Finding ways to unclench
By Ellen Margulies
There’s a side effect to binge-watching Orange is the New Black.
I actually loved the original book by Piper Kerman, which is a different animal altogether. The side effects from that are good; you will find yourself thinking really hard about what it is we want from our correctional system. I also love that she really owns her shit. Nothing pisses me off more than someone who does something wrong and won’t own up to it. (I’m looking at you, Teresa G. of Real Housewives.)
Also, I happen to love the show, which as I said is a very different thing from the book. The actors are absolutely incredible. They occupy these roles and create these characters that are so compelling and so riveting you can’t stand to not know what’s going to happen next. And the writers and directors are doing this phenomenal thing where they sandwich in these flashbacks of various inmates’ lives that give you their stories piece by piece while never letting them off the hook entirely. I totally get why this show wins all the awards.
But I found myself over a long snowy weekend in a more and more negative space, even though I was really getting into the show. I was getting pretty angry about some things in my past—some work situations—and I was getting a little paranoid, too. By midday today at work I was in a pretty sour place. A place I thought I’d left behind. I actually had gotten a little preview of this last night when I was watching OITNB. I’ve been having a lot of trouble sleeping lately, and I really didn’t want to have all these existential angst-ridden thoughts keeping me up again. So I treated myself to one episode of The Mindy Project before bed. It was just the perfect thing to do. I absolutely adore this show, it’s hilarious and it’s another show I’ve been binge-watching lately on platforms that aren’t Comcast aka the devil. (Speaking of which, have you seen that new show which purports to have a really handsome Lucifer vacationing in Los Angeles? I didn’t know if it would have legs or not, but I tried to watch a few minutes of it and was so disgusted by its utter stupidity, even for TV. In the one scene I watched part of, Lucifer is comforting a little girl who’s being bullied, which is not what Satan would actually do, and then he goes and tells the bully, also a little girl, that there is a presumably literal special place in hell for bullies like her. Wouldn’t he have been more likely to take the side of the bully and egg her on? Just sayin’.)
Back to my day today. So midday, I’m in a bad place, feeling kind of bitter and pissed off and generally resentful. I do not like feeling this way, entitled or not. Then I recalled what a coworker had told me the day before about a new song she was listening to from Tim McGraw. I’m not really a big country music fan right now, but I enjoy it when I hear it. Anyway, the name of the song is Humble and Kind. My coworker told me she listens to it every morning before work to get herself in the right frame of mind for the day. She told me I ought to give it a listen. So today when I was in that very sour place, I looked it up online. It’s very sweet, a simple little message kind of song about, you know, being grateful and trying to be humble and being kind. I think just listening to that positivity, I don’t care how commercially calculated it might have been, just honestly helped put me in a better place. I felt myself unclenching. I was able to pull myself out of that dark, bitter, negative, angry place.
(I took a little positivity ratio test when I got home tonight, and my positivity-to-negativity ratio today was about 1:1. UNC-Chapel Hill researcher Barbara Frederickson devised this little quiz —it only takes 2 minutes — after concluding the most effective ratio for your negative little brain cells is 3:1. There are approximately a gazillion studies out there showing the effect of positivity on creativity (hint: it’s positive), but just go click on this one AFTER you finish reading my post and then click over to that little positivity ratio test.)
Reality time: I’m still going to watch OITNB. The actors are amazing, and the show is so well put together that yes, at times, you do feel like you’re in prison, experiencing all of those negative emotions that those women are experiencing. But I’m going to make sure I balance that with something like The Mindy Project or baking or cat-petting or dancing down my hallway or something equally ridiculous.
I know people think creativity has to come from this dark place, you know, the whole tortured artist thing. Believe me, I know. I’m a writer, and I’m plenty tortured. But I can also tell you that for me personally, finding a way to unclench and go to my happy place really frees me up to create and do things that make me feel better about myself, about my life and about this little blue marble we live on. I much, much, much prefer the works I create when I’m happy vs. when I’m sad.
So I think you should go and find yourself a happy place. I don’t necessarily think it should be binge-watching OITNB, although that really is super-fun, or watching horror movies or snuff films or whatever awful thing makes you happy. (Yes, we all have that awful thing that makes us happy. I like cussing people out in traffic. Makes me SO happy.) But you need a genuinely-happy happy place. You can have dogs there, or chocolate, or Alan Rickman. Doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s a place that will help you unclench, free your mind and soothe your dark, tortured soul. You really should try a little spot of brightness to free up your creative potential. Give it a shot. A happy shot. And maybe find yourself in the creative flow again.