How to cultivate a lighter touch on life?
March 13, 2017 5:30 AM   Subscribe

Is this even possible?

I recently read an interesting interview with Dick van Dyke, in which he said that he and his family always had a "light touch on life" -- which I interpreted to mean that they didn't take themselves or their world (or their problems so seriously). He also said that some of his children had this, and some did not, so perhaps there is a genetic component.

I am pretty serious (and anxious and prone to catastrophizing, ruminating, regretting, you name it). Yes, I've tried therapy, and yes mindfulness and CBT have been helpful to some extent. But I was recently struck by a video I saw (that I did not know was being taken) at a party, where I just look deep in thought, and even a bit stricken. It shocked me that I could look so serious in the midst of such fun. I can guarantee I was worrying about something Huge In My Mind but actually not that important.

In short, I'm wondering if there are any other strategies, little hacks, ideas, etc. to try to make each day, well, a bit lighter and more joyful.

A broad question, I know. But has anyone found a way (beyond the general catch-all of mindfulness) to cultivate this kind of lightness in their life?
posted by caoimhe to Human Relations (15 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
I took a class at church based on the book Improvisation for the Spirit, which worked a lot on that. I liked the book a lot; it's definitely worth a read.
posted by Fig at 5:39 AM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've found a good way is to read funny books and watch more comedies on TV and film. There are plenty of great recommendations for comedy on all sorts of media and of all different types of flavours right here on Mefi if you do a search - I find I really learn to internalise a sense of lightheartedness if it is present in the art that I am consuming.
posted by Ziggy500 at 5:46 AM on March 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

It sounds trite, but these things helped me:
  1. do something you will likely fail at. Then do it again.
  2. Do something that feels risky, and then do it harder.
Repeat as necessary.

The point is: get the fuck out of your own head, 'cause your head is a dipshit scaredy cat. Recalibrate your threat perception and your sense of what is likely vs. "Everything with a non-zero probability of occurring."
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:00 AM on March 13, 2017 [10 favorites]

I combat this exact same issue in my life by volunteering in animal rescue. It's hard to take myself and my problems so seriously when I'm sitting in the middle of a puddle of puppies who are crawling all over me and trying to lick my face.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:17 AM on March 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

The beloved national novel of Greece is about having fun in the face of incomprehensible suffering and failure. You should check out Zorba the Greek.
posted by johngoren at 6:28 AM on March 13, 2017

The next time you are worrying or catastrophizing try to picture the most absurd thing that could happen. Your Mum is in the hospital and being a difficult patient? - picture her making a break for escape wearing nothing but a diaper and a Johnny shirt, doing a mad dash down the stairwell followed by an orderly carrying her walker, a nurse waving one of those flannel sheets they mendaciously call blankets (in order to protect her modesty), a food services worker trying to entice her back with pink pudding, two security guards and a dozen other ambulatory patients who seeing the rush into the stairwell jump to the conclusion it is an evacuation and don't want to be left behind...

Your car is breaking down and you are worried about the labour charges building up to an astronomical height? Picture yourself in the waiting area at your mechanic's shop, drifting sadly from plastic chair to plastic chair, living on peanuts from the vending machine, night falls, a single light burns in the shop part of the business and faint metallic clunks can be heard while you wait, dawn comes, there are no more peanuts left, you are licking the inside of the crumpled peanut cellophane for the salt, you have memorized the first article (We Test Drive the New 2003 Subaru Smegma!) in the Road and Track magazine and can recite it like the Pledge of Allegiance...

Whatever is causing you sorrow or anxiety or fear, use your imagination to carry the situation to absurd lengths. Boss bullying you? Picture crying on her shoulder and getting tears and snot on her suit.

High fibre diet not working? Picture having to spend the rest of your life in the washroom, having a bed installed in the tub, fold down desk over the sink, internet connection hard wired, pictures on the walls, kitchen cabinets, hot plate and bar fridge, seating area for visitors...

You can consciously take any particular situation - even the absolute most grim ones like global climate change and intractable pain, and fantasize them into the climactic scene of a kid's comedy movie.

Failing comedy, there is reality. Think about the life disasters your parents and grandparents told you about. Grandma may never have recovered from the death of her first husband, but you know what? Her kids and her grandkids survived and there were many good times in her life since then. She may have been crippled, by her loss, but life went on, and there are a million tragedies and a million things to celebrate each moment. Perspective.

Your youngest doesn't seem to be capable of keeping her diaper on and every morning is a aggravating session of scrubbing and laundry and baths? Perspective. She will have mastered it by the time she is in college. (Or if not, it won't be your problem anymore.)

It'll all be the same in a hundred years is an excellent philosophy. Worried about Trump in the White House? Read about the time the Praetorian Guard assassinated Caesar, and sold the Imperial Purple to the highest bidder. Hey, we've done this before! And now it's just trivia for people who are into Classical history.

One thing that makes us unhappy is being unrealistic. We don't want to suffer pain, or grow old, or become handicapped... But our early, pain free days of being beautiful are a flash in the pan, ephemera. We were never designed to stay that way. The natural state of people and other living things is handicapped, suffering pain and showing wear and tear. And that's alright. The vast, vast majority of us spend our lives with parts that don't work, and intermittent or steady pain levels, and look from many angles frankly repulsive - and yet we not only manage, but remain deeply attached to our lives and capable of taking small pleasure and anticipation from absurdly small things, from our favourite web comic to not having had any artificial sweetner in the house this morning so we had to put genuine sugar in our coffee.

"Life is a jest and all things show it. I thought so once, but now I know it."
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:31 AM on March 13, 2017 [46 favorites]

I think it helps to notice elements of absurdity in unhappy events. (Check out Felix Fenion's Novels in Three Lines)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:33 AM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

For me: psychedelics eaten in wild and glorious wilderness locations in company with a small group of trusted friends.

our early, pain free days of being beautiful are a flash in the pan, ephemera. We were never designed to stay that way.

And that. The older I get, the more of my fucks seem to have been long since given.
posted by flabdablet at 6:34 AM on March 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Focus on the joyful and playful. Look for small joys in every situation, set an alarm on your phone to go off at random times, when it goes of, ask yourself what was I worrying about when it happens, then stop your self and find something funny or good about your present situation or just be present in the situation. Focus on one sense at a time and really listen, smell feel etc the moment.

Keep a journal where you record moment during the day where you felt present or joy etc or what ever mind set you are going for. See if there is a pattern to times when you feel like that.

Learn the pleasure of small joys.

Meditation may help.

Perform acts of charity, not just giving money, but small kindness for others during your day.

Borrow a dog, dogs have mastered being present in the moment, living lightly. Goats have also mastered this but are harder for most people to hangout with.

Wear an elastic band on your wrist, when yippy catch yourself catastrophising flinch or a few times and try to be present in the moment instead.
posted by wwax at 6:56 AM on March 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

There is a part in The Screwtape Letters which is, I think, applicable even to people who are uninterested in the theology of the book. I’m going to paraphrase a bit, but one of the letters is about how keeping a human in a constant state of anxiety and dread about the infinite possibilities of terrible things that MIGHT happen means that they never get to experience moments that are actually fine and pleasant.

If you are always filled with dread about hypotheticals (many of which are totally incompatible), then you are spending all your time and emotional energy feeling terrible about things that do not exist (and may never exist), instead of coping with the actual challenges that already do exist, and which might be more easily overcome if you weren’t dedicating so much of your emotional bandwidth to specters of your own making.

I used to do this a LOT. I had horrible imaginary conversations, I imagined painful future confrontations, I fantasized about how I would react to possible attacks— but the result was that I just felt constantly on edge and miserable, so that the normal pleasures of everyday life escaped me. It was like the worst sort of maladaptive daydreaming— the fact that I was imagining worst case scenarios didn’t mean that coming back to reality felt better. It just meant I missed quieter pleasures in favor of submerging myself in terrible visions of What Might Someday Happen.

It took a lot of work, but I rarely do this anymore. It isn’t really vague mindfulness so much, but a recognition that I was wasting my actual life living a much worse series of imaginary lives in my own mind. Preparing myself for ten terrible things that likely will not happen (or beating myself up for ten past actions that I cannot undo ever, no matter how much I think about them) is like drinking poison of my own accord and then wondering why I feel so terrible.

My process of getting better about this involved:
-not reading certain materials that tended to make me spiral in that direction
-forcing myself to have more conversations with people even though I find it hard (talking to another person forces you to be more present)
-following silly twitter accounts so I get daily doses of said silliness (highly suggest dogrates)
-asking friends to hold me accountable (and sometimes telling them I couldn't handle certain conversations at certain times)
-engaging more with nature-- not that I garden or anything, but forcing myself to pay attention to the natural world around me, instead of burying myself in texts that make me feel worse
-Paying more attention to acts of kindness that I see, trying to perform some myself
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:03 AM on March 13, 2017 [23 favorites]

I think you would get something from the documentary film, When Jews Were a Funny (Netflix, Amazon Prime, YT.) It's not the exact subject of the film, but there is a lot of talk (and some joking!) about how the Jewish people find and use humor despite the atrocities we've faced.

I can't really explain it, but you don't always have to pretend everything is hunky-dory. Maybe this joke from the film might help: A waiter goes up to a table of Jews and asks them, "Is anything okay?" It's worth a watch.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:18 AM on March 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Nthing improv and meditation. Also having a pet helps tremendously, I think.

Here's a poem I love:


Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat–
the one you never really liked–will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up–drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice–one white, one black–scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.

Ellen Bass
posted by veery at 7:38 AM on March 13, 2017 [44 favorites]

I know from your past questions that you're a parent of a young child and that can certainly add to the anxieties and what ifs and feeling like the hamster wheel you're on is So Very important. I know that five percent of my brain is always uncontrollably wondering if I'm going to get a call that he's broken all four limbs at the playground and another five percent is wondering if his nose is running and I can't turn it off and that probably shows up in all our candid videos too, that side eye over to check on him when I could be just enjoying my nice cup of coffee.

I do find that making myself meet a small person's unbridled silliness on its own level as much as possible is helpful in redirecting my mind from the serious, worrying, planning track. It doesn't have to be a big glorious laughing in the golden fields kind of thing - a nose boop or a little butt pat because little butts are so cute or even just thinking of a word you both currently find funny (ours is currently the poor town of "MASHPEE!") - very small doses but very frequently - help me.
posted by sestaaak at 7:55 AM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I still struggle with this a lot. Trying to maintain a sense of control is a coping mechanism built up over decades to try to lower your (my) anxiety levels. But decades of evidence have demonstrated to you (me) that it is a very bad one.

Recognize your inability to have total control over your life—and your reliance on God or luck or fate or whatever—whenever something good happens, even if you're theoretically responsible for it. You're equally unable to control your life when something bad happens, but it's much harder to start there.
posted by Polycarp at 8:53 AM on March 13, 2017

Perhaps counterintuitively, I stopped trying to be someone I wasn't, which is to say, a lot of light touch appears to be genetic. I worry; I ruminate. Finding humor and a light touch for that has made everything lighter. Some people are gonna get on you for being a complainer but in the Woody Allen vein, I've chosen find joy and camaraderie in my anxiety and cactusy self — and that has made all the difference.
posted by dame at 2:24 PM on March 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

« Older Help finding lost dog in unfamiliar rural area   |   Might these needlepoint pictures and tapestries... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.