- Christy Alfaro
Learning to be Happy in Quarantine Pt.1
Updated: Jan 19
When I was in high school I was incredibly depressed. I would go home and be alone with my thoughts and would be overwhelmed with sadness and negativity. It was to the point that I was hurting myself pretty consistently and there were days when I truly didn't know if I would finish the day alive. Obviously I did finish the days alive and I survived those really dark days but, it's something that I've never really forgotten. When I left for college I decided that I had the perfect opportunity to not only "reinvent myself", but I also had an amazing opportunity to try and find true happiness. I decided that all I wanted in my life was to be happy.
"When I was in grade school, they told me to write down what I wanted to when I grew up. I wrote down 'happy'. They told me I didn't understand the assignment. I told them they didn't understand life." - Unknown.
I struggled for a little while because I really didn't know what true happiness looked like. For a few years I was doing things that I believed I was supposed to in order to be happy. I would trick myself into thinking these things made me happy when in reality I was as sad as I had always been. This is still something that I still struggle with at times, I have days where I default to tasks and actions that I had done in the past to make myself happy and it's actually been happening more recently, this quarantine has forced me to truly look inside myself to bring myself joy in a way I haven't had to do in a very long time. In fact, this quarantine has reminded me at times of being back in high school.
Me to myself, trying to not fall into depression:
There was a day where things felt very dark and I decided that I wouldn't let myself spiral down so instead of falling back in to the depression I was in during high school, I decided to use this time to really be in tune with myself and find a way to be happy just being by myself. I decided to read a book that I had bought almost a year ago, "The Happiness Hack" by Ellen Petry Leanse and it was amazing. It was so amazing that while I was reading it, I decided I had to make it this weeks blog post.
I recommend everyone reads this book! It's incredibly amazing and definitely taught me a lot about myself and gave me a great place to start for what I've deemed "my happiness plan." But, in case you don't want to read it or just don't think you have the time to read it, I'm going to give you the highlights/ the parts that really stuck out to me. After reading it, I broke down the book and what it takes to be happy in to 6 steps.
Step 1: Let's dive in to our brains! To truly understand what happiness is and what it looks like, we have to understand that our brain plays a huge part in our happiness.
There are obviously a lot of chemicals that play in to happiness and having a lack of certain chemicals or an excess of certain chemicals can cause depression. But, Leanse said something in the book that really got me thinking. She sad, "What many of us mistake for depression is actually a need to be understood, or to see desires come to fruition." I realized that that's what I'd been feeling recently. I know what real true depression looks like in myself and I definitely wasn't feeling that way but I was feeling sad and alone and that sadness and loneliness stemmed from the fact that I didn't feel understood and had all these things that I've been wanting to accomplish but just haven't been able to do yet.
A big part of this sadness is based off this text that I've been seeing going around. It's something along the lines of, "If you don't get xyz project done during this quarantine, it was never because you lacked time but lacked the will to do it." Can't lie, I feel real shitty every single time I see that because I have been definitely lacking on all the projects that I've always said I wanted to do. I mean, it took me until Sunday to write this weeks blog post! I know I don't lack the time to do it right now, but mentally there's been something that's been stopping me from doing it - like I genuinely felt as if my brain won't allow me to do it.
My brain to me:
Surprisingly, that's exactly what was happening. Leanse writes, "Mostly, we worked on surviving, and surviving meant saving energy... If a task wasn't geared for survival, our brains made sure there was some resistance to doing it." We are currently fighting to survive, whether that's physically or emotionally during this time. This pandemic something that we have never experienced before and our brains are truly in survival mode. So if you need to "hear" someone say it, let me say it: Your brain is currently doing so much work to survive, do not blame yourself for not doing some task you think you're supposed to be doing. You are already doing so much.
It's also important to note that survival mode looks different for many people. There are two usual responses to survival mode: fight or flight. According to Leanse,"The brain handles social threat and physical threat in similar ways, firing the fight-or-flight response." We are in the midst of a very large social and physical threat and our brains are reacting to it accordingly. Take note of how your brain is handling it, are you out of control with worry, are you finding yourself hoarding toilet paper as if it was our new form of currency, or are you baking 10 loaves of banana bread a day. All of these responses is your way of handling the stresses of the pandemic and is completely natural and okay. "The brain locks into subconscious or unconscious patterns, searching for what has worked before. Maybe we reach for another drink or chomp a bite of something we don't really want." What all of this is meaning to say is, if you find yourself falling in to old habits or not completing the things you want to be - don't feel bad! It's quite literally your brain just doing what it needs to do to survive.
However, life is about more than just survival, life is about being happy. Knowing what we know about the way our brain works, achieving happiness can be a bit more difficult - especially in times like this. But, it's still possible. As Leanse says, "Routing our path to happiness means learning how, and when, to put our hands back on that metaphorical wheel [of our brain]. It means investing the energy, and the practice, in activating parts of our brain that can fall out of use when we get too swept up in automatic mode." There are active steps that we can take to "put our hands back on the wheel." Step 2 to becoming happy - learning to disconnect from the internet.
I don't really think it's new news that the internet isn't the happiest place to be, it's a breeding pool of insecurity and anger. Sure, there's good things about the internet - Zoom calls have been a godsend during this time. I've loved being able to talk to friends and family, and I've actually been doing Zoom calls with friends across the country and seeing them more now than I did before this quarantine happened. But I'm also scrolling endlessly on Instagram and binge-watching TV and it has definitely left me feeling unaccomplished and generally just bad about myself. Leanse compares our internet usage to our desire to drink, "Our easy, endless access keeps us clicking and liking or watching 'just one more' episode. Like a tequila shot, the fleeting pleasure these actions deliver may not give us anything we actually want. What seems like a good idea at the time doesn't necessarily translate into real happiness."
So, how do we find true happiness? Leanse writes, "Choose one real-world thing you'd like to do more of and one screen-based thing you'd like to do less of. Jot your intentions down, and put them somewhere visible, where you see them every day." So, this last week I decided to do just that. I started by challenging myself to do something physical that brought me joy - the thing is I don't really know yet what brings me true joy, so I tried a few different things. I did yoga, a few HITT workouts, learned 2 new Tik Tok dances, baked, and painted. I truly felt like Rapunzel in Tangled.
I found that by day 3 and 4 I was only doing the things that I was truly enjoying, and it was completely subconscious. I didn't sit down and say - painting is the thing that I'm going to enjoy, my brain told me it. It's almost as if my brain recognized that doing yoga in the morning and painting at night was helping keep me sane, it was helping me survive.
So this week my goal is to do less scrolling on social media, all social medias. I find myself scrolling on Tik Tok for hours and watching every single Instagram story and refreshing Twitter to see if anything new has been posted and all of it leaves me feeling anxious and exhausted.
I know this isn't going to be easy, I literally opened Instagram in between writing that last sentence and this one. It's just a subconscious pattern that I've developed. So step 3 to happiness, giving yourself some lee way. In the sake of honesty, I opened Twitter in between writing that last sentence and this one and felt pretty shitty about it. And then I read the quote from Leanse that I wanted to include in this blog post anyway, "Once again, the things that distract us were often designed to distract us. Apps, casinos, video games, ads, political campaigns, TV serials: the people who create them are experts as using 'hooks' to activate dopamine-fueled craving in your brain."
Here's a little secret, and hopefully you feel the same way, I hate reading self help books and self help blogs that make it seem like they're some prophet and have figured out all the secrets to life. I'm not someone who has all these answers, I literally read a book on how to be truly happy because I struggle with knowing true happiness. So I'm not perfect and I never want to seem like I am. That's why I'm going to be honest when I fuck up, but this book really helped me feel seen and understood and taught me things that I'm glad I learned and so I wanted to share it with all of you.
Leanse says two things that really made me feel seen, and it's something that I'm going to keep reminding myself of them as I work on this week's goal. She wrote, "Stop blaming or criticizing yourself. Move from 'I'm so distractible' to 'This app was engineered to distract me and make me want to keep coming back.' Understanding you're being hacked ... that helps you look more objectively at what's happening around you. That awareness gives you options." I'm going to say that when I inevitably find myself scrolling on Tik Tok for longer than I planned. And if that doesn't work I'll see Leanse's words in my mind, "Keep pushing, and remind yourself 'It's normal for this to feel hard,' or 'It sure feels different without those easy distractions - but I'm working toward a deeper reward.'" I have a tendency to just give up when I mess up on a goal, but I'll remind myself that I have to keep trying and that I'm not dumb for struggling with this.
Me to myself
I'll let you know how this week goes, maybe I'll have some new things that bring me joy this week or I will just work on the things that made me happy last week. But either way, I'll be honest on how this journey is going. And tune in for Pt. 2 next week where I'll talk about Steps 4-6 of the Happiness Hack. Until then, stay safe in your homes and be kind to yourselves!