Writing to remember the good

I facilitate an expressive writing workshop for Gilda’s Club, and a few weeks ago, in response to a prompt, one of the writers said, “I didn’t have much to say.” 

Because he is prolific, I was surprised. “Why is that?” 

“Because I’m so happy,” he said.

That has stayed with me, and I get it. As I read through my writing, I see that sadness and anxiety have been better muses. They are catalysts for insights in ways that joy and contentment have not been.

I read somewhere this week (sorry, can’t remember where) that this phenomenon has been observed scientifically and that the brain itself stores the memories differently. Researchers suspect it’s a survival mechanism.

I am trying to coax my brain into understanding that remembering happiness might be the key to thriving, if not to surviving. It would help, I think, if I had a better understanding of what happiness is.

My therapist has a plaque on a table in her office that says. “Slow down. Happiness is trying to catch you.” Ironically, I thought of it after I left the gym one day, where I had been moving as quickly as I could. It was an “aha” moment.

I have splurged on a personal trainer, who is marvelous. She provides balance between pushing and supporting me. Sometimes at the end of a set, when my arms feel like they are just not going to complete the curl, she puts a finger on the weight and helps me. It’s just what I need to finish without giving up.slide1

Last week she took me to the room I call the torture chamber. It has all sorts of horrible tools that use your own body for weight. She has me step up on a riser, maybe a foot high, multiple times on each leg. 

It’s hard work. When I’m in motion, my entire brain is focused on completing the steps. I can feel my muscles tighten and my knee joints creek. I’m panting and sweating. By the time I’ve finished, my legs are wobbly.

Please don’t tell her, but I love the torture chamber. My mind can wander when I’m using a machine, and I’m completely self conscious when I use the free weights, what with the mirrors and the rippling testosterone all around me. But, I have to be all in for the torture chamber. If I don’t concentrate I’m gonna do a face plant.

When I’m all in, I am in the moment, challenged to just the right degree and encouraged in equal measure. I am experiencing “flow,” a concept originated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which you can read about here.  The point of slowing down for happiness is not to be still or passive, in either mind or body. Rather it’s giving myself a chance to experience this in the moment, to engage my mind and body. 

Sometimes I think I’m struggling in a course that the rest of of you are sailing through. I’m out here trying to be happy, trying to find happiness, when you can’t really pursue it. I get the impression that everyone around me learned this a long time ago. Even though it’s late, here is my homework. Thanks to all of you who are my teachers.

Turns out I’ve written about this before, here. One of these days maybe it will end up in long term memory.

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