As someone who writes and talks about happiness pretty much all day every day, and as someone who’s sought to enjoy more happiness pretty much all of my adult life, it’s sometimes hard to know where to start when writing a new article or delivering a new keynote. There’s so much one can say about happiness and wellbeing, and there’s so much that’s already been said, is it even possible to present a new or different perspective?
Well, I’m not sure what’s to follow could be classified as new or different, because it has been covered by others many times, but I am pretty sure it can be described as critically important and as often overlooked. And notably, I’m very sure that by making this one relatively small change in your life, or in your attitude to life, you’ll reap massive rewards.
To what am I referring? Let me answer that question with another question or, more accurately, with a simple thought exercise.
Pause your reading of this article for just a minute and reflect upon the top three contributors to your stress and unhappiness.
I invite you to consider this because there’s no doubt that although happiness comes from fostering and developing positive emotions and positive experiences, it also depends, at least in part, on eliminating or more often, reducing or managing negative experiences and the associated negative emotions.
Now, let’s be honest with each other. There’s absolutely no way to completely eliminate negative experiences from our lives and as such, to completely eliminate unpleasant emotions and the different forms of unhappiness such as stress and anxiety, depression, or frustration. But what we can do, is manage these with a view to minimising distress, and bouncing back to happiness as quickly as possible.
Well, in an ideal world we’d remove all these causes of stress. But again, that’s just not possible. Another approach might be to accept them and move on as soon as we’re able. This is a much better approach, as far as I’m concerned, and should almost certainly make up part of your coping repertoire.
But by far and away, the most effective way to deal with, and to counter the negative emotions that come from certain experiences is to remember, or for some to learn, that it’s not the situations themselves that creates the unpleasant emotions, but our reactions to these situations, and especially our cognitive reactions by which I mean the way we think about and interpret what’s going on around (or to) us.
Let me give you an example. If we just look at the physiological components of anxiety and excitement, there’s very little if any difference. During both, we might notice increased heart rate, heavier breathing, and sweatiness (to name just a few). The difference, however, often comes down to how we interpret these experiences. Are they indications of some catastrophic, life-threatening event, or a normal part of something that’s potentially exhilarating and enjoyable?
Depending on which meaning we ascribe to the very same signs and symptoms, we’ll either feel anxious or alive!
The same can be said of almost any stressful or upsetting situation (including the ones you noted before when I proffered that thought experiment); is the way we’re thinking about this situation helping, or now? Are these thoughts realistic, or not? Is there a way to think about this situation that makes it less unpleasant and/or more pleasant?
Which brings me back to the premise of this article. There’s one way of thinking that can massively reduce the intensity and frequency of unpleasant emotions, especially ones like anger and frustration, and the good news is it’s very much within our control.
So often, at least for me, distress comes from feeling let down, by others or by the world. At the same time, so often my feeling let down comes back to my own expectations, which more often than not are just unrealistic. And I know they’re unrealistic because reality has proven them wrong on multiple occasions. By holding on to these unrealistic and unhelpful reactions I’m not making others or the world better, I’m only making myself far more upset than I need to be.
The flip side is that by adjusting my attitude, I can enjoy life and interactions with others much more. It might be true to say that I’d prefer some things to be different, but they’re not. Accepting this reality, as hinted at earlier, will not just benefit me but it will also massively benefit all those around me through reduced frustrations during interpersonal interactions.
Give it a go and see. You might not expect such a simple thing to work, but you might also be surprised.