re going to do some form of exercise 3 times a week, but don’t get up tight about when and how – see how you feel. From my experience, deciding to go swimming every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning works for a week, then turns into a chore. Spontaneously deciding to go after work as a way of winding down works much better.
Eating well – I’m starting to think there’s an important distinction between eating food that is good for you and eating well. You can eat the healthiest diet in the world, but if you’re anxious and obsessive about it, having a healthy diet is not contributing to your overall well-being. Eating well involves being healthy as a whole, not just in your intake – so not imbuing diet with a range of complex negative emotions. Learn about what you eat, yes. Know what is good and not so good for, yes. And then use that knowledge to enjoy food rather than obsess.
Reading around – I’ve been delving into the wealth of material out there about living better, brighter lives, looking for inspiration and ideas about what I can try. I’ve been surprised by how quickly looking for inspiration leads you to the self-help section – and been taken aback by how dubious some of the books in that section are. First off, I’m not entirely sure why wanting to change your life qualifies you for self-help, particularly when a lot of these materials are focusing on addressing your sense of inadequacy. Wanting change and feeling inadequate aren’t innately connected. Secondly, and I say this as someone who has used good self-help books in the past, there’s something about the self-help category, something in the promises the titles make or in the prose the authors use that leaves the reader in a passive position. It’s almost as if the books are reinforcing your helplessness so you’ll have to keep coming back. This isn’t by any means true of all the material, but the bigger the promises (and normally the title on the cover) the more passive the position you’re in a as reader – because the book is promising to give you the answers, rather than help you figure things out for yourself, including setting out who you should be and what you should want.
Actually, it’s been much more useful to read fiction, biographies, poetry and philosophical stuff. And to read people’s personal experience on blogs and interviews. There’s a lot out there about well-being and happiness at the moment and some of it is really thought-provoking. When you’re rethinking your life, that is in fact what you need – thoughts being provoked, new avenues being opened up to you, not someone setting out a definite path for you. Maybe we need a new category.
Paying close attention – I picked this up from Susan Cain’s brilliant book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking (2012). In it, she discusses how she came to think about envy as a positive experience. Until recently, envy has been something I’ve really struggled with, as I suffered from serious pangs of ‘grass is greener’ and used my envy of other people as a means of doing myself down. Cain argues that actually paying attention to your envy and listening to what it’s telling you about your life can turn it into a productive rather destructive experience. So if you find yourself consistently envying people who have cats, maybe that’s a sign that you should organise your life in such a way that you too can have a cat. It’s not always going to be possible, and what you find yourself envying might genuinely be beyond your capability, but it can still help you recognise what’s important in your life.
I’ve found this particularly interesting in my current ‘should I pursue this career or try something new’ predicament, especially when it comes to thinking about what I don’t envy and what tells me. And then I’ve expanded this kind of idea to think about some of the other emotions and responses that come so naturally in day to day life that I barely notice them happening. What do I respond well to or what really gets under my skin? How can recognising that particular patterns or instances produce particular responses in me help me manage those responses and think about how to arrange my life so that I can maximise the good and minimise the bad? It all sounds really grand, but it comes down to little things that have a big impact. For instance, I now know not to check my work emails after 3pm on a Friday, because one oddly worded email can disturb my whole weekend when the author didn’t intend it to. Or I know I need to avoid caffeine when I’m going to look at my finances, because the combination of the two leaves me a nervous wreck. Little things, but they add up to leaving you feeling better.
Leaving Facebook – This has been a big one for me, which in itself is scary, because when I signed up to it all those years ago, it was no bigger a committment than getting an email account. And yet, somehow over the years, something in my relationship to it has changed. I’ve developed some form of dependance on it that made it difficult to leave, even though I’ve long been disturbed or angered by some of the things the company has been doing. But I finally reached a point when I realised that rather than staying in touch with people, I was watching their lives, and watching people’s lives, especially the polished, edited versions we like to present on social media, is isolating and depressing. So I left six weeks ago. It is disconcerting, but god, I feel better for it. I’ve been talking to people more, writing letters no less, and generally feeling more present in my own and other people’s lives. This might be a blip, I might go back and have a perfectly healthy relationship with it in the future, but it scared me that something commercial was that hard to walk away from. And it scared me how much the format of FB was effecting my perception of my actual flesh-and-blood friends and friendships. Forcing myself back into active friendship rather than passive contact has been amazing.