Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why Happiness?

A good friend, like a daughter, asked me recently why I chose the 100 Days of Happy project to help with my grieving.  I had to dig deeply to answer her.  I have and I wanted to share that with you all and with her.

I have always been an optimist—sometimes called a Pollyana.  This eternal positive attitude occasionally got on people’s nerves and I could see why, but I  wasn’t able to change it.  It was ingrained in my DNA.

When I moved to New York in April 2014, I was pretty broken.  The effects of losing Ted and Lateef were evident.  Oh, I was making it.  I looked pretty good on the outside but the insides didn’t match at all.  I knew how I felt and I knew that I just had to feel better.  I could not be content with this empty, aching hole in my heart and constant churning in my stomach.  When I tried to breathe deeply, as I’d taught my students in yoga class, my breath caught in my chest.  When I tried to eat, food stuck in my throat and would not go down without major effort.  Nothing tasted good to me except ice cream, macaroni and cheese and French fries.  A recipe for disaster!

Grief counseling helped, reading books on grief and grieving helped, reading the Bible for inspiration helped, but I needed more.

So in early April, my daughter, my muse, took one look at me from her broken place and suggested that I might want to participate in this project called 100 Happy Days started by the 100HappyDays Foundation.  The premise was to take a picture each day of something that made you smile or feel happy. 

You know how someone suggests something to you and you know right away that “This is it?”  Well that’s what happened to me with this suggestion from my muse.  Rashida is truly my inspiration and knows me better than probably any family member except my sister.  She knows that I love projects and that once I get started on something, I really burrow in.  I trust her, so I started researching.

I immediately went to the 100HappyDays Foundation’s website for information.  There I found that 73% of the people who started this project would not finish it.  I, always up for a challenge, was intrigued.  I just knew that if I started it, I would finish it.  Any of my friends and family will tell you that the way to get me to do something would be to challenge me.  The challenge intrigued me but there was something more than that.  This foundation’s aim was to foster happiness in the world and I liked the sound of that. 

This was not an exercise just to be doing something.  I knew that if I immersed myself into this task, it could be life changing for me and, perhaps, for others who might need some inspiration.

The results were amazing.  I started looking outward instead of inward.  Where before each morning’s light would bring a wash of sadness and a reliving of the horrible one/two blow our family had just endured, the first thing I started thinking of was what my picture for the day would be.  A small shift, but epic because it brought hope to my day.  That’s not to say that sadness did not find me again that day, because it usually did.  The difference was that I started my day well and that was important.  It was easier to go back to happyduring the day if I started out that way.

Some days it was easier to find “happy” than others, but I always found something.  Some days I found more than one thing and had to choose which picture made me happiest!  I looked at the city, my environment, with very different eyes.  Instead of the noise, I looked for quiet beauty sometimes found in the fa├žade of a beautiful old building, sometimes a garden in the middle of 2 blocks of concrete, sometimes a dog walker walking 10 dogs at once.  Instead of a big, dirty city, I looked for the beauty in a wall decorated with graffiti.  Instead of aggressive, fast walking, fast talking New Yorkers, I looked for some pictures of people beautifully or artistically dressed.  I saw love when I photographed a man and his wife holding hands—she all bent over with some kind of disease—he being her helpmate.  A street closed so that school children could play.  A sign looking for an owner of a wool hat left in a taxicab.  The opportunities were many.  If I wasn’t looking for “happy”, I might have walked past all of these scenes with unseeing eyes.  I might have missed my opportunity to really, really see the beauty in small things.  The yogis have a saying, “Be here now” or “Be in the present”, that is exactly what was happening to me.  I was really being a witness—being mindful of what was around me.  If, by any chance, I did not find a picture outside for the day (inclement weather, whatever) I would look for a quote on the internet that resonated with me and share that.  It had the same effect.

One happy day led to another.  One happy week led to another. I was starting to feel better, walk taller.  My breath was moving through my body better.  The good effects of this project on my life started piling up.  Like when I lost weight on Weight Watchers.  When I lost a pound, I felt better and wanted to keep going and so I did. 

Something else was beginning to happen.  My Facebook friends were starting to give me feedback.  Some were getting inspiration from my postings, some really liked the New York scenes, some just wanted to encourage me to continue.  When I got close to 100 days, some asked whether I would continue.  I wasn’t sure that I would but I thought hard about it.  On day 101, I walked into our beautiful Carl Schurz Park to walk along the East River.  As I walked down the winding path, my eyes fell upon a woman sitting on the grass looking out towards the river.  Her arm was draped around a big, beautiful Golden Retreiver.  The scene was so serene and I knew in an instant that that was my 101st picture.  I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and took a couple of pictures.  Later that day I posted the picture with the comment that I would continue on to 365 happy days.

This morning I posted happy day picture #301.  I am closing in on my goal and will probably fill that void with something else, we’ll see what comes up.  Something always does.

This project has helped me so much.  Something seemingly so small made such a large difference to me and, hopefully, to others.  To be able to start my day with hope instead of dread.  To be able to look at the world with clear eyes, instead of eyes clouded by pain.  To be able to find joy in small things instead of soothing my emotional pain with food or things.  All of these things came slowly, but they did come and the effect of this project on me has been massive.

So, why did I choose happiness, Asali?  Because sadness was not enough.  Not nearly enough.