Equipped With Happiness


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Be Happier By Putting Bad Stuff In Its Place

bad mood cartoonIn a certain light, even the smallest objects can cast giant, menacing shadows. The same is true of negative events in our lives. If we view them in the wrong light, they can create a shadow that covers a much larger area than is warranted by their actual magnitude. This dark shadow can block the glow of happiness that shines from other parts of our lives.

Fortunately, by changing the light in which we view these negative events, it is relatively easy to prevent this shadow from forming. We simply need to focus on a few reminders that help keep our problems in perspective.

Reminder #1: Most bad stuff isn’t permanent.

When something goes wrong, or we find ourselves in a less-than-ideal situation, it is easy to get so caught up in the frustration of the moment that we forget our discomfort will not last forever. Often, negative circumstances are only temporary. For instance, we only need to tolerate an unpleasant job until we are able to find a better one (or until we can retire).  But even if the circumstances are permanent, usually our extreme aversion to them is not. As we get some distance from a bad break up, for example, we are able to adjust to the situation and feel less miserable.

It is important to remind ourselves that no matter how bad something seems, it’s only “for now.” It is easier to cope with unhappiness when we remember that eventually we will find some relief. Just think of how much easier the knowledge that Friday exists makes it to survive the workweek!

Reminder #2: Bad stuff has a tendency to create more bad stuff.

If a day starts with an alarm clock that doesn’t go off, followed by a flat tire, it is tempting to label the entire day as a “bad day.” But the second we decide we are having a bad day we severely decrease the chances that things will turn around. Once a day has been identified as “bad,” we’re more likely to interpret everything that happens in that context. A burnt dinner becomes yet another failure, when it could just as easily have been a good excuse to eat out.

Not only that, wallowing in a bad mood makes us unpleasant to be around, and may drive away people who could have made us feel better. When we bump into an attractive stranger, who might have offered us a flirtatious remark if we were smiling, they might respond to our obvious bad mood with a sharp, “Watch where you’re going,” instead. Of course, we will then take their rudeness as further evidence of our bad day. It’s up to us to avoid letting the bad things multiply.

Reminder #3: Taking time to appreciate the good helps keep the bad from taking over.

Knowing that it isn’t productive to let a bad mood influence everything else is one thing, but actually stopping that from happening is a whole different animal. It can be helpful to try to counter bad moods by actively reminding ourselves of the things we have to be happy about. These don’t even need to be big things; simply thinking about the taste of warm apple pie, or the feeling of sliding into a refreshing swimming pool on a hot day, can be enough to brighten our moods. The more time we spend thinking about the good parts of life, the less space there will be in our minds to fixate on bad stuff.

Life may not always be perfect, but, if we commit to reducing the shadow cast by less-than-ideal circumstances, these imperfections do not have to ruin our happiness.

 

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Be Happier By Making Decisions Creatively

creative decisions cartoonSometimes we over-complicate our decisions by keeping them too simple. We view choices in terms of two polarized options, and often find ourselves dissatisfied with both. Then we spend hours, or longer, trying to determine which list of evils we might somehow be able to tolerate.

But decisions don’t necessarily have to be that way. More often than not, we really do have more than two options. If we expand our decisions by adding choices “c” and “d” to our original “a” and “b,” we may find an option that’s far better than tolerable.

The tricky part is identifying those alternate choices. Most of the time, the best options will not be the most obvious. Finding them requires creativity, and an understanding of where to look.

Don’t Look for “c” where you found “a” and “b.”

Usually, when we are faced with a seemingly black-and-white decision, our two choices aren’t options we have invented independently.  We often only see two options because someone else has presented the decision to us in those terms. For instance, if we are discussing budgeting with our partner, they might say, “We can afford either a new dishwasher or a new couch.” If this happens, we are likely to focus entirely on picking between those two options. In the process, we completely miss other ideas, such as cutting down on entertainment costs, getting a loan, or selling our old possessions so we could purchase both items.

The appearance of limited options may not always result from an explicit choice someone presents to us, however. Sometimes we also find ourselves trapped by our assumptions about “normal” or “common” ways to go about life. For example, we may feel we have to pick between starting a family and building a career because we frequently hear stories about people sacrificing one for the other. In reality, the “lonely, career-driven woman,” and the “family man whose kids cost him a job” are just stereotypes. There are many middle grounds between those two extremes.

Finding the route that will make us happiest requires deviating from our preconceived ideas about the options open to us. It also requires facing the challenge of developing new alternatives.

New options can be created from the best elements of our original choices.

Sometimes the simplest way to find an ideal option is to combine the things we like about our other choices. For example, consider the decision of whether to go out for dinner or cook a meal at home. We might want the freedom to stay in our current un-showered, pajama-wearing state (a point in favor of cooking at home), but also want the convenience of not having to prepare our own food. If we combine those options, we might come up with the additional ideas of ordering delivery, begging a friend to bring us food, or scrounging in our freezer for something quick and microwaveable.

New options can also be found by completely abandoning our original ideas.

When we find ourselves stuck with two options that seem to have no redeeming features, sometimes it is best to look for new options in a totally different direction. Take the decision of whether to spend date night at the movies or a sporting event, for example. If none of the movies appeal to us, but we know our significant other gets bored watching sports (and we dragged them to a game last weekend), it may seem like we are destined for an unsatisfying date. But wait, maybe we could change “date night” to “date day” and visit the beach, or Disneyland, or the zoo, or the park.

Once we learn not to limit ourselves to the obvious options sitting right in front of us, we open ourselves up to a whole world of possibilities. And out of all those possibilities, we stand a pretty good chance of finding at least one to get excited about.


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Be Happier By Making The Right Comparisons

comparisoncartoonThe temptation to compare ourselves to others seems to affect pretty much everyone. We might find ourselves wondering if we make as much money as our coworkers. Or we might sneak a quick peek to find out if the person on the treadmill beside us is running faster than we are. Comparisons can be beneficial to us, if we approach them in the right way. But, if we aren’t careful, they can also damage our self-esteem.

Recognizing how self-image is impacted can help us learn to make more productive comparisons.

People often let the way they measure up to others determine how they feel about themselves. If we evaluate our own assets as superior to the assets of the person next to us, our self-esteem goes up. But, if that person is more successful, attractive, or talented than we are, we may start feeling rather discouraged. Neither of these scenarios is ideal.

It is important to remember that when comparisons increase our self-esteem, the effects are only temporary. If our feelings of self-worth are dependent on being better than someone else, we run the risk of our self-esteem being shattered when someone below us eventually surpasses us. Lasting confidence comes from pride in our own strengths, not pride in having more strengths than others.

Not only that, we may damage our self-esteem by cutting ourselves down when we feel inferior to others. This is unproductive, especially because the comparisons we make often aren’t entirely fair. People seem to have a tendency to compare themselves to celebrities, models, billionaires, and other uncommonly successful figures. When we do this, we set ourselves up to feel subpar. Even when we do compare ourselves to people “in our league,” we may not take the full story into account. For instance, the acquaintance whose quick climb up the corporate ladder made us question our own career choices may in fact be the CEO’s nephew (a significant advantage).

Instead of using comparisons to evaluate our worth, we should use them to help us become the people we want to be.

Comparisons can help us see ourselves more accurately: While it is certainly good base our sense of accomplishment on our individual progress, it is also valuable to understand where our abilities fit in the grand scheme of things. For example, if we begin taking piano lessons, we have every right to take pride in mastering “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” But perhaps we would be wise to see how we compare to other pianists before we start calling ourselves Beethoven.

Comparisons can help us identify goals: If we do happen to find ourselves feeling insecure in response to someone else’s accomplishments, we can turn it into an opportunity to improve. Instead of convincing ourselves we are weak because we can’t lift as much weight as our friends, we could focus on creating a new workout plan that allows us to build more muscle. Not only that, if we notice the majority of our self-esteem seems to come from feeling superior to others, it is possible that we have some underlying insecurities. Awareness of our insecurities gives us a chance to examine their cause. This allows us to set, and accomplish, goals that will make us feel more confident.

If we are careful about how we use comparisons, they can help us maximize our happiness. Comparisons made in the spirit of self-improvement give us valuable opportunities to develop ourselves, and our lives, in directions that bring us greater satisfaction. We just have to make sure our self-esteem doesn’t get involved in the process.