It’s the little things that count the most

If there’s one thing that watching celebrity “reality” shows teaches you, it’s that rich and famous people aren’t any happier than the rest of us. You’d think that having all that money and notoriety would make people wildly happy. But it doesn’t. And if you’re walking around thinking, “Well, if I won the lottery, I’d be gloriously happy for the rest of my life,” nope, you wouldn’t. Practically everybody who comes into sudden wealth gets happy momentarily and then returns to their former level of happiness (or unhappiness) as before. So what does bring lasting happiness?

dttsp869_600In a nifty little study, Daniel Mochon of MIT (now at Tulane University) and his colleagues asked if small, repeated actions might be the best way to improve your sense of well-being over the long term. The researchers looked at two sorts of behaviors that they imagined might increase people’s sense of well-being: spiritual expression (in the form of attending some sort of religious service) or engaging in physical activity (either at a gym or practicing yoga). In before/after comparisons, the participants reported an increase in their sense of well-being.

Happiest over all were Mormons and people of Baha’i faith.   The least happy were Catholics and Quakers. But “least happy” here was still pretty darn happy (an average of 70 on a 100 point scale when rating themselves on questions like “How happy are you with your life in general?”) The biggest before/after boost was experienced by the Greek Orthodox; people placed in the generic “Christians” category experienced no change in their sense of well-being (~82/100).

While their results aren’t that surprising (to me, anyway, since I both attend religious services and practice yoga), the researchers themselves were surprised. That’s because they subscribe to the “hedonic treadmill” idea, which posits that you have a “set point” of happiness that neither good nor bad events effects very much. Their conclusion: “…people who engage in these activities often enough will end up with higher well-being.” Put another way, regular, small boosts will increase your sense of happiness over the long term.

Here’s how to put these results to work for yourself:

  • Find an activity to try. It could be taking a walk, attending a religious service, or taking a yoga class. The choice is up to you, just make sure it’s something you can participate in regularly.
  • Keep track your sense of well-being before and after the activity. A scale of one to five works just fine. After you’ve attended several sessions (say three to five), evaluate. If you’re seeing some increases, then make a longer term commitment. If not, try something else.
  • If you want an even bigger boost, add in the “three good things” exercise. Personally, I keep a gratitude journal, which I find keeps me focused on positive emotional experiences on a daily basis (and probably provides the same kind of small boosts).

The Overwhelm Diaries: Part Two

This post is the second in a series. You can read Part One here.

What are you pretending not to know?

The toughest coaching question I know is: What are you pretending not to know? The question is so difficult because it requires the client to face up to her delusions, the wishes she has for reality that don’t line up with what’s actually going on. To face reality is often so painful—sometimes the client chooses to hold on to her make-believe world instead. And by “client,” I also mean me.

I was faced uncovering my own pretending-not-to-know last week when I brought one of my struggles to conversation with a beloved friend. I explained that I was really confused by my own confusion. “When I’m out walking my dog, I can see what to do and how to do it, but when I get back to my desk, all that vanishes. I just sit there, feeling confused and distracted. This is not like me!” What I really meant was: What the hell is wrong with me?

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My wise friend said, “What would you tell a coaching client who came to you and said what you just said?”

Oh, drat. I felt like I’d just been served a big heaping plate of my own dog food. Sighing, I looked around for a fork. “I would ask them about rest and play and stillness. I would suggest that maybe there’s some overwhelm or overload happening,” I replied. “I’d ask them: What are you pretending not to know?”

In my own recent season of overwhelm, insomnia has been my most persistent companion. Every night that I lose a lot of sleep extracts a terrible cost on my body, my spirit, my mind. What I’ve been pretending not to know is that I’m not just anxious, I am also overloaded—and that I have very real symptoms of burnout.

Like many people who have to come face to face with what’s really going on, I can’t just teleport to a beach in Hawaii for some lanai time. But there are some steps I (and you) can take when I find myself in a season of deep overwhelm and anxiety. In Part One of The Overwhelm Diaries, you learned about some of the warning signs of anxiety—and in the comments, you can find others contributed by readers (God bless them!).

Some Tools to Consider During a Season of Anxiety and Overwhelm

Before my recent season of anxiety and overwhelm set in, I created a self-care plan:

  • Turn toward the light: Light isn’t just a metaphor for well-being. Light is an essential and powerful weapon against anxiety and overwhelm. A few weeks ago, my spiritual director suggested that when I feel very assaulted by adversity, find the light source and turn toward it. Every morning, I sit with my “happy light” for about 30 minutes while I pray and plan my day. At night, when insomnia taps me on the shoulder, I turn toward the window where a little light is seeping through.
  • Exercise: Studies show that as little as 20 minutes of aerobic exercise each day can stave off symptoms of burnout. I get up and move every day, preferably outdoors, since other research shows that being in nature also improves outlook and increases feelings of well being.
  • Centering Prayer: For twenty minutes a day, I sit still and focus on allowing the Holy Spirit into my heart, my body, and my mind.
  • Examen Prayer: Every evening, I review my day in conversation with God.
  • Art: I make some art. This is what play looks like for me: colorful, spontaneous, expressive, and fun.
  • Ask for help: I went to several of my closest friends and asked them to be my listeners. When I’m really distraught, I give them four questions to ask me:
    • What happened?
    • How did you feel?
    • How are you doing now?
    • What do you need from me?

My Emergency Survival Tactic

In moments of intense anxiety, frustration, or overreaction, however, I need something more. I’ve learned to spot the signs I’m about to go over the edge—I grip handfuls of hair, my teeth clench, I snap at Douglas, or I yell at the dog. To pull myself back from the abyss, I use a self-soothing exercise that I call Eight Breaths. I take eight deep breaths and on each breath, I focus on a different sensation.

Breath 1: On the inhale, I focus on the sensation of air entering my nostrils.

Breath 2: On the inhale, I focus on the sensation of breath passing through my throat.

Breath 3: On the inhale, I focus on the expansion of my rib cage.

Breath 4: After the inhale, I focus on the pause before the exhale, when my lungs are full.

Breath 5: On the exhale, I focus on the contraction of my rib cage.

Breath 6: On the exhale, I focus on the sensation of breath passing through my throat.

Breath 7: On the exhale, I focus on the sensation of breath exiting my nostrils.

Breath 8: After the exhale, I focus on the pause before the inhale, when my lungs are empty.

Doing this small meditation takes about a minute (I’ve recorded an Eight Breaths guided meditation for my newsletter subscribers—it’ll be attached to the issue that comes out on November 29). When I self-soothe using the Eight Breaths, I immediately feel calmer and more in possession of my own mind. Often, the Eight Breaths is enough to ground me. But if not, I turn toward the light, pray, and look for one of my people to give me perspective (and hugs).


  • Take a few minutes to create your own self-care plan. Plans are best created when you’re not in a season of deep anxiety and/or overwhelm—I created mine when I saw the first warning signs back in September.
  • Practice the Eight Breaths (and if you want to receive the guided meditation recording, subscribe to my newsletter).
  • Identify your trusted helpers and get them on board. Sharing your difficulties with a trusted other is incredibly important. If you don’t have a friend that you feel comfortable with asking, look for a spiritual director, a counselor, or a pastor with whom you can speak. I’ve found it essential to tell people that I don’t need or want fixing. More than anything I need to be heard and understood—period.
  • In the comments, share your strategies for coping. You can be certain that your story will help someone else.

Coming Up

In Part III of The Overwhelm Diaries, I’ll talk about steps you can take to develop your resilience to seasons of overwhelm and anxiety. Stay tuned! And don’t forget, you can hop on my Facebook page to ask questions and find more resources on this topic.

With love and gratitude,

With love from Tara

Welcoming the Stranger

Advent means a heart that is awake and ready.

The moment I saw him, I knew he wasn’t Catholic.

I was standing in the vestibule of St Mary Catholic Church after Mass on the first Sunday of Advent. As the tall, slender young man walked past me, he breezed right past the Holy Water. I watched him closely as he walked down the center aisle. He didn’t genuflect before sitting down in the second pew from the front nor he make the Sign of the Cross before he bowed his head as if to pray. I nodded inwardly and thought to myself, “That boy has got a heavy heart. He is looking for some comfort here.” I sat down in the back pew and waited.

It was my Sunday to be a greeter for the 7 A.M. Mass. Being a greeter means mostly saying hello to the same people I see every Sunday. I smile, say “Good Morning,” hug people, and try to be a welcoming presence. Being a greeter is not a hard job but it’s not necessarily an easy one, either. The Hospitality Ministry is pretty new and the ushers are still getting used to the idea that a greeter is horning in on their territory. They glower at me while I attempt to maintain a serene frame of mind. One usher in particular seems really offended by my hugging people so I try to pray for him while I’m standing there. I figure if I’m praying for him, I’ll keep from flipping him off which is what I am sometimes sorely tempted to do.

While I was waiting for our young visitor, I thought about all the times I went to Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Like him, I wasn’t Catholic either. I was a lot like I imagined this young man to be: troubled, confused, hurting. I would go sit at the feet of the statue of Our Lady and cry. I can’t tell you how many times I watched the nice parishioners look the other way while I was suffering so much youthful angst. My memory of how alone and sad I felt in those days was one of the reasons that I was so bound and determined to be present to this boy. Of all the things I may be, a sanctimonious, stuffy church lady, I am not.

When our visitor stood up to leave, I got up, too. I stepped over to the baptismal font and blessed myself with the words: “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I bowed toward the tabernacle and straightened up just as my young friend drew near.

I looked him in the eye and said, “My name is Tara. Are you okay? Do you want someone to pray with you?”

He nodded and told me his name was E–. After we sat down, he told me about how he’d been having trouble with drugs. His mom was insisting that he go to rehab before she’d let him come home. And there was a girl, too, whom he loved and lost. I could smell the cigarettes on his breath and I remembered a chain-smoking, binge-drinking eighteen year old I knew once. She was mourning the death of her boyfriend who’d been killed in a car wreck.

“I used to have a drinking problem, too,” I said. “I drank because I was trying to make the pain go away. I did drugs. I drank so much that I had black outs and shit.” Yes, I cursed in church; I told you I’m not a stuffy church lady.

We talked and prayed and cried together. Before he left, I gave him my card and told him I wanted him to let me know how he was doing. I promised him that I’d pray for him and that I wouldn’t forget him. I told him that I knew he could heal from everything that he’s gone through. And I told him that he has his whole life ahead of him.

A few weeks ago, when the scowling from the ushers was particularly fierce, I felt like an outsider again. I got discouraged and wondered how long I could tolerate the disapproval glares and being scolded for hugging people. I wasn’t sure I could get through it without mouthing off, either. On Thanksgiving morning, I asked God to send me a stranger. My reasoning was that as a greeter, I was there to welcome the person who was friendless, not merely to say hello to the people who see me every Sunday.

From the moment I set eyes on E–, I knew he was my stranger, the one I had prayed to the good Lord for. With all my heart, I hope I didn’t let him down. Maybe he heard me when I said, “You are not alone.”

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