I am prone to depression, or, as I call it when I'm talking to my daughters, The Sads. I can plan a lovely vacation then cry over the one day it rained and the kids were awful, or read a thousand-words-long glowing review and fixate on the three semi-critical words in the second-to-last-paragraph (and God help everyone around me if I get an actual bad review!). When I'm down in the dumps, I take things personally. I hold grudges, I fantasize about revenge and I can spend days, if not weeks, wandering around inside my own head, muttering imprecations at those who have wronged me. Over the years—I'm 41 now—I've had to learn, over and over again, these four lessons to get out of my own way…
1. Run right into dessert.
When I'm feeling terrible, the absolute last thing I want to do is lace up my running shoes and pound the pavement...or endure a yoga class...or get outside on my bike. Every time, I force myself to do it, using a combination of bribery (I'll lay out my cutest workout clothes; or promise that, if I ride 15 miles, I'll get a cannoli afterwards), positive self-talk (lots of "You can do this!") and lies ("I'll just do three minutes, and if I still feel terrible, I'll stop.") And every time, I'll finish the workout feeling better than I did when I started. Even if I end up at an Italian bakery chin-deep in tiramisu.
"Remember this!," I'll tell myself. "Remember how good you feel! Remember this for the next time!" Inevitably, I won't remember and I'll have to do the whole self-bribing, positive-talk thing the next time. But maybe you'll remember: Exercise always works.
2. Go back in time—for three hours.
There is nothing that dipping into an old, beloved favorite book can't fix. Most readers have their go-to favorites, well-loved stories from their childhood or adolescence. I go back to Little Women and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, stories about misunderstood girls who don't quite fit in but find happiness in spite of that.
3. Hunt and gather.
There's something magical about following a recipe. No matter what's going on in your life, no matter what kind of heartbreak or humiliation you're enduring, if you do exactly what it says, measure and sift and whip and fold, then, an hour or two later, you'll have something that at least resembles what the title and pictures promised. The best kind of cooking comes after you've actually gone out into the world for your ingredients. No pie is sweeter than the one made with berries you picked yourself, no linguine with clam sauce tastier than the one prepared with the clams your daughters dug out of the sand. My girls and I like to bake challah, a sweet egg bread that's a traditional Jewish Friday-night food. Challah features all kinds of tactile rewards—you knead the warm dough until it's satiny-smooth, you let it rise, you punch it down. It smells delicious while it's rising and baking. Even the clumsiest braid looks beautiful when it's brushed with egg white and emerges from the oven golden-brown. We make two loaves—one to save for dinner; and one to tear into chunks, spread with butter and honey and eat warm from the oven.
4. Make somebody else's dream come true.
I grew up as the oldest of four kids. We were comfortable, but not rich. When we took vacations, we'd drive. Instead of stopping for meals, we'd pack a cooler with sandwiches and fruit and stinky hard-boiled eggs. We'd sleep in one hotel room and, when we arrived, stay with relatives. I swore that when I grew up, things would be different...and, for a while, they were. My kids and I took four-star vacations. We flew. We stayed in suites, or rented houses. We ate every meal out. A few times, I even hired someone to cook for us. I loved it! My kids...not so much. "Why does everything have to be so fancy?" my older daughter would mumble. "Are you actually my kid?" I'd reply. Eventually, I figured out that the things I hated—cramming into a bed with my siblings, anything that could be described as "roughing it"—were exactly what my eldest wanted. She wanted to do the shopping and the cooking (with her cousins and grandmother there to help), she wanted to cram into one tiny room with her sister and her close-in-age cousins, she wanted to play license-plate poker on car trips.
So...I listened. Last weekend, we drove to Atlantic City, where we slept two to a bed in one hotel room. We did one fancy meal (because I'm still me, and because my youngest adores fine dining), but ate one dinner on the boardwalk, sampling lemonade and custard and french fries and corn dogs, dropping 20 bucks for tickets to play skee-ball and ride the Tilt-a-Whirl. We rode our bikes on the boardwalk and swam in the ocean and, at the end, my eldest said, "This was the best vacation ever." My kids' dreams are not mine…but making their dreams come true makes me happier than my own happy endings ever did.