Finding Your Happiness Continuum
by Sunny Schlenger
A few years ago, back in New Jersey, I went to a championship lacrosse game. It was my first in ages, and it was amazing. There’s something about the energy of a large stadium, with so many people sharing the same experience at the same time; it’s physical, it’s emotional, and it’s very, very powerful.
A few days after the game, I spent the afternoon alone in my office. Outside, the sky was that luminous shade of blue you see after the rain has washed away all of the humidity. The air coming through the open patio door was soft and clean, the cicadas were just warming up for their summer-long chirping, and I felt totally at peace — two opposite ends of a continuum, each defining who I am, what I love, and what makes me happy.
When I look at what makes me feel good, I see a variety of things. They range from those people, places and activities that soothe and comfort me to those that energize and excite. But it wasn’t until recently that I became aware that these all exist on a continuum — my personal happiness continuum — and that knowing when and how to choose among the possibilities can make a critical difference in how well I function.
I used to believe that self-care was a reward that I earned for work well done and time profitably spent. You can probably guess, using those criteria, how often I rewarded myself. What that reasoning actually got me was constant pressure to get it all right, all the time, so I would “deserve” the pat on the back that I desperately needed to give myself.
It’s easier to see in hindsight, of course, that I was perfectly emulating the legendary Greek ruler, Sisyphus, pushing that giant boulder up the hill, only to watch it always roll to the bottom again. It took time and more than a few illuminating moments to enable me to recognize the futility of continuing to do that.
I came to understand that my assumptions were creating the problem and that I needed to turn those assumptions upside down in order to change what wasn’t working. So I said to myself, instead of putting self-care second, I would do just the reverse: assume that if I took good care of myself, I would be more likely to see work well done and time profitably spent.
What a difference! I could tell that I was on to something because I immediately felt that positive inner ping when my body lets me know that I’m moving in the right direction. So, in spite of protests from that pesky Inner Critic, I set about discovering what I could do for myself that would give me the sense of peace or energy that I require so I can do what I most need and want to do.
This was the fun part — making a list of everything that gives me pleasure. And as I compiled this list, I became aware of how different activities were grouping themselves into categories according to whether they relaxed or energized me. They stretched out in a straight line from the calming influence of a meditative moment by my little fountain, to the euphoria of a live concert by a favorite music group. In between were items that produced simple comfort (such as wrapping myself in a warm towel, plucked out at the end of the dryer cycle) or a bit of stimulation (like dancing to a great but seldom-heard song on the radio).
What I had created for myself was a blueprint of how to bring me back to me. And it was naturally organized to promote whatever mood I wanted to experience more of. What this requires, however, is sensitivity to where I am at the moment; I need to be conscious of how I feel in order to choose what would be most helpful. And that means there have to be check-in times.
At various points each day, it’s important to check in with yourself to see how you’re doing. It’s so very easy to become distracted or overwhelmed and to be carried out with the tide without realizing what’s happening. The key here is to be aware of how you feel, so you’re in a position to make decisions about the use of your time that move you in the direction you need to go.
It can seem self-indulgent to focus so intently on what brings you happiness, but that’s the root of what you send back into the world. Taking care of yourself — doing what you need to do to feel healthy and competent and spiritually nourished — provides the support for everything else you do.