How to Keep Our Mental Lights on When Things are Dark

How to Keep Our Mental Lights on When Things are Dark

After another week of devastating news, I was wiped out. I needed a non-pharma, non-alcoholic boost to keep on keeping on.

A few years ago I’d taken a workshop with Maria Sirois, a clinical psychologist, speaker and author who studies resilience, meaning, and happiness. Maria is a positive psychologist, one of the folks putting a framework on how we can feel better no matter our circumstances or what’s happening around us. She’s worked with children with terminal illnesses, their families and caregivers, and is the author of A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (and Other Dark, Difficult Times).

Some of the perspective-shifting techniques I’d learned at her workshop had helped me while I was caring for my elderly mother while she was ill, and I’m calling on them again now. It seemed a good time to call her, and here is some of our discussion.

So many of us have been feeling anger and despair. However justified those feelings may be, it is a challenging way to live. How can we begin to move beyond those states?

With any large emotional wave, and we are going through one as a nation, the first step is to feel it and to recognize what we are feeling. A lot of people are feeling disrespected, and that they are not being heard. It is on both sides of this political divide.

For many people anger is energizing. Despair is a depressive state, which is very different. Despair comes when feeling that your authentic choices are not being valued or heard. And those choices also may be causing harm in families or relationships.

Once we recognize how we are really feeling, we can begin to decide how to live with and what to do with those feelings. What does engagement and activism look like for me at this time? What does raising a family mean to me in this time? What does teaching students look like, or other work? Those are the kinds of questions we are living with right now

Those choices aren’t always so clear, and in the meantime, we can find ourselves reacting—to the news, to other people’s actions and fears—rather than creating our own paths.

We have to begin with ourselves, with self-care. Anytime something this large comes around, we have to ask ourselves what healthy living looks like as we engage.

We know that we do better as a species when we actively keep in mind that we want to do as little harm as possible and do more good. It comes down to this: that other people matter and we matter, too. It is a balance that we need to strike.

This is true, for example, if we are sitting around with our siblings as a parent is dying and deciding how to handle it. That moment can drive families apart. People handle that situation differently, and in times like that we have to allow ourselves to matter and to allow others in our family to matter as well.

Civil discourse is mandatory. But you can’t as a family come to peace around letting go of a parent–and we cannot move forward as a nation–if we do not see that the other person has value and if we are not civil.

There doesn’t seem much appetite for understanding or compromise, on either the right or left.

A lot of moral positions people take are rooted in fear. If we can get down to having real insight and discourse around what it is we fear—maybe it is losing our income or our health or a right—we might find a way to connect. We have to keep our perspective big enough that we can be inclusive about what we have in common, while we are true to ourselves.

Look at apartheid, the coming down of the Berlin Wall. We know that finding balance is possible. We can hold a belief and at the same time move toward unity. It is not one or the other.

How do we get to that insight, when we may be feeling fear and when those things we believe in are being threatened?

In positive psychology, we look at human beings at their best, who we are when we are at our best. Positive psychology has a practice called appreciative inquiry. To reach the best we can be as a group, we need to be open to discovery, to ask exploratory questions. It means being open to hearing those who don’t agree with us.

Here is one example of that inquiry in my own life. I was raised Catholic, and as an adult I searched through various religions and eventually chose the Jewish faith. I have an internal wound around being Catholic and Christian. I met a woman who was a born-again Christian. I talked with her about why she chose that path and she said she’d been an alcoholic, and that she had tried everything, and it was the only thing that freed her. My bias around Christianity had nowhere to go.

To hear one another’s deep feelings and choices is moving. And it reminds you, who am I to say this is right or wrong?

What are your favorite techniques or exercises that can help us be happier no matter what is going on in the world, or our own worlds?

Happiness is what nourishes us. We need joy, we need to boost our awe and wonder of the world to continue this fight.

One thing I recommend is to set aside time to list the things that make you happy, and to prioritize them. What makes you happiest? It is not enough to rely on random occurrences. Consciously make what is on your list part of your life.

Another practice is to look for moments in which you recognize happiness both in yourself and out in the world. Notice happiness around you—a gracious exchange between a clerk and someone in a store or a helpful person in your workday. Recognize the moments in yourself when you are happy. Pay attention to them. Savor them.

I consider those two practices foundational to our happiness.