Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Emotional Management

A couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite people ever, the Teal Knight, asked me to write her a letter of advice (it's called a "Polonius letter" since they're reading Hamlet). One thing that I wrote, which surprised me until I thought about it, was a very long paragraph on the need to manage your emotional well-being and mental state.

Whenever people ask me how I'm doing or how I'm liking college, I always say the good things: I'm busy with interesting activities, my hallmates get along splendidly, the classes are a lot more fun than high school, the dining hall food is reasonably good. Why shouldn't I? All these things are true and I am lucky and grateful to be here.

But it is also true that, just as the high points seem magnified, so do the low. I frequently find myself biking around or doing homework and feeling...not depressed. Depression is a chronic illness and what I feel does not merit the term. But something like that, at low concentration. More empty and lonely than sad. Bleak, perhaps.

It's easy to feel isolated for long stretches during the day, and certain issues have a way of lingering on the mind for hours on end. I'm not sure if there's a way to get around acute cases of bleakness, because sometimes it just hits--but maybe there are ways to divert it, so that it doesn't have a chance to wear too deep into you.

A few years ago I read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and I recall that he romanticized sadness and solitude a lot, and that as an introvert much of what he said resonated with me. Also, when you feel empty, there is no energy left to try to "cheer yourself up," at least not in any way that isn't brittle and artificial.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I started writing the post on Sunday because I went to an art activity in my dorm for half an hour and drew a loop system based on the methods Vi Hart explains in this video:

--and realized that the simple determinism of the system, the single-minded focus of it, made me not just calm but also content. I haven't really created art in a while--my writing output is down and the doodles I do in the margins during lectures can't take my focus because, well, I'm in class--and I'd forgotten how enjoyable it is to lose track of time doing something in which the process holds more utility than the product. For a goals-oriented, to-do-list-dependent, productivity-seeking (notice the word "product" in there) person like me, that was difficult to admit.

I suppose the question I'm trying to address is this: what can you do to manage your emotional states? Rilke would say, take the emotions as they come and just let them be:

"Ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad…If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiments, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing." (LtaYP 81-83)

When I posted these Rilke quotes last summer, I commented:

"Surely the only way to move on from unfavorable events is to incorporate them into your being; surely, if nothing else, suffering is a way of becoming stronger. Or maybe suffering is just a way of learning more about yourself, how you respond to bad things. Though self-knowledge, I’d argue, is just another kind of strength."

I still think that applies: "Think not 'this is ill fortune,' but rather, 'to bear this worthily is good fortune'," said Aurelius. I was being melodramatic, of course, as I tend to, but it does seem that the most productive thing to do with displeasing events is to use them to your own advantage somehow.

The idea of art therapy seems more diversionary: focus on something else, let your mind take a break from the things it usually worries about and loosen up. It ties back to that immortal Ray Bradbury quote: "You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." Only I'm not sure I agree with that as much as I do with the Rilke-Aurelius-Nietzsche "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" mindset. It's that obsession with productivity again.

But you can't do that all the time, I don't think. Sometimes you just really, really need to take a break, and creating art is a good way to give you something to focus on. It seems fundamental: feel empty? Create, and then there will be something rather than nothing. Maybe it should be an early response, to get up the will to do something about the problems causing the sadness?

I still do not know what I'm getting at. I want to think of strategies I can use to deal when I feel miserable. Accepting the bleak feeling and letting it be; then what? Creating art is good, but sometimes you really can't "just make time" for it, or the stress of taking time out to do something "unproductive" would eliminate any serenity you'd get from the process.

What can make you feel better when you can't directly tackle the bleakness? Over the weekend when I felt sad, I found myself listening to a playlist of songs that I've identified as reminding me of myself--or rather, when I listen to them I feel more like me. I recommend coming up with a list for yourself, since I've found it enormously useful.

For reference, the list includes:
  • By Myself - Linkin Park (original or Reanimation version)
  • Ora - Jovanotti
  • Kryptonite - Three Doors Down
  • Alone Not Lonely - Evans Blue

...I'm noticing a theme. My point is that you don't have to listen to happy music to feel better; musical taste is highly individual anyway and musical taste directed toward a specific mood is likely to be even more specialized.

On a less self-centered note: Talking to my hallmates is a really good way of improving my mood, because, in case I haven't mentioned it yet, they are awesome. Talking to my closest friends would be the best, of course, and it's helped keep me sane to maintain open lines of communication so that I don't get isolated from the people who know me best. But I'm getting there with my hallmates, and I've already stopped using the "nice voice" that I usually use on strangers and people I don't know well, which is about half an octave higher than my "me voice."

Unfortunately, sitting out in the hall talking to people doesn't lead to any increases in productivity, so this isn't a strategy that meshes well with a big workload. It is a good way to unwind at the end of the day, though--just hang out in the hall talking.

That is something else that surprised me as I was writing the Polonius letter: I need socialization. I need to be around people, to talk to people, to see how people are doing. Happiness and solitude are, for an introvert, generally correlated. And putting me in a crowd full of people I don't know is a good way to induce the lonely and bleak feeling. But with the right people, connection and communication can be enormously beneficial and mood-improving. These "right people" are known as "friends."

Drinking good tea is another simple method of increasing happiness. I've decided that my favorite kind of tea is jasmine green tea, and the dining hall version is not half bad. "I might forever feel alienated in this group that I thought would be a community for me, but at least I can drink jasmine tea."

So these are the ways I've come up with for mitigating the bleak feeling: accepting it, connecting with people who actually mean something to you, engaging the senses in ways that are personally satisfying (listening to music that reminds you of yourself, consuming foods and beverages that you like*, even the tactile/visual experience of creating art).

*I just realized that that sounds really bad, because it sounds as though I'm advocating drinking your problems away/drowning your sorrows, which I am not. This is a positive, not a normative, list.

None of this actually solves problems, except that connecting with friends does help solve the problem of feeling isolated. But these are still valuable strategies, I'll argue, because doing nice things for yourself, even small ones, can put you in a mindset where you're more optimistic about your ability to do something about your problems.

I will also forever advocate the strategy of writing it all out--get paper, or an empty document, and just write about your problem and all the things that are upsetting to you about it and any thought that comes to mind. I did that earlier today about a problem that came up last night and bothered me so much that a twenty-minute walk around Lagunita did not calm me down--and the writing helped, not only in mitigating the unpleasant emotions, but also in giving me a way to move forward.

That's the question that's always on my mind: "What should I be doing? What should I be doing that I'm not already doing?" I'm inclined to put action at a premium over feelings--but managing your feelings can help immensely in getting your head to a place where you can get your options out and make a reasoned-out decision on what to do.

-

Bonus:

If money doesn't make you happy, then you probably aren't spending it right, a paper from the Journal of Consumer Psychology. The abstract is below:
The relationship between money and happiness is surprisingly weak, which may stem in part from the way people spend it. Drawing on empirical research, we propose eight principles designed to help consumers get more happiness for their money. Specifically, we suggest that consumers should (1) buy more experiences and fewer material goods; (2) use their money to benefit others rather than themselves; (3) buy many small pleasures rather than fewer large ones; (4) eschew extended warranties and other forms of overpriced insurance; (5) delay consumption; (6) consider how peripheral features of their purchases may affect their day-to-day lives; (7) beware of comparison shopping; and (8) pay close attention to the happiness of others.

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