Late September, on a road trip to Colorado, I listened to a book which changed my life.
In truth, books and I have had a love affair for decades which has not dimmed. Therefore, it is not unusual for me to be affected by them. This quote by Julian Barnes describes perfectly my feelings on this subject: “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.”
Admittedly, not all books have a transformative effect upon me. Some, I read for pure enjoyment, to lose myself in the characters, the places, and the plot lines. However, when books call upon me to change, I am left better for it.
Some manuscripts challenge me to reach for higher planes. To become my very best self. To not be content with mediocrity but to extend myself beyond my comfort zone. “Don’t play it safe” they whisper, “live your fullest, bestest (yes, bestest) life.”
I never fail to answer their call even if I am scared. Granted, I may do so timidly, even fearfully, with tiny minute steps forward interspersed with giant steps backward. The way I see it, as long as there is progress forward, gingerly is okay by me.
Growth is not some linear line, constant, steady, and clean. Growth is messy and convoluted. Growth is hard! Growth is not something thrusted upon us, it is a choice, albeit not necessarily an easy one. Now, change is another matter entirely. Change comes to all. Growth, however, is optional and never complete.
I don’t think we ever “arrive”, drop of our suitcase and with an haaaa of satisfaction and, praises well deserved, rest in our accomplishments. This is not to say, there are not havens of peace on the way to more growth. We are allowed to rest for a while and bask in the light of a job well done. Eat the fruit of our labor so to speak.
Nevertheless, invariably, the call to grow will come again. We can choose to turn a death ear or once again we can answer the summon.
I – for one – want to answer every call and continue to move forward, even if by an inch.
The book I listened to on Audible, as my car ate miles upon miles of asphalt for nine hours, was The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. In short order, I decided I too would launch on a similar project. My start date was October 1st—one mere short week away.
I was enthused about the idea of taking an active participation in my own happiness. I woke up on September 28th, three days before my official start date bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to take on the day. My exuberance was of significant importance. Traditionally, September 28th is a downer for me as we lost a precious baby girl on a September 28th.
This date is my Black Friday. I never know how I will feel and while I may sail through the day unscathed, I can also go through an array of emotions ranging from despondency to being “fine.” Over the years, my emotions are no longer the raw grief of almost two decades ago. For this, I am grateful. September 28th is nonetheless a day which finds me withdrawn and melancholy.
However, on this particular September 28th, I was excited. I was eager. I was giddy. I was ready to tackle my Happiness Project by the proverbial horns.
I had already carefully selected my monthly theme: energy, and I was pumped (pardon the pun).
Life is a Funny Sometimes
A week before I started my Happiness Project, I had never heard of the book, and much less, planned to do my own experiment. Nevertheless, in the span of a short seven days, I HAD read the book, and I was beyond inspired. I had a goal, a plan, and a support group. This new endeavor was an Adventure, and I was ripe for the journey.
All week, I furiously pondered, planned, and scribbled copious notes. I already felt happier!
How could this be?
Since I hadn’t started with my action steps yet, was this giddiness all my head?
The Power of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is quite a buzzword. Who hasn’t heard of it?
Yeah, no one, that’s who.
Aside from being a fashionable term, it also comes with some scientific weightiness.
Being mindful—or intentional—does indeed have its merit. It has been shown to contribute to a more fulfilled life and therefore to an increased sense of happiness.
For me, the book—The Happiness Project—is a superb example of the power of mindfulness. Its content brought to mind something was which previously foreign to me.
The funny thing about knowledge is that once we are made aware of something new, we can no longer pretend unawareness. We cannot unlearn or go back to our previous state of ignorance.
That’s the funny thing about awareness; once we become familiar with new thoughts or new information, we can’t dump it into the trash bin like a discarded file in a computer. Once revealed, knowledge never fails to change us in some way.
This is not to say, we cannot decide to reject new ideas. Indeed, we can choose to not align ourselves with new thoughts. We can even label them as poppycock. And, while we can also choose not to apply any new concepts, we can never pretend we are not aware of them. Once discovered, they are destined to forever inhabit our mind.
Additionally, when the new knowledge is life changing, we become a little bit more “enlightened.” I use this word enlightened as another word for conscious—or aware —not as some metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, the Grand Prize of the Few.
Everyone is Pregnant or Owns a Prius
We have all felt it. “It” being this bizarre phenomenon, you know… Okay, allow me to share two examples before we name “it.”
Story Number One
If you are a woman, and if you have been pregnant, you will understand the following example.
You stare blankly at something most women refer to as the pee test which boldly displays two prominent bright blue lines.
There is no denying it.
You squeal, you jump up and down, and you proceed to call everyone you can think of to herald your happy news.
However, from that point on, something very peculiar happens. Like a magnet, you now attract all pregnant women within a thirty-mile radius. There are at the bank and at the grocery store. They come to your work, to the playground, and at the gym. There was even one at the dinner party you went to last Friday. There is an epidemic of pregnant women!
Story Number Two
You have decided to buy a new car. The make and model are unimportant to the story except for the fact you can be assured whatever car you choose will now become the exact same car the rest of the world will be driving for the next decade.
You can even try to find some rare and obscure foreign car.
It won’t work.
You are bound to hear someone else mention THAT very vehicle or worse, see THAT very car parked next to YOUR parking space.
At this point, in my story, you may be relieved to know that this phenomenon is indeed a “thing” and it has a name: the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon
In 2006, a professor of linguistics named Arnold Zwicky coined a new term for this anomaly: frequency illusion. It is also referred to as recency illusion. I personally find the fancy name of Baader-Meinhof a lot more fun. Additionally, it makes you sound super smart when you surreptitiously use it during cocktail parties.
According to professor Zwicky, frequency illusion is caused by two psychological mechanisms: selective attention and confirmation bias.
Selective attention refers to a process which is engaged when an individual is exposed to a new word, event, or idea. At this point, the human brain becomes relatively excited by the new “know-how.” From that point on, albeit unconsciously, our mind decides to keep an eye and ear out for the new word, event, or idea.
This effect does not mean the new idea occurs more often than before you were made aware of it. Rather, this mechanism means you now notice it more frequently (rather than ignore it). Something which was previously irrelevant has now become relevant, and our brain wants us to keep this…well…in mind.
On the other hand, the mechanism of confirmation bias exists to reassure us that what now holds our attention is indeed important (if to no one else, at least to us).
Some people use another word when referring to this process, one I prefer because, to me, this word evokes a bit of “whimsy” or something magical (yes, I am a romantic): synchronicity.
Was I indeed happier from just one week of Happiness Project research and brainstorming?
Was it just in my head?
But, who cares?
My increased sense of happiness wasn’t due to mastering some new habit or because I had done a copious amount of research (I hadn’t). My newfound happiness was due solely to the fact I had focused on the subject of happiness for an entire week. Simply put, my rise in happiness was due to the fact I was more intentional—or mindful.
There is a common saying which states: “whatever you focus on expands.” The Bible has a verse which also says something similar “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7)
Pretty amazing stuff if you ask me.
We can become happier solely by focusing on becoming happier. Our feelings follow our new focus even though little has changed in our environment—if anything at all. In short, we should be mindful of where our thoughts lead or about the ideas we ponder. Awareness enables us to choose our thoughts and in turn, our actions. In this case, mindfulness becomes the rudder of our lives and something we should practice daily as far as I am concerned.
Awareness is great stuff!