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Feeling Good vs Feeling Better

Last month I ran a seminar entitled “Embracing Change” at a London based small animal hospital which had recently been acquired by a corporate.
There are so many changes when we join a group with a chain of managers and leaders. New protocols, systems of appraisal, pricing systems, etc.

One of our sessions was a contemplative session i.e., where we pose a question and then spend some time in quiet contemplation and stillness thinking about our answers.

The question I put to the group was this: “In your precious little free time, do you spend time doing what you enjoy? Or doing what will make you feel better?”

There’s obviously no right or wrong answer here.
We had already learnt how to be non-judgmental that day, so there was no self-judgment or self-criticism when thinking about how we spend our time away from the practice.
Looking at our answers with clear fresh eyes and curiosity allows us to think factually: What activities do I spend time doing?
Then emotionally: Do I enjoy them?
And lastly: Do they make me feel better afterwards?

It was an amazingly lively discussion afterwards. I didn’t suggest what the nuanced differences might be between the two ways of spending time. This was an open discovery of each other’s interpretation of the question.

Some of the delegates felt that the way they spend their time does indeed make them feel better in the long run.
Others felt that their own activities and pastimes perhaps didn’t actually result in greater contentment and happiness afterwards although they were truly enjoyable at the time.

Most delegates including myself enjoy the odd binge watch of our favourite series, beer and curry in hand, followed by sprawling out on the sofa in delicious escapism from the hectic emotionally exhausting practice.
Most of us also enjoyed walks in the fresh air, some of us exercise and others reading, cooking etc.

The difference was this: the delegates who felt that their activities outside of work resulted in an overall improvement in their mood were typically the people who were exercising, playing tennis, playing music, meditating, journalling, reading etc. whereas those of us who were enjoying our binge watching Netflix, eating ice cream and finishing off the bottle of wine, knew in our hearts of hearts that it didn’t necessarily result in an improvement in our mental wellbeing.

Improving your mood doesn’t need to be reserved for when you’re feeling low or stressed. True self compassion is improving your mental wellbeing from low to good to fantastic, and then re-enforcing that strong, unwavering contentment and joy by continuing the activities which improved it in the first place.

Staying non-judgmental, there’s nothing wrong with slobbing out on the sofa and being entertained by streaming networks or drinking alcohol etc. We knew that. However, it’s a temporary ‘fix’ not an improver.

So, if it’s clear to us which makes us feel better and which provides a band-aid to our mood, why is it that some of us choose the latter instead of one of the options which will improve our overall wellbeing ?

We decided it was because often those activities require effort.

What is effort?
It’s putting our mental and often physical energy into something. Sometimes it’s quite unpleasant like that extra spin class you shoe-horned into your week, or maybe it’s getting up earlier than we want in order to meditate. Or it might be having water instead of beer. Or it might be doing guitar practice when we desperately want to be horizontal instead.
Other times, the means is as enjoyable as the end. In other words, the effort is pleasant. E.g. having a bath with candles and gorgeous bath foam or sitting in the garden leaving all technology indoors and on silent.
Whether we choose to make more effort or not is our individual choice. Maybe we will only make an effort when our mood is low and we have a wake-up call that those meditations we did last month aren’t having the same effect now as they did then.

The people who continue to feel fantastic no matter what life does or doesn’t throw at them are probably making more of an effort than the people who feel great occasionally, Maybe the activities like running, meditation, piano-practice, mindful reading etc. are more enjoyable for some and more exhausting for others, that’s the way life and personalities are.

How do I do it?
It’s easy to make a list of Things Which Make Me Feel Better, and to try to dip in and out of it regularly.
It’s important to notice how you feel prior to the activity, during it and afterwards. I usually can’t be bothered to go for a run after work. But once my trainers are on and I’m out the door, it’s “oh my goodness this is amazing, I feel fantastic, what a treat”, then afterwards once the gasping for breath has settled and the muscle aches are setting in, I notice, I have done something for myself which required a hell of a lot of effort, and now I am high on endorphins and I’ll be congratulating myself on being that little bit fitter for the next few days.
Choosing different things off the list keeps it fresh and varied. We’re not going to run, cook healthy food, practice guitar, and meditate every day I’m guessing. So, having plenty of activities to choose from means we never need to feel guilty for not doing everything on the list.
Conversely if the list has only 2-3 things on it, we may feel obliged to do all three every day before we switch off. That’s unhelpful pressure and will probably end in our giving it up due to repetition and boredom.
Most people will have 8-10 things which make them feel better.
Getting started simply involves writing the list and noticing.

“Happiness is not ready made; it comes from our own actions”.
The Dalai Lama