Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness

(photo taken from jpsteiner.blogspot.com, via a Google image search for "pogs")

I was reading a blog post by a great writer the other day, and he was talking about how many great people in history have battled depression in various stages of their lives. Certainly, each of us can succumb to feelings of discouragement, boredom, or lose our passion for the activity that once enlivened our spirits. How can we fight these feelings that make us lose hope and deter us from taking action and accomplishing great things? I've found three methods that have helped me when these negative feelings begin to set in, methods that kindle the fire of productivity and inspiration once again.

1. Be grateful for what you have. No matter what you're going through, someone has always had it worse. Victims of war, religious leaders, victims of human trafficking, and countless others have faced plights that most of us can't even imagine. If you're driving down the street, be grateful for the car that you're able to drive. If you can't afford a car and are taking the bus, be grateful for public transportation that makes your commute faster. If no public transportation is available, be grateful for the ability you have to walk. If you don't have the ability to walk (this is where I can no longer say, "be grateful," for I can't imagine how difficult it must be) one may still find gratitude in the ability to be outdoors or in nature. One of my heroes is the son of the local Steinway dealer in Salt Lake City who was in a terrible boating accident. Someone's towel blew off the houseboat they were sleeping on, and in an effort to save them from having to jump in the water to get it, he dove in after it. Being on the diving team at his school, he didn't think anything of it. Little did he know that there was a small sandbar below, and the dive crippled him. He has since been in a wheelchair. However, he has found gratitude for the small and simple things in life, and has turned his misfortune into inspiring countless others on the subject of finding hope in their lives. I believe that there's no quicker road to happiness than by doing a quick inventory of all of the things you're grateful for. Opening our eyes to see all that we are blessed with is humbling.

2. Find a hobby. My family always says, "Oh no...Josh has found his new obsession. This is the next round of Pogs." Do you remember those truly ridiculous pieces of cardboard called "Pogs"? In first grade, I happened to be pretty good at taking that silver "slammer" and flipping all of the pogs right side up in the endless tournaments we'd play at recess, thus stealing a lot of pogs from my classmates and amassing quite the collection. Pogs were a fad about as fleeting as Beanie Babies (which, weren't those all supposed to be worth hundreds of dollars each by now? It'd be tough to find someone to even give them away to). However ridiculous they may be, hobbies can keep the human spirit alive and provide a meaningful and healthy escape from the routine of every day life. If you can find hobbies that benefit you or your family in a meaningful way, even better! About a year ago, my wife and I got really into emergency preparedness, a "hobby" that I would urge everyone to take up at some point. Having a bit of food and water on hand in case of an emergency, some camping gear, a flashlight, extra blankets, or whatever else you might need in an emergency gives you even more peace of mind in your day-to-day life. Since then, I've cycled through a few other hobbies, some too ridiculous to mention here. Golf has been a constant hobby since I was 15 years old. For Christmas one year, I received a piece of turf and a golf net that we set up in the garage. My mom would often find a club carelessly abandoned on the piece of turf when she pulled in, where only seconds before the garage had started to open I had been hitting my 172nd shot into the net on one of my (far too frequent) practice breaks. My sprinting from the piece of turf to the piano became an art form in and of itself.

3. Maintain balance. If you try to take on too much, no matter how much you enjoy an activity, it can start to lose its zest and you can come to resent it. One of the common balancing acts I have to execute is a proper balance between performing, teaching, practicing, family time, and hobbies. If I have constant performances, I often miss teaching. If I am constantly teaching, I miss performing and may not be practicing as much as I need. If I do anything with piano to an excess, I neglect my relationships with those I care about most. I've noticed another toxicity in regards to balance - being too intense in one's endeavors can lead to an abandonment of those very endeavors. I was recently very sad when one of my favorite students quit taking piano lessons. He was probably in his late fifties or early sixties, and he practiced about 6 hours per day. I always looked forward to our lessons, but a few months back he took a dangerous turn. He wanted to play all of the most difficult Chopin Etudes. After handling Op.10 No.1 really well, he proceeded to go to the dreadful Op.10 No.2 (chromatic) and Op.25 No.6 (double thirds) etudes, pieces which I'm personally intimidated by and seldom perform. He thought it would be a healthy challenge. In hindsight, I should have insisted that he stop. When I originally suggested it would be too much, he asked to move forward anyway, and that we would treat them like exercises. I agreed, as long as we could keep working on more accessible repertoire. He worked extremely hard, had a great attitude about the pieces, and was making headway at a much faster pace than I had expected, when all of the sudden I received an email from him saying he was going to stop taking lessons, that it was simply too much for him, and that he wasn't seeing the results he wanted. I wrote him an email back, telling him how well he had been doing and to notice what tremendous strides he'd made in the past year, already tackling several difficult pieces, and taking on some of the most formidable etudes to improve his technique (and doing really well with them!). It taught me a great lesson that even with rock solid determination and white hot persistence, we can all break at some point, and it's smart to do a weekly self check-up, take a step back, and look at the bigger picture. When readjustments need to be made, don't be afraid to make them. Accompanying really stresses me out a lot of times. Learning vast amounts of repertoire under a very tight deadline when I already have a huge practicing/performing/teaching schedule added quite a bit of anxiety, and I finally asked myself, "Why am I doing this?!" It's quite rare that I'll take an accompanying gig now. Occasionally I'll do it if a piece really intrigues me, or if it's for a close friend or a family member, but simplifying my life in that one small way is something that has really improved my overall attitude and kept my stress levels in check. Even if it's difficult to say no to some things, it can often be worth it if it simplifies your life and allows you to focus on things you're even more passionate about.

A great church leader who I respect greatly put it best when he discussed these topics in a talk entitled "Good, Better, and Best." Which one will you choose? What are the top priorities in your life, and are you letting good things stop you from accomplishing the best things?