Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Nine Rooms of Happiness: How can women have it all — minus the guilt?





Change your thoughts, be happier every day and live with less inner conflict



It’s a universal reality that women feel stressed even when things are going well. In "The Nine Rooms of Happiness," SELF editor-in-chief Lucy Danziger and psychiatrist Catherine Birndorf reveal how to be happy in the moment. An excerpt.

Introduction: Welcome to our house and yours
The scene: my bedroom. The alarm clock goes off at 6:35 a.m. As I reach to press the off button I think: I should have gotten up earlier.

Sunlight is streaming through the shutters as I get out of bed, being careful not to wake my husband, who is dozing next to me. I walk down the hall and peek into my daughter’s room —she’s still asleep, her stuffed dog cradled in her arms, her sweet, slender body curled up and cozy. I turn right to look in on my son, who has tossed off his covers and is snoozing with arms and legs splayed out, proving once again that sleep can be an aerobic activity. I smile and let these two snapshots set in my memory ... then I berate myself, thinking, I don’t spend enough time with my kids!

I pass through our living room, where the dozens of photos covering the bookshelves and end-tables remind me that I am blessed in many ways: a tight-knit family, wonderful friends and a great job. My eyes linger on a picture of our little, gray, shingled bayside weekend house ... and I think: Why don’t we go there more often?

Then I see my home-office desk in the corner, piled high with unanswered letters and unpaid bills and I groan. I have to catch up on those!

I enter my kitchen to start the coffee and watch the morning TV headlines. I avert my eyes from the dishes stacked up in the sink and think: I should have put them in the dishwasher last night.

An hour later, after an invigorating jog through Central Park with my dog, I’m still high on endorphins as I head to the bathroom to get ready for work. I feel strong and healthy, energized and optimistic. My husband and kids are awake now, going through their morning rituals, which assures me that all is right with the world. As I step into the shower, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and think, Oh, yeah. I still hate my hips.

Do you see a pattern here? By most people’s standards I have it all. But even so, on this beautiful morning, I am tormented by a dull ache of dissatisfaction. I sabotage my happiness, as if to tell myself, I don’t deserve all this. And whenever I do manage to feel good about myself, or my accomplishments, my next thought is: Who do you think you are?

I have a name for such thoughts — nega-speak — and I had come to regard them as my constant companions. Taken individually, they are not evil or undermining. In fact, they can serve as essential alarms, sounding off when I’m at risk of becoming a little too pleased with myself. They provide me with necessary smug-proofing.

But collectively, these glass-half-empty-isms are a menace that can shake the foundations of the life I’ve built with my husband and family. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that I am lucky and loved, these negative thoughts fill me with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and stress.

Did I say me? I meant we. All of us. All women.

We struggle every day to achieve a happy, balanced life, yet we allow the slightest misstep to throw us off balance. And it’s usually the little things that knock us sideways, not the major ones. The big problems we face down with courage, forbearance, even grace.

The poisonous mind-set I described above — the negativity, perfectionism, self-sabotage, and dissatisfaction — is the biggest happiness stealer in many women’s lives. It’s a disease, an emotional cancer that you can, and must, learn to cure. With our help, you will.

In fact, the very process of writing this book with a coauthor who is a gifted and insightful (and uniquely approachable) psychiatrist has almost completely cured me of my bad habits. I say almost because self-awareness is an ongoing process that never really ends. The morning scene above was the old me; for the most part I have learned to think differently, to be happier every day, and to live with less inner conflict. I have also learned I have to work for my daily doses of happiness, recognize them when I find them, and appreciate those moments when they arrive.

Turns out most of the time I am happier than I think I am. Perhaps you are too. We’re here to help you discover this fact for yourself.

Being happier is like being fit; You have to work at it
As an editor of women’s magazines for more than fifteen years — helping women achieve their own personal best and realize their health and well-being goals — I’ve learned that the little things can be overwhelming for many women, while those circumstances that are devastating on the face of it (illness, loss, divorce, etc.) may actually turn out to be galvanizing (as in, What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger). The events that most often manage to steal our happiness are the minute details that we allow to get under our skin. How do I know this? Because month after month, in e-mails and letters to the editor, through polls and surveys online, along with questions posed by readers to a lineup of esteemed experts, I hear what’s on the minds of 6 million monthly readers of Self. Weight issues, friend tensions, family squabbles, money problems, plus conflicts with mothers, brothers, boyfriends, bosses, and even ourselves, result in guilt, regret, longing, insecurity, and the search for perfection in all areas.

Even as the editor in chief of one of the largest well-being lifestyle magazines on the newsstand, I struggle with the need to feel happy and healthy. It’s a discipline, like staying in shape or not spending too much money or eating healthfully. And just because you “arrive” at being fit, slim, debt free, or happy doesn’t mean you can stay that way without trying. You have to appreciate the perfect moments when they present themselves and understand that not everything has to be perfect for you to appreciate your own happiness. Meanwhile, trying to attain such moments requires a combination of focus and practice, since you can train your brain to adopt a positive mind-set, as well as learn to become a happier person.

At first, it requires you to break bad habits and replace them with good ones. But it gets easier. Like a tennis player who needs to change her grip to make sure her backhand doesn’t go into the net, after a while the muscle memory of her powerful swing becomes more natural. Practice it enough, and eventually you just swing for the ball, without having to think your way through the process — your body just knows what to do. The same is true of happier thinking: It may seem foreign at first, but after a while you’ll begin to string together more positive moments with ease.

For me, the turning point was one day realizing I needed to change the way I think, and then actually doing it. Once I got my own act (mostly) together I wanted to write a book to help other women do it also. I was eager to team up with the right mental health professional, one who is both a talented clinician and a down-to-earth person you want to tell your life story to, someone who neither passes judgment nor minces words.

I was lucky enough to find the perfect collaborator, Dr. Catherine Birndorf. She is a leading specialist in women’s mental health and can help almost anyone find happiness by showing them how to recognize their own participation in their emotional reality. I play the role of “every woman” for the sake of this book, and tell my stories in the first person as a way of illuminating common thought processes, while Catherine stays one step removed as the expert, always referred to by name. What we share is a common philosophy, that women are not victims, but architects of our own emotional destiny.

The first step is to identify patterns that may be trapping you in an unhappy dynamic. The next is to realize that you have a choice, that if something isn’t working in your life you have the power to change it. Through self-awareness and understanding how these patterns work, Catherine helps us see that each of us can live a happier life.

Suck it up, buttercup! And other useless advice
I never wanted to go to a shrink. I’m from the school of tough love, even for myself. My friends know my motto has always been “Suck it up, Buttercup.” When I say it to myself, essentially it means, Don’t whine! I can usually snap myself out of a bad mood just by telling myself, Stop complaining — look around and see how good you have it, how lucky you are! When I get stressed over being too busy, I remind myself, You’re lucky to have a job, a family, a list of “to-dos” that keep you scheduled to the hilt. I try not to act spoiled — instead to feel grateful for all that I have, and the blessings I can count daily.

Reference:   http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/35647324/ns/today-today_books/
http://www.ninerooms.com/
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