Rules for a Happy Life (And How to Shop for Self-Help)

good habitsLast year I began a life re-boot. I had been through a lot of changes in the past few years. Some of these were for the better, and some just sucked. I had quit drinking, been to therapy, was faithfully taking three psychotropic meds to balance my brain chemistry, and found a group of friends to help me make useful changes. But I was stagnating and sluggish. So I had a choice. Give in to what I was feeling, or do something to change it. I went with the latter. I weaned myself off the meds slowly and started to feel better, but I knew I needed to take other action so I would not end up where I was when I literally fell apart several years before. (If you are on meds, don’t just go off them. Talk to your doc before you change anything. Your life depends on that talk.)

No fan of self-help books, I took a dip in that area of the bookstore anyway. The thing with self-help books is that most people will peruse them and read them only to be told that whatever they are feeling is perfectly normal and ok and that all they need to do is think positive and great things will happen. While it’s true that positive thinking can help, just feeding yourself saccharine affirmations when you feel like shit is putting a band-aid on a festering boil. To make a real change you need to lance that thing, pour some alcohol over it, get your stitches, and work on the thing that caused it so it doesn’t happen again. Better to have a few hours of pain and a scar than a wound that will never go away and will likely only get worse when things get rough again. I was through wallowing in my problems.

But I found a book that actually helped. I knew it was more or less the real deal because it met my criteria:

  1. It needs to be based in accredited clinical research. This can get rid of most of the bullshit people are trying to sell you. (For example, there is no science to support the claim that so-called “cleansing diets” actually cleanse anything at all. And I love juicing, too.) Accredited means that the body sponsoring the research has someone watching them to ensure the process is ethical and reliable. The best spot where that happens is through research universities.
  2. If it presents the proposed solutions as “easy” or “simple,” it is lying. Change is hard. Changing one’s habits takes discipline, time, and practice. Living well is like learning to play a musical instrument. I don’t care what your natural predispositions are to be an awesome guitarist, you have got to practice. More than that, you have to practice the right way by working on specific techniques and skills to make you a better player. Being happy is no different than this. You can’t expect to be happy. You need to learn specific skills that work for you and then you need to practice them every day and in situations that make you uncomfortable.
  3. It has to be simple. Don’t confuse simple with easy. E=mc 2 is simple. But it is not easy. If you have heard of Occam’s Razor in science, that’s what I am think about with simple. Great theories are concise and simple, but they explain a lot of phenomena and can do so in very complex ways. And most importantly, they are testable. If I can’t work through this self-help program and test the results empirically, it’s useless.

+-+643487111_140The book I found was You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. They are researchers at UCLA and have used this method with success in OCD patients. The concept is called self-directed neuroplasticity. The basic premise is that you can not only control your thinking, but by controlling that thinking you can change how your thinking works. One example is to label as false all of those nasty messages we tend to tell ourselves and automatically accept as true. The task is to figure out why those messages might be there, under what conditions they are most likely to pop up, and then how to change our response when they do come up. The four steps are to relabel, reframe, refocus, and revalue. So if I have a nasty thought like “God you’re an idiot,” what I will do is say “That’s not true” (relabel); then say, “Shut the fuck up you bastard,” to myself (reframe); I will respond by doing something like going for a walk or even focusing on the activity that I am avoiding that is sending me that message (refocus); and finally accept that my thoughts were never really a big deal (revalue). This is mindfulness training with a systematic process that works.

Through my practice of these steps I started running and changed my habits with just about everything including what, when, and how much I eat  and sleep. My thinking is healthier and I now see depressive or self-loathing thoughts as this little alien in my brain that has no business living there. Very liberating. But it took practice and hard work. And it still takes practice and hard work.

Out of this experience, I have started coming up with little rules that have helped me and continue to help me on a daily basis if I practice them.

  1. Lean-in to what’s uncomfortable. When I don’t want to do it and start procrastinating, do it any way. The hardest part is the first 10 seconds. You gotta focus and punch through that wall.
  2. When my mind starts to wander, I need to move my body. The brain basically runs on sugar. If you are focused on something for a long time, you use up the brain’s fuel and get sluggish. That’s normal. If I am bored or anxious I see that as energy in my system that has nowhere to go. Either way, moving my body gives my brain a break and restores its energy load while expending excess energy the rest of my body is jacking up my system with.
  3. Eat fewer calories. This keeps me from being sluggish, keeps my gut happy, and keeps off the pounds. Energy and self-image both improve.
  4. Exercise every day. This is about heart rate. I feel better if I get my heart rate up over 70% of maximum for at least a sustained 30 minutes. This changes my body and changes how well my brain works.
  5. Sleep. At least 7 solid hours a night. If I am using my body that much, it needs to heal. Sleep does that.

Over the next few posts I am going to take each of these rules and explain how I do it and how I got started. I don’t know what will work for you, but these sure as hell work for me. These steps have proven to be better for my mental health than any combination of prescriptions or therapy than I have ever tried.

If you are interested in what self-directed neuroplasticity is all about, do watch Jeffrey Schwartz’s presentation on the science behind the practice.

Running for ALS

als-55a4d357dc4252016 Goal #1: Run a Marathon (or Two)

I started running last year for my own health and this year I want to make it count. If I can run for my own sanity and well-being, I figure that I can also put part of that for the benefit of someone else.

I was never much of an athlete in high school. One year I went out for wrestling, but after a few weeks of feeling sore and beat up; and after a simply terrible outing at the first meet, I dropped it. People around me told me that I should stick it out, but I never had the motivation to push through. It was part of a litany of experiences where I felt that I did not fit for whatever reason. So I dropped the athlete idea. The team went 10-0 that year and won the state title.

Fast forward 25 years. After a couple of injury setbacks in July and October as a novice runner, I trained hard for three weeks in November and ran the Nittany Valley Half-Marathon. Despite the setbacks I ran 6 minutes faster than my target time. The old me would experience a minor setback and start the litany of self-pity and self-loathing. This would quickly convince me that eating potato chips and binge-watching hours of whatever-I-could-find-that-was-the-most-depressing was the best choice to make. Not this time.

What I have learned is that stopping a behavior is a choice and setting an achievable goal is motivation to push through setbacks. Moving my body changes my brain. This means a plan that includes numerous smaller goals in order to attain the big one.

Large goals that are decomposed this way work out better – which is probably why big New Year’s Resolutions like “lose 30 pounds” or “write a book” fail. Goals that are too lofty come with rewards that are too far delayed and motivation comes in short supply. You have to break the big goal up in order to experience the value of the changes in behavior that you will need to accomplish in order to get there. (By the way, if you haven’t made progress on your Resolutions, do something towards it right now, or you will wake up tomorrow that much closer to a Facebook meme declaring all the shit you planned to do last year but didn’t.)

I am training again, but this time for the PittsburghPitt2015Logo Marathon. And more than that I am running for the ALSA of Western Pennsylvania. I am doing it in memory of my grandmother who died from ALS in 1999.

My grandmother Rita was pistol. When I was a kid, I remember her fire-red Firebird parked in her Paoli, PA garage. The color matched her rosy cheeks after a few nips of scotch. She was a neat freak, loved lime green and yellow, and cooked amazing food.

After my grandfather died, she spent much of her time with her best friend. They were active and had fun in both Italy and on the Mississippi river. Like a blue-haired Thelma & Louise. But then Rita started to lose control of her body even though her mind was running full throttle. In just two years she stopped driving, then lost her house, then her independence, then her life in 1999. We watched as that same full-of-life mind and spirit became imprisoned in her body that just stopped communicating with her brain. Awful.

Her very last words to me are burned in my brain. “Whatever you do with your life, have fun.”

So I am doing that this year. I am Running for Rita. She is going to be with me in memory and spirit. Why not invite others to join us in the race and join others as the work to stop ALS continues.

Follow through to my fundraising page and donate if you can. My target is $500.00. I know I can reach it with your help. Run with me in spirit, even if all you are planning to do May 1, 2016 is binge watch Buffy again and eat Doublemeat Medleys!