Why Did It Take Me 42.5 Years to Figure This Out?
It's been a while, but I have discovered something big.
When I started my Substack a little over a year ago, I was hellbent on figuring out how to master the self-imposed “Make Jasmin Happier” project. I was struggling with the Covidtime woes, like the rest of the world, and just couldn’t bring myself out of my funk.
So I decided to take an extremely proactive approach to improve my mood, life experiences, organizational habits, and self-care (I don’t mean the mani-pedi variety). That’s why last year I re-entered therapy for a while, started doing online EMDR (yep, there are online EMDR programs—but I only recommend that if you’ve done it live with a therapist at another point, as I had), started working out using a virtual reality videogame, and began meditating.
But, honestly, that feels like so many moons ago right now that I consider it all just a fuzzy preamble to my current experiences with making myself “happier.” (And my current state is a preamble for tomorrow, and on and on, and thus concludes the philosophical portion of this newsletter.)
Is happiness what we should be striving for?
It’s funny to me that I thought I’d be starting some process of getting “happier,” a process that I thought would then have a completion. As if I’d simply reach happiness and then go tell you about it.
Nowadays, I don’t think it’s “happier” that I am seeking. I have been working more toward contenment and finding more moments of joy.
Maybe this is just semantics, or maybe the words we use help us find a more achievable, sustainable way forward.
Last year I told you about some of the tools I was putting in place on my quest for being happier. They included a “fun” workout program using my virtual reality goggles, a commitment to meditate daily (sometimes also through the VR goggles), the aforementioned online EMDR, therapy, and constantly evolving new tools to help me organize my calendar and to-do lists.
I was living in the Catskills then, basically in the middle of nowhere, after having just left West Hollywood at the start of the pandemic. Looking back, though my privileges were not lost on me, life was difficult. I was having some interpersonal issues and felt a now-familiar mix of Zoom-fatigue and, well, existential loneliness. Though I’m grateful that I was in therapy (on the phone, with a therapist I had formerly seen in person), I think I was using it to just vent—notsomuch to change my thinking or behavior.
There were still joys—game night with the family, setting up the enormous screen for movie night, an actual drive-in movie theater nearby that offered Covid-safe date nights, and a ton of barbequed Beyond burgers right in our backyard. But inside, I was struggling—to communicate effectively, to self-soothe healthfully, and to take care of my physical and emotional needs.
In the short-term, I’m not sure any of it “worked.” Despite the occasional dopamine hit, I couldn’t quite lift the heaviness I was feeling.
Why is it hard for me to admit I have contentment?
Looking back now, it all seems so obvious.
I’m writing this to you from my hammock in my new-ish backyard in Rochester, Birdie Dog nestled beside me. She’s chilly, so my jacket is draped over her, and the bird sounds all around us make me feel I’ve somehow entered a rainforest.
In terms of my 2021 definition, you could definitely say I’m “happier” now than I was back then, but I think more than that, I’m finding joy and contentment in the moment, more and more.
Oddly, that is very hard for me to admit. Though I’ve previously written about how we should allow ourselves the ability to feel excitement more often, I think that was easier for me because excitement is inherently fleeting (but so is … everything?).
Admitting I’m feeling more contentment feels scary to say because on some cellular level, I worry about how that could shift my identity, self-expression, or even ambitions. I haven’t totally untangled this so don’t call me on it later, but I think I used to almost intentionally suffer so that I always had something to aspire to: to become more successful, more satisfied in various types of relationships, more financially comfortable, more this, more that, more this again.
Please forgive my tardiness
Wanting more felt directly tied to being dissatisfied; I didn’t realize that you can have both: contentment and aspirations. A recognition and appreciation of your own success and an acknowledgment that there are other things you are working toward.
I’m saying a lot of this to you while covering my face with my hands and shly peering through my fingers. I don’t know why, but that’s where I am.
And I am sure that my journey last year—and for all the years and decades that came before—was somehow necessary to get to the here and now, even though many of the times, it felt in the moment like the despair would never end. But everything ends.
You might have noticed that I’m extremely late in writing this newsletter. I’ve been writing it weekly for more than a year, and then I disappeared. And let me first say: I’m sorry. I could give you lots of excuses, including my wife getting Covid (she didn’t have it badly and is fine now—and I remained negative somehow), our sweet dog dying, and some difficult changes regarding my professional representation, but I think those happenings don’t tell the full story.
I honestly think I didn’t know what to write because so much of the impetus for my words have been coming from a feeling of reaching for something. I never want to pretend to be a life coach when I’m not one; I want to use this space to document my journey toward self-betterment, self-care, creative expression, and effective activism. I want to always bring to you my truth and, when appropriate, my vulnerability.
It always feels gratifying when you write to me after reading my Substack and tell me that my entries are somehow echoing (and thus normalizing) your own experiences, or when you tell me that you’re using some of the organizational tools I write about.
So although it’s indeed accurate that I had all of those circumstances which by themselves could rationalize my being tardy with this newsletter, the truth is, I didn’t know how to present this to you—and even this feels a bit sloppy … because it’s not like I went to sleep grumpy and woke up … “happier.”
This has been—and, crucially, continues to be—a very non-linear, oftentimes bumpy journey of self-growth, radical honesty, and learning when (and how) to let go. The questions I have been toiling over recently have been: how can I tell you about this somewhat amorphous feeling and internal shift of mine? How can I tell you without sounding hokey? How can I adequately express to you that I’m still on this bumpy ride to contentment and mindfulness, while also conveying that I think I am finally onto something internally? How can I embolden you to find it too, especially when I think we each have to make shifts internally, slowly over time, if we are to reach our own moments of contentment?
And how can I reassure myself that none of this means I’m abandoning the me I’ve known, and been, all these years? Putting it “on paper” memorializes these shifts in ways that make me nervous. What if it doesn’t stick?
The (coconut) meat of it
All I can tell you—I mean me—is that it’s working today, right now, as I sit on my hammock with Birdie Dog smushed beside me (she now officially stole my jacket and is using it as her blanket … OK, she didn’t steal it … I gave it to her).
And (forgive me, but …) now is all that really matters.
For those who are curious what I’m doing these days to find more contentment, here are a few of them (the thousand-foot high perspective):
Executive coaching. My work with Kathleen has been shape-shifting and oftentimes revelatory. It’s very different from therapy in that we are approaching my obstacles (including my familiar mental spirals) with curiosity and patience, while also gently turning the knob by even one notch to create a different outcome (by “knob,” I’m imagining the volume knob on 1980s TVs … I can still viscerally remember what turning it felt like, so my apologies to any young readers who have no idea what I’m talking about).
Lifestyle medicine. I’m lucky to live in a city with a plant-based lifestyle medicine program led by an MD. I meet with her every couple months and we approach my healthcare from a holistic perspective, which includes food (I eat a mainly a whole foods-based diet), stress management, and physical health (like getting enough sunshine).
Antidepressants. Curveball, anyone? A few months ago, I started down a path of trying some antidepressants on for size—which is something I hadn’t done in more than twenty years. I’d been resisting this for reasons that now perplex me, especially now that I’ve seen how much they can help. I don’t think antidepressants alone are the answer, but I do think that when combined with other internal work, they can be extremely helpful for some people.
This actually coincided with finally getting some medical care, including establishing a general practitioner whom I can see for the long-run, as well as getting dermatological care for a long-term condition. I have a lot of historical trauma from medical institutions and doctors, so this was a very big thing for me to do. At first, I had a misfire with a doctor who I was not comfortable with, and I had to go out of my way to self-advocate and find a better fit. Even though I’d procrastinated this for so long, I am now so happy that I have my ducks in a row.
Mindfulness. I’m inconsistent about practicing this, y’all, but I’m currently getting a lot out of Tara Brach’s Happiness, Contenment & Inner-Freedom online course. One thing I find really helpful is doing this with my best friend, Erica. We do the lessons at relatively the same time and then talk about them later. It’s allowed me to have a richer experience, to stay accountable to myself, and to discuss with her any lessons that stuck out as hard or helpful.
Biking. This is new, but I am seriously loving it! My wife and I started to discover Rochester on our new (used) bikes, and I’m surprising myself with how much I am capable of. Getting into my physical self remains a focus and is not easy for me, but biking connects me to myself, my community, and nature in ways I haven’t felt in some time.
Pausing. I’m giving this its own bullet point because it holds a lot of power for me and seems to be a throughline in a lot of my inner-work. Whether I’m pausing shopping for a week (it gives me a dopamine hit that I sometimes find concerning), pausing in a disagreement, pausing before sending that email (which I haven’t been amazing at, TBH, but I’m working on it), or pausing when I recognize a tried-and-true mental loop that I want to adjust, this has ultimately allowed me to reconnect with my true self.
Friends, I won’t let so much time go by before my next Substack. I will continue to endeavor to write them weekly-ish. I am so grateful to you for being here, for reading these words, for being supportive, and for giving me the space let all of this percolate.
We are all works in progress and always will be. It took me a great deal of existential angst to finally break through into a place where, for the first time in a long while, I can just sit back and listen to the birds chirp.
I wish you could hear them now; it’s remarkable over here.
I identify with so much of what you write. We’re overthinkers. I have trouble with meditation because I’m so uncomfortable in my body. Staying in the present and mindful inflames the sensations in the body I hate. I’m 78 and running out of time to figure this all out. Sue
💕wishing u all the best… in all of your adventures and discoveries.