Monday, September 14, 2009

Do Something!

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with my friend Mark Kaufman. When Mark arrived at our house, he was quite excited about a book he was reading (listening to), Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman. To be clear, I haven't yet read the book. All I know about it, I got from Mark (i.e., my references to the book may or may not actually be in the book). Nonetheless, some of the concepts really resonated for me.

One of the things that Mark talked about (referring to the book) was that we've become a culture of consumers. We consume food. We consume goods. We consume entertainment. We consume resources.

Most of what we consume, we do not produce ourselves; it's produced by others.

The result is that we never really feel a sense of gratification or satisfaction with our consumption. We might watch television all evening in an attempt to relax, but in the end feel more hungover than contented. The conspicuous absence of satisfaction, contentment, gratification results in unhappiness.

Productivity Junky
This concept really resonated with me; I feel best when I'm active and productive. In fact, I find it nearly impossible to just sit and watch a movie on TV. I always am doing something else at the same time, writing software, cleaning dishes, and so on. You might call me a productivity junky.

When I'm really busy, active and (most importantly) productive, I feel great! I have more energy, not less. My attitude and outlook are really positive and optimistic. Life is grand. It had never occurred to me that staying busy and productive was a way of taking care of myself.

Productivity and Meaning
As we talked about this, I thought about my dad who has struggled for years with alcoholism and depression. It occurred to me that, when he has been busy and productive, the alcohol and depression don't seem to be an issue. It's just when he starts to "relax" and "take it easy", that the challenges arise.

We've often talked to my dad about taking up hobbies or doing volunteer work or playing chess or whatever, something to get him busy. The thing is that he often resists because he doesn't see any of these things as being particularly meaningful or purposeful or of great import. For him, it doesn't count unless if fulfills some higher purpose.

As Mark and I talked, I realized that I didn't particularly care about the meaning of what I was doing. I feel just as good washing dishes or stacking wood as I do developing software for Jonathan's device that prevents heart attacks or websites that help families of kids with Autism. It's the productivity that feels good, being able to look at the stack of wood after I'm done or the clean dishes in the drainer.

Meaning is something different all together, and really is up to me.

Developing Your Groove
Regardless of the task or its meaning, as we dive into productivity, we become more intimate with whatever it is we're doing. We start to see patterns that help us become more efficient. We create new ways of doing the same thing. Tasks that may initially feel awkward and uncomfortable become fluid and easy. We get into a flow. We find our groove.

Per Mark's recollection of the book, when we get into a flow, we're neither happy nor unhappy, we're in a state that transcends emotion.

I don't know that I would think about it in exactly in those terms, but I know that when I'm in a groove, I'm not really aware of anything but what I'm doing. I'm totally present. Alarms could scream, sirens could blare, and I would be totally unaware of it.

Whether or not you call it emotionally transcendent, for me, being in the flow is a blissful state, no worries about the future, no regrets about the past. I'm just happy.

Medium Independent Grooving
One more thing. I ended up working in technology not because I grew up with a passion for computers and software, but because I was a twenty-two year old, underemployed, uninsured musician with a wife and child. I used to resent that I had to give up my music in order to make money. I ran through the standard litany of unhappiness, regret, resentment and so on.

Music had been the place where I was in the flow. I would close my eyes and play, and nothing else existed.

What I've realized over the years is that it wasn't the music that was attractive, it was the groove. Without being able to articulate it, I was always in pursuit of that blissful groove. And I've managed to find it in everything from music to software to washing dishes and pushing a lawn mower. Even as I write this, I'm not sure of cause and effect (i.e., which causes which), but nonetheless, I find that as I do any of these, I get into this blissful state.

So What?
Maybe you or someone you know has struggled with bouts of extreme unhappiness or depression? Maybe you've struggled with alcohol or food or TV or other consumptive disorders? Perhaps it's time to stop dealing with your consumptive and emotional challenges, and instead, time to start doing something, anything? Forget about meaning. Forget about purpose. Forget about big or small. Just find an activity in which you can feel productive.

If you take me up on this or if you've had similar experiences, I'd love to hear about it.

Have an amazingly productive week!

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