Maine | Photo by Keith Luke

This is How to Be Happy in Overwhelming Times

The 7 keys include mentorship, meditation, and the practice of “making it right”

David Paul Kirkpatrick
Apr 16 · 17 min read

There are tempests across many seas. It’s hard to keep the ship on course. That’s why we need both a sturdy prow and a lighthouse. As tough and overwhelming as modern civilization can be, psychologist and author Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes:

Do not lose heart. We were made for these times.

Economists call it “creative destruction”. It’s when the old ways (credit cards, taxis, movie theaters, landlines) are destroyed to make room for the new ways (cashless economy, Uber, streaming, mobile). It’s part of the commercial cycle of our lives.

If creative destruction isn’t enough whiplash for any one person, we suffer from information overload. Then there’s cognitive dissonance: holding two contrary ideas in your mind at the same time. On top of that, we have mortgages to pay, children to raise, and personal challenges to face.

How can we navigate our ship with so much wind in our eyes?

Beyond the Waves| Photo by nikko macaspac

Our Overwhelming Epoch

In four weeks, four friends confessed to being “overwhelmed.” In the middle of the kitchen, one friend broke down, hyperventilating. She had a full-time job, a challenging marriage, and a new house. She was also planning her daughter’s June wedding. On. Her. Own.

“Why aren’t you cracking?” she asked, weeping.

I can be as vulnerable as the next person — but I am used to juggling and standing steady. Not by pride, but by an unflagging core. As a Hollywood studio executive, most notably as president of Paramount Pictures and production chief of Walt Disney Studios, I have read over 80,000 screenplays and worked on over 1,000 motion pictures. That meant engaging with complicated personalities and turbulent locations to get those stories made and distributed.


I told my hyperventilating friend how I managed to remain calm and happy amidst the storms. As I considered my answers more completely, I realized there were 7 keys to unlocking vital happiness against the forces of chaos. I learned these seminal lessons from mentors and through my own hardscrabble pursuits to transform human comedies and dramas into successful, heart-pulling motion pictures.

In the autumn of my life, I pass these keys on to you. They can and will open doors to your own stability and joy. As a trained executive in movies, I’ll be using movie references from Pretty in Pink to The Lion King. I hope it will add some additional spice and fun to the humble mage-sauce I offer up to you.


Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) and Helen Keller (Patty Duke) in The Miracle Worker, a brilliant depiction of mentorship | © United Artists

#1: Have a mentor and be a mentor.

Michael Eisner is one of the most successful entertainment executives in movie and television history. He taught me the above lesson when I started as a story editor at Paramount Pictures. That advice became a saving credo of my life. Eisner was president of Paramount. Later, he would become chairman of Walt Disney studios for a record 21 years. He is one of my most important teachers.

“You’ll be rewarded by a mentor’s wisdom,” Eisner said, “ and you will find immense satisfaction in helping others as you grow from your own experience.”

I’ve discovered that when you find great people to guide you, you are inspired. That inspiration compels you to want to guide others. Continually, you are being nourished through the emotional process of receiving and giving. Mitch Resnick at MIT calls it “Lifelong Kindergarten”.

Mentor, Mufusta and his son and pupil, Simba | © Disney

“To teach and to be taught,” Michael said. “If you are fortunate enough to find it, it becomes the great loop of your life.” The Lion King was a movie Michael and I, as well as many others, worked on while at Disney. Its iconic song, The Circle of Life, by Elton John and Tim Rice, is about growing along the “unwinding path.”

It’s the circle of life / and it moves us all / through despair and hope / through faith and love

The blind and deaf Helen Keller introducing herself to Chaplin.

I marvel at the stupendous mentorship between Annie Sullivan with her blind and deaf student, Helen Keller, memorialized in the indelible motion picture The Miracle Worker. The discipline, warmth, and devotion that Annie displayed with Helen helped Keller become a great teacher and social advocate for the blind. Above, Helen Keller is with Charlie Chaplin in 1919 on a Hollywood motion picture set, poignantly studying Chaplin’s face with her fingers in their first introduction.


Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, released 2 weeks after Valentine’s Day | © Paramount Pictures

#2: Plan each season, emphasizing connection

I’m not speaking of more to-do lists — I am an advocate of lists, but only to a point. Instead, I’d like to look at a year in a more holistic fashion… in Circle of Life-mode.

I was fortunate to spend a few hours with mythologist and thought leader Joseph Campbell and his wife Jean Erdman at Zucky’s Deli in Santa Monica, California in 1986, a year before his death. At 82, Joe was witty, enthusiastic and on fire. I only met him once, but through his writings, he has been a mentor for most of my life.

In Santa Monica, Joe told me he thought it was a good idea to plan life not by the calendar alone, but by the seasons.

“After all, that’s how our ancestors did it,” he said. “Whether as hunter-gatherers or later as farmers, they knew how to roll with the seasons. Summer was for growing. Winter was for rebirth. I am convinced that genetic memory is part of our DNA. Our ancestors planned and lived their lives inside a cycle of resting, seeding, growing, and harvesting. That cycle is still part of us.”

The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe. — Joseph Campbell

Seasons have a lot to do with our own rhythms. Filmmaker John Hughes liked to release movies based on the people-consciousness related to the seasons.

In 1986, we released John’s Pretty in Pink, a story about teenage longing two weeks after Valentine’s Day. John believed “teenagers were more reflective about love” after the “inevitable disappointments of Valentine’s Day.” He was spot-on. The picture was enormously successful.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was released in early June, because, according to John, “every kid is thinking about an entire summer of free days.” Again, the picture found a large audience.

The ultimate John Hughes juggernaut, Home Alone, was released at Christmastime. Home Alone was a movie with big comedic-hijinx, but the most popular moment, according to National Research Group, was a warm affectionate scene between the hero-boy and an old man in a church. Kids and their parents may have guffawed all the way through Home Alone, but the scene they remembered most was the scene of multi-generational connection.

Robert Blossoms and Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone | © 20th Century Fox

A holistic look at the year helps you mark pods of emotional well-being throughout the seasons: day trips, get-togethers, a reunion with people who really count in your life. It need not be a big-time affair. The impact comes from the emotional connection experienced with others, not the cost or size of the event.

One highlight of last year for me was having Christmas Eve breakfast with my older brother at Cracker Barrel. It was snowing out. We sat by the Cracker Barrel fireplace. We talked about our bunk bed fights and future projects together. The low stress of the casual environment gave the moment its happiness and grace. If you can have a few of those moments peppered through every season, you probably are a happy camper.

Instead of New Year’s resolutions at the end of any year, I pull out a cheesy tire calendar that I don’t mind messing up and mark it up with various plans to see friends, family, and reconnects.

From my experience, love and kinship is the best strengthener against barometric shifts. Cyclic change can cause depression and sluggishness known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). We don’t know the exact causes for SAD. According to the Mayo Clinic, it may be a combination of causes:

Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.

Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.

Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays help, but they are not enough. There are a lot of gaps, especially in that first and second quarter of the year from January to June. Winter can be especially brutal for those of us who live in the midwest or the east coast.

When I am sitting down with that tire calendar, I mark it up with intention, finding consistent love-connections throughout the year. Don’t wait until the end of the year — you can do it today. There’s something about holding a physical calendar in your hand and marking it up. You’re in control of your life and you’re having some fun determining your future. I look to mark the calendar with these plans:

  • A short vacation-break away from home, or a 3-day weekend
  • Meeting up with a friend you haven’t seen in a while
  • A get-together with family or just one family member

Of course, you can’t only plan it, but you have to act on it. You have to start seeding those plans, giving people time enough to process it and join you. Again, this is not necessarily planning big, costly events. It’s making time free for those moments of emotional flow.


Jane Wyatt and Ronald Coleman in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon| © Columbia Pictures

#3: Meditate Daily

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. — Clarissa Pinkola Estes

The American Heart Association recently published a report on meditation. Meditation practice, according to the study, lowers heart disease risk. The report is based on evidential research which points to meditation helping with insulin resistance, blood pressure reduction, and metabolic syndrome.

Historian and author Yuval Noah Harari meditates, on average, a whopping 2 hours a day. He asserts that this practice has given him clarity. His towering achievements, particularly in his non-fiction book, Sapiens, are a testament to such clarity. With wisdom, humor, and compassion, Harari compresses the entirety of humankind’s journey in less than 400 pages with his eye-opening book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power. — Yuval Noah Harari

For myself, the 7 to 15-minute methodology I have practiced for the last 10 years has brought me an abundance of benefits: balance, patience, kindness, enthusiasm, and joy. It has tempered the aggressive fight-or-flight impulse wired into each of us. I am no longer bothered by cognitive dissonance. Meditation is not necessarily a religious practice. It is a wellness methodology to aid in becoming the human you aspire to be.

There are many forms of mediation. As they largely come from Eastern traditions, they have exotic names: Samatha, Vipassana, Raja-Yoga. Don’t be weirded out by their uniqueness. It’s just different languaging for common aspirations. Some practices calm you. Others awaken you. For a complete list of different meditative practices and their benefits, you can check out the infographic created by the American Heart Association.

I use a practice called the Secret of the Golden Flower, which essentially involves imagining your breath as light and breathing it in. This particular practice has aided me with awareness, strength, clarity, and inner calm. It has also made me whole. In reviewing an article on meditation I recently wrote for Better Humans, I was struck by this popular highlight:

I saw troubles as challenges to overcome, not worries to fear. It seemed, for the first time, that all the aspects of my warring parts — my body, mind, heart, spirit — were communicating, watching out for one another, finding a new balance in wholesome consciousness, working as one. It is the best aspect of The Secret of the Golden Flower: every part of yourself starts to get along.

That is a big part of mediation: quieting yourself so your entirety meshes. It is important, whatever methodology you choose, to continue your practice daily. Consistency is seminal to value in this art of quietude.

“There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.” — Victor Hugo


From The Secret Garden, 1993 | © Warner Bros.

#4: Tend a kitchen herb garden

Gardening is a ritual of profound beauty. At first, it might strike you as being silly or off-track. Harvard Medical School would disagree. The wellness benefits are enormous. New studies in dementia show a risk reduction of 36% if you garden. Another study shows a significant lowering of cortisol levels and increasing happier, more stable moods.

Gardening is about growing greens. When you tend a garden — even a small windowsill garden — through the daily ritual, you are nourishing, coaching, and giving to those plants.

According to my mentor Joe Campbell, “a ritual is the enactment of a myth: by participating in the rite, you participate in the myth.” When you tend to a small kitchen garden, you are participating in the myth of yourself as a grower, a nurturer, and a provider.

“Successful rituals hit your heart,” Campbell says in his series of interviews in the book, An Open Life. “ And insofar as the myth is a revelation of dimensions of your own spiritual potential, you are activating those dimensions in yourself and experiencing them.”

The caring for a little garden pays off on a practical level. All summer and fall, you have herbs and spices to flavor your salads, vegetables, shakes, fruits, and meats. You can have a backyard garden as well, or participate in a communal garden. Research shows that most of America will live in metropolitan areas by 2050, and to have a small kitchen garden can be good enough, and it’s surprisingly easy to fold into a busy life.

For gardening in its simplest form, you can put herbs on a sunny windowsill and make sure to water them every few days. I mean, how hard can it be?

From last year’s kitchen garden in May, from starts planted in mid-April.

For an investment of less than twenty dollars, you can get 7 starter plants, potting soil, and pots. In the end, if you cook with herbs, you’ll save hundreds of dollars at the grocery store.

You can grow plants from seeds, but if you don’t have a green thumb, look to find plants that are already started. These are the basic herbs I like to use, but you may have others you like:

  • Rosemary (great for chicken or fish)
  • Oregano (good for everything)
  • Mint (teas hot and cold)
  • Basil (cooking, salads)
  • Thyme (stocks, soups, and sauces)
  • Coriander (chicken, vegetables, soups)
  • Parsley (fish, meats, vegetables)

When you have fresh herbs, you tend to buy other fresh foods so you can enjoy the full impact of their flavor. This becomes a gentle reminder that helps us stay clear of processed food.

Processed food can be delicious because it is engineered for taste, not health, through its exact measures of fat, salt, and sugar. You’ll never look at processed food the same way after reading the highly researched and entertaining, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.


Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey from the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind | © Anonymous Content

#5: Unplug one day a week

I am a consultant for several clients. My clients email me, text me, and now, the new thing: they Facebook-messenger me. There are Skype and Zoom and phone appointments. My clients have unique needs and separate deadlines. I am grateful for the work.

For a long time, I couldn’t get free of the attachment of responding. I was always on call 24-7. A year ago, I made a change: to turn off my devices for one day a week. I agonized over which day I should unplug: Saturday or Sunday. I mean I really agonized.

Finally, I arrived on Sunday as the day to unplug. I informed my various clients, and then tried to inform myself. At first, I found myself on Sunday morning checking the go-to platforms: IG, Facebook, Twitter, email, text, etc. But, soon enough, the word spread, even to myself, and by the second Sunday, I was no longer checking in. By that third Sunday, I actually put the phone in a drawer and walked away for the day… not forever.

A great book about structuring personal boundaries around technology is Alone Together, written by Sherry Turkle, founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

That single day of unplugging has made me re-engage in life in a physical way. You will be surprised about how liberating it is! Just for chuckles, try it once. My bet is that you will want to make it part of your practice. From my experience, unplugging one full day every week allows me a time to enjoy life, see friends, get outdoors, and think “big” (rather than responding small).

The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. — Clarissa Pinkola Estes


AnnaSophia Robb finds forgiveness from Dennis Quaid in the movie shot in Oahu, Soul Surfer| © Tri-Star

#6: The Practice of “Making It Right”

When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle is lost or won… — William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The Hawaiian islanders call it Ho’oponopono (pronounced ho-opono-pono). I first learned it many years ago, hiking in the Maui rainforest while on Christmas vacation, away from the Hollywood hurlyburly.

This ancient Hawaiian methodology frees us from negative emotions and destructive patterns. Ho’oponopono means to make it right. Its beauty is in it’s complete and sincere simplicity. There are only four phrases. The phrases can be said in any order and multiple times. In silence or aloud. On a busy subway or in a quiet place. They are:

I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

During the time I learned this methodology, I was taught by my islander-friend that the practice was especially helpful in breaking deep-seated “blood habits” of ancestors.

“We just don’t do that in our family,” is a phrase we have all heard. Certain themes of family limits and sorrows get passed along from generation to generation. This is native folklore, but it’s also science. While hiking the waterfalls of the rainforest, I was dealing with issues of failure and success tied to my own dad and grandfather. I would become president of Production of Walt Disney Studios and I was not even 35.

My islander-mentor explained that the main objective of Hoʻoponopono is to arrive at “the state of zero,” where we would have zero limits. It’s a return to innocence. You feel like you’re a kid again. You’re not carrying a psychic backpack of worry and shame. You’re running free, as fast as you can, in a safe place.

Dr. Matthew James, a native of the Hawaiian Islands, has written extensively on the subject. However, to date, unlike meditation, there have not been a lot of clinical trials on this methodology.

Every year, when I have a fresh ink cartridge in my printer, I print out white words against a blue-sky backdrop. I stick it on a bulletin board in my office so I can never forget about getting to that “state of zero” through Hoʻoponopono.

On my bulletin board. Maybe it sounds goofy. It isn’t.

Through this practice, we are focused on the positive aspects of gratitude, forgiveness, and love. By default, we’re deleting the mental and psychic folders causing us sadness or trauma. It aligns us with nourishing positivity. From years of this practice, I know it breaks the entanglements causing distraction or depression.


The Beast in his library with Belle from Beauty and the Beast | © Disney

#7: Read

“Nobody reads,” said Michael Eisner, president of Paramount, when I was story editor at the studio. “So we’re all counting on your department to guide us toward quality. It’s literature, after all. Literature is a foundational pillar to our society.”

As story editor, it was my responsibility to find commercial screenplays for the studio to make. It was also my obligation to discover new talent. Reading has always been my job and my avocation.

With every new year, I make it a point to study new fields. Right now, through reading, I am diving into a fundamental understanding of quantum physics. Boy oh boy — that’s a mind-twisting arena!

I am an apologist for the reading brain. It represents a miracle that springs from the brain’s unique capacity to rearrange itself to learn something new. — Maryanne Wolf

One of the world’s wealthiest humans, with almost 100 billion dollars, Bill Gates, reads a book a week. He also has a Best-of-Year recap on his blog, Gates Notes, where he recommends the five books that most affected him that year. I remember reading an interview with him 20 years ago, in which he revealed he packed for vacation by filling his suitcase with books on artificial intelligence. Today, it has become a major topic.

“This is one of the things I love about reading,” Gates says. “Each book opens up new avenues of knowledge to explore.” It also broadens perspective on your own worldview. “For example, this year I enjoyed Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality, which explains various scientific ideas and is aimed at teenagers,” Gates says. “Although I already understood all the concepts, Dawkins helped me think about the topics in new ways. If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it.”

Reading, largely affected in relative quiet, does not contribute to the noise of our overwhelming times. It strengthens your inner core. It is not only information. It is understanding.

When historian Noah Yuval Harari meditates for 2 hours a day, he is seeking clarity. When he is reading, Bill Gates is seeking understanding.

Interestingly, Bill Gates announced Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, as one of the top 5 books of last year, holding it in the photo below. “If 2018 has left you overwhelmed by the state of the world,” says Gates, “ 21 Lessons offers a helpful framework for processing the news and thinking about the challenges we face.”

The billionaire and the five books of 2018 that most affected his understanding| © Gates Notes

Speaking of the Circle of Life, Bill Gates and his wife, Melissa, have taken up meditation, prompted by the writings of Harari.

On a brain-health level, reading keeps your brain constantly adapting. While we were not born to read, reading has been a remarkable way to stimulate both left and right hemispheres, writes Maryanne Wolfe, UCLA professor and reading expert, in her highly entertaining book, Proust and The Squid, The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “Typically, when you read, you have more time to think. Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight. By and large, with oral language — when you watch a film or listen to a tape — you don’t press pause.”


Conclusion

It’s all about being a grower, a nurturer… a gardener of people, of ideas, and of one’s own self. Any of these 7 keys can and will add to your happiness.

Like my weeping friend in the kitchen, I know despair. But as Estes says in her prose-poem I have referenced throughout, We Were Meant for These Times, “I do not keep a chair for it (despair). I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.”

The best way to combat these overwhelming times is to develop your interior core — to be a solid ship in the storm. For there will always be storms and we “were meant for these times”.

When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for. — Clarissa Pinkola Estes

With these keys, you are both the ship and the lighthouse. If you need any help or suggestions, please feel free to leave me a note on this article and I will get back to you within 24 hours.

Happy sailing.

Maine | Photo by Keith Luke

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

David Paul Kirkpatrick

Written by

Co-founder of MIT Center for Future Storytelling, President of Paramount Pictures, Production Chief of Walt Disney Studios, optimist, author and teacher.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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