The 30 Day Optimism Challenge

My peculiar brain chemistry makes me prone to depression, and toward the end of last year a variety of triggers, internal and external, damaged my equilibrium. Setbacks weighed on me more than they should. Every day felt like a chain of uniformly unpleasant events. When I realized last month what was going on, I knew I needed to change my thinking. The trouble with depression is that it drains your ability to take action, so I chose two simple tasks that I could do each day to change my outlook. I called it the “Thirty Day Optimism Challenge.”

In the morning, I would name one thing to look forward to. It didn’t have to be anything major. Some days, it was as simple as, “I look forward to coming home tonight.” And it didn’t have to be something that would happen that day. One day, I named a weekend trip to Saint Augustine that my wife and I were planning. The idea was to remind myself that no matter what was going on right then, something positive was on the way.

At night, I identified one good thing about that day. It was usually something simple: watching pelicans dive for fish during my morning commute, reading a good essay, or meeting a friend for coffee. It wasn’t about ignoring bad things, but about not focusing on those things exclusively.

I recorded the answers in my pocket diary. Writing them down made them concrete, and my mood began to improve by the second week. I began to make a game of finding something good—how early could I spot something I could use that night? Eventually, I started noticing so many good things each day that I had trouble selecting just one! And in the morning, if I couldn’t think of something to look forward to, I’d make a plan: tonight I will call my best friend. This weekend, I will visit the bookstore. I always had something to look forward to on any given day—whether it was something that night, the next week, or in a few months.

Yesterday was Day 30. The challenge worked. I feel more optimistic, and I’ve decided to keep up both exercises indefinitely. Depression will still surface from time to time, but I hope those incidents will be fewer, rarer, and weaker if I remember to keep my eyes open for the positive things in life.

On Mindfulness Meditation

Yesterday, I finished a ten-session introductory series of mindfulness meditation. Although I was originally very skeptical, this short introduction has convinced me that the practice is worthwhile.

I first encountered the concept of mindfulness as I prepared to become a full-time ScrumMaster. I had long sought this career path, but I worried that I wouldn’t be up to the challenge. One of the books I read recommended mindfulness meditation. Around the same time, I saw a blog post recommending an app called “Headspace.” It’s a free app that starts you off with a free ten-day course, so I had little to lose by trying it.

Still, I resisted. It was scary to try something new, and I was skeptical of some of the outlandish claims I’d heard about the benefits of meditation. A little research revealed that most of what I’d heard had to do with Transcendental Meditation, a different thing entirely. There was solid data to suggest that mindfulness had a lot of benefits to both physical and mental health. On New Year’s Eve, I decided to start.

Sitting down for the first session brought up a lot of familiar anxieties. What if this doesn’t work? What if I look stupid? (Even when no one is around, this is something that plagues me, but that’s a subject for another post.) What if I’m wasting my time? What if I’m no good at it? What if I’m incapable of doing it? Will that mean something is wrong with me? I nearly quit before I started, but I’d promised myself that I would try it.

I keep my promises.

In the first session, I could take a deep breath in with no trouble, but exhaling kept coming out ragged and choppy as anxiety roiled my mind. I had a lot of trouble following the guide’s gentle direction. As though fear and anxiety weren’t enough to contend with, other concerns fought for attention: about my writing, fitness and health, home repairs, personal issues.

I got through it, though, and I did feel a little more tranquil when the session was over.

Over the next three days, as I got used to the practice, it was easier to breathe steadily, and it grew easier to settle my mind. I ended each session a little more relaxed than I started it. By the end of the course, I looked forward to my ten minute time out each day.

Naturally, I’m far from mastering the practice. During the last session, the guide said, “And now, let your mind do whatever it wants to do, just for the next ten seconds or so,” and I started to giggle. That was all I had been doing. It’s going to take a lot more practice, but at least I’m less troubled by the fact that my mind is awhirl with thought, and I’m no longer trying to chase those thoughts down or control them. In time, I expect that I’ll learn to unclutter and improve my focus.

I’m not sure that I’ll continue with Headspace itself. Additional courses are available as a subscription service, and I don’t like that business model. My father promised to send me some meditation CDs he has used. (If I’d known he does it, I might not have resisted the idea so much!) Meanwhile, I’ll run through the introductory course again. It certainly won’t hurt to review and reinforce the basic concepts.