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Reflections December 2015

Tunnel Visions

The Trouble with New Beginnings

By Bonnie McCune

I've heard about two studies on the secret to happiness. One claims that people who are mildly self‑delusional are happier than realists. The young woman sashaying across the club floor thinking all eyes are on her is more contented than the model who constantly seeks flaws in her appearance.

"You must change your life." I've had this aphorism as a screensaver, on my mobile, taped to the wall, and scrawled in various places for years. It's an admonition to myself that things can be different, if only I try. Hard enough.

That's the bugger - try hard enough. As one year draws to a close and another raises its Medusean head, many of us think about our new year's resolutions. I know when I was much younger, I'd labor over my list. I can recite most of them from memory because they appeared year after year: lose weight, study French, write a novel, save money and budget the rest, exercise by jogging and biking, exercise by stretching or dancing, catch up on photo albums, clean a cupboard/closet/drawer regularly.

And like most everyone else, my resolutions lasted a week or two, then were cached until the next year. So I stopped making resolutions.

I feel depressed when I read those notices in newspapers or chat with others about people's multiple accomplishments. Compared to me, everyone in the world seems to be a raving success. They publish several novels a year, start businesses, win awards, are asked to speak at conferences and, even more, get paid for it!  They run marathons in their spare time, make the "top ten" list in whatever subject interests them, say cooking or astronomy or cup‑stacking competitions.  Even worse, they write, call, email and blog about what they've done, to the point I want to avoid meetings and acquaintances, reading my mail, or communicating in any fashion, even smoke signals.

Maybe you're challenged or energized by such information. Not I. When I was a kid, I fell for the Great American Dream. Anyone can be president or a millionaire, if you just try hard enough. I've learned that's not true. Take my primary interest: writing books. UNESCO reports more than 300,000 books were published in the U.S. in 2013 (fiction and nonfiction, as well as new editions of old books). I can't name 3000 people I know, let alone 300,000 or the books they might read. I may have owned 10,000 books myself over the course of my life. Realistically, the odds of me or anyone selling tons of books are miniscule. In the realm of fantasy, everyone's doing it.

I have a friend with an even more aggravated sense of inferiority than mine. Take her to a group in which friends mention their thriving children or a promotion on the job, and she refuses to attend again. I try to tell myself to be realistic, my life is going fine. But the sounds of all these folks beating their own drums and tooting their own horns makes me deaf and discouraged.

A change of attitude seems required. I've heard about two studies on the secret to happiness. One claims that people who are mildly self‑delusional are happier than realists. The young woman sashaying across the club floor thinking all eyes are on her is more contented than the model who constantly seeks flaws in her appearance.

The second study says those with low expectations are happier than individuals with high expectations. That means my approach to getting published years ago, when I assumed I'd eventually win the Noble Prize for Literature, was almost guaranteed to make me frustrated and discouraged; whereas a writer who never expected any work to appear in print is overjoyed to produce a chap book of her own poems.

The truth is habit does so much more to help us reach our goals than mere pledges. Years ago following a lecture by my dentist, I started flossing daily. The health of my gums skyrocketed. About four years ago, I instituted a daily writing regime and since then have tripled my output. Day after day, week after week, whether I feel like flossing or writing, I do it. And I've gotten results.

Since a new year soon will dawn, here are my current resolutions:

  • Talk myself into mild self‑delusion, that I am, in fact, climbing mountains, achieving wonders, and becoming the best (if not best‑selling) author in the world;

  • Set my expectations in every arena very low. Rather than striving to lose 30 pounds, shoot for one. No more trying to write every day; a couple of times a week is fine. Forget hoping for world peace, a pleasant "good morning" from a neighbor's fine.

This year I'll look at my motto daily and think about changing my life. But I don't have out‑sized expectations. Transformations may be miniscule but they'll be cumulative. And habitual.

 

For reasons unknown (an unacknowledged optimism?), Bonnie McCune thinks one person can make a difference in this world.

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