The Science of Happiness-An Experiment in Gratitude

Great video on the way gratitude affects our happiness. Let me know if you try out the experiment! 

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The Only Thing We Have To Do In Life and a Great Big Thank You

Over the course of the last nine months that I’ve been sharing my writing, I am always pleasantly surprised when old friends and family members tell me they read my blog. I’ve never assumed anyone would. What’s even more is that they tell me they enjoy it! I am so grateful to these people and to my fellow bloggers for reading my work and becoming a part of my story. In honor of this, I decided to re-post the first piece I shared with the blogging community, my friends and family. Once this piece was published, it was Freshly Pressed and helped share my writing with hundreds of people I have never met. For those of you who have followed me from the beginning, I am forever grateful. For those that have begun to follow me over the course of these months, thank you so much! And to my future readers, I hope you enjoy my work as much as I enjoy doing it. You all inspire me to continue to do what I love. Have a wonderful day 🙂

The Only Thing We Have To Do In Life

I had a teacher in middle school who used to say the only thing in life we have to do, is die.

As a kid, it’s unknowingly easier to understand this concept. Rather than do things because we feel we have to, for the most part we do them because we want to. We dream of becoming an astronaut, ballerina, or movie star, and unaware of the “realities” of life, believe that one day we will achieve these dreams.

As we get older however, we’re bombarded with distractions–from the media, our jobs, our teachers, even our families–that make us believe these dreams are made for someone else–that they’re too outrageous and unachievable for ourselves. And before we know it, we find ourselves swept up in the trivial things we do day to day. Waking up on time, getting to class or work, running errands, watching TV, making dinner. Suddenly, it’s easy to believe we have to do these things. But actually, we don’t.

No matter what we do in life, the end result is the same. We die. Death; it’s the great equalizer. The one thing we all have to do. Everything else simply fills the time.

Knowing that this life will end leads me to believe that the only thing we all want, while we have this time, is to be happy.

So we can choose to be happy one of two ways:

  1. By doing what we are told we should do.

OR

   2. By doing what we want to do (and sometimes these things align with what we’re told we should do-like getting a college degree or falling in love, for example).

Choosing option #1 can be easy, falling into the pre-determined track of life that has been laid out before us. Go to school, get a degree, find a job, get married, have kids, and one day retire to an over 55 living community in Florida. I’m sure there are people who do get fulfillment out of leading this type of life, but I know that there are others who do not. And since you’re still reading this I know I’m talkin’ to you!

That’s why we have choice #2. However, choice #2 requires some work. We must accept that we will die, and then strip away distractions to look within ourselves to see what we want out of life right now, regardless of what anyone else may say. It requires being honest with yourself to see what really lies within. I don’t think it’s easy. I think it takes dedication to yourself and the dreams you had as a little boy or girl. Once we acknowledge our mortality, it’s easier to go after the things we truly want in life.

Many of us have ironically read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” in our school years. Frost writes of “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” and the narrator must decide which path to take. Ultimately he chooses “the one less traveled”. I distinctly remember my teacher emphasizing how important it was to take this road “less traveled” in our lives and to not blindly follow others in their choices. We were encouraged to make our own decisions, even if they were less popular. I’m sure others who have studied this poem have been told something similar. Ironically however, as I’ve experienced myself, if we do take the road less traveled, or make a third road of our own-by taking time off of school, or not going to college at all, for example-it’s frowned upon. Frost ends his poem by writing that taking this road less traveled “has made all the difference”.

So here’s what I say; let us make a conscious effort every day to be the judge of what will make our lives fulfilling to ourselves. Let us judge our happiness by our own standards rather than others- a kind of “happy relativism”. Let us not allow others to define what will make our lives meaningful. I think it’s something we must work on every day, but eventually it can become a lifestyle. And let’s see just the difference it can make.

yellow wood2

What Do You Want To Do Before You Die?

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In a few days (two to be precise) I’ll be moving into Manhattan to participate in NYU’s Writers in NY program specifically for creative non-fiction. I can’t believe that I’ll actually be embarking on this journey for the next four weeks. And because this is going to be one of the most exciting things I’ve done so far in my life, I’ll be using my Wednesday and Saturday posts to document my time in the program. I’m really hoping to have some great stories to tell.

I also think it’s important for me to use today’s post to reflect on what it’s taken to get me to be a part of this program. As mentioned before, (https://abbeygallagher.wordpress.com/2013/05/18/why-do-i-write-anyway/) I’ve been writing my entire life. (After I wrote that piece I even remembered the two books I had started writing when I was in middle school. It’s funny how vividly I still remember them.) I always considered writing a hobby of mine, or just a way for me to express and reflect on my emotions—never really considering it something I could pursue as a career. I’ve always dreamed of writing a book but never thought it was possible. At least not right now. I just thought I would write it later, when I had more experience, or something like that.

Over winter break however, I was truly inspired after coming across a TV show (yes, another one!) that I had watched in high school called The Buried Life. Similar to World of Jenks (which I wrote about on Wednesday– https://abbeygallagher.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/world-of-jenks-and-why-its-awesome/) the show is filmed as a documentary. The show is about four guys who created a list of things they wanted to do before they died and follows them as they travel across the country crossing things off their list. What made the show truly inspirational however, wasn’t just watching their shenanigans (they competed in a Krump competition, snuck into a party at the Playboy Mansion, and helped deliver a baby); it was that for each thing they crossed off their list, they helped a stranger cross something off of theirs. With every stranger they met, they asked What do you want to do before you die? When I watched the show in high school I didn’t think about it too much. I never even asked myself What do I want to do before I die? But now that I’ve experienced a loss so close to me with the death of my father, I know that I won’t be here forever and I better make the most of the time I have.

So I decided to make my own list of things to do before I die. As I read over the list, I realized just how bizarre and outrageous some of the things on it were. #48: Spend a day talking with a British accent. #33: Kiss a stranger on New Years Eve in Times Square. #56: Be a nude model for an art class. I scoured the list for something I could start working on now, because I realized that once I had written my dreams down they no longer felt so unattainable. Suddenly, they just became projects to cross off the list.

Scanning the two sheets of loose leaf I had written my list on, my eyes fell upon

#7: Write a book.

 As I sat there, I realized that there was no reason to wait any longer to start working on this dream. Because hey, there might not be a later for me. Who knows? Why not start now?

And as it began to sink in that I could start working on this dream right now I began to think about how much work it would actually take. I accepted the fact that you don’t just automatically sneeze out an entire book in one sitting. I don’t imagine J.K. Rowling sat down one night and started writing “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much,” all the way to “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.” * It’s a lot of hard work. There are a lot of tiny baby steps to creating such a big piece. And so I thought, what’s the first step I need to take?

And with that, I went to lunch with one of my dearest friends, Brian, and posed my idea to him. Just like he had told me the previous summer when I came to him saying I wanted to write seriously, he suggested I start a blog. But this time, unlike last summer, when I had protested the use of technology, I decided that creating a blog would be the best way to start writing regularly and to an audience (something I was absolutely terrified about—the pages of my journal were the only audience I had before). It would be my way of seeing if I really had the chops to write seriously. Would I get writers block? Would I run out of ideas? Would anyone even read it?

Despite my fears, I started this blog with my first piece The Only Thing We Have To Do In Life (https://abbeygallagher.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-only-thing-we-have-to-do-in-life/and couldn’t believe the overwhelmingly positive response I got. I’ve been writing consistently since then and I’ve got to tell you, creating this blog was the best thing I could have done. I’ve proven to myself that I have an endless amount of ideas. (And that when I have writers block, I can easily hide it from my readers by posting fiction for two weeks.) And I’ve gotten a great confidence boost in knowing that people read my pieces and actually–dare I say it–enjoy them.

The most important thing I’ve learned however, is that taking the first step toward a dream project is really the hardest part. After you’ve taken the first step, the next ones don’t seem as difficult. After you’ve taken the first step, the dream feels more achievable, not so scary, and you feel motivated to take the next steps, one after the other.

And so after writing this blog for a few months, I decided I was ready to take another step toward writing a bigger work. While my blog has given me experience and confidence, it’s now time to take my writing to the next level and focus on perfecting my craft. Knowing that this was a necessary step toward reaching my dream, I applied to NYU’s summer writing program. To my surprise I was accepted and to my even greater surprise, my grandparents agreed to let me go (with a lot of persuasion on my part). I can’t believe I’m going to have the opportunity to work with professors who are published authors and I can’t wait to see how my writing will change over the next four weeks with all the things I will learn. It’s going to be amazing.

So I’d like to thank The Buried Life guys for inspiring me to finally pursue my love for writing right now instead of waiting until it might be too late. And I’d like to thank Brian for pushing me to start a blog despite my initial hesitation. Without these two influences, I think I would still be searching for happiness even though it’s been at the end of my pen all these years.

So now I open up the question to you: What do you want to do before you die? Feel free to leave your answers in the comment box!

*First and last lines of the Harry Potter series.

Here’s a trailer of The Buried Life for anyone who’s interested!

World of Jenks and Why It’s Awesome

world of jenks

I’ve never watched a lot of TV that I actually cared about. Sure, throughout middle school I was entrenched in the story of none other than Ms. Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, but aside from that not much else sticks out in my mind.

During my dad’s illness, I especially avoided watching TV because you never knew when a character would just be killed off. I vividly remember going to the movies with my best friend Emily to see The Last Song, a romantic drama based on Nicholas Sparks’ novel when suddenly, out of left field, with barely any foreshadowing to warn vulnerable audience members, the father gets cancer and dies. For “dramatic effect.”  Well, I was deeply insulted. All Emily could do was exaggeratedly mouth in the darkness, “I’m so sorry.” It’s okay Emily; it wasn’t your fault.

When I moved in with my grandparents after my dad died, I watched TV even less. I didn’t even have a TV in my bedroom. I even began to hate having to hear the TV when other people had it on in the other room. (For this reason, I always have either a. a fan blowing in my room to muffle the TV’s sounds b. ear plugs stuffed so far in my ears I worry I’ll never be able to pull them out c. headphones snug atop my head with music pouring into my ears or d. a combination of all the above.) And so when I do like something on TV, I really like it. I mean, really.

While I was living in my apartment during the school year, it was never a problem when I wanted to watch the one show I do follow on TV. We only had one television but I was lucky to have a roommate that enjoyed watching the same show I did. Now that I’m home though, I realized that in order to watch the season finale of my favorite show, I was going to have to ask permission to watch the television in our living room at 11 o’clock at night. This wouldn’t be an issue in a normal house where teenagers–ahem, young adults (since I’m no longer a teenager anymore)–stay up late and grandparents go to bed early, but since my house is anything but normal, my grandpa watches TV every single night into the wee hours of the morning. Every. Single. Night.

And so I planned my attack to ask him at the opportune moment. Right after breakfast, before anyone had seriously bothered him (yet).

“Hey Grandpa, I have a question for you…”

“Yea, sure.”

All right, at least he seems open to hearing your idea.

“Well, tonight my favorite show is having its season finale at 11 and I was wondering if I could watch it?”

“Why are you asking me?”

Is this a test?

“Well, you always watch TV at that time.”

“You do realize we have more than one television in this house, right?”

Apparently my grandparents had made some changes to our house while I was away. Oh the joys of being a college student returning home for the summer.

 “Oh….okay. Duh. I hadn’t thought of that.”

Home free. Get out fast before he asks more questions!

And just as I stood up to walk upstairs…

“What show is it anyway?”

Oh here we go.

It’s not that I don’t want to share the interesting, exciting things that I love with my grandpa. Really, I do. It’s just that with every interesting and exciting thing I do or discover he seems to question me.

For example:

1)   I became a vegetarian. FOUR YEARS AGO.
THIS Thanksgiving: “Abigail. Why would you want to be a vegetarian? I’ve never known a happy vegetarian. You’re missing out on all the good things in life!”

2)   I wanted to be a music major.
“Abigail. What kind of a job can you get with that?”

3)   I wanted to go to NYU’s creative nonfiction summer writing program.
“Abigail. How is that going to help you at all in life?” (Thanks to all my followers I managed to change his mind about this one!)

4)   I pitched my first book idea to him.
“Abigail. Why the hell would anyone want to read that?”

5)   I cut all my hair off.
“Abigail. Why did you do that? Are you a lesbian?”

Seriously. The list goes on.

So it’s no surprise that I didn’t want to reveal the one show on TV that actually makes me happy just so he can tell me why he thinks it sucks  stinks. But I can’t ignore him since he’s my grandfather after all so I took a deep breath in through my nose to prepare myself for what I knew was coming next and said,

“World of Jenks.”

“World of what?”

“Jenks, Grandpa. Jenks. It’s a guys last name.”

“And what’s it about?”

Time to say goodbye to the one show that brings you joy. It was nice knowing you Jenks, Kaylin, Chad, and D-Real.

Clenching my jaw, I hesitantly began. Because when I find something I really like, I don’t want people questioning why I like it, I just do. And sometimes, it’s hard for me to understand how some people wouldn’t also find the things I like as awesome and completely amazing and inspirational as I do.

 “Well…it’s about this guy…Andrew Jenks. And…he lives with these three people for a year and…documents their lives….

And with a blank stare that seriously suggested I continue on, I said,

“This year he lived with a young man with autism, a new father who is trying to promote peace in Oakland through dance, and a young woman who’s had cancer twice who just moved to New York” you know, that big city with all the lights that’s only a half an hour away from our house “to pursue a career in fashion.”

Perfect. Good job Abigail. Sweet and simple.

 “Abigail.

Oh for the love of God.

Why would you want to watch that? Who cares about those people’s lives? Don’t you want to watch the lives of interesting people, like movie stars?”

Movie stars? Really? That’s the best you got?

 “Because it shows that even though these people aren’t famous, they’re leading amazing lives all on their own!”

“It’s amazing that that girl had cancer?”

“No! Of course not! It’s amazing what she’s doing in spite of her cancer, Grandpa.”

You’re losing the battle Abigail.

“Alriiiiight.”

I didn’t say you had to watch it, did I?

And with that, I walked away and counted the hours until I could sit in front of the new television we apparently acquired while I was away at school to watch the season finale of my favorite show on TV.

*

I guess there are other people who wouldn’t understand why I love World of Jenks so much. So maybe I should try and explain it here. And then maybe my grandpa can read it and understand a little better (since verbal communication isn’t exactly my strong suit—as you can tell from our conversation).

The biggest reason I love this show is because it’s real. The people being filmed aren’t actors. They’re just regular people like you and me. And that’s super cool, because it makes me feel like I could be doing just as cool things as they’re doing.

These people’s stories are true. Neither their pain and struggles nor their victories and triumphs are made up for dramatic effect (take note, Nicholas Sparks). And the best part is that they don’t let the obstacles in their lives—whether it be autism in Chad’s case, Kaylin’s pain after chemotherapy, or the violence where D-Real lives—identify them or keep them from doing amazing things. Jenks and his crew use the show to humanize these individuals instead of letting stereotypes define them.

chad

For example, despite the challenges that Chad faces because of his autism, in the year that Jenks followed his life, he graduated high school, got himself a job, and even moved with his family despite the anxiety it brought him.

dreal

D-Real (who I posted a video of here: https://abbeygallagher.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/dancing-in-the-rain/) created dance competitions in Oakland to promote nonviolence and his dance crew performed for Mac Miller and even got signed with an extremely well-known choreographer.

kaylin

Kaylin said f*ck you to cancer and moved from California to New York while in remission, published a comic series about cancer, got a job with a fashion designer, and even put together her own line that was shown at Brooklyn’s Fashion Week despite having to make it all in a few short days when her sample maker failed to make the pieces correctly.

I especially relate to Kaylin since I watched my dad battle cancer. I was so proud to see the way she handled her diagnosis (with a kick butt, take names later attitude) and the way she persevered to create a better life for herself while she could. Kaylin has a blog, which I highly recommend checking out here: http://cancerisnotfunny.blogspot.com. Unfortunately, from what I can tell from her blog, Kaylin’s cancer returned and it appears she’s needed help paying for medical services. I don’t know Kaylin personally but I do know her story and believe she would greatly appreciate any donation, no matter how small. (Despite this jab at trying to advertise on Kaylin’s behalf, I really recommend checking out her site, if only to read the unique way she has documented her experiences with cancer.)

I also love that the show is a documentary. There is rarely a time when the camera isn’t rolling because you never know when something important may happen. I think this is a testament to both the people behind the camera and the people on it because there is really no time to “take five,” making this the most demanding type of filmography (is that even a word?) there is, in my opinion. Not to mention all the editors who have to watch all the hours of footage and piece together the important parts to create a cohesive story for each individual. They work through the night, through the tears, and through the smiles of each of their subjects gracefully and honestly. And by doing so, Jenks and his team educate their audience on different ways of life and expose the audience to different perspectives, something we can all learn from. Jenks has my dream job. Telling other people’s stories.

Most importantly, I like watching these individual’s lives because it makes me feel like I stand a chance in this world that at times makes no sense at all. If these people can overcome the obstacles in their lives, I can certainly work my way to create a life that is different from the one I have been born into.

I guess the best way to put it is that the show gives me hope for a better life.

And so I write this post as a way to say thanks to everyone who was a part of the show for keeping that light at the end of the tunnel shining bright for me.

Here’s the trailer for the show if you’d like to check it out!

With Sincere Thanks

Before I post my quote for the day I’d like to take a moment to say thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read my blog. Thank you to everyone who has commented or liked any of my posts, particularly The Only Thing We Have To Do In Life after it was Freshly Pressed. The number of responses I have gotten is amazing; I never expected such a wonderful reaction. I am truly humbled by your kindness and inspired by the stories you have shared with me. I feel privileged to know that you have taken your valuable time to read my words. I am honored to have been part of your lives, if only for a few minutes of your day.

Since I was young, I’ve written for myself in journals but always dreamed of writing something that others would one day read. I knew that until someone read my words, they would be dead on the page. Thanks to you all, my words have truly been brought to life. I am so grateful to each and every one of you for giving me this experience. I have learned that I have a story worth telling-as do we all-and look forward to sharing more of mine with you and reading yours as well.

I believe in each and every one of you to achieve the dreams you are working towards and want to thank you for continuing to make one of mine come true.  You are my inspiration.