This morning during my usual Internet fix, I came across a motivational blog that claimed to know the secret of happiness. It spoke of something most of us have heard before, and many of us agree with: The key to happiness is gratitude.
The blog goes on to explain that if something bad happens -- for example, you spill a cup of coffee on your lap -- you should chuckle and say, "Oh well, at least I have a lap to burn! Some people are born without laps!"
I'm exaggerating slightly -- but you get the general gist.
As you've probably guessed, I'm not a fan of this approach. I don't believe forcing ourselves not to feel is a normal, healthy response to a negative situation.
You are allowed to be pissed off, sad, frustrated, overwhelmed, hurt and tired. You don't have to push it down and try to think of someone who is worse off. The trick is to feel the emotion, but not live there; don't start identifying your sense of self with your pain.
The truth is, you can't skip straight to gratitude. As a born stress-head and recovering perfectionist, here are the four factors that I've incorporated into my life that have made a huge difference to my mindset.
#1 -- Mindfulness.
Where does your mind live? Is it constantly focusing on regrets of the past, or the awful things someone said last week? Or is it thinking about the future: conversations that may never happen, and worse case scenarios that may never occur?
Mindfulness is simply awakening yourself to the truth of where you are right now, in this very second. Its returning back into your body and into the present, rather than having your energy scattered between a million different factors that are outside of your control.
So how do you "do" mindfulness?
A good place to start is to meditate. I used to despise meditation, and any attempt at it led me into a Hulk-like rage (although I did not turn green or muscly). Basically, it did the exact opposite of what it's meant to do. The reason? I was trying to force my brain not to think at all, which is damn near impossible for most of us mere mortals.
The trick is, instead of trying not to think, make it about focus. Focus on your breath. It gets easier the more you practice it, and eventually becomes a daily habit.
Apps like Headspace are great for learning how to meditate without putting a lot of pressure on yourself.
#2 -- Release.
When someone hurts us, we feel the initial pain, anger, hurt, and then we decide to carry it around with us for weeks, years or even a lifetime. In doing so, we've given that emotion or person an incredible amount of power in our lives. Release is just another word for forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of self-love.
Think of it like carrying bags of shopping. Your fingers feel like they're about to fall off, your arms are aching. You just don't know how much longer you can go on like this. But you've forgotten -- you have the option of putting the bags down.
A good way to release emotional pain is through visualization. You can incorporate some release (or forgiveness) practices into your meditation routine by visualizing the negative feelings as grey smoke. Breathe in the white light, and breathe out the grey smoke -- and all the negative feelings along with it.
You can also use visualization to release people. Picture the person you need to release, and visualize a cord attached between them and yourself. Imagine cutting the cord, and wishing them well. Pay attention to the positive feeling of release. What does it feel like? Peaceful, liberating, relieving?
# 3 -- Change it, accept it, or leave it.
When we're in a situation we don't like, after we've allowed ourselves to feel the emotion, it's time to actually do something about it.
We have three options in regards to the situation: Change it, accept it, or leave it. Wallowing in it, being bitter about it, or complaining about it isn't included on the list -- simply because none of those actions will improve a damn thing.
Trust me, I've tried the alternative. I stayed in a career I couldn't stand for 10 years, and during that time I did not accept it, change it or leave it. But I did use up a lot of energy feeling miserable.
#4 -- Search for gratitude.
Now for the good bit! Start paying attention to the little things you do like. A beautiful sunset, a warm shower, the smell of food cooking in the oven. Are you grateful that you have a fridge? A washing machine? I sure as hell am.
When you notice these things that you already have, appreciate them. Say "thank you" in your head. You could be saying it to God, to the universe, or just to yourself. Who you say it to doesn't actually matter, just say thanks.
You'll soon notice your list of things that makes you happy grows and grows. As we all know, "What you focus on expands."
Negative experiences will still come and go, and sometimes, they'll still send you into a frenzy. But these situations will be fewer and further between since you'll be able to check in with yourself, figure out where you're at, and promptly make a change in either your mindset or your situation.
It's not about pushing down negativity and pretending life's all sunshine and rainbows. Gratitude alone without mindfulness, release, action or acceptance will probably send you batshit crazy; chuckling while you spill coffee on your lap.