Moving to Japan has been a great experience for me, but I’d be lying though if I said that there haven’t been times when I’ve felt utterly lost here. And I mean “lost” in the existential sense of the word, not just an inability to ascertain my whereabouts—although I’ve had plenty of those too. Especially in a rural area like Shakotan, it’s not always easy to find the human interaction necessary to combat soul-crushing loneliness. When depression began to takeover, I needed to take the time to really address the problem. Here’s what I did.
“The mind is its own place,
and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell,
a Hell of Heaven” – John Milton
Like a true glutton for punishment, I first turned to my old friend, the Internet. And wow, when you’re feeling down, Facebook can always drag you down to deeper level of hell. Even sites that have consistently amused me were unable to break my funk. When 9gag.com can’t bring a smile to your face, you have a serious problem. Then, like a light from the heavens it dawned on me; nothing can provide you with more hope than a good TED talk.
The first video that caught my eye was a TED talk by psychologist Paul Bloom called “The origin of pleasure”. His presentation was about how people’s beliefs about the origin of something like art or wine profoundly changes we experience it. Apparently our brains are hardwired to enjoy a painting more if we know the story of the artist, and wine will actually taste better if we believe it’s expensive. Interestingly, the same concept can be applied to pain, as well. Studies indicate that something hurts more if you think it was done to you on purpose. The interesting concepts were distracting me from my depression, but not yet curing it.
Then I came across an inspiring video that truly turned my mood around, a talk by writer/blogger Neil Pasricha called “The 3 A’s of awesome”. The title immediately made me think of Neil Patrick Harris’s character, Barney Stinson, on the show How I Met Your Mother.
“When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead. True Story.” – Barney Stinson
Neil Pasricha’s talk was like a young, hip self-help book. In fact, his blog 1000 Awesome Things has indeed been published as a book, The Book of Awesome. What’s weird is that his straightforward sediment really stuck me as being personally relevant. I will now spoil it for all of you that haven’t watched the video:
The 3 A’s of AWESOME
Pasricha’s talk, in a nutshell, is this; one needs to maintain a positive outlook, find enjoyment in the little things in life, and be true to oneself. This isn’t always easy though, as life never goes according to plan. Something surprising is always going to spring up, and life is going to hit you where it hurts. Pasricha’s message to keep moving forward may sound overly simplistic, but when combined with his advice to “embrace your inner three year old” and maintain an awareness of the tiny joys that make life sweet, it forms a personal philosophy that really gets you thinking about what you have, instead of what you don’t. It’s a good start.
The part that surprisingly struck a chord with me was his third A, Authenticity. Pasricha preached being authentic to yourself; to “be you and be cool with that.” This one made me take a good look in the mirror and consider what I really thought of myself. I rarely receive much criticism these days, so you’d think that I’d be feeling pretty confident, and yet here I was, wallowing in depression. Stopping to think about it, I wondered how much I could claim to be “cool with” being me these days.
You see, as Barney taught us, being awesome is really just a state of mind. If you’re happy with you, comfortable with who you are, then it’s infinitely easier to find contentment anywhere. It’s like The Beatles’ incredibly wise lyrics from All You Need Is Love:
“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done…but you can learn how to be you in time… Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. It’s easy.”
Well that’s all fine and good, but what about those times when something is bothering you, when negativity just lingers in your mind? It’s not always easy to bring yourself back around from a bad mood. The next video I watched gave me an interesting perspective on this. The talk on the habits of happiness was by an unusual Buddhist monk. Frenchman Matthieu Ricard apparently used to be a biochemist, and now he’s a monk, writer, and photographer. He has the Himalayan monk look down; robes, bald head and all. His talk was about the mind and emotions, and how we can train our minds to reach and maintain a sense of serenity. Here’s my favorite bit:
“Usually, when we feel annoyed, hatred or upset with someone, or obsessed with something, the mind goes again and again to that object. Each time it goes to the object, it reinforces that obsession or that annoyance. So then, it’s a self-perpetuating process. So what we need to look now is, instead of looking outward, we look inward. Look at anger itself; it looks very menacing, like a billowing monsoon cloud or thunder storm. But we think we could sit on the cloud, but if you go there, it’s just mist. Likewise, if you look at the thought of anger, it will vanish like frost under the morning sun. If you do this again and again, the propensity, the tendencies for anger to arise again will be less and less each time you dissolve it. And, at the end, although it may rise, it will just cross the mind, like a bird crossing the sky without leaving any track.” – Matthieu Ricard
I was already feeling a lot better when I watched statistician Nic Marks’ TED talk, entitled The Happy Planet Index. This presentation was about how we measure a nation’s progress based on outdated productivity measures like GDP that don’t directly reflect the happiness and wellbeing of its citizens. You see, being a wealthy nation doesn’t necessarily make you a happy nation. He suggests a new measure he calls the Happy Planet Index; weighing the wellbeing of a nation’s citizens against the amount of resources that nation uses. I had seen a few different videos with a similar theme in the past and I couldn’t agree more with his brilliant message.
What made Nic Marks’ talk special to me was that he actually provides a few steps anyone could take to be a happier, more contented individual. Referencing the UK’s Foresight Programme, an organization that tries to use science and technology to improve the way government and society works, he presented “5 ways to wellbeing”. To spoil the surprise—in case you haven’t seen the video—here they are:
Five ways to wellbeing:
1) Connect—keep building on social relationships
2) Be Active—the fastest way out of a bad mood; dance
3) Take Notice—be aware of what’s happening in the world
4) Keep Learning—maintain curiosity throughout your lifetime
5) Give—it’s more satisfying to spend money on others
You might take note that these steps don’t necessarily involve spending money, hence the idea that a nation’s economy isn’t the source of its people’s happiness. I was amused to discover that Nic Mark’s steps included “Take Notice” and Neil Pasricha’s list had touted “Awareness”. Clearly a mindfulness of the world around you was an important factor to one’s wellbeing. However, it was “Connect” that struck me as being critically relevant to a foreign national.
Connect; keep building upon your relationships. Humans are social creatures and we need our connections with friends and family to keep us sane. It’s not really a new concept, but one that is consistently proven true. It’s what made the movie Into the Wild so poignant when its protagonist reaches the epiphany; “Happiness only real when shared.”
To keep from going crazy, a traveler may have to make new friends abroad; forge new connections with the people around him. But one must also keep in touch with old friends at home, and that is one area in which I have been failing. Despite the fact that a Skype conversation with my one of my brothers, or one of my Seattle friends would instantly lift my spirits; I had hardly managed to do it at all since I arrived in Japan. My record with writing letters is embarrassingly poor. Whether writing to my mom, or grandmother, or anyone that isn’t very email savvy, I’m very slow to get the ball rolling. It isn’t as if I didn’t have the time, I’ve just been neglecting to do it. And my own laziness has been slowly eroding my sense of wellbeing.
I realize now that maintaining your personal relationships is an important key to being happy. Physically staying close to loved ones is a one way to do it, but if you’re off on a solo adventure, you’ll need to improvise. Write letters, write emails, make Skype calls, or even make old-school phone calls if possible. Keep in touch with the people you care about, who care about you. This is the challenge of living far from home.
TED Conferences. (2011, July). “Paul Bloom: The origins of pleasure” Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_bloom_the_origins_of_pleasure.html>.
TED Conferences. (2011, Jan). “Neil Pasricha: The 3 A’s of awesome ” Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/neil_pasricha_the_3_a_s_of_awesome.html >.
TED Conferences. (2007, Nov). ” Matthieu Ricard on the habits of happiness” Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/matthieu_ricard_on_the_habits_of_happiness.html>.
TED Conferences. (2010, Aug). ” Nic Marks: The Happy Planet Index” Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/nic_marks_the_happy_planet_index.html>.