Munoz: The Pursuit of Happiness
This week I wanted to talk about something we all want, what we live for, and keep trying to attain — happiness. Yes, happiness can even be difficult to attain sometimes in "the land of sunshine and rainbows". We all go through stress in one way or another, on the field or off. Specifically now, since we are in the middle of our "quarter" aka midterm season. Also, while preseason is nearing its end, I'm sure there are stressors and anxieties for many with the season on the horizon.
One of the classes I'm taking at Stanford is called Happiness, Well-Being, and Gender. I'm sure some of you are automatically thinking either that I'm trying to take an easy course load or are confused as to how such a course could be taught at Stanford. Nonetheless, I am taking this class because I am genuinely interested in the topic, and I think that it's awesome that Stanford offers such a class. Mental health and well-being are so important when you consider the increases in mental health problems such as depression, and the effects of such.
I wish I could tell you everything I have learned in the past five weeks, but you would be reading pages upon pages. I am only halfway through the class, and it has had such an impact already on not only my lacrosse game but also my life more generally. I'm sure many of you know what power happiness can bring, but sometimes it is hard to bring yourself out of a stressful event or maintain the positive that is going on. I'm definitely not an expert on the topic but I would like to share some of the things I have learned and some exercises that might help you or others around you.
One of the first things we do each class is an exercise called "taking in the good," where we spend about 30 seconds just closing our eyes and really concentrating on something recently that happened that made us feel good in some way. Sometimes I think about some awesome save I made in practice, or about a great conversation I had with someone. Our brains process so much information throughout the day that it must pick and choose what to store. Too frequently, our brains are quicker to store negative events than positive ones. Each time we do that exercise I can literally feel my body change. I becoming calmer, I can feel my heart beat slower, and even find myself putting a smile on my face. Even though I may be tired or not looking forward to my long day of classes, this really helps to reset my brain and change my focus. We learned by continually doing exercises like these you could actually change your brain to remember these positive moments more often.
Many times people can talk about different things while using the same word: happiness. There's 1), the shorter-term focus on a one-time positive emotion, and 2) the longer-term view of happiness with more meaning. In younger people it is common to find that being happy in the moment is important, and in older generations you see that they attain happiness by finding meaning in their lives. One of the things that we recently discussed is how people try to attain these pieces separately, yet many times go hand-in-hand in a cyclical fashion. For example, one classmate was saying that when he is stressed from a test or feeling overwhelmed from a busy schedule he remembers why the things he is doing is important to him or what meaning it provides in his life. Continual practices like this cultivate the good and meaning and can many times lead to the positive emotion piece. Like anything, for it to work you really have to practice it and make it a habit.
This week our assignment is to pick an exercise we have learned about in class and really commit to doing it for a few weeks and see how it feels. Something that I have already been doing that I continue to do is writing about what I am grateful for and things that happened that made me happy that day. Another exercise we recently read research about, that has proved to have a greater positive influence than the gratitude journal, is writing about your best possible self. This is the new exercise that I'm going to try, where 3-4 times a week you take 10-15 minutes and try to see yourself way into the future and ask yourself what is the best version that I can see? This has been more effective because it many times will prompt action to try and attain that best version of yourself that you see.
Some other ideas we're trying: random acts of kindness, sending a nice email/letter to someone a few times a week, exercise (but we get plenty of that as athletes that's for sure), or even simply practicing smiling more can make a difference. I challenge you to commit to trying one or researching others and see what happens. Again, I'm no expert on the topic; there are still some days where all I want to do is go get a lot of junk food to make myself feel better (yes, we all have those days). But doing these exercises can stop me in my tracks and refocus my thinking to a more positive mindset. There are some awesome TED Talks, from the annual "ideas" conference, we have watched about shifting our thoughts about stress and happiness. Two are below.