The Pursuit of Happiness

Hello everyone and welcome to this blog documenting my Senior Studies project as well as my pursuit of happiness. My name is Lily Dube and I'm currently a senior at Evanston Township High School. I'm in a class called Senior Studies where, for second semester, the students get to create and work on an independent project for three periods a day. For my project I want to learn about happiness and what makes people happy. I want to learn about it from a neurological and psychological perspective but also just learn about how happiness can be attained through exercise, diet, yoga, meditation, by training yourself/brain to be happy, and other things I discover. This blog is going to be the place where I will be chronicling what I learn along the way and my personal experiences with trying out each method. Please join me for the journey!

Start of a Meditation Practice

After interviewing meditation teacher and enthusiast, Ellen Rosen-Kaplan, I’ve been excited but slightly apprehensive to try it for myself. Ellen has such a powerful connection to meditation and I wanted to have a positive experience too. I think my fear of not doing it right or not enjoying it swayed me from wanting to test it out myself. That’s why it took me so long to actually sit down and take the time to meditate.

But today, I did it. Twice. I took ten minutes and just removed myself from whatever I was doing to close my eyes, focus on my breathing, and unwind. The first time I did it today, I sat in a comfy chair in my kitchen in the sun, set a timer for ten minutes on my phone, took a deep breath, and began. I was kind of unsure of what to do next, but told myself that that was okay. I placed one hand on my chest/heart and one on my stomach so that I could feel my breath and connect to it. I noticed myself having other thoughts come in and I would do my best to gently push them aside and not engage them. This happened numerous times, but each time I was able to put it aside and return to my breathing and focus. When the alarm went off I was surprised at how quickly the time flew. I felt extremely at peace and relaxed. Everything about my mind and body felt lighter. I felt almost weightless. This was a really interesting feeling, that I was able to achieve just by siting down and breathing for ten minutes.

The second time I meditated today I was lying in my bed, I put on some quiet music in the background, and again put one hand on my chest and one on my stomach. I set my timer for ten minutes and started up with my conscious breathing. Going into this time of meditation I thought maybe fewer thoughts would come to mind because I had meditated earlier, but nope. I still had a lot of thoughts rushing in, but again, did my best to gently push them aside and not engage them. This time while meditating I created a sort of mantra where I would say ‘it’s all going to be fine’ just as a reassurance for myself. There’s been a lot of stressors in my life recently, so this mantra felt very fitting to give me comfort and support. The time went by super quickly again, and after the alarm went off, I was in a sort of daze. I felt extremely peaceful again, and totally relaxed. I felt super light and even a little bit light-headed.

I wouldn’t equate what I was feeling after mediating with happiness. I definitely felt calm, peaceful, and relaxed, but not necessarily happy. Meditating gave me instant relief and made me feel those things right when I finished, but the lasting effects aren’t as prominent for me yet. What’s super interesting to me about meditation is that I am disconnecting from my surroundings and what I’m doing, but am completely connecting to my breath, my mind, and my body. I’m going to continue meditating, for longer periods of time and see how the results evolve. I do think it’s a very useful way to sort of step away from everything going on in our busy lives, and just take a few minutes to live in the present and become aware with where we are in that moment in time.

The thing about meditation is that it is a practice. Now that I’ve done it a couple times, there’s only room for me to grow and keep trying and practicing. There’s no right and wrong way to meditate, but it is constantly changing and we need to keep up with it by continuing to practice the practice.

Interview with Meditation Teacher!

I had the chance to interview life-long family friend and meditation teacher, Ellen Rosen-Kaplan. She is beyond amazing, loving, and smart. We sat down and had a lengthy chat about her experience with meditation, how she teaches it, and how she thinks it connects to happiness. I truly think that I was experiencing ‘flow’ during out interview because what was actually a 45 minute talk felt like 10 to me. Ellen had meditated prior to our interview, so I really think that some of her energy transferred to me. It was super special to talk to her and learn from her. I hope you enjoy!

You can also listen to the interview here: https://soundcloud.com/lilydube/interview-with-ellen-rosen-kaplan

Lily Dube: Why don’t you start out by telling me about your own meditation experience?

Ellen Rosen-Kaplan: Okay, so I began meditating when I was sixteen, and went with my Uncle who was nine years older than me to an ashram and I would sit with the yogis there and we would meditate and it was a little strange at first for me, but there was something about it I really liked and then I continued doing it on and off until I got to the University of Michigan and then when I was there I learned transcendental meditation, which is a form of meditation where you get a mantra, or they give you your own private mantra, which is like a two syllable word that you focus on, that is the point of focus that you kind of keep coming back to, and the goal is if you keep coming back to this word, that would sort of calm your body and mind and integrate kind of your emotional and spiritual and physical self and center you and bring your brain to a different sort of state of consciousness. That’s what I did for many many years. And then I branched out and began to learn more like relaxation techniques, which is another form of meditation. It was a way of training the body through establishing what’s called an endocrine equilibrium. Basically what happens, physiologically, is through these different methods, there’s a beta endorphin that’s released from the brain and it stimulates the thyroid, the parathyroid, the adrenal, all the endocrine organs, and everything sort of calms, and the body, the muscles, then tension in the muscles, everything kind of relaxes, and these endorphins are released, these opiates in the body are released, and there’s a real chemical change in the blood pressure, physiological changes. So I started to do that, and I worked with lots of people that had AIDS, and terminal illnesses to do this, who were in chronic pain, to be able to calm themselves in this way. So that was sort of a different type of, more like a relaxation technique than meditation. And then over the years I began through my work to integrate these different methodologies and kind of merge them and use them with people where it could be helpful. Now my own practice…

LD: Are you a therapist?

ERK: I’m a therapist. I’m a licensed clinical social worker, and I’ve been in practice for thirty-ish years, doing psychotherapy. So my own practice has changed I would say in the last few years because I’ve gotten into mindfulness meditation, which is a very ancient form of meditation that’s been around forever. Actually I forgot to tell you, before mindfulness I did some work with a rabbi in the area, whose name is Douglas Goldhammer, and he’s a rabbi who is the head of the Hebrew Seminary for the Deaf. His whole rabinit is about mystical healing and meditations that were kind of practiced back in the 1600s/1700s and were kind of buried, in the Jewish religion we never really learned a lot of these things growing up, but they were sort of resurrected from hidden places and he began to bring them back to life and he’s involved in healing. So I learned a lot of meditations from a Jewish mystical perspective from him, for a number of years. Okay, so fast forward to now I’m in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and there’s a teacher training called ‘Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training’ where I’m learning to not only practice mindfulness meditation, I’m learning to become a teacher. So what’s different about mindfulness meditation is that rather than focus on a word or a concept or an image, you sit and you experience what it means to be here right now, watching whatever arises and falls, without judgement, looking at what happens with the five senses, what happens in your body, what happens in your mind, the focus might be on the breath, you can create a different intention but it’s more about becoming aware of what’s here right now on lots of levels.

LD: How do you go about teaching meditation? How do you teach people how to meditate?

ERK: So there are different levels, the very basic level which I still practice myself everyday…

LD: You meditate everyday?

ERK: I meditate everyday.

LD: How long for?

ERK: So the ideal for me is a minimum of 30 minutes, sometimes I do 45, sometimes I only get to do 20. Occasionally, it’s even a little bit shorter than that, but the goal is a minimum 30 minutes. I do it in the morning and then I try throughout the day I carry the principles so it becomes sort of generalized. Because the purpose of meditating, and sitting on the cushion, and doing the practice, is to be able to utilize it in our lives in such a way that allows us to live the way we’re meant to live which is with joy and happiness. That is our true nature, so you know most of us aren’t walking around like that, so the whole idea is, we’re all suffering it’s part of the human condition, and this is a methodology for a choice we can make. But we can’t make the choice unless we’re aware, if we think we have no control over what’s going on, then we are kind of slaves to circumstance, but mindfulness meditation allows us to live with awareness so we have more choice over how to respond.

So, how do I teach it?

First, I teach the very basic which is, what is with us all the time? And that is our breath. That the breath is the source of our life. So if we were to position ourselves in a very comfortable position, with our feet flat on the ground, and our spines at rest, not pulling up so much that there’s tension, but enough so there’s a little bit of tension and a little bit of letting down in the hips. And tuning into the breath, we notice through the inhalation the sensation through the nostrils of what it feels like, the temperature, the air, the feeling, and then we notice the rising of the chest and the abdomen with the breath, we notice the exhalation, the chest and the abdomen falls, we notice if the breath is sort of higher up or chest-oriented or if it’s deeper, more diaphragmatic, all these things will tell us something initially, but the first step is to just simply notice the breath. And what’s beautiful about that, is it brings us right to the present moment. Because most of us are…I might be sitting here with you, having a conversation, but my mind is somewhere else. And that means that I’m not fully present, in this moment if my mind is somewhere else. And why do I want to be fully present in this moment? Because I don’t wanna miss, this moment, it’s here and it’s gone, and I wanna be there for it. When I’m fully there for it, I’m much more in a place of joy then when I’m off somewhere else. So, the more I’ve practiced and the more I’ve had tastes of what it’s like to be fully here right now, the more I want that. And I think that’s what starts to happen, so that’s what I teach first, is to just focus in on the breath, focus on whether the breath is shallow or whether it’s deep. What starts to happen when you focus in on the breath is if you just watch it without judging, it does start to deepen usually, and then you notice that.  So I want to bring awareness to the quality of the breath. And what we’re doing by doing that is we are training the mind to come back, returning to whatever the intention is. In this case it’s the breath. The next step I have people work on, is while you’re witnessing this happening with the breath, to witness what’s happening in the body, so you might notice, areas of tension, all kinds of things that imply what we might call a constriction. And all that stuff causes stress. So when we bring awareness to what’s happening in the body, it allows again for some choice. But you can’t do anything until you’re aware.

LD: What do you notice with peoples’ mood before they meditate and after they meditate? How do they shift?

ERK: Well, that’s a hard question because it depends on sometimes when you’re doing mindfulness meditation, you might become aware of something that has been percolating and that you have been successfully avoiding/suppressing. Something may come up that is disturbing to you, so after you meditate you might not feel super good, but you have more awareness of something so you have, again, the choice, whereas if you were suppressing something you didn’t even know you were suppressing, you might not know why you’ve been walking around with a headache or feeling just agitated or snappy or not happy. So, right after, you might be crying or you might be more sad, or even a bit more agitated, but something is becoming into awareness. Again, it depends on what you use it for. There are people who have used meditation as a way to relax and sort of feel better, and it can be used that way and under those conditions I’ve seen people go from being super tense and agitated to much more relaxed afterwards. So that I’ve seen. It can be done and you can do that. However, sometimes people have used meditation as a way to avoid certain emotional and psychological material, that needs to be dealt with. Our tendency is to generally, when something comes up that we don’t like, especially in our society, our tendency is to find someway to “get rid of it.” The paradox in mindfulness meditation is, we embrace whatever is there and learn to tolerate it. With great compassion. In mindfulness meditation, something will come up, and you want to do something to hold it so that it’s contained with loving kindness. A thought comes in, you don’t try to make it go away, you notice it, you might even bring it in a little bit to see how it manifests, but you’re not holding on. It’s like a cloud, it comes in, and goes.

LD: What is your definition of happiness?

ERK: I think I would say that happiness is the state one is in when one is truly aligned with his or her true nature, there’s a joy and free flowing capacity of the channels and one is truly living within one’s true nature able to be in connection with something greater than themselves, providing something that brings joy to others and then it gets mirrored back.

LD: How would you say meditation relates to happiness, connects to happiness, affects happiness?

ERK: I do think it has huge ramifications for happiness. When I sit down to meditate and if I notice that my breathing is higher up in my chest and my thoughts are a lot thinking and I’m distracted and it’s very hard to bring my attention to my breath, at some point more often now than not, there comes a point where that shifts. And I start to notice that my breath is deeper, and I start to feel myself letting down the shoulders and I can feel a kind of spaciousness opening inside. It’s as though there’s now more room. It is the larger more expansive spacious mind that allows for the sensation of happiness. We walk around with our brows furrowed and this fast pace and we’re holding our shoulders a certain way and we don’t know it. So when we meditate, we let down, and then a smile comes on the face. And one thing I noticed when I meditate, sometimes I put a smile on my face, what I notice is, just putting the smile on my face, it’s like we are supposed to be more in joy, so sometimes acting as if, physiologically it changes and therefore we then, we can change from the outside and then the inside follows. There’s many ways to get to the same destination. So that’s why I think, yes, it has a huge implication, it shows us where we are constricted and we get to work on that, so we can free ourselves because we all want to be free.

 

Helping Others & Helping Yourself

We’ve all been taught since we were little to do nice things for others, like giving up our seat on the bus for an elderly person, or even holding the door open for those behind us. While we may have been annoyed at our mothers telling us to do these things, our moms were actually giving us a tool to become happier. Now it’s been scientifically proven that helping others does indeed make us happier. It increases our life satisfaction, gives us a sense of meaning, increasing our feelings of competence, improves our mood, and reduces our stress levels. Being kind and helping others helps connect us with other people and meets our need of relatedness.

Giving to others and helping others is a cycle. Happiness makes want to give more, and giving makes us happier, which leads to a greater desire to help. It all comes full circle. There’s just a feeling that you get when you’ve done something that’s made someone else smile. I know that I get such fulfillment and reward from helping others. I can’t help but smile as I get the response from them that I’ve just done something that has helped them in some way. Helping others makes me feel really grateful and lucky for what I do have. Expressing gratitued is a huge aspect of happiness, and you can even read my blog post all about it here: http://blog.undergradresearch.northwestern.edu/2015/02/09/power-of-gratitude/

I gave out a survey about happiness to 147 students at my school, Evanston Township High School. One of the questions I asked on the survey was “what do you do that makes you happy?” One of the top responses to this question was: making others happy. So some of the students at my school have this awareness that making others happy, makes them happy in return. It’s hard to describe, but you just feel good after helping others. Psychologists have even coined a term “helper’s high” which describes a euphoric feeling, followed by a longer period of calmness, experienced after performing a kind act. So this is real. It is a fact, we become happier by making others happier.

As a part of my Senior Studies experience, I’ve done around 100 hours of service. This started out as a requirement, but has since become something I both want to do, and look forward to doing to bring myself and others happiness. I’ve done service at Curt’s Cafe, a cafe that trains at risk youth, at Soup at Six, a soup kitchen, and Park School, a school for students with special needs. I’ve been doing service at all of these places since the beginning of the school year, and have found it to be an incredibly rewarding experience. I’ve gotten more connected with my community, helped others through the process, and have become happier myself. I’ve fallen in love with the students, staff, and institution of Park School. It doesn’t take much to make the students happy, and what I do there isn’t super hard work, but it helps the teachers. I make the teachers’ lives easier, I entertain the students, and I mostly serve as an extra pair of hands. Knowing that I am taking a little bit of the weight off of the teachers, and also get to see the students’ faces light up with laughter brings me such joy and fulfillment. I feel like I’m doing something right. I always feel so beyond grateful when I go to Park School because I often take for granted that I can walk down the stairs in the morning or go to the bathroom by myself. Doing service at Park School is always like a wake up call that I am incredibly lucky, and that with my luck, I can help those that aren’t as fortunate.

The huge service component of Senior Studies perfectly connects to my project in the sense that it is another thing to add to the list that people can do to become happier. I’ve been doing service consistently this entire school year and can confidently say, it does make me happy. Being the person to brighten someone else’s day and make something easier for them, in turn comes right back and brings the same happiness back to the giver.

 

Future Yogi?

Before even starting my project, I went to some yoga classes and really enjoyed them. I felt extremely peaceful and rejuvenated after leaving the classes, so I wanted to incorporate it into my project somehow. I’ve been trying out yoga at Lighthouse Yoga Studio sporadically since my interview with yoga teacher, Thomas Zwergal. I’ve gone to two different classes, both taught by Thomas. The first class I went to was a Gentle Basics class which was very simple, relaxing, and easy to follow along with. The other class I’ve been to a few more times is the Level 1-2 class. This involves some more difficult poses, longer duration, and moves faster.

Today I was having a pretty tough day, to be honest. I’ve got a lot of things going on in my life and they all seemed to just add up and overwhelm me today. I got anxious and felt pretty close to having a panic attack. The stress of school, graduation, prom, and friends all just got to me today, and I then thought to myself, ‘Lily, you have control right now. You can choose to be happy.’

In that moment I decided to go to Thomas’s 6:30 pm Level 1-2 yoga class. I knew that I needed to do something to take my mind off of everything going on in my life and just really take a second to breathe and relax. Yoga felt like the perfect way for me to do that.

There’s something incredibly soothing about the yoga studio the second you walk in. The lights are dim, incense is burning, and light music is playing in the background. I saw my friend’s mom and brother when I first got there, so I was automatically greeted with some familiar faces. Then it was time to get our mats set up for the 90 minute class. I got my area prepared and then sat on my mat and began getting into the mindset of yoga. The next 90 minutes were filled with deep breathing, difficult pose sequences, and conscious thought about my movements, body, and breath. Yoga isn’t super easy for me, physically, and the breathing aspect is hard to for me to adjust to and follow along with. But, I do think that I experienced ‘flow’ while doing yoga. The class felt like 15 minutes, not 90. During yoga my brain is just in this completely different state, it’s not working as hard, my breathing is more fluid, and I am more conscious of my body and how I feel. It was a really amazing session.

I left the studio feeling light, invigorated, calm, and at peace. It was such a contrast of how I was feeling walking into the studio. I think that speaks for itself. Being present was huge for me, I didn’t let myself think about everything else going on in my life outside of the yoga studio, I detached myself for that a truly lived in that moment. I felt happy.

Here are some pictures of the yoga studio during before daytime and evening classes:

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Interview with Yoga Instructor!

Next up I’ve got an interview with yoga instructor and Lighthouse Yoga & Acupuncture studio owner, Thomas Zwergal. We had a super long interview and I got some good answers from him about the relationship between yoga and happiness. His answers were unlike the answers I’ve gotten from my other experts so that was exciting and different. I’ve been going to some yoga classes and have been trying it out myself so look out for that post coming soon! For now here’s the interview!

Here’s Thomas’s website: http://lighthouseyoga.com

You can also listen to the interview here: https://soundcloud.com/lilydube/interview-with-thomas-zwergal

Lily Dube: Can you start out by telling me what you do and what your job involves?

Thomas Zwergal: Sure, and I’ll give you my name too. My name is Thomas Zwergal and I’m a yoga teacher and I own a yoga studio along with my wife, Tracy, and my sister is an acupuncturist who also works out of our space. So we have a nice little family business. I’ve been teaching yoga in and around Evanston, Chicago, Wilmette, for the last fifteen years. And we opened the studio two and a half years ago, so we feel really lucky that we’ve been successful.  

LD: How would you say your work makes you feel?

TZ: That’s such a good question because when I’m working, like when I’m teaching a class which is most of what I do, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything. And when I’m not teaching, you know, my body feels fatigue, things like that, but I can’t imagine doing anything other than what I’m doing. When we were opening the studio we were meeting, my sister, Tracy, and I were meeting and it came up only one time and we all in the matter of 10-15 seconds unanimously agreed failure wasn’t an option. Like if we’re not doing this, what in the world else would we be doing that would give us as much joy and fulfillment as creating a space where people can come and take time out of their day and just enjoy a little bit of space and of course moving the body is really important and all of that, but most of what we wanted to create was a heartfelt/heartfilled space that people could come and feel comfortable letting down some of their boundaries and armor and shedding some of that thicker skin.

LD: What would you say the level of happiness is of the people that come in to your classes? Are they unhappy in one area of their life or in general?

TZ: That’s a good question. I generally feel like most people are stressed out. And that’s not a judgement on them as people, I think that’s more a commentary on our society, on the pace of our lives. Yoga, you know, most of the meditation techniques whether whatever school it falls under everybody agrees multitasking is a fool’s errand. More and more scientific studies are coming out that it’s not even possible because you’re only ever doing one thing at a time, and usually you’re doing multiple things badly as opposed to one thing well. Things like that. I think most people come that come in are stressed, you know, they have a lot going on, they’ve got lives. People have really busy lives, it’s amazing. The level of happiness is a little more difficult to gauge, mostly because not everyone will share. Like some students I’m quite close with and I’m proactive with getting to know people, but in terms of getting personal I’m open with having that kind of a relationship but I let them come to me if they want to share something about their life. And in terms of happiness, to go to the overarching theme of all of this, like yoga really has a different perspective on happiness. Most people, they think happiness is ‘I have what I need or I get what I want or I have good relationships or finances are good’ you know all the things that typically stress us out. ‘I don’t have a companion, I don’t enough funds, I don’t have all these things that are really challenging for us.’ But in yoga I mean what we call happiness is truly independent of circumstance. So, getting what I want, not getting what I want are not related to my sense of happiness and my sense of wellbeing. In this way we say happiness is unconditional, like love. It’s entirely uncaused and the circumstances have no bearing on my level of happiness. And is that true for me? Not all the time. There are definitely times teaching, when I’m meditating, when I’m doing my own practice, where I feel like connection, and in those times you could certainly argue that the meditation is giving me peace, but ultimately if yoga, meditation, if it’s really working it’s removing sort of the distractions that we all have in our head, all of our worries and anxieties, and when we can let those go there’s just a natural peace that rises to the surface. The metaphor is always like ‘a diamond in the rough’ it’s like you need to get rid of, you don’t need to create the diamond, it’s already there, you just need to get rid of all the dirt and all of that.

LD: How would you say your work affects your happiness, and how does your happiness affect your work?

TZ: That’s a good question. My work affects my happiness tremendously. So now I have to just let everybody who might be listening and yourself know that I’m completely contradicting what I just said. Because that’s kind of a cause of what I consider to be my happiness, but I do feel like it does affect my happiness because the work that I do helps me to remove some of my anxieties. It assuages fear, I really feel that teaching is reassuring to me, it like restores my faith in people, things like that. And that’s what I mean like it’s a really collective process because I’m here I’m teaching and it sort of looks like I’m giving a lot to people but I’m getting so much back. So that definitely feeds me. And it’s reassuring and gives me confidence, and makes me feel good for sure. The other thing is, I’m overjoyed when people come and say not for me but for them that it makes a difference in their life. And obviously people keep coming back to class and they keep coming back and practicing and they’re getting something from it that, if it has anything to do with me it has just as much to do with them. And there’s nothing I don’t think better than that. If there was another job that I could do that I could have that kind of dynamic with other people, I don’t know what it is, but I’d be happy to do it. But that kind of relationship is really really crucial and it definitely feeds my happiness. Now the other end of the question is how does my happiness feed my work. That’s the really really good question. So I’ve come to teach a class from places where I’ve just had an argument with my wife, had been in screaming battles with the kids, stuff like that or you’re rushing, you’re stuck in traffic, and you’ve got to be there, you’ve got to get there. It’s tremendously stressful and you come in frazzled. And if you come and teach a class in that state, it’s gonna fall flat, people are gonna know, I’m gonna know, so in that sense my level of happiness affects my work tremendously. But, it’s precisely the practice, the meditation, the yoga, all the awareness practice, allows me to set that aside at least for the time that I’m teaching. It allows me to get into a different headspace really quickly. If not completely circumvent like the reactive stage, you can feel and see your reaction come up, you can feel your breath stopping, you can feel your heart rate rising, you can feel yourself getting frustrated, or you’re already frustrated and you see ‘okay here I am caught up in this whole whirlwind of like anger, worry, and anxiety. Completely helpless. And of course a that’s a sense of stress too. But you come to that feeling that you can put a gap there, you can see the futility of getting angry or frustrated and you can breathe and you can then say ‘okay there’s nothing I can do. I have to accept this situation. ‘ And you realize that that’s actually a place of great power and strength to accept a situation and to see the situation for what it is. And then to allow it to be that way. And that’s really what the practice does on every level. And that’s more of what it’s like when I’m having a stressed out day.

LD: How do you see what you do make people happier?

TZ: Aside from them directly telling me, I see them walking out of the room in a better state than when they came in. Again, to say that people keep coming back, they return again and again, coming back to class, coming back to the studio, to me that means more than anything that they’re getting something from the practice. And I think just on a general level, you start to have conversations with people and you hear their perspective shifting. I’ve sort of talked about what the definition of what yoga says is happiness which is this sort of uncaused, unconditional sort of buddha like state, kind of an enlightened state where you’re just sitting around and are blissful all the time. But to me, my own definition of happiness is partially that, is to be content and yoga has this notion of contentment which is you have what you have, and you don’t hold on too tightly to the things that go, you don’t grasp too eagerly, too greedily for the things to come, and that state is more akin to the equilibrium that yoga brings. The way that yoga looks at it is, you’re supposed to not care about happiness or sadness, like you’re supposed to look at them both with indifference. For me, seeing people have perspective, shifting their rigid belief structures, I think all of this leads to a generally happier and more satisfied life. Not demanding circumstances should fit a pattern, or should be consistent. People realize that things can change. People can see that things aren’t as rigid.

 

 

Getting Artsy

After interviewing art therapist, Elana Kaiser, she invited me to come to her studio and do some art with her. I’ve never been a super artistic or artistically talented person, but after taking ceramics, art, and art therapy at school, I’ve developed an interest in art. I was super excited to get the invitation and jumped on the opportunity. I was a bit anxious going into the experience because I didn’t really know what to expect or if what I would create would be anything good.

Elana welcomed me to her studio and gave me a bunch of options of different mediums that I could work with. Colored pencils, oil pastels, paint, or collaging. She also gave me the idea of picking an image from a magazine and using that as a jumping off point. I saw an image of a galaxy which caught my eye, so I ended up cutting out a circle of that and glued it right in the middle of the canvas Elana gave me. Then Elana got me some different colored paints to work with. And I kind of just started, I picked up a brush and my brain kind of shut off while my hand took over.

Since Elana and I are family friends and I’ve known her forever we were talking about each of our families and what has been going on. We basically caught up for a while, with Elana interjecting every so often commenting on something that I had done in my painting. All I was doing was pretty much taking a color and painting a section of the canvas and then blending in another color next to it. Nothing too intricate or impressive, but in the end it came together.

Throughout the process of painting I felt myself really slow down, relax, and just let go. Even though Elana and I were talking about some of the stressors in my life, I was able to do it in a really easy manner. My thoughts all slowed down and I was able to just paint without really having to think. It was a really interesting experience and by the time I finished I couldn’t believe an hour had passed.

When I finished Elana and I began to analyze the finished product a bit. Surprisingly, I was able to find a lot of meaning behind the piece even though I had no desired outcome planned in my head. The center of the painting, the dark galaxy kind of serves as the unknown in my life with the surrounding colors serving as the path to get there and the rest of my life. Elana asked me to just spill all of thoughts onto a piece of paper after painting and this is what I came up with.

“It’s crazy how without even trying or consciously thinking about it, I created an art piece that can symbolize my life at this moment in time. The dark/scary unknown in the center surrounded by the cohesive galaxy of colors. Not being an artist intimidated me going into this, but the absolute release and free that comes with is incredible. The space on the canvas doesn’t judge what gets put on it and is there for expression. I like that it is abstract, kind of like me. It leaves more room for interpretation.”

I took a happiness reflection before and after my art session with Elana. Overall, all my numbers improved. I felt much lighter after my session, I felt like my thoughts were much clearer and really calm. It was a great experience and a total release from everything that I had been thinking, feeling, and holding onto. It allowed me to just fully express myself, and I can confidently say that I felt happier leaving the studio than when I walked in.

This is my final piece along with some things I found in Elana’s art studio:

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Art Therapist Interview!

I’ve got a new interview for you! I met with art therapist, Elana Kaiser, to learn about art therapy in general and also how it connects to happiness. She didn’t have a ton of time to talk so she just dove in and gave me a great explanation of art therapy and what she tries to do with her clients. She had a really interesting perspective on happiness and I’m excited to share her thoughts with you! I even had the chance to do some art with her and try it out for myself, but that will be my next post. For now, enjoy reading her interview, or you can listen to the interview here: https://soundcloud.com/lilydube/interview-with-elana-kaiser

Elana Kaiser: “So I’ll just talk about art generally. So art, it is kind of a meditation in a way too, it can slow you down and can be like a concrete record of your existence cause I think depending on what’s going on in your life sometimes you can feel that it’s either hard to describe in words cause you know there’s a part of our brain that when we dream is only in pictures. So when people do art, they slow down, they relax, they also can feel, especially if you’re very clear as an art therapist to say there’s no right and no wrong, this isn’t about what it looks like…I mean some people get really excited about what they do and other people are like ‘you can just keep it’…but it’s a record of a moment in time. It’s like when you have a dream if you remember your dream you’re like ‘I don’t know what it means’ and then a few months later you’re like ‘oh yeah, I know what that dream means.’ Sometimes dreams can kind of be predicting the future or sometimes the symbols in the dream start making sense. If you do art a lot, it actually becomes a narrative of your life, like you get to see what your interests are, and you get to see how you organize your world whether it’s you know visually in terms of a story…and then you can feel like ‘Wow! My life makes sense, it’s not as all over the place as I thought it was, like there really is some kind of order.’ When I stop, and I look, and I see it…That can make people feel good. I mean obviously it could do the opposite. So what I try to do with people is actually connect it to, clearly people who are depressed they might really feel like they’ve, that’s on a continuum also. But with depression comes a lot of negative thoughts, like self loathing or ‘I can’t do anything right’ or ‘I’m unloveable’ or ‘I don’t look good’, all those negative cognitions that go with feeling out of control with your moods, anxiety, depression. And then what I try to teach people is ‘You are not your thoughts’ and that actually it does take more discipline and effort to change some of those negative thoughts and realizing that some of those negative thoughts like ‘the depression is a part of you’ and that your true essence is being calm and relaxed, and really helping people feel calm and relaxed, and be able to be mindful about their thoughts and say ‘okay so the thoughts when I’m feeling really down are really bullying me, okay so let’s connect and anchor in that calm and relaxed place.’ So the calm and relaxed place is connected to the breath, and also just when the body slows down you know the thoughts become, well they can slow down, or you can have a better perspective on watching the thoughts and then you can say ‘okay so let’s try to connect some positive thoughts to the calm and relaxed place’ so it could be like ‘hey, okay I’m okay the way I am’ or ‘let me think about a time when I felt good, and what was I doing, I was probably active in some kind of way’ or you can connect that calm place with drawing or painting and you could ask that negative part to step back and say ‘So if I have a part of me that’s really critical and judgmental, I’ll let that part just rant and rave’ and know that that’s not who I really am and it could just be connected to bad parenting or bullying in your past or a variety of things, but how can you balance it out or become more regulated, so I’ll suggest maybe teaching people meditation or doing yoga or exercising, but the thoughts are really what’s the most powerful thing. And so really the key to happiness…I mean clearly some people have better chemistry in their body and in their brain and they’re lucky they don’t need to effort as much, or their upbringings were different, but if you don’t have that kind of good fortune..it’s kind of like, you know, some people math comes really easily for them, other people math is really tough. So, if you wanna get better at math, you’re just gonna have to work five times as hard. So if you wanna have positive thoughts, and you don’t naturally have them, you have to consciously effort to say ‘okay, every time I have a negative thought I’m gonna say change’ quietly to myself, I’m gonna connect to my breath, I’m gonna slow down, and I’m gonna have some positive thoughts. Because the negative part, the primitive part of the brain has been there forever, and it’s design to have like lightening fast reactions to protecting us. And so, the more evolved part of the brain, which is in the pre-frontal cortex is the one that has to be engaged in positive thinking. So, you have to exercise and develop that part of your brain. So, if you can understand the physiology of depression, an understand it from a psyschoeducational point, of just like ‘this is what happens when I start thinking negative thoughts or when I feel bad and the negative thoughts happen so quickly, I need to quickly put a stop to it, cause when the stress hormones start flooding me, then I’m like a lost cause.’ And stress hormones double, they just go really really really fast. So, how do you slow it down? You have to be super conscious to say ‘well I don’t want to be flooded with stress hormones right now, and maybe I just need to have a lot of compassion for myself, maybe I need to go for a walk, or maybe I need to call a friend, or maybe I need someone to remind me that I’m a good person because right now I’m not able to use my full brain.’ So I think art therapy, meditation, thinking about how to have a regulated brain you know, is all in the mind-body connection and it’s like how can you realize that you do have some amount of control over your body, over your breath, over your thoughts, and how they’re interconnected. So that’s kind of how I work. And I can do that with like from children, to helping parents, to adults, to couples, you can spread it across because it’s all about just being human. ”

LD: “So in your head is the calm, relaxed state is that happiness?”
EK: “For me it is. I would say happiness is, yeah, calm-relaxed state. I mean for me, being happy is being yeah, calm and relaxed, but being active. I like to be active. So like, if I can be calm and relaxed and go on a long bike ride. Or calm and relaxed and go for a long hike. Or calm and relaxed and paint. You know, when I’m not happy it’s because I have negative thoughts, so you know it doesn’t take a lot for me to be happy, as long as my body’s calm. And compassion. That’s a huge word for me. If you can have compassion for yourself, for whatever state you’re in, you’re gonna get there sooner.”

Psychologist Interview!

I had a super interesting interview with clinical psychologist and research assistant professor at Northwestern University , Stepthen Schueller. I was lucky enough to sit down and talk to him about all things psychology and happiness related. He was incredibly knowledgable and gave me some great information that totally connects to my project! The insight I got from him is beyond perfect to help me move forward with my project. Here are the main questions I asked him and his amazing, helpful answers.

You can listen to the full interview here : https://soundcloud.com/lilydube/interview-with-stephen-schueller

Lily Dube: “Can you tell me a little bit about what positive psychology is?”

Stepthen Schueller: “Positive psychology is kind of like a sub area of psychology that’s been founded since 1998. The umbrella of positive psychology encompasses researchers in psychology that look at kind of optimal human functioning and there are kind of three main pillars that are talked about. One is the pillar of positive emotions, which is kind of the best way to think about that is kind of like the subjective state about happiness might be, and happiness is kind of a broad term. The second pillar would be positive character traits, so that is the characteristics of people that kind of facilitate optimal functioning and wellbeing and happiness. And then the last pillar would be positive institutions, so that’s social settings and governments, schools, that’s able to promote happiness and wellbeing and flourishing at both an individual and group level.”

LD: “Since the definition of happiness is so broad, what would you say your definition of it is?”

SS: “That’s always a fun question. So let me start with a little bit of my understanding of the field, and then like where I lie on some of the debates, but then I’ll also give you my more unique take on happiness. So usually when we talk about theories of happiness we divide things into two separate camps. So there’s hedonic theories of happiness and eudainomic theories of happiness. So hedonic theories of happiness is more about like how we feel. It’s a much more subjective way of thinking about happiness. And then eudainomic theories of happiness derives from the Greek term eudaimonia which means kind good spirit, so it’s kind of this idea that happiness is virtue and living a good life. And people talk about that as sort of a more objective theory of happiness so that like we think about virtue, meaning, and purpose, and those sorts of things. And the reason that’s a useful theory of happiness to have is because it avoids this idea that someone could be happy by living a pretty bad life. So if we look at a serial killer and they say ‘I’m happy killing people’ we can say like that’s actually not happiness like it doesn’t matter just what you say. On the other hand, that means people can also live a pretty good life and say that they’re completely unhappy. For example, like famous historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill are kind of like classic like depressives, they did great things in their life, but they didn’t feel completely good. So, I actually lean a little more to the hedonic tradition of happiness, I think that a person is ultimately the judge of their own happiness, and that if someone tells me that they’re miserable, no matter what they’re doing in their life, then I have to accept that that is some evidence to suggest that they’re lacking some sort of happiness. And kind of the most prevalent theory of hedonic kind of view of happiness is one that Ed Diener came up with. He uses this really fancy term called subjective wellbeing, and the reason Ed uses this term is because he was trying to get ten year and he was afraid that if he called his research ‘happiness’ no one would take him seriously as a scientist so he called it subjective wellbeing. But it says that happiness is a combination of high positive emotions, so feeling good a lot, low negative emotions, not feeling a lot of stress and anxiety and things like that, and then just a cognitive evaluation that your life is good, kind of taking all things together that you consider your life well off. And I think the reason that cognitive judgement part’s important is because we need the chance to kind of be able to frame things in the context of how they fit into our lives. So, I’m very much in the subjective wellbeing camp in terms of my view of happiness. When people ask me what I think of happiness I always say that happiness is positive goal pursuit, which is kind of a weird thing for people to wrap their head around, but the reason I say that is to me like happiness is about having something that you’re striving towards. Be it a specific goal, or kind of more amorphous goals like I want to be a caring person, and by getting closer to those things or feeling like we’re actualizing those goals in our life I think that’s kind of where we feel satisfaction and positive emotions and that if we feel like we’re being blocked from those goals in our lives, that’s where kind of negative emotions or dissatisfaction comes from. So, as I said, it’s kind of a weird way to define happiness, but I think it’s useful because as a clinical psychologist, I’m very interested in what we can do to help promote peoples’ happiness and so I think that that kind of framework and that definition both highlights what happiness is but also one of the pathways in getting there.”

LD: “Going off that, what are some methods that people in general can do to access their happiness?”

SS: “Yeah, I mean I think the stuff that you’ve talked about is like really basic stuff, I actually think that there are four things that are foundational to happiness. It’s physical health, good diet, being physically active, and having strong social connections. When we move on to these strategies that kind of like highlight some of these other aspects of things that people can do to make themselves happy, what I often tell people is like ‘it’s not rocket science, it’s the stuff our grandmothers told us years and years ago but we don’t listen to our grandmothers all the time.’ Being grateful, being kind…so there’s an emotion regulation model of happiness that highlights five different steps in a process. So there’s situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change, and there’s a response modulation. Pretty much what they’re saying is, you have to pick something, you can make that thing a little nicer in some ways, you have to pay attention to it, you have to think about it in a way that’s beneficial, and then you have to respond appropriately. So taking advantage of picking the right thing, changing it in the right way, focusing on it correctly, thinking about it correctly, and then expressing it correcting, those are kind of the keys to unlocking happiness and I think kindness and gratitude and savoring and mindfulness, optimism, these things all kind of play into these aspects.

LD: “What is going on in the brain when people are happy? Or how does being happy affect peoples’ brain?”

SS: “Depending on the source of happiness, there’s different parts of the brain that light up, so it’s hard to know exactly. There’s definitely different signatures that show up in the brain based on the emotional reactions that we’re having. Some of them seem to respond to similar stimuli and other things look very different, so for example, the feeling of being overjoyed and ecstatic looks very different from the feeling of being like calm and at peace. And I think both of these are aspects of happiness. It does seem like these different components of happiness do have signatures that kind of show up in the brain. And again, I’m not a neuroscientist. It’s interesting because there are a lot of reactions our brain has to rewards and to anticipation of rewards. So if you give someone drugs, they’ll stimulate the pleasure centers in our brain. If you give people rewards they’ll stimulate those same pleasure centers in our brain. And if you give people the idea that they’re gonna receive rewards it’ll stimulate those same pleasure centers in the brain. So I think that what’s interesting about that is that we think about how happiness is kind of a cognitive or a phenomenon that we think about our lives, the way we imagine our lives, the way that we reflect on our lives, what we pay attention to our lives. Those processes modulate or change the response that goes into the pleasure centers of our brain, so the way that we kind of change in our mind can actually change the stuff that is somewhat outside of our control in terms of our brain and other ways.”

LD: “How do you do research if happiness is so subjective?”

SS: “One of the most widely used questionnaires in happiness is what’s known as the satisfaction with life questionnaire. So it’s a questionnaire from Ed Diener that is five questions. We come up with all these scales. And based on the theory of happiness that one might have, there are different questions, there are some that tap more eudainomic dimensions, so talking about meaning and purpose, sense of mastery in one’s life, if you have positive relationships. So everyone has kind of a slightly different theory. But the fact of the matter is, you ask people. And then with these standardized measures we are able to make comparisons across different groups. Another thing that is really useful if I’m working with someone clinically, it’s often useful to have people make their own scale. The biggest problem with the scales is to figure out if my happiness is the same as your happiness. The hardest thing to figure out is if my one equals your on and my two equals your two. But for myself, if I can figure out what my five is, and reliably say that six is higher than that and four is lower than that, that means something.”

LD: “Would you say that happiness is short term, fleeting emotional state or a more long term thing?”

SS: “I think there are components of both there. I was talking about this with some other researchers regarding exercise. Lots of people say they really like to exercise. Although in reality most people don’t really like to exercise, and if they like it so much then why do people avoid doing it so much? If we look at the short terms, exercise is often not fun. But afterwards, you feel positive, you feel like you accomplished something, and so there’s goodness that comes from that. And I think that a lot of happiness is this trade off between the short term and the longterm pleasures. I think that there’s lots of stuff, if we pursue them, they end up making us happier later on in terms of more positive emotions, but they also give us other sorts of benefits. And there’s lots of research that shows that people that have better self control and self regulation are happier in lots of regards. Because there’s lots of stuff we want in life that the short term outcomes and the longterm outcomes are in disagreement. There are certain times when being controlled in the short term stuff helps us better get longterm happiness. And going back to this theory of subjective wellbeing, positive emotions and negative emotions are definitely something that happen in the moment. That’s not all that happiness is, there’s this cognitive evaluation component that’s more longterm. Happiness has features of both.”

Feeling Fit

Exercise and I have always had an interesting relationship. I played basketball in middle school and after practice and games I would usually do homework with one of my best friends, Noa. I remember always laughing so much and running around our kitchens because we were just little balls of energy. Looking back now, I can definitely connect our working out to all of the energy we had afterwards.

I’ve never loved working out, and getting myself to the gym is a brutal task. When I was 12 or 13 I started playing tennis, got really into it, and played all throughout high school. During the tennis season I think that I have always been my happiest self. Working out everyday made me feel great and I was completely energized to do my homework. When the season ended, I couldn’t find any motivation to work out or go to the gym. And this turned into me just not really exercising.
I think that I’ve always subconsciously known that I feel better after being physically active, but have just lacked motivation to actually get going and start working out. So, challenging myself to be active for this project was something I was a bit anxious about, but has made me realize some important things about myself.
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The amazing weather this past week has definitely been a contributing factor in making it a little easier for me to work out. My best friend Rachel, who I was co-captains with for tennis, has always pushed me to work out with her and go on runs. She loves running, and me, not so much. While getting ready for our tennis season we got into a good routine of going on runs and then doing core and leg exercises after. When the weather got cold, this routine ended. The 50 degree day this past Monday was absolutely amazing and Rachel suggested going on a run. The weather was perfect, I was feeling good, and I knew I had to start working out for this project, so I accepted. I have never been a good runner, and my endurance is pretty awful. So I was telling Rachel that this run would be pitiful, but she didn’t let me flake out and we ended up doing it with our other friend Emily too. The run in total is about 2.5 miles. For someone who could barely run the mile in 8th grade, that is quite the accomplishment. We had to stop a couple times along the way, but we did it. We stopped at a park on the beach, walked on the icy shore for a bit, and then ran back. We made smoothies when we got back to Rachel’s and I left her house feeling so good. Even though the run itself wasn’t an easy task, finishing was the greatest feeling. I felt accomplished and completely energized, the smoothie was delicious, and the sun was still shinning. Running with my friends made me happy. Going on the run itself made me feel invigorated physically, and being with my friends made the experience even fuller. Since this run was so great, Rachel and I went on that run the next two days too. Each time I walked away feeling lighter, more energized, and happier.
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Today I took a nap before my run with Rachel. I was feeling super groggy and disoriented, and had no desire to run. Rachel pushed me to still come on the run and I’m grateful for that because it made me feel so much better afterwards. She even told me that had I not come over she wouldn’t have gone on the run herself. It’s cool to say that we are motivating each other to work out and feel good. Rachel jokingly sent me an inspirational quote saying: “Motivation get    s you started, habit keeps you going.” And it’s true. I’ve gone on three runs in the past three days, feel great, and feel like it could become a routine of mine to try to incorporate into my life.
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I’ve been taking my Happiness Reflections that help me gauge my own level of happiness. I’ve taken them before and after my runs and the improvement in how I feel is so evident. The numbers clearly show that I am more happy after the run than I was before. To me, that is amazing. Getting started working out is the hardest part, but once a rhythm and routine is formed, the feeling you get out of it makes it all worth it.

Becoming a Foodie

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I’ve been putting the food tricks to the test. For the past week the food I’ve been eating has been pretty different from what I normally eat, and surprisingly I’ve noticed some changes. Debby Stern’s main tips were to cut down on sugar, bump up the protein, and knock out cheese and red meat. I’ve been sticking to her advice and have been being much more mindful of the food that I’ve been putting into my body.

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First off, here’s a food log of the stuff I’ve been eating recently:
Week 2/9-2/12
Monday: granola, almond milk, blueberries, tea, apple, salad and lentil curry with brown rice, chocolate chip cookie, falafel, peanut butter and banana
Tuesday: waffle with peanut butter, berry-banana smoothie, salad, popcorn, Indian food, apple with peanut butter
Wednesday: top of muffin, granola, blueberries, salad, banana, popcorn, cookie, Indian, smoothie bowl
Thursday: waffle with peanut butter, banana, salad, oatmeal with blueberries, cookie
Week 2/17-2/22
Monday- nonfat plain yogurt, berries, tiny bit of granola, sweet potato stew with turkey meatballs and cauliflower, lentils, chicken, salad, huge smoothie, trail mix
Tuesday-waffle, peanut butter, banana, sweet potato stew, cauliflower, turkey meatballs, two clementines, piece of pumpkin bread, huge salad, yogurt, fruit, dark chocolate
Wednesday- waffle, peanut butter, banana, half a bagel,
Stew and quinoa, grapes,trail mix, huge salad, dark chocolate
Thursday- waffle,, peanut butter banana, green tea, whole foods quinoa salads, 3 sushi, cashews, brownie, teaspoon of peanut butter, huge salad, rest of sushi, asparagus
Friday- peanut butter, waffle, banana, green tea, blaze pizza, green tea,
big salad, little bit of chicken, little bit of sweet potato chickpea stew, piece of cake
Saturday- waffle, peanut butter, banana, apple, cashews, dinner at TRU
Sunday-cashews, banana, clementine, tabbouleh and hummus, gluten free naan with vegan cheese, vegan cookie dough, grapes, huge salad
Week 2/23-2/24
Monday-waffle, peanut butter, strawberries, salad,cashews, little bit of protein smoothie, avocado toast, huge salad, cookie
Tuesday-waffle, peanut butter, strawberries, green tea, turkey cheese panini, apple, turkey meatballs with stew, salad, kale chip, bite of cookie, blueberries/raspberries
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Something huge that I learned from Debby is to make sure that I have protein with each thing that I eat to make the energy I get from that food source last longer and keep me feeling full for longer. Instead of eating sugar filled yogurt with berries for breakfast, I’ve switched it up for a waffle, with pure peanut butter (not the horribly processed Skippy that I’ve eaten up until two weeks ago), and either sliced bananas or strawberries on top. Normally I’d be so hungry two hours after breakfast and would end up eating random foods that my friends had in class to try to make the hunger go away. With my new breakfast staple, I stay full until lunch time and don’t feel the need to eat anything in between. I used to eat lots of salads for lunch because I thought that this was me being healthy, but to be honest they didn’t fill me up for long and I ended up eating a ton when I got home from school because I never felt satisfied. Debby told me that I should eat most of my carbs for breakfast and lunch because I still have all day to use that energy instead of eating a heaping bowl of pasta for dinner and letting it sit in my stomach and turn into fat over night. So that’s another huge change I’ve made, my lunches are now more hefty and protein filled while my dinners are usually salads and more light.
Honestly I’m so surprised at the difference I’ve felt from only a couple weeks of this change. Something this process has done is make me much more conscious and mindful of the food I’m eating and my hunger. I used to find myself eating with friends just because they were eating and even if I wasn’t hungry myself I would stuff myself. I also would eat more because the food that I was eating wasn’t actually giving me energy and wasn’t filling me up. Now that I’ve changed things up, I don’t find myself craving starchy or sweet foods as much. I now know what foods makes me feel good and what foods don’t. It’s crazy that just being more aware of what you are eating has the potential to really change the way that you feel.