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Sun, March 1, 2015
Life… Obligation, Adventure, or Drudgery? You Get to Choose

Adapted from the forthcoming book, "Coaching Your Heart: Regaining Joy After Losing What Is Most Dear to You" by Deborah Orlowski, Ph.D.


“A tale of four men, one woman and a lot of other people.”

Once upon a time there were four men who were very similar. All of them were intelligent and caring people but two were happy and grateful for their lives, and two weren’t. The two unhappy men felt people took advantage of them and were basically untrustworthy. They constantly complained about their lot in life and the cards they had been dealt. 

On the other hand, the two happy men were, well, happy. They looked at their backgrounds and were thankful for how far they had come. They felt fortunate for what they had and took joy in the small moments of life. They were healthy and, although not happy all the time, satisfied with the life they had made for themselves. 

And what about the one woman? She was neither happy nor unhappy. She merely lived her life, sometimes smiling and enjoying what she had, but just as often merely dragging herself through it with no real enthusiasm or passion.

Although this tale revolves around only five people, the two unhappy men and the one woman represent the lives of a great number of people. These people are sure they are being cheated, are being taken advantage of, or are missing out on something. Their kids aren’t disciplined enough; their jobs aren’t satisfying or contain enough autonomy for them; they live in the wrong place; their spouses or partners are greedy or neglectful; the rest of the world is wrong, while they are put-upon but right; or their lives are boring and unfulfilled. 

How Your Negative Emotions and Outlook Can Be Hurting You

Be honest now. Which group of people do you fit into more readily? Does complaining or being positive feel more “natural” to you? Do you find yourself feeling a deep sense of ennui or daydreaming about what you’d like to become or could have become? Do you just feel dissatisfied with your life or feel like you can’t be who you are?

I know I used to feel negative and unhappy a lot. I always felt there was something in life, something more, that I wasn’t ever going to find. By the same token, I am highly skeptical, if not disgusted, by people who are relentlessly positive. That old saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” makes me gag. Life is hard and sad. As a matter of fact, there is compelling research that shows there are actually benefits to sometimes being negative or unhappy. 

Forgas and East report in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that happiness can make us gullible. The flipside of this work is that negativity can sometimes provide a healthy amount of skepticism. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2012/november-12/positively-negative.html, retrieved 11/1/14.

See? There it is! Scientific proof that happy-happy people are naïve and my attitude was not only normal but healthy. That’s how life is and one lives as best as one can. However, a huge life crisis, an amazing man, and plenty of research about emotions and negativity started me thinking differently. There is ample evidence that we can, to a large extent, create our own happiness and satisfaction with our lives. One representative study says:


Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues have found that positive emotions are the “fuel” for resilience. They help people find meaning in ordinary and difficult events. Finding meaning in life events leads to more positive emotions, which in turn leads to a greater ability to find meaning and purpose… They also found that resilient people still felt as many negative emotions as less happy people, often very intense ones. But they felt more positive emotions, and it was the positive emotions that accounted for “their better ability to rebound from adversity and stress, ward off depression, and continue to grow.” Their increase in happiness came from feeling good; not from avoiding feeling bad. http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/resilience/what-resilience
 

In other words, all the time and money we spend trying to stay healthy, to eat right, to stop our bad habits, may be largely negated if we still cling to our negative emotions or are unhappy with our lives. 

Looking at the world through negative lenses can lead to a person being unable to interpret the world as anything other than a threat. This isn’t physically healthy either. Viewing life with negativity doesn’t protect you; it makes you physically ill. The stress of negativity actually changes your biology in such a way that, over time, the “wear and tear” on bodily systems can cause heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. In addition, “Chronic anger and anxiety can disrupt cardiac function by changing the heart’s electrical stability, hastening atherosclerosis, and increasing systemic inflammation.” http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/magazine/happiness-stress-heart-disease/

Our bodies are wired for “fight or flight.”  We were never designed to continuously live in a state of anger or negativity because we have no natural defense to that kind of stress. All our body feels is, it’s under a constant state of attack that requires it to be ready for battle. It’s like asking a racehorse to continuously run at top speed. The horse may be able to do it for a while, but eventually it will collapse from sheer overwork. Our bodies are like that racehorse. Sadly, we experience physical, social, and emotional threats in the same way. Clearly it behooves us to do whatever we can to lower our stress level and increase our satisfaction and peace of mind. 

Want to Change?

Here are some tips for changing your mindset and becoming more fulfilled by your life.

  1. Assess your life. List the major elements of your life… job, children, friends, leisure activities, etc. Next to each element, using a scale of 1-10 with 10 being highest, note your “satisfaction quotient.” For instance, if you find your job merely tolerable, give it a 5 or 6; if you dread going to work everyday, a 2 or 3. If, the majority of time you love your job, give it a high number. Now look at your list. Are there areas where you’d like to raise your quotient? If so, what is one thing you can do right now to start to improve it?
  2. Perform the “negativity test.” Every few months check your first thoughts. Do you swear at the driver who cut you off or do you tell yourself she didn’t realize she was driving dangerously? Do you find yourself blaming the begging homeless man or do you assume he isn’t there by choice?  If you lean toward the negative, practice making up a “back story” that could explain the event or person in a more positive light. Practice until you can jump into this mindset almost instantaneously.
  3. Spend time alone in silence. Our lives have become so filled with noise and activity that we are becoming increasingly unable to listen to one another, let alone our deep inner selves. Turn off the radio in the car. Take out the earplugs when you’re jogging. Listen to the sounds around you and try to tune into your own thoughts and “gut” feelings. 

Tips for focusing on the positive parts of your life to bring you greater joy:

  1. Focus on a happy memory. Research shows that being able to call up concrete, detailed memories that are positive or self-affirming can help to boost positive moods for people with a history of depression.  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130225122047.htm
  2. Think yourself happy. Studies are showing that people listening to “happy” music, especially while focusing on improving their happiness, showed an increase in their overall level of happiness. Taylor & Francis. (2013, September 9). Trying to be happier really can work. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 16, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130909092839.htm.
  3. Note the “little things.”  In the November 2014 (Nov 2014, Volume 15, Number 11) O, The Oprah Magazine, Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D, author of Gratitude Works! A 21 Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity suggests labeling as a ‘gift’ anything we take for granted as we go through our day. For instance, instead of turning on the light and assuming it will go on, when it does give thanks for the gift of light. Emmons believes that when we start to see the commonplace as gifts, we learn to appreciate them more. 

Our lives don’t have to be full of drudgery or be out of control.  We can enjoy, on a deeper level, what we do and how we live our lives. The trick is to be aware of when we are not in control of our thoughts or feelings and reprogram our brains. Our brains naturally default to be speedy and efficient and grabbing control of our lives is anything but fast or efficient. But paying attention to what we are thinking and reframing our thoughts is the best first step toward creating the kind of happy, fulfilled life we want. 

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