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Q & A with Bright Side Up Author Amy Spencer {+ a giveaway!}

Posted Feb 10 2012 2:56pm

{Today I have the honor of turning my blog over to Amy Spencer, who is answering all the questions you submitted for her after I wrote about her new book, Bright Side Up . I think that after you read her answers, you’ll understand why I was gushing about this book — and her — so much!}

First of all, thank you all so much! Rachel, thanks for your amazing and thought-provoking post. And you guys for asking such questions, telling your stories and, wow, sharing so much Meeting Your Half-Orange love! And I love your questions—some of them are pretty big and deep and I wish I had time to meet up and answer them in person! But let’s do the next best thing…

Yay! It makes me happy to know there is a book in the world like this. It took a traumatic experience for me to (finally) learn how to truly live my life in a positive way, that heavy sarcasm can often equal pessimism and that by really letting go and looking forward in a positive way will bring you what you really want in life. My question for Amy would be: how do you get yourself out of a slump? While being optimistic and positive is a good thing, it takes work and sometimes life likes to beat us up a bit. So, if you’re having trouble finding the good, where do you go to get it? -  Sarah @ The Cyclist’s Wife

First of all, Sarah, I want to say how much I love the line “that heavy sarcasm can equal pessimism.” Wow, you nailed it there in so few words. Often, when we’re not getting what we want, we turn to humor to deal with it. And this can be a good thing! But sometimes people get overly self-deprecating and negative, and while they disguise it as humor (e.g. “Yep, I’m already a washed up old maid at 30!”) it’s actually still affecting their lives. Joking around is great, but if the sarcastic negative jokes are your “default,” it’s worth looking at your inner “preferences” and making a change.

As for your question! Here’s one idea for how to get yourself out of a slump: You try what I call living ten minutes in the life of the ideal you. We often have a vision of what our perfect life is and then get bummed we realize our current life doesn’t match it all. For instance, in your ideal life, you’re spending half the year in Italy, and the other half planting an organic garden, buying a new car with our extra money, doing Pilates six days a week, and cooking healthy meals like the contestants on Top Chef. But in our real life we’re using overdraft to pay our bills, heating up Stouffer’s frozen pizza for dinner, and watching TiVo all night. In other words: slump. What I find it really helps is to take action by spending just ten minutes a day doing something the “ideal you” would do. Okay, you can’t spend half the year in Italy (this year!), but you can spend ten minutes on Rosetta Stone learning language or ten minutes listening to a beautiful opera song. Maybe you can’t plant the whole organic garden, but you can spend ten minutes putting an herb seed in a pot on your windowsill. Use that pocket of time to do something that makes you feel bigger and brighter and happier: Write a poem. Write a thank you note and mail it. Do fifty kettle bell squats. Take a walk around your block without your Smartphone and take in the sights and sounds around you. Make a cup of green tea and read a chapter of a good book while you sip it.

True happiness isn’t just about finding glee in huge perfect big moments, it’s about sustaining a more steady feeling of contentment that comes from knowing you are living a valuable, authentic, good life. That’s the life you daydream about living, right? One that feels easy and effortless and healthy and happy. That’s where I think you go to get the good stuff: yourself. You just need to kick yourself in the butt a little for ten minutes a day to get it.

I guess my question is, how do you remain optimistic when there truly isn’t that much to be happy about? My relationship is great — but everything else sucks! I’ve been laid off three times in the last two years, I’m struggling with bills constantly — I currently work two jobs and am seriously looking for a third. We can’t even CONSIDER moving forward with a ring or wedding because of financial constraints. It’s hard to see all my friends getting married, buying houses and having kids when we can’t even keep the cable on. - Kate

That was my same question — I’ve run into similar problems with you and the truth is, it sucks. when you dont have a stable income or are constantly interviewing for positions, it is so emotionally draining despite having the support of friends or family. – Aly

First-time commenter here – love Rachel’s blog and am an avid lurker. But all this talk about optimism finally got me to comment! I was barely surviving at work when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I quit that project, and then had to withdraw from a 2-year work/travel agreement I had worked on all of last year (while getting over a broken-off engagement), and moved back to Hickville. So, far from friends, surrounded by family hounding me to “get settled down already – you’re almost 30!”, and right now, looking for at-home work so I can look after Mom. I try to keep busy with art and reading, but goddamnit, it’s turning out harder than I thought. And I’m the sunny one in my group!!I am not sure what to ask Amy, really. See, I do have it easier than most people but knowing that still doesn’t get me out of a funk. Any suggestions, Amy? – H

Hi Kate and Aly and H (by the way, saying that reminds me of Kate & Allie, one of my favorite old shows from years ago, so thanks!). I’m putting you together because you all express feeling buried under multiple problems and wondering how the heck you climb back to the top. I’m so sorry to hear all of you are going through such rough spells, and H, I’m so, so sorry to hear about your Mom’s breast cancer. Life can do that to us sometimes, making us work really hard for the simple pleasures. Two things are coming to mind on ways that might help taking a new perspective on it.

The first is something I use both physically and emotionally: If you’re feeling pain in one area of your body or in a few areas of your life, ask yourself, “Where doesn’t it hurt?” I use this in small ways and big ones. At the dentist when the hygienist is attacking my gums, I think about my feet and wiggle them around because they feel so pain-free and happy. And I use this in life, too, when really bad stuff is shadowing the good. Because as much as life can hurt, there is always something that doesn’t hurt. There’s always a pain-free, put-your-feet-up part. But only each of us can name what it is. Maybe it’s a great relationship, which, through the eyes of people who are pining for their true loves, is a gift they would give anything for. Maybe it’s the support of friends and family. My good friend has a difficult family to say the least (calls about the mental hospital, Alzheimer’s, drug addiction and restraining orders come weekly) and to him, the idea of a supportive family would be gold at his feet. Maybe it’s your work ethic that can help you excel in the jobs you get, or your ability to enjoy time alone, or your talents.

We all do this, of course. We look at the good stuff we have and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah I have that, but the other stuff is terrible!” But really? Our “Yeah, yeah, yeah” stuff is huge! As you three can all attest, having steady work that pays the bills would be a really big deal, and yet I know there are people who think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I have a steady job and pay my rent, but I want to get my food in the door and reach my dreams” or “But I want love.” Remember that: Each of our “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s are someone else’s big dreams. And it’s not a silly thing to spend some time actively appreciating that part.

The second thing I want to just say is that I find the really, super tough times in life are the ones who make us who we are. It’s like a 20-minute aerobic routine versus a hard core boot camp: The more intense and difficult it is, the more you change and grow by the end of it. In Bright Side Up, I talk about “putting a bow on it for your future self,” and by that I mean that if you can’t see something redeeming about your life today—if things seem grueling and awful with no light at the end of the tunnel—then remember this: Your future self called and has something to tell you: “Thank you.” Because these hard times are building you. With every tough day, you are becoming stronger, smarter, wiser, and more resilient. You’re learning to be more grateful and appreciative for what you have, more forgiving, patient, and empathetic to the experiences of every single person you’ll meet for the rest of your life. As I say in the book, “If you can’t see a benefit in your present, maybe you’re giving a present to your future.” Yeah, today’s rough. But it’s making you the version of yourself who’s even better than the one you are right now. Try asking this: What are you learning? How are you growing? Who are you today who is already stronger and smarter and better than the person you were six months or two years ago? And how is today’s experience giving you for tomorrow?

My husband is out-of-town for his job 70 percent of the time, we’re having to dip into our retirement to make ends meet, all but one of my good friends have either moved or disappeared from my life, my job is sucking the life out of me and a year-long job search hasn’t helped, I lost my church community (long story) and haven’t found a new one yet, AND my relationship with my father is at a standstill of a mess, a painful situation for a former daddy’s girl. Currently fending off depression as best I can, ’cause I’ve been there before and don’t want to go back. (For the record and perspective, except for 6 months of depression in college due to family issues, I’ve always been quite the half-glass-full optimist…so this is not my usual way of looking at things. But as Kate referenced, apparently there may be seasons in life when there’s not much to be happy about — and as much as I try to appreciate “the little things,” they don’t always add up to be enough. – Melinda

Hey Melinda, I’m sorry you’re going through a rough time, too. And I hope what I said above helps in some way. But I also wanted to touch on the final thing you say here about “the little things.” It’s true, we talk so much about how we need to appreciate the little things. But what I think is funny is that just as often, it’s the big things we forget to notice. Maybe we remind ourselves to appreciate our cup of hot coffee in the morning…and then we forget to appreciate that we made it in a coffeemaker plugged into the wall of our home that has electricity is keeping us safe and sheltered which is more than so many people in this country and world have! Sometimes really stepping back and taking the Google view of our lives helps us see that stuff. And maybe it’s a reminder that these rough times will pass and that things will get better. Winter turns to spring every year, every time. And our rough seasons will pass too. There is a light at the end of this tunnel. And the farther back a view you take on this big, big life, the shorter the distance to the light will look.

I’m so glad you did this review–I didn’t even know about Amy’s new book and I think I really need it! My question is how do you maintain your happy once you “get” happy? I feel like I’m at a place where I should be happy–my life is pretty great all around–but I still have a lot of down times where I beat myself up or don’t feel confident. I can see the things I should be happy about, but I tend to focus on the negative, and I don’t like being that way! – Melissa

Just so you know, Melissa, I have those down times too! The fact is, it’s not natural or healthy to be happy all the time, and downtimes are a part of the journey. So please, don’t beat yourself up, for beating yourself up! It’s normal, it’s natural. Plus, without the down times, how would we know we were experiencing a good one?

When it comes to your confidence, please, please remember, we are all unique, special, amazing people, in bodies of all shapes and sizes, personalities across the board, and all of us good at different things. So if you’re not feeling confident, remember, you’re the only one of you. You’re the only one who looks like you, walks like you, talks like you, thinks like you, and laughs like you, and that is a gift to everyone you come across. As I say in Bright Side Up, your life is art. In the same way mistakes in a stamp make them collectors’ items, you are art in just the same way so whatever you might get down about, remember that might just the thing you should be showing off.

And when it comes to feeling generally down, I find one trick that helps is to ask your 100-year-old self what you should do. Picture your older, wiser self, with a lifetime of experiences and loves behind you, rocking proudly on your front porch. And if you’re stuck or nervous or scared or uncertain about what to do next, ask your 100-year-old self what you should do! Because that version of you will be a voice of conviction and strength who reminds you that this little bump you’ve hit is just that—a bump. You will get over it, move past it, and learn from it. This is a down, but there will be an up. There will be lots of ups, actually. And when you’re in your next one, you’ll be even more grateful to be there because you can look back at the down and really see how far you’ve come.

Kate and Melissa took my questions! Hehe. I LOVED “Meeting Your Half Orange” – and I think I heard about it here first! About a month after I read the book I got an e-mail from a long-time friend who I’d been romantically interested in. Things had never worked out for us and I’d moved on. But it turns out, he had not, and tomorrow is one year since our first date. – Jacki

I know this wasn’t a question, Jacki, but I just had to say yay! That is amazing! I’m so happy the book worked for you. And by “worked” I don’t always mean “led you to the guy of your dreams the next day” but I mean that it changed the way you felt about your life and viewed saw the love opportunities that came your way. And I’m so happy this love opportunity is going strong!

My question is similar to Melissa’s. I think there’s more to being with your half-orange than just meeting them. What are her best advice for “keeping” your half-orange? For keeping positive through the rough patches and maintaining that spark? – Mel

Yup, I was wondering that too! – Rachel

These are great questions about keeping your half orange, I love it! And yeah, I do have a book full of ideas on how to keep things happy…maybe I will get to write that one, too. Here’s one thing I find really helps: Look at your relationship from the tourists point of view. Here’s what I mean. I think it’s safe to say that the people who live in Giza, Egypt you don’t take photos of themselves every day in front of the pyramids, right? Because when you live there and walked past them every day, they don’t seem as special. We do that, too. We get used to what’s around us every day. That’s called habituation, and it’s necessary for survival, as our brains just can’t handle reacting to the same things every day just as fully as they did day one.

So my advice is to look at your life and ask yourself this: “If I had to run an open top bus tour of my relationship to visitors who didn’t have one like it, what would you show off?” Make a list of all the great Kodak-worthy stop that are right in front of you. Maybe your partner makes a great spaghetti carbonara or has the same taste in spicy takeout. Maybe they’re kind when they see your friends, or maybe they teach you how to be tough. Maybe they watch The Bachelor with you, or maybe they show you what all the fuss of European football is all about. In relationships, we get so used to looking at the things we wish they did, and all the qualities we wish they had, that we forget to a tourist who doesn’t have a relationship like this, look at all the stuff worth writing a postcard home about! Write out the stops on your tour. Then, the next time your partner does that funny dance when Beyoncé comes on, you’ll remember you really do have it going on.

Once your optimism has led you to All The Wonderful Things, how do you deal with the fear that you’re going to lose it all? I seriously am turning into a crazy person with my fears of death of a loved one, something horrible happening to my pets, losing my job, the world ending, etc. – Rachel 

Oh my gosh, Rachel, you’re describing me to myself! I actually have an intense fear of death for myself and my loved ones. I’m not kidding! I exhale with relief every time my husband and family and friends and I make it through another day. But what’s funny is that I think my over-the-top fear of death is exactly what gives me my optimism in life! Because what better way to appreciate the day you’re living now then to fear you might lose it tomorrow? Now, I’m not recommending everyone start worrying. But I do that if you have a great fear of losing something, appreciate this a sign that you have something worth having. How exciting, right? It’s a gift to have someone or something in your life so special that you are terrified of losing it. And as hard as you struggle with the fears, give thanks. Because that’s a pretty good sign that you got something awesome going on.

Now that you’re branded as an optimist, do you feel pressure to be optimistic all the time? I feel like there are a lot of cynics in the world who might be hoping to “prove you wrong” so to speak. – Rachel

That’s so funny, because lately people have been asking me that! But actually, no, I don’t feel pressure to be optimistic all the time. Optimism I just do. Always have and I always will. Because I really do believe that in the big board game of our lives, things will work out for the best if we’re determined that they do. Here’s what’s interesting—and those of you who read Meeting Your Half-Orange might remember this. Optimism and positivity are actually two different things. Optimism is a belief, believing that things will work out in the end. Positivity, on the other hand, is a feeling, working up the energy to feel positive. So optimism is just something I believe in, plain and simple. As for feeling positive, I don’t feel pressure from others to be positive, but if I’m feeling down for too long, I just don’t like that feeling, and prefer to come at it from a new angle.

Cynics love to say that optimism and positivity are not Band-Aids on the big problems of life. And that’s true! They’re not a Band-Aids. I seem them more as healing salves, tools that can actively help you feel better about your life or situation. My book Bright Side Up doesn’t tell you to smile through the bad times. What it does is remind you that there are different perspectives to take on every thing that happens. In every bad situation, there is another angle to take on it. Every day, it is our choice to look at the different perspectives and choose which one we feel works best. And you know what? Sometimes I feel like taking the perspective that shows me laying on my couch under the duvet eating a heaping bowl of popcorn watching Parenthood and sobbing. And sometimes I take the one where I’m kicking my depressed butt out of the house and going for a power walk so my endorphins can help me feel better. But I really try not to worry about other people’s opinions on how I live my life. Because however someone else might feel about it, I’m darn happy with how I’m doing it.

I consider myself an optimist but I feel like I can’t always get there in a day. Sometimes you just want to wallow for a little while, right? How much time should we give ourselves to just feel upset/angry/cranky before we start utilizing the tips in your book? – Rachel 

Oh, yeah, I’m all about wallowing sometimes! (See: Me on couch with popcorn and Parenthood, above). I’m a big fan of rest in general. I like to remind us all that of 24 hours in a day, 1/3 of them are supposed be spent sleeping! One third! And I think the same can be said for our general state of mind. We can’t be happy and upbeat and energetic and even hopeful 100% of the time. I don’t think we’re built to sustain that. So when you don’t have it in you, rest. Wallow if you feel like it. Mute your phone, order takeout, be cranky, rip up the junk mail with extra fervor just for fun. And then, yeah, when you’re starting to get annoyed with even yourself, open up Bright Side Up or something else that might offer you another positive point of view, and read a page. Just take one small step, slowly and let it rejuvenate you just enough. You don’t need to go from 0 to 60 of happiness. Sometimes going five miles faster feels just better enough. And that’s the idea behind my book. I don’t mean for people to start using all one hundred ways to be happy right this second! Read the book, take it all in, and use the ideas that feel right when you need them. I wrote it to give people tools to carry with you for the rest of your life. This life thing is a long-term game, right? And I think if you can get better at seeing a new perspective of the situations you’re in, you’ll feel much happier in life along the way.

Well! I feel much better about my crazy fear of someone I love dying and I loved reading all of Amy’s answers to your questions! 

Now for the giveaway: to enter to win a copy of Bright Side Up, leave a comment on this post saying something negative that has been on your mind lately that you’re going to turn into a positive. For example: “I’m totally irritated that Indiana ruined a rug last night by stomping his own excrement into it like he was turning grapes into wine, but I’m really pumped because that means tonight I get to go to Target and buy a new rug! And I love Target!” 

Leave your comment by Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 11:59 PM EST and I’ll choose a random winner from there!

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