Lessons from Happiness School
One woman’s quest for inner peace. Can she find it at happiness school?
by Holly C. Corbett | illustrations by Eili-Kaija Kuusniemi
Wanted: Inner Peace.Despite the fact that my life seems to be headed in exactly the direction I’d always hoped (I have a job I love, a close circle of friends, and a man I’m crazy about), there’s a current of frustration running through my veins that ignites at unexpected moments. I’ll feel like I’m about to explode if I miss the subway train by two seconds, or get teary-eyed when the yoga class I’ve been looking forward to is full. If my life is so good, why aren’t I completely content? Instead of craving world peace, what I yearn for most is the inner kind.
To figure out why I melt down so easily when things aren’t going my way, I decide to go back to school—happiness school, that is. I normally scoff at anything falling into the self-help category. But a yearning to quiet my inner angst compels me to sign up for a workshop I’d seen advertised in a local paper called “What’s Holding You Back: Overcoming Emotional Roadblocks.” Taught by Angie Speranza, a life coach who leads workshops at various nonprofits throughout Manhattan, the class promises to help students uncover what makes them tick so they can craft happier lives with exercises to identify priorities, passions, and goals.
A week after signing up, I settle into the first session filled with thirteen mostly thirty-somethings. Speranza passes around a basket filled with lavender-scented beanbags in gemstone blues and dusky purples. She plays a CD of nature sounds, instructs us to take two beanbags and hold onto them as we close our eyes. “We will begin each class sitting quietly, since most of us don’t take time out of our busy schedules to rest our minds.”
I have a death-grip on my beanbags, feeling totally self-conscious and unable to concentrate. My mind goes into overdrive: “I haven’t held a beanbag since I was, like, four. How is sitting here sniffing lavender going to help me? . . . I wish I was at the gym right now.” I crack my eyes open a bit to scan the room, only to make eye-contact with a woman dressed in a suit across the aisle who looks equally uncomfortable. I quickly squeeze mine shut and keep them closed until a bell chimes, indicating for us to open our eyes.
Back to School
After we each introduce ourselves (“Hi, I’m Holly and I’m not sure why I’m here”), Speranza briefly discusses our “problems” with the class. Compared to others weighed down by family feuds or bullying bosses, my nondescript issue feels pretty darn insignificant—until Speranza turns her attention to me.
A quick laundry list of my busy life (work, gym, eat, sleep, repeat) unexpectedly morphs into a venting session about my seemingly unprovoked restlessness. Despite a nagging feeling that something is missing, I can’t pinpoint what the heck the problem is. Speranza’s response? I haven’t braked from my fast-paced life long enough to think about what recharges me. She speculates this leads to focusing energy on things that don’t truly fulfill me, triggering a loss of a sense of self.
Suffering from a lack of definition is actually a common problem and leaves many people feeling apathetic, according to Speranza. “When we define ourselves by external factors, like jobs and relationships, our self esteem goes down because we can’t always control them. But setting time aside to cultivate our personal values strengthens our sense of inner power.”
Deep inside, we all know the solutions to our dilemmas—we just have to get in better touch with ourselves in order to unbury them, says Speranza. One way of doing this is to simply ask ourselves some questions. She passes around questionnaires to fill out with inquiries such as, “Who are you?” (writer and editor at a magazine, 26, live in New York City ) and “What do you value most?” (intellectual growth, feeling fit, my relationships, and leisure time).
Speranza gives us a few moments to examine our lists to decide if our daily lives reflect the things most important to us. Since the majority of my energy gets channeled into my job and satisfies my itch for learning new things, I decide my #1 priority is right on the money. As for feeling fit, long hours logged at the office prevent me from hitting the gym as often as I’d like, but I’m no couch potato.
However, my other values aren’t given the attention they deserve: My tendency to jam-pack my schedule erases once-frequent get-togethers with the girls and snuffs out the late-night, heart-to-hearts with my boyfriend that used to be the norm. I realize part of my discontent stems from a gnawing feeling of disconnection.
As for leisure time, it basically doesn’t exist. If I ever allow myself to leave the office for an errand, I find myself insanely jealous of the people hanging at sidewalk cafes mid-day and wondering how people fit in everything from pleasure reading to raising kids. Am I wasting time or just incompetent?
My thoughts are interrupted by Speranza. “Raise your hand if your daily life is directly in line with the values you jotted down,” she says. I glance around the room. Not one hand goes up.
“Your priorities are a true measure of who you are and what’s important to you,” she says. They tend to get out of whack as you speed through life and fail to reprioritize. The reason? Your priorities change with time, just as your opinions, preferences, and lifestyle tend to alter. Hence, our homework assignment: Make our life better mirror our list of values by spending the appropriate amount of time and energy on the things that matter most. For me to feel more fulfilled, I should carve out time for my relationships and leisure interests rather than channeling the bulk of my energy into my job.
Instead of a major schedule overhaul, I vow to make one tiny change by giving the desktop dining a break and investing the time towards my priorities.
I schedule a bunch of lunchtime activities, including catching up with a friend over sushi, sweating it out with a 45-minute boxing class, and lounging at a coffee shop with a book I’ve been trying to finish for six months. As I glimpse out the window at suit-clad people rushing down the sidewalk, I feel extremely self-indulgent—and triumphant. At this moment, the extent of my dorkiness strikes me. “I actually feel like a rebel for reading in the middle of the day. I need to get out more.” And so I make the schedule tweak a daily habit.
I’m shocked an adjustment as small as taking an hour to do stuff that revives me has such a big impact on my mood. Surprisingly, the time away from my desk doesn’t leave me feeling like I have any more work. Whether it’s because the break boosts my productivity or my perception of the stress simply shifts, I’m not sure.
But my big breakthrough happens several sessions later, when Speranza asks us to describe who we are again. Without hesitating, I write: Adventurous, fun-loving, caring, ambitious, forgetful, outgoing, offbeat. I’m a writer, people person, and fitness junkie.
Looking back at my self-description from the first class, the lack of identity issue Speranza mentioned earlier becomes painfully clear: I was defining myself solely by temporary, external factors (my job, where I live) and not the deeper, internal traits (adventurous, offbeat) that make up my ‘authentic’ self.
Speranza assures me it’s normal to sometimes lose sight of who you are. After all, it takes time and effort to get to know yourself—just like with any relationship. In the end, you are the only one who knows what it takes to make you happy inside. Sometimes you just need a reminder.
Do-it-yourself Happiness Tricks
Life coach Angie Speranza shares some of her all-time best exercises to boost your well-being:
Reshuffle your priorities. Write your top three to five priorities on separate index cards. Shuffle the cards and pull one out each day. Then pencil in a block of personal priority-time on your planner (be it an hour, half an hour or fifteen minutes). This will help you live your life more in line with what matters most to you.
Pinpoint your passions. Sometimes we can’t hone in on our passions simply because we aren’t paying attention. Carry a little notebook around with you and take notes on your life. What excites you? Most of your scribble will be just odds and ends of your days, but observing your out-of-ordinary reactions to stuff (for me, flipping through a photographer friend’s portfolio sparked a yearning to start shooting) can cause a lightbulb to go off—opening your eyes to a passion you didn’t know you had.
Get a plan. Write down three goals you hope to accomplish in the next three months and three that you aim to reach in the next three years. Make these aspirations a part of your daily thoughts by posting them somewhere that you can see them (it’ll make you more likely to act) and update them regularly (our goals may change as our priorities change). For now, my short-term goals include training for a triathlon and long-term goals encompass writing a book. Simply giving my dreams a voice by putting them on paper makes them seem more real.
Where to go to happiness school
Check out these unique self-fulfillment workshops happening across the nation.
The Class: 12 Keys to Shift Your Life
What it is: The two-day course, taught by Marion Ross, PhD, and Tracy Latz, MD, MS, helps people remove obstacles that prevent them from experiencing joy and fulfillment. It utilizes easy-to-learn exercises, such as energy psychology and meditations.
Where-to-go: The next seminar happens in Cleveland, Ohio, in spring 2009; $500; www12keystoshift.com
The Class: The Power of Your Pen
What it is: This three-hour teleseminar can be taken from anywhere and helps you become clearer about what you want by teaching you how to state your goals with clarity and focus. It follows with three different one-hour conference calls to share your lessons with the group and also includes six weekly email reminders to boost your inspiration and motivation.
Where-to-go: Next seminar starts on January 14; $199; http://thepowerofyourpen.com
The Class: Transformative Communication and Self-Empowerment Experience
What it is: Instructor David Wolf, PhD, LCSW, believes the way you communicate with and listen to others is the key to discovering self-fulfillment and happiness. The seminar adds up to thirty-two hours in all and includes a one-hour personal coaching interview to equip you with new tools for conflict-solving and empathic listening.
Where-to-go: Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, March 6 to 8; $950; www.satvatove.com