Happiness is the right drug – or so I said in church yesterday

James Ensor

I was Sunday service leader for our Unitarian Universalist congregation yesterday. The sermon topic was “Psychology of Happiness,” and since I’ve lived relatively happily with bipolar disorder for many years now, it’s a subject on which I consider myself an expert.

Here was the Reverend Sam Trumbore’s preview of the service as it appeared in our church newsletter: “Psychologists often focus on the pathologies of the mind. Much of the work of psychology and pschologists deals with mental problems and how to address them effectively. New research has taken a different tack, studying healthy minds and what factors encourage good mental health. Barbara Fredrickson is one such researcher who studies the psychology of happiness.”

Great topic. Here’s how I approached it in my opening words. In the following passage, my lines are in green, my husband’s in magenta:

As a novelist, I love writing dialogue, and happiness is a subject close to my heart, so I jumped at the chance to be service leader today. Here’s a little dialogue I whipped up last night – I’d like to invite my husband up here to help me out. 

(Julie sings to the tune of “Happiness is a warm gun” from the Beatles’ White Album)

Happiness is the right drug, Happiness is the right drug. When I feel the pills start working . . .

Hey wait a minute! What drug are we talking about? What are you doing, advocating drug use on a Sunday morning at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany?

I’m talking legal drugs, prescription drugs. For some people, they’re the only way to conquer serious depression and achieve happiness.

Prescription drugs – yeah, right. That’s what killed Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson. Legal or not, drugs are bad news. Anyone can achieve happiness, if they work hard enough at it. I’ll bet that’s what Sam’s sermon is going to be about.

Who does Sam think he is, talking about happiness? He’s a Buddhist! Don’t they believe all life is suffering? But come to think of it, I’ve talked about happiness with Sam before, when I was so depressed I was practically suicidal. He believes it’s all in your mind.

Well, duh – of course it is! We all have the potential to achieve true happiness. Cognitive psychologists have all kinds of techniques anyone can use to feel better.

I know, I’ve read the books. David Burns, Martin Seligman -

Wait a minute – David Byrne? Wasn’t he the leader of the Talking Heads? His songs are full of gloom and doom. Remember Psycho Killer?

Not THAT David Byrne. This one’s Burns, with an S. He wrote Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Marty Seligman’s another one – he was on public TV just last week, and I get his newsletters online. He wrote Learned Optimism. He believes we all have a set point for happiness. Just as our weight tends to stay around a certain set point, so does our degree of optimism or pessimism. But with training and experience, we can change our own set points for the better -

Seems like you know a lot about all this cognitive stuff. So why are you pushing pills instead?

Because I believe happiness and unhappiness are biochemical to a large extent. Not everybody needs medication to be happy, but some of us do. Of course, a lot depends on our life experiences, too, and the choices we make.

So it’s the old nature versus nurture debate all over again?

Good point! But the two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. They work well in combination, too. In fact, we could all learn to -

Julie, maybe you’ve said enough for now. After all, this is Sam’s sermon, not yours. Maybe I shouldn’t say it up here in front of the whole congregation, but you can be kind of a show-off.

I know, I admit it. I love being the center of attention – it’s one of the things that makes me HAPPY!

We got a gratifying round of applaluse for our performance, but more importantly, we put across an important message. We all have our own ways of overcoming depression and finding happiness. There are lots of paths to joy – the trick is finding which combination works best for you.

Personally, even though my current medication regimen is minimal, I probably couldn’t live happily without it. How about you? I’d love to hear your comments.

UU – A spiritual home for the holidays

Last Sunday, as Service Leader at my Unitarian Universalist congregation, I started the service with a mini-testimonial. I joined my first UU congregation at a particularly dark, stressful period in my life. I’d say it’s been a Godsend, but like most UU’s, I’m not comfortable using the G word. In this darkest time of the year, when holiday joy is virtually mandatory, I’m sure there are many folks struggling with feelings of loss and depression. If by any chance you haven’t found a spiritual home, perhaps this post is for you. Here’s what I said on Sunday:

 

 

 In sweet fields of autumn the gold grain is falling,

the white clouds drift lonely, the wild swan is calling.

Alas for the daisies, the tall fern and grasses,

when wind sweep and rainfall fill lowlands and passes.

That’s the first verse of the beautiful hymn “In Sweet Fields of Autumn,” and it reduced me to tears when I heard it 15 years ago on my first visit to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills. I was going through a difficult time: I was running my home care agency, ElderSource, an incredibly stressful business that demanded my attention 24/7, and my teenage daughter had just left home to explore the country on her own. I was depressed and anxious, and the congregation promised comfort and community – I think I was sobbing with relief when I heard that hymn.

I’d been without a church for over 40 years. My parents were both staunch atheists, but out of a sense of obligation, feeling I had the right to explore my own religious path, they took me to the Unitarian Sunday School in Milwaukee. But when the boy next door invited me to go with his family to the Episcopalian Church, I jumped at the chance. It didn’t take long for me to get converted. When my parents asked why I wanted to switch, I said, “At the Unitarian church, all they have is some jigsaw puzzles with the pieces missing, but at the Episcopalian church, I get to march behind the gold cross and sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’”

Eventually I got myself baptized and confirmed Episcopalian, but sometime in my teenage years, I came to the realization that I was not and would never be a true believer.  Except for a few weddings and funerals, that was the end of my church going for the next four decades, until the UU Congregation of the Catskills quite literally threw me a lifeline.

In 1998, I closed the agency, and my husband and I pulled up roots in New Paltz and moved to Troy, where we knew practically no one. The transition was tough, but once we found the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, the sense of being part of a welcoming community made us feel at home. I found ways of getting involved – I chaired the Adult Education Committee, and later Small Group Ministry. The prospect of publishing in Oriel [FUUSA’s annual literary magazine] inspired me to start writing poetry, and I joined the motley crew that writes and performs the annual dinner skit.

Today I’m at a good point in my life, with a lot to be grateful for, and my participation in this welcoming community is part of the reason. The depression and anxiety are long gone, and I no longer sob over the sad words in hymns, but I know that if times get tough, this congregation will be there for me.

Last week I took my granddaughters to the Congregation of the Catskills, which is just ten minutes from their new home in West Hurley. They both liked it and want to go back, and Kaya’s going to be involved in the R.E.’s Festival of Lights presentation next Sunday. I’m hoping they’ll grow up as part of the beloved community it took me 40 years to find.

I invite readers to visit the national website of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. There you’ll find a lot more information, including a directory of more than 1,000 congregations listed by geographical area. At all of them, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of beliefs, you’ll find a warm welcome.

There’s something about Unitarian Universalism that seems to attract writers – on one of the panels I moderated for the Poisoned Pen Web Con, four panelists out of five turned out to be UU’s! But whether you’re a UU or not, I welcome your comments here.

BSP, or Blatant Self-Promotion. Why should it be a no-no?

“I’m going to become a world-famous author through my mastery of the Internet.”

That was my response yesterday when our minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Society  passed around the mike and asked us what goals we could set for ourselves over the summer. We were observing our annual “Flower Communion,” in which we bring flowers from our gardens to share. Reverend Sam Trumbore had segued seamlessly from imagery of flowers and buds to the theme of what might be budding in our own lives and ready to burst into bloom.  

Chihuly florabunda rose

Chihuly florabunda rose

These were not the roses I brought. I do have a Chihuly rose bush blooming in my garden, and the blooms are absolutely breathtaking, but I was too selfish to share them. I brought some crimson Blaze climbing roses instead, more than adequate for the occasion. 

This blog isn’t about roses, though. It’s about my grandiose statement of world domination. Had I gone over the top? Am I escalating into a manic episode? Grandiosity is a common symptom of mania, as I and others with a bipolar diagnosis know full well. But I wasn’t being manic – just realistic, or almost, though it may take more than one summer to attain my dreams.

 

Why do we authors find it so distasteful to brag? Especially we women authors? Blatant self-promotion (BSP for short) is frowned upon on many Internet sites, and it’s said to be a turn-off when authors promote their work too openly at panels and signings. Yet why be so ashamed? I believe it’s ingrained in our upbringing, drummed into us from an early age, especially if we’re of AARP age or above. But how will anyone find out about our books if we’re too reticent to brag a little?

Blaze of Glory climbing rose

Blaze of Glory climbing rose

FUUSA‘s book club met last night, and we were talking about selections for the fall. One man suggested the group choose my book Eldercide, which I’ll be relaunching in September as Evening Falls Early. Another man seconded the motion, pointing out that perhaps copies of Eldercide will become valuable collectors’ items once it’s no longer available under that name. Both men were present at the morning service, so I guess my boastful declaration didn’t turn them off. Would the group have selected the book if I’d been silent when they handed the mic around? I’ll never know.

The Chihuly rose is a recently introduced florabunda, named for the famous glass artisan Dale Chihuly. It survived my northeastern Zone 5 winter in fine form, and I heartily recommend it. The blaze rose shown here is “Blaze of Glory,” a Jackson & Perkins introduction from 2005. My own blaze climbing rose is the more traditional crimson version, and it’s really taking off this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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