The Power of Negative Thinking

As a new year rapidly approaches (thank god), most of us are sitting at home thinking about everything we want to accomplish in 2021. That’s the magic of a new year—something about the moment that second hand ticks to midnight convinces us that this is it, our chance to finally make all our dreams come true. We fantasize about the promotions we’ll get, the whirlwind romances in our future, our svelte new physiques. Never mind that we had similar hopes in the past only for our motivation to fizzle out by March. This year will be different.

Well, it can be, and that’s where WOOP comes in. WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. It’s also known as Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII), and psychologist Gabriele Oettingen spent over 20 years researching it (fun fact: she’s also a real-life princess…how badass is that?). You can read all about her work in her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside The New Science Of Motivation.

The idea behind WOOP is that positive thinking alone isn’t enough to help you achieve a goal to completion. Sure, pinning a bunch of inspiring Pinterest quotes to your mood board can help, but it’s only one step of the journey, and too much of that daydreaming can actually hinder you from reaching your goal. Studies have shown, “Those who have stronger, more positive fantasies about reaching their goals are actually less likely to achieve them.” 

There are a lot of great reasons to try WOOP. According to the official website, WOOP can help you improve your health, social behavior, and academic performance. It can even help you overcome past disappointments, resentments, and other negative feelings. The best part? It’s absolutely free, and anyone can do it anywhere, anytime.

So how do you actually do WOOP? It’s very easy and only takes 5-10 minutes. Start by finding a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Make sure you are calm and relaxed. Then, follow these steps:

  1. Set a timeframe for your goal. You don’t have to set one if you don’t wish, but it can be anywhere from a day to much longer.
  2. Think about the next month (or whatever timeframe you chose). Pick a wish that will be challenging, but you can fulfill. In 3-6 words, write down this wish.
  3. Think about the best possible outcome and how fulfilling that wish would make you feel. In 3-6 words, write down your best outcome.
  4. Now take a few moments to imagine the outcome. Lose yourself in your daydream and the positive feelings that’ll accompany accomplishing that goal.
  5. Identify your main inner obstacle to achieving that wish. What within you might hold you back? Fear? Laziness? In 3-6 words, write down your main obstacle.
  6. Take a few moments to imagine your obstacle. Lose yourself, just as you did in your daydream. Allow yourself to fully feel the frustrations and negative feelings.
  7. Make an if-then plan. Come up with an action you can take or a thought you can think to overcome your main obstacle. Your plan should follow this format: If (obstacle happens), then (I will do this). For example, your if-then plan could be: If (I feel too lazy to workout), then (I will change into my gym clothes).
  8. Write down your if-then plan and slowly repeat it to yourself a few times.

And that’s it, you just completed your first WOOP! What’s great about WOOP is that you can use it in every part of your life, from your career to your health to your relationships. You can do it as often as you need or whenever your goals change. I recommend checking out the official website linked above, which includes lots of interesting research and useful resources, including a free app that lets you track your progress towards your goals.

Too often we get lost in our fantasies, making great progress towards our goals until we encounter our first obstacle and find ourselves faltering. The great thing about WOOP is that it accounts for those obstacles, which are often inevitable, and arms us with a plan for overcoming them.

I plan on using WOOP often in 2021 to help me reach my goals. If you decide to give it a try, be sure to let me know how it worked for you. Here’s hoping all that negative thinking leads to a whole lot of positive outcomes in the new year!

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Saying the Quiet Stuff Out Loud

I had to think hard about whether this was a post I actually wanted to publish on the Internet where everything is forever, or if I wanted to keep it to myself and work it out privately in my journal. I figured, though, the whole point of this blog is for you to see me untangle all the messy parts of my life on my journey to becoming happier, and it’s not a particularly honest journey if I show you just the tidy revelations, and not the far-less-tidy path it took to get there. So, here goes.

I’ve talked about my ex here before, but I feel weird, even dishonest almost, when I call him that. He was never my boyfriend, but we weren’t exactly casually dating either. I think we had what the kids these days call a “situationship.”

Over 14 months, we went on about ten dates. These weren’t “hang out for an hour or two and get dinner” dates. Our first date lasted 24 hours. After that, it wasn’t unusual for us to spend 6-8 hours together at a time. When we were doing long distance, we had phone calls that lasted just as long. In the first few months especially, my phone would light up with an “I miss you” text every few days. After he moved here, we had conversations about marriage and children—not necessarily with each other, but we both knew we were looking for something serious

But for the vast majority of our situationship (bleh, I hate that word), we lived across the country from each other. We’d only been on one in-person date before he’d flown back home and we’d started all this.

Given the unusual circumstances, it’s easy to see how two people with different ideas of dating and relationships could go in with such different expectations, a problem compounded by the fact that we hardly communicated about the important stuff at all in the beginning. Despite the distance early on, I would have been his girlfriend if he’d asked me. For him, the in-person stuff was too important. He couldn’t fathom the idea of starting a relationship with someone he’d spent so little time with.

I had been through a similar situation before I met him—though that one mercifully lasted only three months—and I’d wanted to avoid a situationship-type…well, situation. It’s hard being heartbroken and feeling like you don’t deserve to feel that way because it’s not like he was your boyfriend or something. Honestly though, after you spend so much time getting to know someone and investing in them emotionally, do the labels even matter anymore? It wasn’t two or three dates, it was 14 months! 14 months that included vulnerability and intimacy and so many deep conversations and wonderful memories.

The thing is, despite this post and the others I’ve written about my breakup, I’ve actually been doing shockingly great this past month. I started this blog, finished the second draft of my manuscript, got even closer with my family, read lots of great books, started practicing Stoicism, meditating and journaling regularly, etc. I spend the vast majority of my days thinking about these things, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about him, too.

I’ve gotten better (though not perfect) at not assigning emotion to these thoughts. If I think of a conversation we had in the past, I try to push it out of my head and refocus rather than dwelling on what he said or what I should have said. I’m okay having these thoughts because they’re normal and with time, there’ll be fewer and fewer until one day I won’t think of him at all. I’m also thankful that they don’t overwhelm me to the point that they incapacitate me and prevent me from being productive or being happy. Honestly, I’m proud of the healthy way I’m processing this situation and these thoughts.

But there are also thoughts I’m not so proud of. I listened to a podcast about breakups on This American Life today, and a writer who’d just gone through her own breakup talked about songs that have to do with heartbreak. There’s this one particularly pathetic genre exemplified perfectly by Dusty Springfield’s, “You don’t have to say you love me.” These are the sort of songs that make the singer sound like they don’t have any sense of self-worth or dignity at all, but you can’t stop listening because they’re saying all the things that you feel deep down. The things you’re too ashamed to admit out loud.

My feelings change day to day. Sometimes I think about how much I care about him and just want him to be happy, even if it’s with someone else. Other times (maybe even later in that same day), I’ll think he’s a jerk for playing with my emotions and wasting my time. It’s in moments like this that I have to contend with other thoughts that are so pathetic I’m ashamed to admit them:

  • I secretly hope he’ll realize he made a mistake
  • Every time I get a text or a phone call, there’s a part of me that wants it to be him
  • That if he asked me today to be with him, I would (without even hesitating)
  • That I hope things won’t work out with the girl he chose over me
  • I fantasize that one day we’ll meet up and I’ll be doing so well, he’ll realize he made a huge mistake

I hate admitting that these thoughts exist, because they’re so petty and I don’t want to think them. There’s always a sense of shame that accompanies them and a whole lot of confusion. I want him to still be in my life, but I also never want to see him again. I want him to be happy, but I also don’t want him to be happy. Somehow, both of these contrasting statements can be true, depending on the day.

Maybe it’s important to accept these ugly feelings, too. Sometimes, as I make progress towards my happiness, I feel like I’m brushing a shiny coat of paint onto an uneven, broken foundation. I’ve never shied away from feelings that made me sad or angry, but shame is a harder thing to handle. It takes the focus off what the other person’s done to you and shines a bright spotlight on what you’re doing to others and even yourself.

The fact is, these are my feelings. They’re not the feelings I want to have. When I look at them all written out like that, I don’t see my anger and disappointment and sadness towards him but towards myself. My need for him to forsake her and be with me has more to do with the hole I want to fill in my life for companionship and acceptance than my actual desire to be with him. It reminds me of this quote from Yogi Bhajan:

If you are willing to look at another person’s behavior towards you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all.

I’m not sure what the conclusion is here or even if there is one. I wish there was a lesson or way forward I could offer you, but I’m still trying to work it out myself. I do think, however, feeling these things doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s far more likely that you’re just hurting, and accepting that these feelings are there and that they’re normal, seems like a good first step as any.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Here’s a little-known fact about me: I LIVE for the last four months of the year. Yes, I am one of those obnoxious people who will celebrate the season with pumpkin spice lattes and advent calendars and twinkly lights all over my apartment.

I mean, what’s not to love? You can go outside without the heat melting your makeup off, all the new TV shows come out, you get time off from work, the stores are all decked out with festive decorations, and you can spend the whole month watching cheesy holiday-themed movies.

But while I absolutely love the lead up to all the big holidays, I find myself wishing we could skip most of them. Halloween is great, but the other big three—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s—always leave me with a funny feeling. I think at least part of that has to do with expectations. These are supposed to be some of the best days of the year, so if you have anything less than a perfect day, it feels like a disappointment. The other part is that we don’t really do a whole lot for those holidays in my family. We’ll exchange presents on Christmas day and maybe order out for dinner, but most of the time I’ll find myself on social media, jealously scrolling through all the pictures of big families and mouthwatering feasts.

Not to mention, since everyone’s busy on the actual holidays, you can’t even call your friends to hang out on those days! Growing up, I used to dream about the day I’d have my own house so I could throw a fabulous Christmas party or invite all my friends over to ring in the New Year. I’ve done the latter before and it was nice, but Covid means I’ll most likely be ringing in 2021 by myself (considering my parents will probably be asleep by 10).

Okay, okay, I didn’t mean to be a total grinch. In fact, I’m determined to have a great Christmas and NYE this year, and I’m going to do it my own way. If you’re not exactly looking forward to your own holiday celebrations this year, consider giving some of these suggestions a try:

Eat Something Tasty

Who says you need an epic feast? All you need are some of your favorite foods. The holidays are your ultimate cheat day, so go ahead and have that second slice of cake. If you feel inclined, you could try making something from scratch. Baking is a known stress buster!

Soak in the Bath

Bath bomb, face mask, candles, and relaxing tunes…need I say more?

Movie Marathon

If you’re into cheesy holiday movies like me, Netflix is an absolute treasure trove. You could also watch some of the classics, or even your favorite movie that has nothing to do with the holidays. A Christmas Prince? Jurassic Park? Both valid choices!

Treat Yo’ Self

You know there’s something on your Amazon Wishlist you’ve been dying to get but have put off because it’s too much of a frivolous purchase. Don’t think, just add it to your cart. After the year that was 2020, you deserve it.

Treat Others

It’s a well-known fact that acts of kindness are a major contributor to happiness. Today is the perfect day to donate to charity or pack up some of those treats you baked and leave them outside your neighbor’s door.

Stop the Scroll

Take a break from social media, today. The last thing you need to see is one of your friends unboxing the expensive gift her boyfriend sent her or someone else you know surrounded by their extended family while you’re stuck at home alone.

Set the Scene

Ambiance is very important. Maybe you don’t have a Christmas tree or all the decorations out this year (I don’t), but you can still zhuzh up your space a little. Even if that’s just playing a video of a crackling fireplace on your TV like I did when I was practicing hygge. In the past, I cut out a bunch of paper snowflakes and taped them to the ceiling with a bit of string. Cheap and effective!

Festive Video Chat

If you can’t be with friends or family this year, spend a bit of time catching up with them over FaceTime. Make sure everyone has a cup of cocoa or eggnog (or something stronger). You could even don your ugly Christmas sweaters and play some holiday music in the background.

Be Grateful

So your holidays don’t look exactly how they’re supposed to, but I’m willing to bet there’s something going right in your life. In a year where so many people have struggled, maybe you still have your job or your health or your loved ones. All of those things are worth celebrating and I don’t know about you, but I think they’re more valuable than the perfect Christmas.

Sooo that’s how I’m planning on spending my holidays. I know I didn’t share anything particularly groundbreaking, but I do hope you found something helpful here. Maybe this will even be the year you start a new holiday tradition. Annual Jurassic Park screening, anyone?

When Kindness Isn’t Kind

I’ve always prided myself on being a good person. That means saying “please” and “thank you” to servers, being amiable when I meet new people, helping an old person reach something on the top shelf at the grocery store, spending hours making a homemade card for a friend, the list goes on.

One area of my life where that kindness hasn’t always translated into the best results for me is dating. Here are just some of the things my niceness made me do:

  • Go on an extra date with someone I did’t feel a spark with because the thought of rejecting them made me feel too guilty
  • Stay way too long on dates where I wasn’t enjoying myself
  • Not date other people while I was seeing someone I wasn’t exclusive with because I thought they would be hurt if they found out (even though they were doing the exact same thing)
  • Constantly rearrange or cut my own plans short so I could accommodate someone else’s schedule
  • Spend time and money planning surprises and gifts for men who would eventually tell me they’d fallen in love with someone else

At this point you’re thinking, that’s not being nice…that’s being a total doormat! And yes, I was absolutely a doormat, but it took some time and distance to see that.

This is the thing about kindness, you’re not really being kind if you’re hurting someone, and in all these situations I was hurting someone: me.

I was all too willing to put my own needs and desires on the back-burner. I did everything I could to make the other person in the situation happy, even at the expense of my own happiness. When I got upset that someone I was seeing didn’t communicate with me enough between dates, I swallowed my own disappointment, I reasoned that he had a much more demanding job than me and didn’t have as much time to text, I convinced myself I was unreasonable to expect more from him. (P.S. It’s interesting how all those people who claim to be bad texters magically find the time to text the girls they like).

I don’t know when I convinced myself that speaking up about what I want isn’t “nice,” but I wasn’t doing anyone any favors with that attitude. Eventually all my resentment would boil over, and I’d get frustrated with someone for not doing the thing I’d never asked them to do in the first place. Sure, in many of those situations they probably knew better, but in some of them they didn’t. By the point I confessed all the things I was unhappy about, it would often be too late. They were all ready to move on, but we would both sit there for a bit wondering what would have happened if I’d just been up front about everything from the get-go.

If I’m being very honest, my acts of kindness weren’t always motivated solely by my need to brighten someone’s day. That was definitely part of it, but it was also because I wanted people to like me. That’s why I shipped my ex’s favorite cookies to him across the country and set up a whole spa in my apartment complete with my very own proprietary spa water and diced fruit to help him relax when he was stressed from work. As it turns out, if someone isn’t investing in you, doing this kind of stuff isn’t going to make them like you more. They’re going to keep treating you the exact same way, and now they’ll know that no matter how little they give, you’re still going to spoil them with your time and affection.

Whenever a man I was dating would choose someone else, I would always wonder what the other woman gave him that I couldn’t. I mean, here I was leaping at every chance I could to accommodate his time, protect his feelings, do nice things for him, go out of my way trying to figure out how I could make our time together more special. What else could this other woman possibly be doing??

I’m pretty sure the answer is, she wasn’t doing any of that stuff. I’m guessing she was honest about her needs, and she didn’t invest 110% into someone who was only giving her 20%. She made it clear with her words and actions that they’d have to start giving more if they wanted to get more.

So if I can impart some hard-earned wisdom to you it’s this: asking for what you want doesn’t make you less nice. Expecting someone to treat you with the same respect you give them doesn’t make you less nice. Putting yourself first doesn’t make you less nice.

You can still be a good person and get everything you want. So, let’s all start being a little kinder, first and foremost, to ourselves.

You Can Always Come Home

The American singer Alan Jackson once sang:

You can always come home
Wherever life’s road leads
You can get back
To a love that’s strong and free
You’ll never be alone
In your heart there’s still a place
No matter how right or wrong you’ve gone
You can always come home

As an introvert, I’ve always thought I was pretty good at navigating my alone time, especially during the pandemic. I was able to fill up my days with solo activities and discover new ways to keep myself occupied at home, even impressing friends and family who would ask with curiosity and a little bit of awe, “How do you not get bored being alone all the time?”

Admittedly, that alone time got a little harder to navigate after I went separate ways with the last person I dated. I was still mostly okay, but there were times—laying in bed at night or when my mind began to wander—that I’d feel it. That tiny but potent ache, the one that made me yearn to be held, to be with someone who made me feel warm and safe, to be taken care of.

This past Friday, my older sister came to pick me up so we could drive to my parents’ house for the holidays. Though I talk to my family almost every day, it had been a few months since I’d seen them or been home. I was looking forward to being reunited with everyone, but I also felt a faint sense of dread as we set off. It was the first time I’d be back home since things ended with my ex. I worried that if my mother made comments about me settling down or if I didn’t have my usual activities to distract me, it would make me think of him and all the negative emotions I’d done such a good job of evading so far. There were so many unpredictable factors at home that I didn’t have to worry about in the safety of my apartment and daily routine.

We got home around lunchtime, and by the time we walked through the door, there were already two plates of warm, home-cooked food waiting for me and my sister. To someone who’d spent the last few weeks eating salads, microwave meals, and takeout, I couldn’t get enough. Each bite made me think of my childhood, to all the times I’d gotten home from school to find my mom bustling around the kitchen, preparing my afternoon snack.

A lot of times when I come home, I’ll get bored pretty quickly. I’ll retreat to my bedroom and watch a movie on my laptop or see if any hometown friends are available to meet up. The last few times I came home, I would keep my phone beside me, anxiously checking to see if my ex had returned a text yet.

This time, I didn’t want to retreat. I wanted to be present and soak up every good feeling. Over the weekend, we spent a lot of time together as a family. My parents sat with us in the kitchen while my sister and I tried out new recipes, we watched the snow fall outside while laughing about past memories, we spent hours video-chatting with extended family, my sister and I snuggled up together at night the way we used to when we were younger and watched cheesy television.

The thing is, when you start telling yourself a story, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. The only thing that matters is if you believe it’s true. For a long time, the story I’ve been telling myself is that I’m alone. I don’t have a boyfriend or as big of a social circle as I’d like. Not even a roommate to keep me company during this pandemic. I was so lonely, and I was tired of being alone.

But then you have these moments that put everything back into perspective. When my mom offered up something for the umpteenth time (“Take these bananas with you,” “Do you need more paper towels?” “Here’s some cookware you can take with you.”), or my dad jumped up and got ready to drive to the store anytime we even vaguely mentioned needing something, or my sister spoiled me the way she always has since I was a baby, I was overcome by how wrong I’d been.

I’d spent months, maybe even longer, bemoaning the love I didn’t have in my life, never appreciating the love I did have. My parents and sister would call me daily, checking up on me, seeing if I needed anything, and I would brush them off so I could invest all my emotions and energy into people who didn’t invest in me at all. Despite that, their love for me never changed.

I still have a few more weeks left at home. I’ll probably get annoyed at my family a bunch of times while I’m here, but I’ll also be grateful that I get to spend this time with them. In the new year, I’ll head back to the city. I’ll take risks and push myself, experience both successes and failures, but above all I’m going to remind myself as often as I can that I will never be alone, no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise. Knowing that, I already feel a little braver in building the life I want. Everything’s easier when you have people you love in your corner, and I’m willing to bet if you take a close look at your life, you’ll find you have plenty of people in your corner, too.

The Art of Coziness

Let me set a scene for you: powdery, white snow blankets the city. The usual barrage of honking horns and loud passerby are missing from the streets. Inside, the radiator hisses and rattles as it breathes warm air into the room, and a fire crackles in the hearth. Something warm is bubbling on the stove. The lights are dimmed and candles flicker all around you, and in your hands you hold a cozy book and a cup of hot chocolate. You feel safe, and warm, and content. This is hygge.

That was more or less what my evening looked like yesterday. Okay, I don’t have a fireplace, so I played a video of one on my TV, and there definitely wasn’t anything bubbling on the stove (I ordered takeout again, sue me), but I think I had the general concept down.

Yesterday I read, The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking (amazing name). There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this Danish concept of coziness, since it gained some global popularity a few years ago. The exact definition is difficult to pin down since it’s more of a feeling, but you’ve probably experienced it before. It’s candles, and warmth, and togetherness, and a coziness you feel in your very soul.

The great thing about hygge is anyone can do it anywhere. It doesn’t cost a specified amount of money, and you can do it with other people or alone. Here is “The Hygge Manifesto” as laid out in the book:

  1. Atmosphere: dim lighting, candles, cozy setting
  2. Presence: be here in the moment, no phones allowed
  3. Pleasure: indulge in a warm drink and something sweet or hearty (preferably home-cooked)
  4. Equality: help share tasks, like cooking, and don’t make the conversation all about you
  5. Gratitude: appreciate this moment
  6. Harmony: this is not the time to brag about your promotion or new car
  7. Comfort: let yourself truly unwind
  8. Truce: save the debates and controversial topics for another day
  9. Togetherness: reminisce about shared memories and build relationships
  10. Shelter: these are your people and this is your place. You’re safe here.

There are other great tips in the book, like what to eat (meals that take a long time to prepare are ideal) and what to wear (warm sweaters and wool socks). Reading it made me realize I’ve been a connoisseur of the hygge lifestyle for ages. For me, a warm drink + candles + a cozy book + rain = pure bliss.

It’s no wonder the people of Denmark are so happy, considering hygge is such a huge part of their national identity. It combines some of the most important elements necessary for happiness: social connection, gratitude, and savoring. They could have let the cold, dreary winters bring down their moods, but instead the Danes discovered a way to appreciate the joy and magic of the season.

In a time of increasing polarization, a global pandemic, and unprecedented obstacles, hygge can be especially useful. I loved the concept of hyggesnak, which doesn’t mean, as I initially assumed, the snacks you eat during hygge but “chitchat or cozy conversation that doesn’t touch on controversial issues.” Obviously, issues having to do with politics or social justice are very important, but I think people on both sides of these discussions can agree that they can be very draining. Taking a moment to breath and enjoy a quiet moment with friends might be just what the doctor ordered. Then, instead of a bunch of frazzled, high-strung people yelling at each other, we can have nuanced, productive conversations.

Last night, as I watched the snow float down from the sky and sipped my hot chocolate, I felt like I was on vacation or I’d been whisked away to some special place. I was actually surprised when I turned the lights back on and realized it was only Wednesday night. There’s a line I enjoy from the Memoirs of a Geisha movie where the main character talks about the art of turning habit into pleasure. To me, that’s what hygge is. It’s taking an ordinary day and transforming it into contentment and great memories.

From now on, I want to treat myself to a hygge moment at least once a week. For now, alone, but when the pandemic is over, with friends and family. I’m looking forward to the day when we can sit around in our warm sweaters and fuzzy socks, enjoy good conversation, and just be content to be with the people we love most.

The Happiness Workout

You know what I never realized? How much work actually goes into being happy.

First, you have to set up a bunch of good habits for yourself. Then, you have to actually do those things every day. You have to motivate yourself, overcome the lies your brain tells you about what will actually make you happy, and engage in a constant battle of wills with the negative thoughts floating around your head.

Since I got interested in positive psychology a few months ago, I’ve been trying to implement as much of what I’ve learned into my daily life as possible. I meditate every day, practice gratitude, journal, get 8 hours of sleep (often more), and spend time learning about new happiness practices. There are other areas that I know would make a huge difference and I’ve made some strides in, but I’m nowhere near where I want to be. I can still go weeks without exercising, I order way too much takeout, and as a result of the pandemic, I don’t have nearly as much social connection in my life as I’d like.

When you still have so far to go, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making much progress at all. I haven’t been unhappy these past few days, but I also haven’t been bursting with joy. I haven’t been actively excited about my life, which is the way you want to feel when you’re putting all this work in.

Luckily, my meditation app helped put some things into perspective for me. This morning, after I finished my guided meditation, I was given a prompt about what small changes I’ve noticed since starting my practice. I realized that since I started meditating and putting some of my other positive practices into place, the minor irritations of the day hardly faze me anymore.

In the past, if a car blared its horn for a minute straight outside my window, it would have made my head pound and I’d be unable to focus on anything else. But now? Nothing. If something went wrong at work or I had extra tasks piled on at the last minute, I’d get stressed out. Now I just accept it, knowing that however I feel about it isn’t going to change anything. I dive straight into figuring out a solution, and I’m able to reach a solution or finish the task much quicker.

Even more unbelievable, since I started practicing stoicism, there are times I find myself actually hoping for a setback in my day just so I have a chance to pass a “stoic test.” I never thought I would say that!

Looking back at my progress has me realize happiness is truly like a muscle. It’s something that needs to be exercised in order to become stronger. For the best results, it’s something you have to do regularly, ideally every day. I’m still very early into my happiness journey, and I suppose if happiness was such an easy thing to achieve, the world would look a lot different. People wouldn’t shell out money on cosmetic surgery, or expensive houses and clothes, or work themselves ragged trying to get that promotion—all the things most of us mistakenly think will make us happier.

The good news is, there’s no time limit or deadline on learning how to be happier. It’s a lifelong journey and you can start anytime. Those little bits of progress add up, and maybe as I make more progress and gain more knowledge, the changes will become even easier to notice. That’s how it is with everything else in life: working out, learning how to play an instrument, starting a new course in school. There’s no reason becoming happier should be any different.

My Tiny Kitchen

If you’ve never gone apartment hunting in New York City before, lucky you.

Never in my life did I think I’d be so thankful for basic features like windows and closets, which are in short supply in many NYC apartments. A washer/dryer in the building? It’s like winning the lottery. Having one in your actual apartment? Fuggedaboutit! (p.s. I still have yet to hear an actual New Yorker say this).

Luckily, I’ve actually had some pretty good fortune in this area. My current studio is in a location I love, right by Central Park and lots of great restaurants. It even has a cool little reading nook that you have to climb a ladder to access. There’s only one part of it I really find lacking, and that’s the kitchen.

I hesitate to even use the term kitchen, because of how sparse it is. There’s my fridge, and next to that is the sink, and next to that is the stove and…that’s it. That’s right, that’s my whole kitchen. I don’t even have a counter, just a wooden board to precariously balance over my sink or stove if I need to do any food prep.

Actual footage of me trying to make food in my kitchen

I decided to overlook it, because I liked everything else about the apartment. I also didn’t cook a lot and got a lot of my meals through work, so I figured I’d barely be using it anyway. Then, of course, the pandemic came along, and while everyone else was stress-baking bread and cooking up other delectable recipes, I was trying to figure out a way to use my sink and stove at the same time.

I worried that my kitchen (or lack of) would be a constant source of frustration, but—in that wonderful way humans do—I adapted. I just sort of got used to not having that much space and learned to work around it. I counted my good graces; I was still lucky enough to have a microwave, an oven, and most miraculous of all, a dishwasher. I decided to get resourceful and transformed an old ladder shelf into make-shift storage for my cooking tools. I put a bedside table next to the stove and used it to balance my cutting board when I needed more space.

Whenever I tell others about my tiny kitchen, I always end up concluding with, “Wherever I live after this, my next kitchen is going to seem gigantic compared to this one. I won’t even know what to do with all that extra space!”

In a lot of ways, learning to navigate cooking in this apartment has felt like the times I’ve had to navigate life during its most challenging moments. Take this pandemic, for example.

While others had roommates or partners or family to spend all that time at home with, I was alone. Luckily, my introverted nature prepared me for most of the emotional struggles, but that didn’t mean I didn’t get bored or find myself craving human connection.

Like I’d done with my kitchen, I forced myself to think of the positives of the situation. I still had my health and a job. I had access to food, running water, Netflix. People who lived through past pandemics definitely didn’t have access to all those things. After I took a moment to count my blessings, I decided it was time to get resourceful. With all my extra time, I caught up with friends on video chat, I turned my living room into my own fitness studio, I used my free time to write, cook more, learn how to knit, and even bought a ukulele (that last one was an impulse buy).

If you’ve been following this blog, you know there were also other struggles during this time. I figured, if I could overcome all of that and learn how to enjoy being on my own, generate my own happiness from within, and never get bored in my own company, then everything that comes after this pandemic will just feel like the cherry on top of the sundae.

We let hard times bring us down, but maybe what we really need to do is treat them like a challenge or a training period. It’s like athletes playing practice games before a real game or a writer crumpling up dozens of terrible drafts before creating something beautiful.

Living good lives and being happy, that’s something we need to practice. If you can get it right when everything’s going wrong, you’ll never again worry about what life’s going to throw at you next. You’ve been through the worst, and you handled it. You’ll handle whatever comes next, too.

Confessions of a Social Media Manager

So here’s something people are always surprised to learn about me: I’m not the biggest fan of social media.

Okay, there are some caveats to this, but you would think someone who’d chosen to make a career out of social media would be a more avid user.

The thing is, when I started working in social media back in 2013, it was a different thing entirely. Facebook wasn’t this corrupt entity, just a way to see what was going on in your friends’ lives. People weren’t getting canceled on Twitter, and YouTube stars weren’t releasing apologies over controversies every week. I’m pretty sure social media still wasn’t perfect then, but it definitely wasn’t the beast it’s become now.

Whenever I get started on a social media rant, I always feel like I should be holding a cane and waving it emphatically at any youths in the vicinity. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to say anything you haven’t heard before on the topic. Social media kills our attention spans, makes us more self-conscious, increases anxiety…sure, we know all this already.

It also lets us connect with people all around the world, feel like we’re part of a global community, express our creativity, increase awareness around important issues, do social good with a few keystrokes.

Social media isn’t inherently a good or bad thing in itself. It’s all in the way we use it, and one of the ways in which social media contributes most to our unhappiness is the reference points it provides.

Reference points are important, because they affect how we perceive our own happiness and quality of life. If you compare yourself to a coworker, your life probably won’t look too bad in comparison. If you compare yourself to Taylor Swift, that’s a different story. The problem is, social media presents us with nothing but unrealistic reference points. Scroll through your Instagram feed and you’ll see a bunch of teenage influencers sipping champagne on a yacht, ordinary meals styled to look impeccable with the perfect lighting, girls made up with professional makeup and nary a pore to be found. (This is not actually what my feed looks like btw).

Even your friends only post the best or most photogenic moments of their lives making it seem like everyone’s constantly having the most amazing time. I’ve actually worked with a few influencers at past jobs. It was amazing to scroll through their social media where they’d accumulated thousands of followers. They’d post pictures of themselves wearing glamorous outfits, flouncing around the city without a care in the world. If you didn’t know them in real life, you’d think they spent all their time going on amazing vacations, eating the best foods, and lounging around their penthouse apartments in expensive gowns. I did know them in real life, and real life was a much a different story.

At their day jobs, they didn’t dress up or come in with full faces of makeup. Most of them spent 40 hours a week being stressed out by terrible bosses, underpaid, and unsatisfied with their work. Maybe the rest of their lives were just as glamorous as it was on their Instagrams, but the part that wasn’t glamorous sure didn’t feature in any of their pictures.

Since learning the truth, I now tend to look at most influencers’ posts with a skeptical eye. I know that behind every perfect picture there’s a less than imperfect story, and that’s okay! We’re all imperfect, and if you want to portray a different story on social media, that’s okay too. It’s just important for all the rest of us to remember that what we’re seeing is in fact just that: a story.

There are times when I get frustrated with the people in my own life. Friends and family who will make me wait to take a bite of my meal until they get a great picture or who have their heads bowed down towards their phones the whole time we’re on vacation. I won’t pretend I haven’t been occasionally guilty of doing the same. When I visited Notre Dame in Paris a few years ago, everyone inside the cathedral had their devices out even though there were multiple signs informing visitors this was not allowed. When the news of it catching on fire broke out, I was so grateful for the time I’d been allowed to spend there, and even more grateful that I remembered every detail of the experience so vividly because I’d stubbornly refused to take my phone out.

I guess the whole point of this rambling rant is that social media can be a fun way to pass the time and, in many ways, a great tool. However, it’s up to us to make sure we’re using it in a way that benefits us instead of letting it run the way we live our lives. Lately, my social feeds have been filled with nothing more than pictures of dogs, happy quotes, posts about obscure interests, and cooking videos. That change alone was enough to reduce my daily anxiety considerably.

I’m not trying to tell you how to spend your time on the internet. I’m just saying, a few extra cute animals on your feed couldn’t hurt.

The Hedonic Treadmill

Think about the last time you wanted something. Really wanted something. The thing you were convinced would make you happy once you had it. Was it a new iPhone? A high-paying job? A relationship?

Now think about what happened after you got it. Did it make you happy? if yes, did it still make you happy after a fews day? A month? a year? Do you still sit around each day thinking about how happy that thing makes you even now?

Or like the vast majority of people, did you just sort of get used to it, find something new to chase after and convince yourself that this was the thing that would actually make you happy? If so, it sounds like you’ve found yourself on the hedonic treadmill.

The hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation, is the idea that we tend to return to stable levels of happiness, even after a major change in our lives. That’s why there are lottery winners who find themselves no happier than before they won millions, and amputees who are no less happy than they were before they lost a limb. It doesn’t matter if at the time they thought what was happening to them was the greatest thing ever or the worst. Humans adapt, they start taking things for granted, they find themselves with new things that bring them happiness and new sets of problems.

On the one hand, this is great news. Not getting into the college of your choice, not getting that promotion you wanted, not ending up with the person you were convinced was the one…none of those individual things are going to affect your long-term happiness. I know it feels like the worst thing ever, but guess what? Scientific research shows that people are really bad at predicting how happy or unhappy something is going to make them.

But wait, what about the good things? Does that mean nothing’s actually going to make you truly happy? It turns out, there are a few ways you can increase how much happiness you get out of the good things.

For starters, you can take some time each day to practice gratitude. I’ve done this practice off and on over the years, but I’ve only really gotten serious about dedicating time to it in the last few weeks. I spend about ten minutes writing about a few things in my journal that I really appreciate. It can be something good that happened that day or it can be something or someone that’s been there all along. Sometimes, I’ll find myself writing about things I never even think about, like the fact that I have two working eyes that let me appreciate all the beauty in the world or that I have running water in my apartment. It makes me feel fortunate for all the good things in my life, even on days when things aren’t going my way.

Another thing you can do is practice savoring. If you’ve ever seen a Korean variety show, one staple is the cast being presented with some kind of food. It doesn’t matter if it’s home-cooked kimchi fried rice or a meal prepared by a world-class chef. The cast will ooh and ahh over it, making noises of exaggerated contentment and smiling with each bite. It’s the reason why I always find myself ordering Korean takeout after watching these shows. They’re so good at enjoying something simple, that it makes me want to experience the same sort of joy. Try it the next time you find yourself eating something delicious, having a really good conversation with friends, traveling somewhere amazing. Be present in the moment, and really engage all of your senses. Savor every moment and keep reminding yourself how lucky you are to enjoy the moment.

But one of the absolutely best things you can do is to change what you actually value. Prioritize experiences over possessions. What are the moments from your past that still make you smile after all these years? I bet it’s that time you baked cookies with your family, rocked out at an amazing concert, watched cheesy romcoms with your best friend. I’m willing to bet one of those memories was not the day you bought your AirPods.

All my life, I had the mindset that once all the things on my checklist were completed, I would be perfectly happy and find myself wanting for nothing else. I did check some of those things off, but then I would find new things to add to the list making it impossible to truly ever make it to the end of the list.

I think the most important lesson of the hedonic treadmill is this: you don’t need to wait for everything to align perfectly in your life. Happiness isn’t some distant thing that will always be just out of reach. Hop off the treadmill. When you stop running, you’ll find the thing you’ve been chasing all these years has been within reach the whole time.