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Refreshing The Brain

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Carol Bossard

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Do you have a time of the year when you feel more alive than other times?  My favorite season is about to begin; mid-September through mid-November.  As summer is winding down, my spirits are generally rising.  I’m not sure why; perhaps the scent of falling leaves, the lessening of the humidity, or the return of the chickadees to our bird feeders.  Whatever the reason I’m usually happier in the fall.  As I think back, most of my depressive times have been in late winter (who wouldn’t be) or early summer (a real puzzle).

No one really knows what causes the spirits to droop and then to sink into a mire of despair.  Sometimes there is a valid reason ----- grief, loss, pain, but often we have no understanding of why the mind takes off on its own little venture into gloom.  Carl Sandburg’s* poem says that fog comes in on little cat feet.  Well, so does depression.  It is a subtle mood change that often goes un-noticed until suddenly there is a black cloud infiltrating one’s whole being ----- rather like the cloud of dust that followed “Pigpen” in the comics.  The human mind is an enigma, even to doctors who have studied it for a life-time.   Once I asked a therapist why they couldn’t just do a blood test for serotonin.  His reply was that they didn’t really know that lack of serotonin was the problem; it was still a theory and they hoped treating it would work.  Sometimes the cause is something else entirely.  So, I’m thinking that recommended treatments for mental health problems are largely hoping for the best. This isn’t a bad thing but a bit more certainty would be nice.

Why am I talking about sadness at this lovely time of year?  One reason is because mental health issues have flooded the media as part of the COVID experience.  In addition, there has been a recent phenomenon in my Email and on Face Book ---- discussions of happiness ---- from several unconnected sources.  One came from Gretchen Rubin** who has done years of research and written two good books on happiness.  She now has a link where one can go to set up their own happiness project:  the-happiness-project.com.  Another offering was from Dr. Daniel Amen*** ----a psychiatrist who has written several books on brain health.  He is also offering a participatory Happiness Project.  He says that people who are happy are generally healthier all over.  Sadness must be pervasive if multiple sources think we need to learn about happiness.

Undoubtedly there is confusion and/or disagreement about what happiness really is.   Some feel that happiness should be our life- goal.    If it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it!”  But others are equally sure that happiness is a by-product of living a meaningful life of service.  There are many perceived meanings for “happiness”, but basically, happiness makes us feel good about being alive.  Perhaps we shouldn’t wait for happiness to descend upon us, but instead try to meet it half-way.

I see the most authentic happiness in individuals who have an unquenchable, deep joy; it does not rely on circumstances, but comes bubbling up from an inner spiritual life that inspires and sustains no matter what.  It is a lightness of spirit that grows out of the confidence that eventually “All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”**** People who have this are not disconcerted by much; their serenity is evident, even in the midst of grief and hard times.  They may grieve, but they do not despair.  It must have been that sort of joy that prompted this quotation from Fra Giovanni:  Outside your open window, the morning is all awash with angels.  Love calls us to things of this world.”***** That’s a lovely visual with which to begin a day and surely an antidote for the morning news.

Then there is situational happiness because of some good occurrence like the birth of a child, the love of family, the perfect new job, a great date, a super vacation, or amazing new shoes.  This sort of happiness is fragile.  Take these happenings away or have them spoiled by some mischance and our happy feeling flies out the window.  This tenuous happiness seldom satisfies for long since mischances are a frequent part of life.

Then there is the general happiness of the optimist; this person cheerily takes delight in small things and expects them again and again; looks at the world through just slightly rose-tinted glasses.  This is a person who is aware of life around him/her but sees the good things first.   When change comes their reaction is not criticism but curiosity.  An optimist is a person who is a realist, but who believes the world has more of good than of bad so if bad comes along, good cannot be far behind.  This sort of happiness is longer-lasting than situational happiness but not quite the same as the spiritual joy.

Happiness or unhappiness really depends on our brain’s focus and our perceptions.  If, for example, we concentrate on the world news with no idea but to inform ourselves of what is going on in the world, there will be little happiness in the hearing; so much news is bad news.  In fact, I would say that watching the news constantly with no other view in mind than keeping current is a short route to depression.  Really --- how much corruption, greed, stupidity and hunger for power can we hear about and remain at all hopeful?  If we listen to the world news and then take whatever action we are capable of taking ----- as in praying for the world, supporting something like Doctors Without Borders, volunteering at the Food Pantry, reading good books to children ---- then the focus changes from debilitating bad news to let’s work together to make things better.   Ben Franklin****** said: “An hour’s industry will do more to produce cheerfulness, suppress evil humors and retrieve your affairs, than a month of moaning.”   Despair comes when we feel helpless to make a difference.  If we put ourselves out there to do something good, all of life is brighter.  Of course, to do this, we must convince ourselves that our energy is better spent doing than in sitting home with a bowl of ice cream (though ice cream has cheering possibilities) and bemoaning the state of the world.   

We are coming to a season when many of us need to consider doing something about our happiness for the months ahead.   Natural light is diminishing; the sun sets earlier and rises later.  Those who suffer from SAD need to prepare.  “Happy Lights”**** are useful to make the eyes and brain think the sun is shining.  They have full-spectrum light bulbs and, used for two hours in the morning, will make a huge difference.  While one can’t fool Mother Nature, as the saying goes, one can, according to research and experience, fool the mind.  More light plus staying busy keeps the brain assured that life is still good.  Puzzles, books, painting, journaling, walking outside, planning some kind of project, writing notes to shut-ins and to children, potted plants in the windows ----- and remembering that cocoa season will soon be here ----- any and all of these might make the long, cold winter a happier time.  Of course, if you are a snow bird, just take frequent walks on the beach.

One of my current situational happy thoughts is anticipating our vacation next week.  We’ll be doing some poking around Vermont and then we’ll drop down to Massachusetts to spend some time with family.  We will probably visit our favorite shops in Manchester Center, will certainly stop at more than one bookstore (for we desperately need more books! 😊) and simply enjoy being away from our normal environs for a bit.  The Green Mountains of Vermont are lovely; winding roads that often travel beside busy little streams with impressive rocks. I might even bring a few Vermont rocks back home with me.   Toting stones is a habit of mine, as our sons will discover if they ever have to move us!  And visiting family that we haven’t seen in a couple of years will be good.  There will be lots to talk about.

Now is time to be outside as often as possible ---- soaking up the sun, taking mental snapshots of the sights and inhaling the scents --- just being glad to be alive.   The brain believes what we think and speak, so let’s fill it with good things and positive ideas.  Almost every year I search out this particular poem because it speaks so eloquently of happiness and September; September by Helen Hunt Jackson: “The golden rod is yellow, the corn is turning brown, the trees in apple orchards with fruit are bending down.  …The gentian’s bluest fringes are curling in the sun; In dusty pods, the milk weed its hidden silk has spun.  The sedges flaunt their harvest in every meadow nook; and asters by the brookside make asters in the brook.  From dewy lanes at morning the grapes’ sweet odors rise; at noon the roads all flutter with yellow butterflies.  By all these lovely tokens September days are here, with summer’s best of weather, and autumn’s best of cheer.”  Breathe deeply of September’s aromas and may your September be a good month for living and enjoying.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Carol may be reached at: carol42wilde@htva.net.

*Carl Sandburg ---American poet, biographer, journalist, editor.  He won 3 Pulitzer prizes; two for his poetry and one for his Abraham Lincoln biography.  1878-1967.

**Gretchen Rubin----American author, blogger, speaker.  She has written two books on happiness; The Happiness Project and Happier At Home.

***Dr. Daniel Amen----One of America’s leading psychiatrists and brain health experts.

****Julian of Norwich----English Anchoress of Middle Ages (1342c. -1416).  Wrote The Revelations of Divine Love.

*****Fra Giovanni-----Italian Friar, architect, archaeologist, and classical scholar.  1433-1515.

*****Ben Franklin----American polymath active as writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, printer, publisher and political philosopher.  1706-1790.

******Helen Hunt Jackson----American writer and poet.  She was an activist, advocating for better treatment of Native Americans.  1830-1885.

 

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