When a crisis hits, it is impossible to see or to think about anything but the problem. When our foster son died of SIDS, it took up all our attention for a very long time. Gaining perspective in disastrous circumstances is virtually impossible.
But even when life is more ordinary, the daily stresses of life can make it very difficult to keep one’s perspective. We’ve all heard someone tell us to “count your blessings” or heard songs that insist on that same activity. But somehow that’s not so easy to do when you’re running children to school or soccer practice, picking friends up at the airport, meeting deadlines at work, and struggling to get supper on the table.
We easily make the mistake of thinking that happiness is something that we can get by having a vacation, becoming successful, getting a raise, or by getting married, or buying a new car or maybe by winning the lottery. The reality is that such things are not going to change our basic outlook on life.
Happiness—that is, a cheerful disposition—is fifty percent the result of our genetic makeup, according to Dan Baker, author of What Happy Women Know. But, he argues, nearly forty percent is up to the choices we make, and has nothing to do with the stuff we gain or the success we achieve.
Our reason for not being happy, once we get past the genetic component, simply comes from bad mental habits. I know for myself, one of the biggest factors leading toward gloominess—once I got past the physiological reasons that made me tend to become depressed—were some horrendous mental practices. Specifically, my negative self-talk. I had the habit of constantly berating myself, telling myself things that I would never have dreamed of saying out loud as criticism to anyone else.
If you are in the habit of telling yourself that you’re stupid, that you’re ugly, that you’re a loser, that it just won’t work, that everything you touch is going to be ruined, or any of the other horrid things we might say to ourselves, one of the biggest ways to alter your outlook on life is to change those words that you’re letting run through your mind. Rather than thinking to yourself that whatever the task at hand, “I’ll inevitably mess it up” start thinking like the little engine that could. Don’t give into the joke, “Smile and be happy, Things could be worse. So I smiled and was happy, and behold, things got worse.” Reject that sort of pessimism. The key to changing the negative self-talk is just to ask yourself, “would I say that to someone else?” If not, then why would you say it to yourself?
Dan Baker suggests two other things that you can do that will help you rewire your brain besides curbing the negative words you whisper—or shout—to yourself. In fact, he says, that only a couple of minutes each day can help form new neural networks and that if you keep at it, you’ll develop new mental habits that will overwrite and supplant the old ways of thinking. The point, of course, is not that you won’t have problems, or that your problems will magically be solved. Rather, your overall disposition will improve and you’ll find it easier to cope with whatever comes your way in life.
First, he suggests, every morning when you awaken, think of something or someone in your life that you are really thankful for: a talent, a hobby, a pet, a parent, a child, a friend, a teacher, a spouse, whether current or past. Think of something that has or does give you joy, whether it’s as simple as enjoying a cup of coffee or having a conversation, or enjoying a book, a piece of music, or even something on television. Then, he says, do the same thing at lunch. And finally, before you fall asleep at night, think of something that happened during the day that you appreciate. For myself, I write in a journal each evening and I’ve been surprised, in the recounting for myself the events of a day, how much happens that I can truly be thankful for. Sure, bad stuff happens, but most of the time, the good is actually the dominate portion of my day. Think of things big and small; in fact, especially think of the little things that you take for granted, like flowers or the weather, or dessert, or just being able to have a shower.
Second, Baker suggests that you should try to do something for someone else. It doesn’t have to be spectacular. It can be as simple as a phone call or an email to someone you like or to someone you know who could use some encouragement. Pick up a bit of litter. Pray. Be nice to the tired clerk ringing up your groceries. Say thank you. Smile at someone.
Baker argues that if you keep doing these simple things for a week or two, it will quickly become a habit. Since we’re promised the right to pursue happiness in the Declaration of Independence, why not start your chase today?