The human mind is a kind of word and story machine. The mind encodes all experience in words and stories, pictures and images and sensory impressions.
Every single thought you have is a word creation. A projection. Every thought you have is a kind of story. A made-up story about how things are, or even more accurately, how you perceive things to be.
This fascinates me in part because I am a fiction writer and I just love stories and write them all the time. But it also fascinates me because it has everything to do with whether or not we are happy.
This spring, at my University, I will be teaching a brand new interdisciplinary class in Happiness. The class will include readings in philosophy, psychology, narrative theory, neuroscience, as well as a few novels, some poetry and short fiction.
One important thing we will be considering this spring: the notion that the stories we tell ourselves are critically important to how we feel about ourselves, and how healthy we are.
It stands to reason that If we tell ourselves depressing stories, and if we look at the world in a negative light, then chances are that the world around us will be depressing.
But if we flip the switch, and tell ourselves upbeat and positive stories (within reason of course), then we are likely to be happier and have more positive outcomes in our lives. If you doubt this, try reading some of the emerging literature on mindfulness and positive psychology.
In particular, pick up a copy of Martin Seligman's book, Authentic Happiness, or even better, try reading ex-Harvard professor Tal Ben Shahar's book, Happier (a very quick read, with exercises to boot.)
Meanwhile, you might want to try this little experiment; it might make you happier, or at least it is likely to give you some important perspective and crucial insight into one or more of the dramas that plague your life.
OK, so start by thinking about somebody you would like to kill.
Or at least, try thinking about somebody who makes you very very angry. Or very very resentful. Or very very sad and unhappy.
Think perhaps about a recent argument that you've had with this person. One of those screaming matches. Or, maybe one of those cold shoulder experiences, that bitter feeling when you would rather slit your throat than talk to the person who makes you angry.
Recall a situation, something that happened with this person that made you as angry as you could possibly be. Maybe you will even want to write down this story that lit your fury.
Now try this, if you can. Try to flip the story.
Try, just for a moment, to step into the shoes of THE OTHER PERSON, and try to tell the story from your opponent's point of view. Try to, if you can, BE that other person who made you so murderously angry. Or be the person you resent. Or the mother or father who makes or made you or sad or whatever.
The important thing is to feel the situation, from the other point of view. Again, if you can do it, try writing it down.
Go over every moment of that last argument, but force yourself to do it in the eyes and ears and shoes and hat of that other person. Make sure to feel every bit of emotion that your antagonist feels. And especially, try to feel WHY that person feels what he or she feels.
If you do it, I promise you that you will not hate the person you hate quite as much as you did. Or at least, you will have a much better perspective. This exercise may give you insight into why they behave or feel toward you the way they do.
This is one of the exercises that we are going to do this upcoming semester in the Happiness class. We are going to "Flip the Script." We are going to take some of our journal writing, writing in which we detail emotional pain, and we are going to fold it into fiction.
The idea is to get people out of telling the same old stories. The idea is to stop the endless rumination that traps us by creating new stories. The idea is to write fiction that transforms the energy of the pain and makes us moves forward. Ultimately the goal is to move somewhere more peaceful with some personal drama, a drama that holds us back from feelings of happiness.
So, how exactly will we write these fictions that flip the script?
I supervised three students in an independent study this past fall, a kind of test run for the Happiness class. The students started the semester by doing extensive journal exercises. Relying on James Pennebaker's wonderful text, Opening Up, the students wrote regularly (at least three or four times a week) about situations in their lives that were emotionally troubling. (Pennebaker's research documents extraordinary improvements in health when students keep journals in this fashion.)
We never discussed the details of these journal entries, as I was careful to keep the independent study from becoming a therapy session. At no point in the semester did the students ever discuss exactly what they were writing.
After a few weeks writing regularly in their journals, the students were asked (and I helped to guide them) to transform one particularly prominent emotional conflict (one that recurred repeatedly) from the journal into a short piece of fiction.
One way to create fiction out of a journal entry is simply to take an emotional conflict and simply turn it into a back and forth dialogue between "characters." Then you place the dialogue into two characters and set the characters in an important "setting."
Voila. A story!
The next step is to "Flip the Script," that is, to take this piece of fiction and change it in some way or another. Sometimes that means bringing in another character, often an older wiser character (one student this semester found herself with a fairy godmother!) Sometimes that means writing from a different point of view, i.e., the point of view of your "persecutor." Sometimes that means having one of the characters do something that seems completely impossible or outrageously difficult or impossible to do. Something, say, like forgiving somebody something they have done.
The results of these exercises were rather remarkable. My students this fall found themselves exploring very painful life stories but transforming them, re-telling their life tales from another point of view. In one case, a student wrote from her mother's point of view, and for the first time in her life, she was able to see why her mother had had such a hard time being a "good" mother.
All three of the students found themselves with important insights into their lives. All three students -- all of them were upper division psychology majors at the university -- reported in their final papers at the end of the semester -- that they had found the exercises very helpful in gaining perspective on their most difficult and challenging life issues.
So, maybe you should try this too. It costs nothing but time, and emotional courage. I wish you a Happy New Year, whatever you do!