Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Increasing Your Happiness

Happiness includes a combination of how we think about our current lives and how much positive emotion (love, joy, awe, etc.) we experience. There are times in our lives when we may not be depressed but we’re still not truly happy. These are the times when we are just going through the motions. Life is passing us by and while we are not miserable we cannot honestly say we have joy. Although part of your happiness can be attributed to your genes and another portion of your happiness is shaped by your life circumstances, there is yet another aspect of your happiness that is actually within your control. While psychologists have often studies the issues that contribute to our distress, there are some psychologists, such as community psychologists and positive psychologists, who study the factors that add to our happiness and well-being. For those who are feeling stuck, uninspired, or simply bored with life, below you will find some strategies that you can use to increase your happiness. (If you are however experiencing clinical depression, this list may fall short of the support that you need. I encourage you to seek out professional assistance. You don’t have to deal with the depression alone.)

1. Get real with yourself. You will only work to increase your happiness if you realize you need to make it a priority. Go the following link to do a free self-assessment of your current level of positive versus negative emotions: http://www.positivityratio.com/single.php

2. Pleasure Principle: Find time to do the things that you enjoy. Nurture yourself. Self-care is very important. Take a warm bath, eat good, healthy food, and make time for your favorite hobbies. It is not a mystery or a secret. If you do the things you enjoy you will have more joy.

3. Love Connection: To increase your happiness, you should build more positive relationships. Decrease time with drama-filled negative people and develop friendships with those who inspire more joy and laughter in your life. These may be romantic relationships, platonic friendships, or positive family members.

4. The Gift of Goals: A sense of accomplishment can also increase our sense of happiness. It is important however to set attainable goals and to divide up large goals into smaller parts. At times we set ourselves up for failure by setting goals that require perfection. This can result in us never appreciating all of the good work we have done. Attainable goals can motivate us, inspire us, and result in greater happiness.

5. Feed the Spirit: Spirituality, religion, and faith can be major contributors to our happiness. Faith can help you to look beyond current set-backs and still see the awe, beauty, possibility, and miracles around you and in you. Feed your faith by doing those practices that feed your spirit.

6. Mind over Matter: Remember that much of your happiness comes from how you choose to think about things. Initially it is work to learn to be more optimistic, positive, and hopeful but over time it can become more of a habit. Encourage yourself to try to see the opportunity, to see the good, to see the growth instead of immediately focusing on the negative. When you catch yourself being focused on the negative make a decision and a commitment to shift your focus.

7. See the Big Picture: One of the wonderful ways to increase your happiness can be to bring happiness to others. Being of service to a higher purpose and a mission that benefits others can truly lift your spirit. Commit to a cause that is larger than you. It may be feeding the hungry, walking for breast cancer, volunteering at the public library, giving donations to a battered women’s shelter, or participating in a service/mission trip overseas. There is joy in giving. You can increase your happiness by striving to make a difference in the world around you.

If you are feeling stuck, know that you don’t have to stay in that emotional place. You can make choices to think and act in ways that increase your happiness. Whatever you do, don’t surrender to a joyless life. Take steps to get back on the path that makes your heart sing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Comfortable Chains: A Call for Rihanna and Other Black Women to Break Out

As a psychologist and a Black woman, I acknowledge the commonly held perception that to be a Black woman means we have to be super strong, invincible, and without feelings. In essence, this perception robs us of our humanity.

Social scientists have developed the term the Strong Black Woman Syndrome which refers to Black women who feel the need to handle everything alone without ever showing any sign of need or vulnerability. I was reminded of this syndrome as I read Rihanna’s recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine. In the interview, she talks about not wanting to look like a victim and not wanting to be perceived as weak. She stated that she worked to present herself as strong until it felt true. This is common for many Black women, including those who have survived trauma, violence, and abuse. It is not that we are immune to pain; rather, we believe it is unacceptable to show our pain. Black women receive the message from people outside of and within our community that we should not reveal our scars. In fact, one study with Black women who have survived intimate partner violence indicated that the women perceived that the Black community overall views them as weak and undeserving of care. This fear of being dismissed as weak silences many women. Audre Lorde wrote the poignant words, “This woman is Black so her blood is shed into silence.”

This concept can be witnessed in Rihanna’s testimonial in that, regardless of the very public way in which her story was told, her actual narrative and perspective have been silenced. Rihanna stated she felt the need to figure it out by herself after just one session of therapy. What keeps her and others silent?
We have seen what happens to Black women who speak of their pain, especially if the person who caused the pain is also Black. In fact, there has yet to be an instance in contemporary times where a Black woman has been harmed by a Black male and the Black community collectively rallied to her defense. Whether it is Anita Hill, Robin Givens, the adolescent violated by R. Kelly, or, more recently, the 11 year old girl gang-raped in Texas, Black women and girls receive the message that their pain is their problem and fundamentally their fault. As a result, they are encouraged to remain silent. Rihanna has learned this lesson well. As a young witness to domestic violence and now a survivor of dating violence, Rihanna has altered her mindset to the point where she can silently find “pleasure” in the pain, comfort in the chains.

The challenge is to extinguish the pressure for Black women to wear the silent mask of superhuman strength in the most dangerous and dehumanizing situations. As I read Rihanna’s interview, I thought of all the Black women who work daily to do the impossible, bear the unbearable, and carry loads that would break any woman’s back. Yes, I celebrate those who show resilience in the eye of the storm. However, it is not enough to simply survive and just get through it. Black women need to be whole. We need to know real happiness and authentic peace. Maya Angelou says, “Survival is important. Thriving is elegant.” To get to a point of thriving, we have to heal. We have to have space to breathe, tell our stories, and tend to the broken pieces. This is not a process that we can rush. It is not a process we should have to do alone. And, it is not a process we should endure in silence. I hope more Black women will get uncomfortable with the physical and psychological chains that bind us so we can break free and live. We do have the right to remain silent, but we have a stronger, more constructive right to speak up about the abuse we have survived and the wounds that still need to be healed.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Are you really hungry? - Addressing Emotional Eating

When we are feeling empty, disappointed, frustrated, angry, sad, or unfulfilled we seek out things to comfort us. We look for ways to medicate ourselves and ease the emotional pain. Some people comfort themselves with a cigarette, while others comfort themselves with shopping. Some seek the comfort of sexual intimacy and many seek comfort with food. In essence food can and does affect our mood but it is temporary. Eating sweets and other favorites can make us in the moment feel happy, energized, and relieved. The critical thing to know is that this momentary solution never lasts. The source of our distress, worry, sadness remains long after the last bite of food has been taken. In addition we are often left to deal with the additional burden of guilt and shame which often follows emotional eating. The following are some important strategies for those who find themselves engaging in emotional eating but sincerely want to make a change.

1. Press pause – When you think you are hungry instead of automatically assuming that you are physically in need of food stop to reflect on your inner feelings. Ask yourself how hungry am I? Am I feeling stress or am I actually in need of food? Interrupt the automatic connection that has been created in your mind that equates emotional need with physical hunger.

2. Consider what you are truly craving – Get real with yourself about the empty places in your life. Until you know what you really want you will never get it. Acknowledge to yourself what your hunger, desire, need is about. Admit that you are hungry for fulfillment, purpose, peace, authentic joy, and healthy relationships. Once you admit it to yourself make a decision to resist the temptation of settling for temporary distraction.

3. Fight Boredom and Find Joy – When food is the sole source of your joy you will turn to it all the time. Discover new paths of enjoyment. Go after the things that make you come alive. Find joy in your spiritual walk, in your career path, in your hobbies, and in your friendships.

4. Develop positive relationships – Some of us have made food our best friend, the only source of our consistent support. To resist emotional eating develop good relationships with friends that are encouraging, motivating, and inspiring. Instead of turning to the kitchen for your relief you can reach out to someone that can actually reach back to you. Knowing that you are not alone can radically shift your current reliance on emotional eating.

5. Avoid self-sabotage – Stocking your cabinets and refrigerator with foods that often lead to emotional eating is a set-up for a setback. If you live alone and yet buy in bulk (supposedly to save money) you really should reconsider this approach. Be honest with yourself by not surrounding yourself with the type of food and/or amount of food that supports emotional eating. Switch to healthier foods and snacks and this will be a measure of your true hunger. If you are really hungry you will eat the healthier options available to you.

It is possible to shift to healthier ways of coping, eating, and living. However it is also important to remember if you do fall into emotional eating you should strive to avoid putting yourself down. Put-downs will only feed into the negative cycle causing you to feel bad and seek more comfort from food. Break the pattern by getting in touch with your passion and purpose.