Using your old photos as journaling prompts

Memory Lane is a nice place to visit

Journaling is an anchor for me in many ways. Sometimes it holds me in place in calm times so I can linger over my thoughts and enjoy them, and other times it holds my ship steady in the rough waters of life so I have some time to process difficult topics through writing.

I journal to recall and document memories and what they mean to me, re-live funny moments from trips, and process emotions both good and bad. I record many of life’s fun, random, and fleeting thoughts and ideas that might otherwise pass by and be forgotten to time. What did I think about a particular article or book I read? How did I like a day that I spent exploring a new place? What did I do on that trip I went on? I don’t want to forget those things because they’re the breadcrumb trail of my life, and I enjoy periodically going back to read what my thoughts were about such things to go along with the photos I’ve taken. I’ve written a previous post on how and why I journal that discusses more about these topics.

Dusting off the boxes of photos

Several years ago before my Dad passed away, we tackled the long-standing project of digitizing thousands of his old 35mm photography slides of our family from the 1960’s – 1990’s. He wanted the project done to get the photos out of the closet and into digital format where they can be easily enjoyed by the whole family in the future.

I was born in the mid 60’s, so the time period from then all through the 70’s is of particular interest to me because that was my childhood and I remember a lot of it well. Although people typically didn’t take nearly as many photos back then as they do today with cell phones and digital cameras, Dad did a good job of capturing many great memories over the years.

I have very strong picture-recall (for lack of a better phrase). Meaning, I might remember the details of certain things from when I was young in a fuzzy manner….until I see a photo of them. A single photo often brings back a flood of memories that can be surprising to me at times. It’s like when they used to release dozens of white doves to fly away from a box during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. That’s the exact feeling I have sometimes when I see an old photo, thoughts flying free all over the place.

I’m sure many people are the same way, which is what gave me the idea for this short article. Combining the ideas of photography, journaling, and the concepts of nostalgia and “tasting life twice”, yesterday I had the idea to grab a very old photo of my Dad’s from my computer, put it in an entry in my digital journal, and write about what it reminded me of. Wow, what an unexpectedly great experience!

Inside the little white box is…

I chose the photo above when I stumbled across it because I recall this day like it was yesterday, just from seeing this one picture. It was my Holy Communion Day, which was a beautiful spring day in 1974. The photo is of me opening a present from my parents in our back yard, which was my first ever mechanical watch. I remember opening that box so vividly, seeing the watch, and being stunned by such a gift. I thought “Wow, this is no toy! This is a nice watch!” It made me feel special that my parents would think to buy me such a gift at that young age.

I took it out and my Mom helped me put it on, and I wore it proudly throughout that day, staring down at it many times to admire it. I remember holding it up to my ear to hear it tick and wondering what was inside of it. I also remember treating it like it was gold. When my neighborhood friends stopped by later that morning to ask me to play basketball, I wore the watch while we played and I remember looking down at it many times to make sure it wasn’t breaking from the rough playing. It would have been wiser to just take it off, but there’s no way that watch was leaving my wrist! Perhaps receiving this first watch seeded my long term interest in watches and horology that I wrote about here and here.

The photo also reminded me of my home where I grew up, our yard, all the special times we shared there, and most of all my parents. I journaled about all of it in the entry that I created for this photo.

As I wrote, I thought to myself “This is exactly why we take photos, isn’t it? To go back and enjoy them over and over.” There’s not much point in taking photos if we never look at them and reminisce about the times when they were taken.

The nice bookend to this story is that I still have this watch, 46 years later! I’ve taken it out every once in a while as I’ve come across it over the years, and each time I wound it up to find that it still worked. Sadly, this time when I wound it while writing this article, I found that it no longer functions. But since it’s a mechanical watch, all it needs is a good internal cleaning and re-oiling and it will work like new again. Since I’m into watchmaking, maybe I’ll make that a personal quest of mine in the years to come…learn enough to get this watch working again!

Give it a try…

Grab an old photo of yours and try journaling about the memories that it brings back. You might be surprised at how easily your thoughts come flooding out, like the white doves coming out of their box at the Olympics. Enjoy the time spent with the process, it’s an opportunity for you to taste life twice.

What to do when stress breaks you – Part 2

Relaxing is hard. I mean truly relaxing, where your mind is calm and freed from its rush of thoughts so you can disconnect from everything around you and focus on the moment you’re in without distraction. Remember that thought, we’ll come back to it.

The need to move on…..but how?

In Part 1 of this article series I wrote about how a few generally stressful years in a row (and one terrible year in particular) brought me to my brink with stress, and how I ended up in the hospital because of it. In Part 2 here, I’ll focus on how I brought myself back from that brink using some initial tactical steps to get my days under control and reduce mental overhead. The final Part 3 article will focus on strategic steps that I took for long term overall health and well-being, and the sometimes surprising results of those steps.

To be clear I’m not a doctor, therapist, or licensed in anything that qualifies me to offer medical advice, so you won’t find me doing that here. What I am is an average guy who’s logical, organized, pragmatic, and has a lot of common sense. When I have a problem I learn about the things associated with it, pull together facts and concepts that I can relate to, and then put that knowledge to use solving the problem. I’m open-minded to new ideas, and that open-mindedness was the key to me beating stress.

I don’t want to over-simplify the conditions of stress and anxiety. They’re both complicated beasts that can cause a myriad of health problems, and they often land people in doctor or therapist offices. My particular situation was somewhat straight forward to resolve once I set my mind to it and stuck with my approaches, but your mileage may vary with basic stress management techniques. At some point you might need to investigate professional help if you can’t ease your situation by yourself. But regardless of whether basic techniques work or you need something more advanced, the key point is not to ignore stress because it’s an insidious thing to live with.

My tactical steps for immediate help

I saw two basic problems that I had to tackle right out of the gate. First, over a long period of time my average day had morphed into a zoo of personal and work activity that was simply too much to handle. I was rarely achieving the goals that I set for any given day and this created a lot of mental churning and angst because I’m normally a very organized person at home and work. Second, there were a lot of negative and energy-draining activities occurring without a lot of positives to counteract them. This quite frankly became a big downer over time, and both of these scenarios were sinking me.

It’s important to note that I didn’t de-stress and ease my mind overnight. It took many months of sticking to the following approaches to feel better in a holistic way. But I did it, and maybe some of these things will help you as well.

With the above statements made, below are the tactical steps I started with. Some might work for you, others might not, but remember that open-mindedness I mentioned? Try to absorb what’s here without judgement. If you see an idea that you want to explore further, try it. If something doesn’t click with you, then just pass it by. Make the concepts work for you…

1) “Houston, we have a problem”… so make a list!

The first thing I did was acknowledge to myself that I was in over my head with stress. Something was wrong, I knew it, and I had to do something about it. The morning after my hospital visit, I sat alone for a long time and thought about how I got to the point of being so stressed out. How did I get bogged down by a conspiracy of topics to the point that it affected my physical health? My mind was swirling on the topic without focus until I decided to make a list of the things that were bothering me.

Some topics immediately came to mind (my Dad dying), but other things were much more subtle like an endless to-do list, home projects that I saw unfinished every day when I walked around the house, a friend causing angst, etc. Those items and many more weighed on me to varying degrees, and if you think about it you probably have things just like them in your life as well.

Stress is insidious. It’s like rust. It eats away at you like rust does to metal, and before you know it you’re crumbling. These items on my list, both large and small, were overtly (and sometimes more subtly) eating away at me and contributing to my overall stress picture until I snapped.

This list-making process requires soul searching and honesty, there’s no getting around that. I found that nothing can go unexamined because stressors can creep in from many paths in life. Look at your daily activities, your work, the people you spend time with, the things you do throughout the day, time you might be wasting that could be spent better elsewhere, etc. Real…honest…examination. If you’re not willing to be honest with yourself about what you really think and feel, then this process will fail. Write down each item and why it bothers you.

Well, let me tell you, I had quite the list when I was done! It took me a few days of off and on again work and coming at it from different viewpoints to get it completed, but a strange thing happened when I finished. I looked at the list and breathed a sigh of relief. My mindset had already started to shift more positive because there it was, staring me right in the face. There on my list were the major contributors to my high stress level. Amen!

For me this was a difficult but crucial first step because it helped me to qualify and quantify my situation. It put meaning and guardrails around it. It was a starting point in an otherwise swirling and concerning situation. And from there I went on…

2) Focus on what you can control, and learn to let the rest go

When I looked at my list I started to see commonality between some of the items, and two high level buckets emerged quickly: 1) Things that I have control over, and 2) Things that I don’t.

People generally like to control as much of what goes on in their lives as possible, and I think that’s human nature. Who wants to live in a constant state of reactive chaos, right? You try to resolve things, put some order on things, move forward, and lead your version of a normal life. That’s great, until you try controlling things that are out of your control. All that does is create friction and stress in your life, “rope burn” if you will.

You have to control what you can control, and you have to let go of what you can’t control because when you try and control something that you actually have no control over, that’s called rope burn.

Travis Eliot

Here’s a story about how this type of rope burn eventually wore me down…

After my Dad died, I was the family member responsible for handling his estate and dissolving it equally between me and my three sisters. He had a lot of different accounts at many different financial institutions. Each one had a Beneficiary Services department and specific processes for how they handled the closing of accounts. Each day was a process of endless phone calls, paperwork, signing, scanning, and mailing documents. More phone calls, more waits, etc. I’m sure you can imagine…

The process really started to grate on me after a while because with every phone call I would get more and more frustrated at the long time things were taking and the incompetence of some of the people I was dealing with. Side note: It’s scary that some of these people manage money, because I found in some cases that I knew more about certain topics than they did and I’m certainly no expert.

My stress level spiraled upward with these daily frustrations until one comment from an agent at a bank snapped me out of my thought pattern. She said “The paperwork you prepared was excellent and it will make this arduous process go much smoother. I’ll take care of this and get back to you”. A few days later, she did get back to me and SHE actually thanked ME for the perfect paperwork that I submitted. The process was completed, there was no aggravation, and my stress level started to come down for this one particular situation.

The critical takeaway for me from that scenario was: You can only do what you can do, and you can only control what you can control. Sometimes the rest is up to someone else to complete and you must accept that. It is what it is.

Think about how many ways that thought can apply throughout your day, whether it’s in your personal or business life. Every day we deal with various types of situations and try to control outcomes that are at least partially out of our control at some point along their path. You have to realize when these times are occurring and let them go.

I adjusted the way I dealt with every financial institution after that. I made sure the paperwork I submitted was perfect, that it was done on time, and that it made it to the right person. Then I accepted the fact that I had done my part of the process, I had controlled what I could control and did the best I could with it. Now I had to turn it over to someone else to do their part without micro-managing it.

With this approach my expectations were more realistic and the small wins started to come, one after the other. And you know what? Everything worked out fine in the end. It took a lot longer than I wanted for sure, but it all got done and my stress levels were noticeably reduced bit by bit along the way.

The exact same thought process can be applied to people. In your daily interactions with people, at some point their reactions and subsequent actions are out of your control, and you must accept that for the sake of your own sanity. Any parent who has tried to help their child can relate to this. You can give your children all of the solid advice in the world, but at some point it’s completely up to them to internalize it, find any value in it that works for them, and then act on it if they choose. It can be frustrating and stressful watching a proven piece of advice go unheeded when you know it will help them, but it is what it is. You have done your best.

3) Make your daily to-do list realistic, and set up the following day for success

I’m a heavy user of the lists and the Reminders app on my iPhone and Mac. I have four different lists of reminders for different purposes, but it wasn’t always like that. I used to have just one long list of reminders.

When you’re extremely busy and find yourself in a situation when you have to fit as much as you can into the usable day, there’s nothing more stressful than reviewing your to-do list and seeing 65 things on it. All that’s saying to you is “You will never finish all of these things today.” That creates subtle subconscious stress all day long. It’s more rope burn. I used to scroll up and down my list to find the highest priority items that needed attention each day, and the rest just stayed there staring at me until I eventually got around to them another day. Another week. Or never.

That situation had to end. Instead, I created lists for Today, House, Monthly and Miscellaneous. When I bucketed the tasks it was easier to see how things naturally segmented themselves and priorities became clearer. For example, I have many tasks that fall into that Monthly bucket. Why was I scrolling through them every day if they only needed to be done…once per month?!

When I look at my plans at night for the following day, I have a pretty good idea of how much free time I’ll have throughout that day. At that point, I review my to-do lists and I pull only the top priority items into my Today list that I want or need to achieve that following day. Sometimes it’s one item, other times it’s five. It depends on how much free time I have and how complex the tasks are.

You have to be ruthless with what makes it onto the Today list. Keeping it low volume and achievable sets the tone for the whole day that will come with the morning. When that’s done, I turn out the lights and fall asleep with a clear, organized mind knowing (for the most part) what the next day will bring with regard to work. I rest easier doing this the night before instead of figuring it out in the morning. It allows me to start my mornings much more peacefully because I don’t feel that morning rush to get things organized anymore.

In reality you’ll still have just as many to-do’s as you did before. However, when they’re managed in this way you don’t have the subconscious stress of staring down an endless list of things you know you can’t finish in a day or don’t need to be focusing on at all that particular day. You’ve chunked the list into realistic and achievable goals.

Bonus tip: Keep your calendar realistic in the same way as managing your to-do’s. Set up your day so that you have some blocks of time to rest, process the events of the day as they’re unfolding, and get ready for the next thing you have to do. Don’t eat breakfast or lunch while working. Avoid back to back appointments. And for sure, don’t double-book yourself on your own calendar! It’s literally impossible to be in two places at the same time, yet I’m amazed at the number of people who double or even triple book themselves in the same time slot. It makes zero sense and only creates stress to see that mess staring back at you.

4) Focus on the small wins and they will add up to big wins

We’ve all got busy and challenging lives. Sometimes you run into a string of days, weeks, or even months that just don’t go well. I had a lot of bad days in 2019, which I mentioned in Part 1. It’s easy to get into a cycle of feeling like things are just going wrong and there’s not much light at the end of the tunnel.

I found success in re-framing that situation. Things go wrong during the day, but things go right as well. I started focusing more of my attention on the things that were going right and adding up the small wins throughout the day that made me feel good. The things that made me smile or laugh. When I focused on the good parts of the day, my mindset started to shift to the more positive side. I still had the problems, I still had the to-do’s, work, etc, but I took those wins during the day and banked them.

By doing this, I found that at the end of the day I was no longer focused as much on what went wrong and what I didn’t get done. Instead I was focused on what I did get done and the things that made me feel good. Over time this approach put a blanket of peace on the end of the day. I found that when I framed my day with a good start (using #3 above) and a positive end that things started to smooth out overall. Some peace was coming at last…

5) Move!

I originally titled this item “Get some exercise”, but then I realized that this is something different and much simpler than that. It’s really just about moving yourself and giving your body and mind some activity and a few minutes to refresh and reset periodically throughout the day. Some people experience barriers to entry with starting an exercise program, but there are no barriers to simply moving and refreshing your perspective.

I typically work from home as an IT Manager, but these same principles apply to an office as well. When I get bogged down with work and personal tasks, I realized that I was stuck at my desk or in one room of the house for hours on end. This can get to be a bit much when it happens over the course of many months, so this suggestion is simply about recognizing when that’s happening and counteracting it by getting some motion into your day. Move to a new room to do whatever you’re doing, go outside for a little break to catch some sun and hear the sounds of the outdoors wherever you live or work. It does wonders for your mind and body to just…move!

I live near wooded areas, so when I go outside for a few minutes I can smell the grass and fresh air. I hear the birds singing, the wind blowing through the trees, and the sun has a chance to hit my face. I can walk around the yard or neighborhood to get my blood flowing. It’s well documented how much this helps your well-being and I highly suggest trying to work these small mental and physical breaks into your day. It makes a huge difference. It’s precisely why many companies are restructuring their environments to provide employees with these opportunities for breaks. Apple, for example, has taken it to an extreme with their amazing new Apple Park office in California that pushes their employees toward nature literally in every direction they turn.

This need to move is also the essence of why fitness devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit have reminders to stand, move, exercise, and take breaks several times throughout the day to do some deep breathing exercises. Science clearly shows the benefit of doing these things, it’s not just an opinion or marketing tricks. That’s why these devices try to motivate you with daily goals, activity rings to close, and visual reminders of your progress. They’re all forms of motivation to get you moving. (Anyone who owns an Apple Watch recognizes that little tri-colored ring above…Did you close your rings today?) 😉

6) Do nothing

To the opposite of #5 above, try this one as well. Sit still. It’s OK sometimes. Let your mind wander and maybe let it go down a rabbit hole to satisfy your curiosity for a while. Stop worrying about always making progress with everything. It can wait.

This is a critical thing I needed to remember while I was trying to de-stress and get myself back on track because I’m typically not one to sit still for long. The combination of having a lot to do for my job, many chores, and also making time for my hobbies and other fun things put me on a treadmill of always doing something. I forgot to just stop once in a while to take a breath. Read a book. Watch a movie. Watch the grass grow. Take a short nap. It’s all OK.

Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.

Walter Hagen, from his autobiography. This is the phrase that later morphed into “Stop and smell the roses” some time during the 1960’s

I think modern culture is so fast paced that people begin to think that by sitting still, enjoying the moment, or doing something just for the sake of doing it that they’re wasting time and letting life pass them by. I would argue the exact opposite. I think that when we rush around like maniacs that life passes us by much faster. We need to remember how to savor the moments, and stop to smell the roses.

Takeaways

The content above is a lot to process, so let’s summarize the takeaways from this second article:

  1. Identify your stress points. Dig deep, be honest with yourself.
  2. Focus on what you can control, and learn to let the rest go.
  3. Manage to-do lists and calendars realistically, and set your next day up for success.
  4. Focus on small wins that add up to bigger wins.
  5. Move!
  6. It’s OK to do nothing sometimes.

These were the immediate tactical steps that I took to calm my days and bring some peace of mind. Having chaotic, emotional, always-on days was the primary cause of many of the items that I listed out in #1 above. It’s just not sustainable.

If you’re feeling that your days are not quite yours anymore, I encourage you to try some variety of the ideas above to throw a rope around things and calm them down. There are many websites about creating effective to-do lists, managing your day in a mindful way, 7-minute exercise routines to get some motion into your day, etc. The ideas presented here are meant to be seeds for further investigation if you see value in them. Google is your exploration friend!

Last but not least

Remember what I said in the beginning about relaxing and how hard it can be to really let go? Using the tips above can help you frame your day better and remove some of your daily stressors so that you can start moving toward regularly getting some chances to relax. It takes time, but slowly and surely things will catch on. The final installment in this series will focus on the strategic long term stress-reducing steps I took that could be classified as lifestyle or wellness changes. These are the things that brought me sustainable peace, and with that peace came a better ability to truly relax. Stay tuned for more…

What to do when stress breaks you – Part 1

Part 1: A relaxing evening turns into an unexpected trip

It was 9:45 pm on January 23, 2020, and my wife and I were relaxing with some TV at the end of a busy day.  She left the room to do some things and I suddenly started to feel tired, so I got up to brush my teeth and change into pajamas for the rest of the night.

Strange feelings came over me shortly after I entered the bathroom.  There was an irregular pounding heartbeat in my upper chest, feeling like it was up close to my neck.  A different kind of shorter and shallower breathing involuntarily swept over me.  Adding to these uncomfortable feelings was a sudden wave of anxiety, which was strange because I’m not prone to those types of feelings at all. I suppose it might be akin to a panic attack, but I’ve never had one so I can’t be sure.  

I quickly finished brushing my teeth (because you can’t not finish, right???), left the bathroom to sit down, and figured out what was happening.  I used my Apple Watch’s ECG function to confirm what I suspected, and I was correct. The 30-second test on the watch detected an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation (AFib)

When your heart beats properly, you’re not even aware that it’s there because it pulses along steadily and quietly doing its job in the background of your life.  But you clearly feel it when it’s not working right, and it’s alarming. The realization causes your anxiety level to immediately skyrocket precisely because…it’s a heart incident!  This is your ticker, and if something goes wrong with it then you’re often in big trouble if you can’t get help fast enough.  The sudden and involuntary auto-anxiety that washes over you causes your body’s systems to flood your bloodstream with adrenaline and stress hormones like cortisol. Additionally your blood vessels constrict, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your breathing rate accelerates.  The regulatory systems in your body feed off each other in a red-alert escalation.  

My Apple Watch indicated that my heart rate was up at 145, while doing nothing except sitting on the bed. Normally in that situation my heart rate would be around 60. I used the ECG function again to see how my heart rhythm looked, and when I reviewed the result on my iPhone it was ugly. It was an erratic irregular pattern with odd peaks and valleys, again indicating AFib. So at least I knew what I was dealing with, and I knew it was dangerous, so this clearly got my attention.

My normal (sinus) heart rhythm, as recorded by my Apple Watch. Perfect peaks, spacing, and valleys.
My abnormal heart rhythm of January 23 showing the temporary atrial fibrillation (AFib), as recorded by my Apple Watch. Notice the irregular spacing between peaks and the different profiles in the valleys.

I sat for a few minutes hoping for it to clear up, but it didn’t.  Things seemed to be getting worse and then came some shortness of breath when I stood up, so at that point I suggested to my wife that we should go to the hospital emergency room. My anxiety at that point was becoming uncontrollable, yet I was somehow strangely calm overall. The two are opposing feelings, yet somehow they were co-existing in that moment. I’ve never felt anything like it.

My wife drove to the hospital since it’s only twenty minutes from our house. Despite the situation, I didn’t see the necessity of calling an ambulance and waiting for transportation. It was probably a lot faster to just leave immediately and get there ourselves.

The hospital and emergency room were luckily quiet at that time of night, and I breezed right into one of the ER side rooms.  This was occurring shortly before COVID surfaced, so there was no commotion at all. They hooked me up to an EKG, blood oxygen meter, gave me aspirin and Diltiazem to settle my heart, drew blood for at least three dozen types of blood work, and took chest x-rays. Then I waited, and the stress level grew.

After several hours of monitoring and check-ins with the doctors where they explained each step of what they were doing and looking for, the decision was eventually made to release me. I left the hospital still experiencing minor AFib, but I was told to get some rest with the hope that things would settle down by morning under the medication.  With AFib still occurring at that point, my thought was “Should I really be going home already?” but the doctors said it was safe.  Appointments were made to follow up with my primary care physician and a cardiologist the following day.  

The three hours in the hospital ER were billed to me at almost $10,000, but luckily because of good insurance I “only” had to pay slightly over $1,000.  The entire experience gave me much to think about, and it started me down a year-long “reset” where I gave a lot of thought to some of the things happening in my life and how I approached them, and how I viewed and responded to sometimes difficult aspects of the world around me.  I’ll explain my reset process in a series of articles, of which this is the first.

How did I get to this point?

The year 2019 was not a good one in our house and my stress levels were through the roof the entire year, especially from November wrapping into January 2020. The years prior were a little rough too, but were less intense overall.

My Mom died in 2014 after a long, difficult, and sometimes odd health decline. In the years that followed, the family (Dad, sisters, me) went through the sad and difficult process of moving Dad out of the two-story ranch house in New York where we all grew up, and in which he was hoping to spend the rest of his life. The house was rapidly outstripping his mobility and it simply wasn’t safe anymore. He knew this as well as we did, so we eventually made the decision for him to move into a very nice senior living community with the hope that he would engage in the community there and with people his own age to find some commonality to support him. My sister lived just fifteen minutes away and was able to help and visit frequently, but sadly the scenario of him getting involved in the community never worked out and he was never truly happy there.

By 2019, Dad was experiencing rapidly declining health after a series of physical setbacks and surgeries.  There were household problems in my own home, our kids had many challenging things happening (some good, some bad), and then Dad passed away at 94 years old in August 2019.  I spent the latter half of that year working with the kids to resolve their topics and prepare them for college while also dealing with my grieving process and working with lawyers, bankers, insurance, and tax people to handle my Dad’s estate.  One of his final wishes was for me to ensure that everything was handled correctly for me and my sisters, and it was a ton of confusing work that will continue into 2021 when all is said and done.  This was all occurring while maintaining my full time job. It was a lot, for sure, and the breaking point under the stress of it all was approaching fast.

Stress + more stress = breaking point

I’m a pragmatic, logical, and persistent person.  Give me a problem and some facts, and I’ll doggedly figure it out and get it resolved.  The issue with 2019 was that life was overwhelming me from all directions at once with nothing but problems, worry, stress, and sadness.  We all have those types of years, and 2019 was mine.  It piled up on me, and I kept a lot of it inside just trying to “get the job done” so I could get to easier and better times ahead after I had solved all of the problems.

When you get that stressed out, other aspects of your life suffer greatly.  In my particular case, one example of how it hit me is that all of my creative energy went out the window because I just didn’t feel like pursuing my hobbies and there was little time to do so anyway.  The energy was sucked right out of me by everything else going on.  That only happened one other time in my life back in 2012, and I briefly mentioned it here.  It’s a completely draining, negative, cyclical experience that I vowed not to let happen again, but circumstances in 2019 conspired against me and I found myself back in the same scenario as in 2012.  There were other impacts on me as well, but that’s one of the easiest to explain here.

The thing I didn’t realize is how the stress from all of this was mounting up over several years, not just 2019. It was taking hold over a large span of time, and I just kept going forward no matter what to “get things done”, in a way hearkening back to the old British adage during World War II of “Keep Calm and Carry On”. That approach doesn’t address the root cause of the stress though, it just perpetuates it cyclically and endlessly.  

The thing to realize about stress is that it’s like rust eating away at a piece of metal. It takes hold a little bit at a time, spot by spot, until it overruns the metal and causes its surface to erode and become weak. If left unattended, the rust will engulf the metal and eventually cause it to fail.

Stress does the exact same thing to your mind and body as rust does to metal. It eats away at you on every surface, negatively affecting so many different aspects of your health that I’ve found it incredible to learn about it over the past year. Some of the impacts are to your body’s internal systems like your heart, organs, bones, etc. Other impacts are easily visible on the outside like poorer looking hair, eyes that look dim and sullen, skin problems, poor posture, etc. For some insight of what uncontrolled stress can do to you, reference this article from Healthline or this one from WebMD. There are many articles just like those that spell it out, just search on your favorite trusted/reputable source for medical information and you’ll find plenty of eye opening research.

As my understanding grew, I felt compelled to share my experience here with the hope that readers can relate to this story and take action in their own lives to “stop the stress-rust”. I had a specific set of circumstances generating my stress, and yours are certainly different. The stress might be coming from ten sources, or it might only be coming from one. Regardless, stress is stress, and it should be addressed.

Recognize and respond

Once you become overwhelmingly aware that there’s a problem in your life or with your health, as I did through my emergency room experience, how do you get past it?  How do you begin to “reset”?

The first step is the same as what you’ve heard about other personal challenges that might occur in your life: You must understand and admit that you have a problem.

So that’s where I began. The morning after the hospital incident, I was sitting alone in a quiet room thinking about the experience and about the ramifications for my life and my family’s life if things didn’t go well for me that night. I thought about the complexities of the past few years, the passing of my parents, my wife and kids and our future, and then the epiphany hit me like a bat to the head. I said to myself “I can’t go on like this. I have to fix this.” And thus my journey to reset myself began right in that moment…

That’s the beginning of this story. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll focus on the specific steps that I took to get started with my de-stressing process. I’ll explain how I calmed my mind and daily life, and how I proceeded through 2020 resolving and/or modifying one thing at a time until I was feeling better. It’s a mindful and iterative process of soul-searching and adjusting in which you must be brutally honest with yourself about…everything. For sure though, it’s something that you can definitely do for yourself if you consistently focus energy on it over a sustained period of time.

Stay tuned for more, and if you think this series of articles might help someone you know, please forward this link to them so they can follow along too. Thanks!

Inspiring your “becoming”

I wake up before dawn every day, usually somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00. No alarms needed, it’s just the way my brain and body work.

I used to prefer sleeping a bit later, because waking up early can make me drowsy during the afternoon and requires a power nap to recharge myself. However, when early rising started happening consistently a few years ago, I learned to embrace it. I now fully enjoy waking up while it’s still dark, and it has become “my time”. The silence in the house is a nice way to quietly start the day as I read, write, drink coffee, and watch the sky start to lighten. Every sunrise is a unique gift, and I often photograph them. The photo above is the view from our front window a few mornings ago.

I often go for walks while it’s early; before the cars are on the road, the neighborhood dogs start to bark, or there are other distractions out and about. On a recent walk when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, I came across something great that I want to share here…

The process of becoming

This is a link to one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever heard. It’s an episode called “Over Time” of the podcast “A Beautiful Anarchy” by David duChemin, which I’ve previously written about here.

The episode is only 14:06 long, so I encourage you to listen to it in order to catch David’s expressiveness as he discusses the topic. If you want to read it instead then there’s a full transcript at the same link.

For any writer, photographer, artist, dancer, painter…or anyone who’s doing something that you enjoy and strive to get better at, David’s words are simply stated, yet full of inspiration and hope. The episode was so impactful to me that I stopped walking to play back this section several times:

David duChemin:

“We live in a culture focused on being great, not becoming great. On being talented, not becoming talented. And on being creative and prolific and successful, even lucky, but not on becoming those things.

Becoming takes time. And grit. Your grit might not be as, uh, gritty, as someone else’s grit, but it’s grit all the same.

Becoming is not easy.

Becoming depends more on mistakes than on getting things right straight out of the gate.

It takes focus.

And it’s messy, full of moments that invite us to either quit or keep going.

But what is deeply hopeful about the idea of becoming is that it is largely in our hands. It does not rely on a random gift of genetics. It does not demand that we be better than anyone else or even compare ourselves to anyone, including ourselves.

Becoming is hopeful because it means while the person I am today might not be able to pull it off (whatever it is), the person I will become tomorrow or next year, might be.

I’m not talented enough to do tomorrow’s big thing today. I never am. If I had the talent or ability right now to do the bigger things about which I dream, I’d have done them already. I might not be able to do it now, but I will be in a year. Maybe two or ten. Because while I’m not yet the guy who can write my next book, I am becoming that guy. And, though it feels like a paradox, writing my next book (and all the books that led me to it) makes me the person capable of writing exactly that book. The man I am when I start a book is not the man I am when I finish it. Yes, we make our art, but our art makes us.

But remember, too, that merely sticking it out, merely persevering, is of no particular value. Just being patient, and putting in the time, is not the same as over time becoming, learning, or growing.

Being is static. Being one thing or another is fine if you’re content with that, but it’s not really the stuff of possibilities, is it? Becoming is on-going. It’s cumulative. Evolutionary. Becoming is about transformation.

But we don’t talk like that. No one talks about who we are becoming. They talk about who we are, as if it’s been decided, nailed down, set in concrete. As if the person I was when I was born is the person I am now and will be in 20 years. But we are not. We become. Or we can, if we are willing to learn.”

As I continued walking and listening to the rest of the episode, I thought about all the things I’ve tried in my life that I enjoy doing, and what my arc has been with them as I’ve continually strived to do them better. Photography, music, writing, craft-related activities…it doesn’t matter…his words apply. They’re a potent reminder that it’s about the journey, not just the destination. And it’s also a reminder that the journey is our “becoming”. I think we forget that, or perhaps never even realize it in the first place.

Remember his words while you’re on your journeys and you occasionally reach points where you have to try over and over again, or put in much harder effort to reach your goals. Stay focused. Keep doing, learning, and growing. You’ll get there eventually, and you’ll be a “better you” for the effort. Enjoy the process…and become!

How to start and benefit from writing a personal journal

The path to a clear mind, and the enjoyment of tasting life twice

“Writing serves to heighten our own awareness of life…to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”

Anaïs Nin

The quote above nicely captures why writing is important in the lives of so many people, myself included. Like any art form, the creative possibilities through writing are nearly limitless. You’re free to go wherever your mind takes you, and to explore as deeply and as long as you like. This post is specifically about how to begin writing a personal journal, and how to realize the many benefits that you can gain from it.

I’ve wanted to write about journaling for a long time, but I didn’t get around to it until something pushed it to the front of my mind recently. Maybe it was the New Year marking the end of the terrible year that 2020 was, combined with all of the hope about how 2021 will bring us to the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Maybe it was also because I was off from work around the end of the year and I had some peaceful time to just sit and think about personal things. Whatever the reason, here are my thoughts about journaling and developing the habit of keeping up with it for the long term. If you decide to try it, you’ll likely be glad that you did…

Physical or digital, that is the question

In order to journal, you first need to decide where to journal. Many people like the process of writing with a good quality pen in a nice leather bound journal, or some other type of notebook. If that sounds like you, then you can shop on any number of online sites or local stationary and craft stores to find one. For example, Barnes & Noble has a large selection to choose from.

Physical journaling has many benefits, one of them being that it’s tangible. You can touch, feel, and even smell your journal (if yours happens to be leather bound). It’s there. It’s sensory. You can hear the pages flipping and feel the weight and quality of the paper. You can use different color pens, sketch drawings, tape mementos like ticket stubs, pictures, or travel guide pamphlets into the journal. Some people even do things like pressing small flowers in their journal so they become flat and dried over time. Journals can be small and in the range of 4×6″ or 5×7″ which can be tucked in a pocket or purse, and others can be the size of a photo album for large format journaling with room for adding additional pages when needed. There are all different sizes and styles to suite varying tastes.

The other option is to go digital. I personally prefer using a digital journaling app because I don’t want to carry around a book and pen. More importantly though, I want the option to journal at any time, anywhere, on any of the devices that I always have with me. That freedom helps me to keep up with my writing habit. It’s also nice to have the liberty of attaching a digital photo, video, or audio file to a journal entry to enhance it. Plus, journaling apps can automatically add other valuable information to your entries if you choose. The additions could include using GPS information from your phone to note where you made an entry, what the weather was in that location, or even what music you were listening to at the time you were writing. All of these features can be turned off if you prefer, but including them is a great way to capture your thoughts while adding additional information to your entries for a richer contextual writing experience.

Whatever format you choose, remember that it’s not cast in stone. If one approach doesn’t work for you and it becomes an obstacle to actually doing your writing, then try something else. Eventually you’ll hit your sweet spot of physical or digital (or both), convenience, and features that click for you.

You just have to start…..and then keep going

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

Walt Disney

One of the difficult things about writing anything is that you have to…start. For some people, that might be easier said than done because a blank page can be intimidating. If writing comes easily to you then the words will quickly start flowing onto the pages when you sit down to write. However, for those of you for which writing is a struggle, you might understandably need some tips to encourage and guide you to grab a pen and paper (or download a journaling app) to write your first entries and get yourself out of the starting gate.

I’ve been journaling since 2012 and have learned some key things along the way that might help you. Here are my tips for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and also benefiting from the writing process:

Privacy: One of my most important suggestions is to remember that a journal is your private space. It doesn’t matter what you write or how you write it. Nobody is going to judge it, edit it, or even see it if you don’t want them to. It’s your space, your thoughts. Keeping that in mind should help free you from self-editing when you write. Self-editing, and thereby blunting your thoughts and ideas before you can express them, is the biggest barrier to writing of any kind because it stops your thoughts before they even get out of your head. Journaling is all about your mind flowing to page, and if you know that people won’t see what you write unless you want them to, then there’s no worry. Be free with it!

Honesty: Be honest with your writing. The primary benefits of journaling are getting to know yourself better and getting a deeper understanding of how you think and react to the world around you. If you’re not being honest with yourself about what you really think and feel about a topic, then it’s impossible to achieve these benefits. If you feel good about something, then write about it and explain why. If you’re angry or disappointed with someone/something, you’ve failed at a goal, or you’re harboring some other type of unpleasant feelings, just let your emotions pour out honestly. No sugarcoating or self-editing. With the aforementioned privacy, be comfortable that your truth is secured, and the more honest you are then the more insightful your journal will be for you. I’ve humorously dropped more than one f-bomb in my journal when writing about something that made me very angry. I can’t help but laugh when I read those entries back to myself…

Prompts and templates: If you’re new to journaling and you’re having difficulty choosing what to write about, then try starting with some writing prompts here or here, or Google for some other prompts and journal templates that appeal to you. Journaling videos on YouTube and pins on Pinterest can help here as well. There are endless possible prompts to choose from, or you can create your own to suit your needs. Journal templates take the idea of prompts one step further, and are usually a blank page that’s divided into sections with headings that also act as prompts. For example, a template might have sections for “What happened today”, “How did it make me feel”, and “What will I do tomorrow”. Whatever the specific prompts are in a template, the goal is that they provide a way for you to frame your thinking and let the thoughts start flowing. If you’re using a journaling app, they often have built-in templates that you can select for an entry to get you started.

Simplicity: Especially in the beginning, approach your journaling by keeping it simple and low-pressure. If you start easy by writing your most basic thoughts about whatever you choose, you’ll get into the swing of journaling without pressuring yourself to write a novel every time you sit down. Get some basic entries under your belt, maybe writing just a few sentences about what you did this weekend, who you were with, and how it made you feel. Was it fun? Boring? Adventurous? If so, why? Did you have a bad weekend? Write about why, and maybe what you’ll do next time to enjoy yourself more. Using the prompt approach mentioned above is also a way to keep things simple in the beginning and jump-start yourself until you determine what you want your journaling approach to be.

No rules: Your journal entries can be as short or long as you like. You can choose to write once per day, once per week, or just whenever the inspiration hits. Some of my journal entries are just a few sentences to capture a thought, and others go on for pages. I’ve gone through periods when I’ve written more than once per day, and also times when I’ve skipped a few weeks due to other priorities happening in my life that took away my time. (Interestingly, I’ve always felt odd during those skipping periods, like something was missing. Then I realized that it was the process of journaling that was missing!) The main rule is that there are no rules. Journaling should be a pleasurable experience that you enjoy and learn from, not a chore that you feel you have to do. Of course, if you want to journal consistently then developing some good habits around it to provide regular inspiration and output never hurts, but steer clear of hard and fast rules.

Review: Re-read your entries. At some time interval of your choice, review your older entries to see the things you’ve thought about, places you’ve been, and things you’ve done. See how your journaling has changed and grown over time. Some people use the end of the month as a checkpoint to go back and review what they wrote that month, and also set themselves up mentally for how they want to approach the next month. Think about how the process of re-reading makes you feel and see which thoughts and benefits come to you. Your writing will eventually start to feed off itself when you do these reviews and realize what you’ve done and the changes in how you’re expressing yourself. Before you know it, you’ll probably be surprised at how much you’re writing!

Time and persistence: I don’t have a specific time during the day when I journal, but I do specifically find the time for it. I carve out a little slice of alone time to jot down my main thoughts, which sometimes morph into a much longer writing session. I’ve found that if I don’t specifically do that then I get engulfed with other activities and journaling falls by the wayside for a few days. Use your own approach to finding your time, but try to do it and stick with it. I regret the periods where I let my journaling lapse, they seem like holes in my memories.

One for all: You might see recommendations to pick a subject for your journal, but I don’t recommend that in the beginning. For example, some people have different journals for travel, life topics, work, general ideas, etc. When you’re just beginning, it’s easiest to just have one journal for everything so that you don’t have to segment your thinking into “Oh, this should go in my travel journal” or “This should go in my journal for work”. Remember the tips from above…keep it simple and barrier-free so that your ideas will flow easily. You can always transition to using multiple journals in the future if you decide to go that route.

Making the choice of using a physical or digital journal, using my tips above, and maybe trying a few prompts should give you enough foundational ideas to get started with your journaling. Now let’s take a look at some of the benefits of journaling…

Benefits, you say?

There are many mental and physical health benefits of journaling, far more than I ever imagined or were apparent to me at first. This article from Mindful.org or this one from Huffington Post mention some of them that have been researched over time, but if you want to dig deep on the topic then review this article from PositivePsychology.com. It’s a thorough look at how you can transform yourself through the expressive writing of journaling.

Below are some of the specific benefits that I’ve personally experienced from journaling. You might experience these and many others as well, because each person reacts to the process differently. Some benefits came immediately to me and others were realized over time, but no matter how they surfaced the impact of all of them has been undeniably positive on my life.

Stillness: You hear it repeated every day and probably by many people you know, “life moves too fast”. Think about your average day. You have work or school, chores, exercise, friends, and maybe a house, cars and kids to take care of as well. When do you get time to just…think? This is exactly what journaling provides for me, the time to do nothing but sit, think, and express my thoughts. Journaling is “my time” that I carve out for myself with all other activities and distractions eliminated. It is peace and stillness, and I strongly believe that everyone needs this private time in their daily life for optimal health. (Hint: Put your devices on Do Not Disturb when you’re writing…there’s nothing worse than having your “me time” interrupted by a buzzing phone)

Reflection: I’m a thinker. I enjoy learning about and experiencing new things, and afterward I like reflecting on them to expand and deepen those experiences further into my thoughts. I also like to think back about the things I’ve done and places I’ve been to remember and reflect on them as well. This type of reflection , which also involves nostalgia, is a great way to build memories and cement them firmly in my mind. On so many occasions, I’ve thought about a random memory of some time, place or thing and quickly grabbed my journal to write about it. Sometimes I laugh out loud while I’m writing about a funny memory. A perfect example is the time my family walked in on an already occupied hotel room in the middle of the night that was also accidentally assigned to us. We were so stunned when we opened the door, stepped inside, and then realized what was going on that the only thing we could think to do was slam the door shut in the darkness and…run! I don’t know why we ran, but we were laughing so hard that we could hardly breathe as we made our way back to the front desk to tell them their mistake. We still laugh (almost to the point of crying!) when describing each of our panicked reactions when we re-tell this story years later. I enjoy those moments of recollection and like to write about them, especially when they’re funny. Understanding and feeling what you’ve experienced in the past also helps to pave the way for your future.

Consolidation: My head spins with thoughts, and sometimes I can’t dedicate the time to them in their moment to fully resolve what I think or feel about something. Journaling provides me with an opportunity to jot down a quick thought at some point during the day and then return to it later to consolidate and solidify my thoughts. Journaling drives me to organize, articulate, and get my thoughts written down, transcribing them from my swirling mind into text on a page. It gives me an opportunity to debrief with myself.

Closure and healing: For a variety of reasons, sometimes life leaves topics open that really need to be closed for you to heal and move on from them. It could be a disappointing experience, an argument, a death, etc. Sometimes in those circumstances we just don’t say and do the things that should be said and done, and you can be left with hanging threads in your life that can drag you down. Writing about it and getting it off your mind can help to either resolve it within yourself, or lead you to a path to resolve it with others. Resolution leads to healing.

Privacy: I do occasionally write about some things that I don’t discuss with other people. I don’t have difficulty expressing myself or my ideas, so that’s not the reason I keep them to myself. It’s just because some things are…private, and everyone has some thoughts sometimes that fall into that category and you prefer to keep to yourself. Using my journal to get these private thoughts out of my head and more solidly formed in writing is like a long exhale of relief. It feels good.

Stress reduction: If you’ve read the points above and connected them together then you can easily conclude that they lead to a reduction in my stress level. I’m writing an article series about my experience with stress overload, and journaling is one of the ways I worked my way out of being buried by it, so that was a direct benefit to me. There’s nothing like a cleared mind combined with a relaxed body and soul to reduce your stress level.

Self-awareness: Through the process of surfacing thoughts and emotions about my experiences, writing them down in my journal, and re-reading them in the future to see where I’ve been in life, I create a pathway to self-awareness. I know myself very well. I understand what I like and don’t like. The experiences that have been successful, and those that have failed. This knowledge comes from the cycle of processing thoughts and emotions, and then taking the time to write and absorb them. I apply what I learn to help understand my past and also guide my future.

History, memories, and tasting life twice: I’ve saved the biggest benefit for me personally until last, which is the ongoing and rewarding experience of recording your journeys, history and memories in a way that does indeed allow you to “taste life twice”, as mentioned in the quote above from Anaïs Nin. Sometimes I journal as something is happening, and other times I return to do it when I have time at the end of the day. There are so many things both large and small that happen every day to enrich life in some way, and you simply won’t remember them all. I enjoy capturing these thoughts and occurrences so that I can look back and re-live them through my writing. It’s my breadcrumb trail through life.

How do I journal?

With the above being said, what’s my approach for journaling? I chose to go with a total digital approach on both my iPhone and MacBook computer using the excellent Day One application. It has won design awards from Apple and others over the years, and I’ve always found it to be one of the consistently best journaling apps available. Others have come close using approaches similar to Day One, but they never quite hit the same high mark of features and usability that I prefer.

I started using Day One when it was first released and have stuck with it ever since. The developer’s support for the app is strong, and they’ve made constant updates to it over the years to refine and polish it. It has grown into a seamless all-encompassing writing environment. Nearly any type of information you’ll likely want to add to a journal entry is possible with Day One. You can simply type your entries and be done with just your typed words, or you can have the app automatically add other types of ancillary information to your entries to give them more context.

For me, the digital approach strikes the perfect balance of flexibility, portability, usability, and features. If you’re interested in potentially going digital, then please take the time to read this excellent review of the Day One app on The Sweet Setup website. It’s a complete look at all of the features the app has to offer, how to use them, and how they can help you have a better journaling experience. The review also describes several other good options to pick from other than Day One.

Some of my favorite features of Day One, which many other digital journaling apps have as well, include the following:

  • Adding photos, videos, and audio files. It’s great to augment my entries with additional media to make a “complete entry” of the moment I’m writing about.
  • Using hashtags to categorize, organize, and search my entries (e.g., #travel, #movies, #kids, #books, #memory, etc). This is handy when I want to find and re-read entries about a particular topic.
  • Automatic extra data added to my posts, including weather and location. Having location appended to my entries allows me to pull up a map to see where and when I’ve written.
  • Full text search. This is huge. Having my journal entries full text indexed means I can find anything I’ve written over the years by simply searching on a word or phrase that might have been in the text of the entry, its tags, or its title. Very powerful, and not possible with hand written journals. This one feature alone would be enough to push me in the direction of digital journaling.
  • Writing prompts. The prompts included in Day One are thought provoking, and although I don’t use them often because I typically have a lot to write about, it’s interesting to try to tackle one of their prompts when the mood hits me.
  • Exporting/archiving. When I made the decision to use a journaling app, I was conscious of not tying my content up in a proprietary platform from which I could not easily get it out if I ever decided to stop using the app. Day One has good exporting features so your content is definitely yours, and there are no worries about it getting stuck somewhere against your wishes.
  • Exporting entries to print books. I haven’t used this feature yet, but it’s a great idea. The Day One service has a book formatting feature that allows you to select the entries that you would like to export (including photos) for printing into a keepsake book. If you journal about your next family vacation, include some photos about it, etc, then you can export that into a travel book for yourself or as a gift for someone else. I plan to try this on our next family trip.
  • “On This Day”. Day One has a feature called On This Day that will automatically show you the posts you’ve made on a particular day in the past. It’s fun to see what pops up on a given day, and it’s given me a lot of “Oh, I remember that…” moments to enjoy.
  • Encryption and security. Last but not least, security and encryption are fully embedded in the Day One apps and their synchronization service used across your devices (if you subscribe to that option). This is a must for any digital journaling tool. Not only is the content encrypted, but you can password protect the app itself to keep anyone else who might be using your devices out of your journal.

Take the first step

The information in this article provided a glimpse into journaling, how to get started, the benefits, and the route I chose based on my preferences. Journaling is a great private hobby that can span your entire life and provide much positive benefit to you. I encourage you to take the first step and give it a try, and if you like it then you’ll likely find that it will open your mind to new ways of looking at yourself and the world around you. It has the extra benefit of allowing you to taste life twice, and how can you turn that down when life is so short? Enjoy the journey!

P.S. – If you found this article helpful, please forward the link along to others you know who might enjoy it. Thanks!

Wait, it’s autumn already!

In the confusing and exhausting daze that has been 2020, time has warped. Days turn to weeks seemingly without division, weeks to months before realizing what month it even is, and the seasons have flowed together in a strangely seamless way.

Autumn is probably my favorite season and I look forward to it every year. The air gets colder and the days get shorter, as the angle of the sunlight lowers and lengthens. Beautiful colors slowly sweep across the treetops. Things seem to get more peaceful as people get ready for winter, and I reset myself every year at this same time as I notice these things happening. I typically find myself reading or sitting to listen to music more often, relaxing with a glass of wine and a fire in the fireplace, and other activities that start to slow things down for a chance to reflect. Maybe that’s why autumn is my favorite season…it slowly sweeps in and creates the perfect atmosphere to think and reflect on a personal level. It creates a sense of inner peace that comes easily to me at this time of year.

From a hike at the top of Hunter Mountain, looking east toward Tannersville, NY USA

This year however, autumn snuck up on me. I’ve been getting chores completed that I need to finish before it gets cold, but I was never really thinking “autumn” while doing them. Then last week, the time warp that I mentioned above ended for me. We were driving up to visit my son at college and I looked out the window while driving past a cliff on the side of the highway. Draping over the side of this perfectly vertical cliff and running forty feet down its face to the ground were different varieties of vines, each one a different color. There were reds, oranges, yellows, greens, browns, and blends of colors of all different intensities. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was at that moment that I said to myself “Wait, it’s autumn already!”

The rest of the ride was completely different after that. I noticed that the leaves on many different types of trees are changing fast here in southern New York, and many are even dropping already from the windy days we’ve had recently. My favorite season is upon me, and I plan to enjoy the rest of it.

Backyard leaves, little scenes like this are everywhere now

Things are different this year though. Many autumn traditions that we like to do to get outdoors and enjoy the autumn splendor have been canceled. No Oktoberfests, no craft shows, no music festivals. Fortunately, at least the mountains themselves are still open so we can take some hikes, get some fresh air, and enjoy the slow slide into the colder months. We’ll try to do that in the coming few weeks before we wake up and suddenly find snow on the ground!

Local wetland grasses

The pandemic has changed all of us and the way we look at certain things. One way it has changed me is how I think about and use my time. I’m more selective about the things I spend time on, and I’m thinking and reflecting more. I’ve also found that the current situation has re-awakened some of the interests that I’ve always enjoyed, but sometimes don’t have much spare time for. I have that time now and for the foreseeable future, and I will pursue them again. Things like sitting down in a quiet room to read a book or listening to a favorite jazz album start to finish, uninterrupted by anything. Even something as simple as sitting outside on our patio, watching the leaves fall and listening to the wind blow through the trees.

We have time for these things now. Use it to find yourself again.

709 pages, and next on my reading list 🙂

Happiness and the “Little Book of Hygge” by Meik Wiking

Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

Abraham Lincoln

A trip to the mall uncovers small wonders

I was Christmas shopping at the mall in December 2019 when I came across what turned out to be my favorite gift idea of the year.  It was the four books pictured here about mindfulness, gratitude, and self-awareness.  I sat engrossed in Barnes & Noble bookstore for over an hour paging through them while deciding which one to buy, and in the end I just bought them all! 

These little books are packed with many of the same ideas that drive me on a personal level, so it was easy to relate to them.  They’ve since found a permanent place on our fireplace mantle.

Everyone grows during their lifetime.  Our learning and experiences drive our change, and we become more of who we want to be as a person as our viewpoints mature over time.  In the past few years, I’ve changed in many ways that other people might not even notice, but for sure my thinking about people, things, places, and life in general have shifted.  I’m striving to have more simplicity and goodness around me, and less complexity and negative outside influence.  These books directly relate to my goals.    

I’m on a path to eliminate anything in my life that doesn’t take me in the direction I want to go. Interpersonal drama, chaotic people, constantly negative news, etc. All…gone! Realizing that they add no value to my life and then moving on from them helps get me to my desired state of “goodness”. Anything that helps me move in the direction I want is something that I make a part of my life, and I want to share those things with others when I discover them.

If you read and really think about what these books are saying, you’ll be surprised that they can change the way you look at your life, and maybe even how you look at life in a broader sense as well.

The focus of this post today is one of these four books, The Little Book of Hygge – Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking.   

Hygge concepts, plus some additional perspective

The Danish have been ranked as the happiest people on Earth several times.  Why?  They say it’s partially because of their hygge mindset.

Hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is generally defined as “a Danish word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment”.  The Little Book of Hygge mentions that hygge is a feeling.  It is comfort.  It comes from within.  It exists only in the absence of stress and nuisance and feeds off feelings of happiness and relaxation.  

This link is to a related CNN article about how some of these concepts tie into the “World’s Happiest Country” that’s selected each year by the United Nations.

Additionally, this is the link to the 2019 World Happiness Report, which contains the underlying concepts and data that drive the selection of the “Most Happy Country” each year.

The book, and Danes themselves, often mention candles and other items that will help you achieve hygge.  In my opinion though, anything that makes you comfortable, happy, and peaceful can lead you to what hygge is ultimately about.  If sitting in the woods gives you feelings of comfort and contentment, then maybe that can be your “chair” or your “candle” in relation to the book, so don’t focus entirely on the products mentioned and expect miracles from them. Know yourself, and use whatever works for you.  

Interestingly,  I’ve read several articles that examine hygge from the Danish perspective and how they react to the worldwide phenomenon of people trying to adopt a more “hygge lifestyle”, and they somewhat recoil about it. They view what happens around the global hygge phenomenon as general “marketing exploitation” of their lifestyle.  

In a way, they’re right.  There are always people and companies that will try to make quick money any way they can, and if they can do it from selling so-called “hygge lifestyle products”, then they will.  So the point of the Danish reaction is:  You don’t buy candles, warm blankets, light a fire, get a hot drink….and then automatically have “hygge moments”.  Hygge is much more than that.  

I agree completely.  It’s a mindset, not a product.

These are links to two articles from New Yorker magazine and Mashable.com that speak about what I mentioned above, and both are worth reading to get different insight into the topic of hygge.

There are typically multiple viewpoints about all lifestyle topics, and you have to pull out the things that you see value in to adopt them for yourself. 

So let’s get to the book… 

The Little Book of Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge was exactly what I expected after browsing it in the bookstore.  It’s a light-hearted, concise, clear, and interesting book that can easily be read in one sitting (although it certainly justifies much more “thinking time” after that to fully absorb it).

Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Its mission is to “…inform and enable better decisions for human wellbeing through data-driven research”.  I encourage you to review their website, which is filled with interesting information about their mission. To me, having facts behind the somewhat nebulous and highly personal topic of happiness is valuable so that it receives the proper level of seriousness and respect.

Meik did a good job laying out his book in way that builds upon itself nicely as you progress through it. At the broadest level, the book contains thoughts about Danish culture in general to put the book into context.  There are also thoughts that are a bit deeper and make you pause and think about Danish culture versus your own culture, and the pros and cons of each.  Finally, at the lowest level there are many “gold nugget” thoughts that resonate with you on a personal level which you can take away and use for yourself in an actionable way.

The book contains anecdotes and easy to understand charts and graphics that help explain the concept of hygge and present the underlying statistics about what Danes say about their country and lifestyle.   

So with that introduction, here are some of the gold nuggets that I took away from The Little Book of Hygge that are worth mentioning here:  

  • Experience and savor the moment. If you take one thing away from the book, make it this! The whole book centers on this key point. 
  • Hygge is about atmosphere, experience, and relaxed thoughtfulness.  Feeling happy, calm and safe.
  • Togetherness is a key aspect of hygge, and the feeling of hygge can exist even in total silence with other people.  It’s “like a hug, without touching”.
  • Equality is an important element of hygge.  Noone is trying to be better than the other.  
  • Hygge is about the process, not the end product.  There were several humorous examples in the book about people cooking together, and even though what they cooked turned out terrible, enjoying the process of doing it together was what made it a hygge experience. 
  • Your home is your “hygge headquarters”.  Create a nook for yourself there.  Everyone needs “their spot” in their home.
  • Treat yourself with cakes, hot drinks, etc.  It seems funny for the book to mention this multiple times, but it’s important to remember that hygge is all about feeling, surroundings, calmness, and peace.  The idea is that things like treats, hot drinks, etc impart a traditional feeling of comfort and therefore contribute to hygge.  My extra point to add here is that whatever the “treats” are, there are no rules.  It’s whatever makes you comfortable, cozy, relaxed, and peaceful.
  • The items on the “Hygge Wish List” in the book are all about comfort, sensation, and texture.  These typically represent comfort in most people’s minds.
  • Enjoying nature is key.  For me personally, something like walking on a treadmill is nowhere near the same experience as walking outside in the fresh air for the same distance.  I think people lose sight of this sometimes, and it does make a big difference in the experience.
  • The more a hygge item or event separates the “here and now” from the tough realities of the outside world, the more valuable it eventually becomes to you.
  • Hygge is dimmed, rustic, and slow.   I agree, which is why I’ve always thought that lighting is so important, especially warm lighting.  It’s also why I didn’t like walking around our house when I was little and always finding the rooms darkened unless someone was actually in them.  Mom and Dad were always insistent about “turning off the lights when you leave a room”, and I understand why, but still…

Make hygge yours

The ideas and sentiments around hygge are good to consider adopting because they can genuinely improve your life on many levels.  So how do you bring hygge into your own life and make it yours?  

Try these tips:

  • The obvious first step would be to read the book, but I would also suggest writing down the key thoughts that resonate with you while you’re reading like I did above.  It helps to grab those key thoughts in the moment rather than trying to remember them later.  
  • Review your key takeaways as soon as you’re done reading, think about what the statements mean to you. Think about how you can make them actionable.
  • Think about what brings you peace.   When do you feel your most relaxed, and why is that?  Get a firm understanding of this because these things will help you create your hygge “nook”, and these are your hygge “products”.
  • Since hygge is partially about sharing and togetherness, think about the people you’re closest to and why spending time with them is valuable to you.  But…I also think it’s important not to stress out about the “togetherness” aspect of this.  Hygge feelings can most definitely be felt during time on your own, so if that’s what works for you, then that’s perfectly fine. Do what works for you. 
  • Be present.  Outside distractions of any type are the enemy of hygge.  
  • Start simple.  Don’t rush to buy supposed “hygge products” and then sit in your house and wait for hygge to magically occur. Instead, work your way into it.  If you’re a reader, try something basic like making yourself comfortable and grabbing a block of time when you’re completely undisturbed…and read.  Think about how it feels to enjoy something you like in your nook in your home without any interruptions whatsoever. As you experience and value those times by yourself or with others, you’ll begin to better understand what hygge is all about.

In closing, reading this small book is time well spent. The ideas represented by hygge are certainly not new, but having it wrapped up and presented in the framework of “the Danish mindset” makes it easy to understand and think about further. Enjoy the process of moving yourself toward a hygge mindset, but go easy on the heavy treats. 🙂

Natsukashii – Gain value from your moments of nostalgia

Be grateful for all of the experiences you’ve had, because they make you who you are.

Question: Can you get value from nostalgia?

Me, age 6, with Sapporo souvenir hat
that I still have today!

What feelings come to mind when you think of nostalgia?  

For me, it’s typically a mix of both happiness and sadness.  I’ll often remember something nostalgic that makes me smile, laugh, or reminisce with someone, but then as the moment fades I’m sometimes left feeling a bit sad until the thought eventually passes from my mind. 

Aside from the emotions above, would I typically associate “value” with nostalgia? I didn’t…until today.

The thing that changed my mind was this article called “A uniquely Japanese take on nostalgia” by Erika Hobart on BBC.com, and it immediately resonated with me for a variety of reasons.  

The article is about natsukashii, which generally speaking is “a Japanese word used when something evokes a fond memory from your past”.  Erika mentions that it comes from a verb meaning “to keep close and become fond of”.  

The thing that specifically caught my attention throughout the article is how the Japanese emotionally frame nostalgia so that it ends up being a more positive experience rather than a sad one, and they regularly seek out natsukashii experiences to enrich their lives. Why? Because doing so adds great emotional value for them and their society as a whole.

Learning about different cultures

I’ve always had an interest in learning about different countries, traditions and cultures, but it’s only been in recent years that I’ve been actively spending significant time researching them.  It’s been an interesting and enriching experience far beyond the effort that it requires.   

Japan is a land and people filled with history and tradition, and it has kept both firmly in sight over the centuries.  It’s one thing for a country and its people to have historic checkpoints over time that they make reference to one way or another, but it’s a significantly different scenario to have the past and traditions remain ingrained in daily life over time and across generations.  

Between the two scenarios above, the latter offers more value because it helps people build a sense of shared identity about who they are, where they’ve come from, and where they’re collectively going.  If you study countries with a strong sense of identity and community like Japan, inevitably a large part of their overall story is that sense of tradition surviving through generations and remaining in daily life.  Japan has achieved this in part through concepts like natsukashii, which permeates their society. 

The thing that concerns many people about the U.S. is that its sense of identity and history is sometimes getting lost, most notably over the past fifteen years or so.  It seems that values and traditions are eroding, as opposed to becoming further ingrained in daily life. That’s not a good direction for long term well being, so it’s in the interest of U.S. citizens to understand that and change it.  

In a way, perhaps that’s part of what subconsciously drives me to learn more about other cultures.  It’s not only to satisfy my curiosity and interest about the world’s people and places, but also to consider where they’ve come from, what they value, and where that’s taking them so that I can better reflect on myself and my own country. Pursuing this type of knowledge and awareness is a strong path for personal growth, and I place great value in that.

The Japanese connection to Dad…a natsukashii moment   

My Dad, who passed away in August 2019, was a video tape editor for the U.S. NBC television network for most of his career.  During his time there, he worked on many great TV shows and sporting events, and he was once fortunate enough to travel to Japan to work on the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo.

Dad came home from that trip with many stories about Japan and its people, culture, and traditions.  While he was there he took advantage of Japan’s great reputation for photography equipment to buy a new Konica 35mm SLR and 8mm movie camera, so his stories had the added benefit of many photos and movies to go with them. We had many family movie nights where he would project his slides or 8mm movies on the screen in our darkened living room while he happily narrated about the entire trip. I remember it all vividly. I can even still remember the unique scent from the projector and its hot light bulb that eventually filled the room while we were watching. There was something comforting about it…  

Even though I was only six years old at the time he went, I remember that Japan made enough of an impression on Dad for me to notice it when he got home.  To this day when someone mentions Japan and Olympics together, I think back to Dad’s trip there, as well as the topics of tradition and history.  If you asked Dad what his favorite experience was while working at NBC, he would quickly answer “Visiting Japan for the Olympics”.

Perhaps the essence of natsukashii is what Dad experienced when he was in Japan.  He was 47 years old at the time and had a busy career, was raising four kids, traveled for work, and commuted into New York City every day.  Maybe experiencing the way natsukashii runs through Japanese tradition and society gave him pause to reflect, and maybe that’s what made the overall strong impression on him.  Although I can no longer ask him that question, it’s interesting to consider…     

Dad (left) with an NBC colleague at the Sapporo Ice Festival

So the BBC article above made me think about nostalgia, Japan, Dad, and value…and it gave me a natsukashii moment of my own.  After reading the article and doing further research about natsukashii, I better understand the real-life value that nostalgia can offer through gratitude for past experiences both joyous and sad, and I will carry that new mindset forward with me from now on. 

In other words, I didn’t just remember Dad’s trip to Sapporo. In the context of Erika’s article, I felt the emotion of it too.  The emotion of being sad when he left, happy when he returned, the excitement of waiting for his long distance calls to update the family, looking at the souvenirs he brought home, etc.  There is value to be taken from all of that because it’s the deeper aspect of it. Although we were thousands of miles apart while he was there, it was still an experience that we shared together. We each had our own very different perspective about it, and I felt all of that after reading and considering Erika’s article.  

How to make the natsukashii concept yours

So what does this mean to you? How can you make the natsukashii concepts from Erika’s article and my comments here your own?

Ultimately, it seems to me that the value of natsukashii is about “feeling, sharing and valuing”, instead of simply “remembering”. I’ll be writing a lot on this blog about personal mindfulness, but in a nutshell that’s what you have to do. Be more mindful and intentional, and think more deeply about what you’re remembering.

When you want to try digging further into the feelings of a nostalgic moment, try considering the following:

  • How does it make me feel? Which emotions?
  • Is what I’m remembering happy, sad, both, neither?
  • Who were the people I shared it with?
  • What do the people mean to me? Why do I value them?
  • How did that time/experience/event affect me? Why?
  • Be grateful for all of the experiences you’ve had, because they make you who you are.

There’s an endless list of questions that I could list here as prompts, and you can come up with your own too. The goal of all of them is to make you…feel. When you feel is when you move from simply remembering something to a more intentional, mindful and emotional appreciation of that moment. It’s at that point when you’ll find added value to your nostalgic moments, and indeed your life. That’s natsukashii.