Eckhart Tolle tells the story of a duck in his great book A New Earth. In the story, the duck gets into an intense altercation with another duck. They fight violently for a few seconds and then separate. As the ducks part, each makes a great show of shaking its feathers and wings. In an instant, all their anger and intensity is released. The episode ends and all goes back to normal; no more pain, no more suffering.
In addition to a working thumb, we humans are also different from animals because of our consciousness, which gives us the ability to harbor and interpret memories and project visions for the future. Our extraordinary minds allow us to live far outside the reaches of our present moment and circumstances. Because of this, we get the opportunity to relive and sensationalize the negative events of our past and anticipate catastrophic misfortune in our future. Sometimes being a duck doesn’t sound so bad.
I love the Buddhist quote, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” The damage we do to ourselves in our minds often far exceeds that of the actual events. I’ve been the victim of my own mind for years, and it continues to this day.
That said, I have become acutely aware that the suffering I create in my mind is only taking away the precious moments I have while I’m alive. For this reason, I have worked to develop techniques that allow me to better manage in the negative emotions in my life. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but I continue to get better each day at simply being happier.
If suffering is optional, then try these 12 techniques for creating a mindset of happiness instead:
The best antidote I know to feeling anxiety is taking action. When you’re worried about money, prepare a budget. When you’re concerned about a deadline, get working on the project. Action eliminates doubt and, more importantly, puts us back in control. We are now doing something, and the feeling is powerful.
If you feel stuck, lean into the fear and take action against it. You’ll regain control and start taking the necessary steps to take to address whatever challenge you’re facing.
When one thing goes wrong in one area of my life, it’s so hard to keep it from impacting others. For example, if I have a bad day at work, my energy level can be low and negative when I get home. It is very important to compartmentalize. The best way I know to do this is to stop and reset. For example, when coming home from a bad day at work, I stop on the side of the road and reorient myself towards the rest of the day. I might get focused on being present and engaging with my children or having a good conversation with my wife. The key is to never let negativity steamroll throughout your life. Compartmentalize and manage in boxes so there is no collateral damage.
The number of bad circumstances and seemingly negative events in my life is uncountable. Every day, something happens that creates stress, fear or anger in me. And yet, as I look back, I can hardly remember any of them. This gives me some perspective about how tiny and insignificant almost every issue truly is. I am trying to live the simple mantra, “This too shall pass.” It gives me tremendous perspective and awareness of the ephemeral nature of difficult circumstances in my life.
I’m often amazed at how few people meditate. I struggled with it for many years, but when I was able to make it a permanent part of my life, it became the most powerful thing I have ever done. Now, I don’t know exactly what happens when we meditate, but I do know that my mind heals and the anxieties and frustrations in my life decrease. I come out of meditation with such clarity and focus, and often have new solutions and strategies that allow me to deal with the challenges I’m facing. Find a way to meditate, even if it’s only for 5 to 10 minutes a day. It is life-changing.
Taking a few minutes every day to write our thoughts in a journal can be powerful. In fact, it has been proven that journaling reduces stress and allows us to solve problems more effectively, as well as improving how we resolve disagreements with others. Journaling works because it brings us to the present and makes us mindful. It’s like playing an instrument – we stop thinking about the past or worrying about the future and the problems of the day.
The most powerful type of journaling to improve our mood is gratitude journaling. Not only does it provide the benefits of journaling outlined above, it also shifts our attention to the positive aspects of our lives. This raises our moods, improves our ability to interact with others, and provides the optimistic energy to help us perform at a higher level. The benefits of gratitude journaling, and of consciously increasing our gratitude in general, are endless.
Prayer is powerful, independently of religion. Whoever you’re talking to, I would urge you to pray to something. Just the act of sharing your feelings and mentally verbalizing the challenges you face is critical. It is also important to know this is all not meaningless and that everything is happening for a reason. For me, it is like a mental journaling process, a way to get my feelings out, to reflect and reorient my attention and focus. If you can, I suggest trying to find ways to pray regularly (and frequently) throughout your day.
Many people perceive the need for therapy as a weakness. I would say the awareness that one needs therapy is a great strength. I know the most important decision I ever made was to start seeing a psychologist. The benefits she has fostered in my life are immeasurable. It is so important to have a professional to ground you in reality, help you maintain perspective and provide you with proven strategies to help you address the negative emotions in your life. My only advice is to find a good one and be willing to spend some money if necessary. It may be the best investment you ever make.
The physical and mental benefits of exercising are proven and well-known. There is an incredibly high correlation between physical and mental health. There is no doubt a mind-body connection. I love the Zig Ziglar anecdote about when someone asked him if he was too busy to get exercise, and he responded that he was too busy not to exercise. Find a way to incorporate exercise into your daily routine, even if it’s in the form of 5-minute walks. Your body and mind will thank you.
10-Minimize Processed Foods
This is a new one for me. Thanks to my wife, I have become educated on what is being put in our foods. When I eat a lot of processed foods, especially refined sugars, I have low energy, feel bad and have a difficult time overcoming bad attitudes and negative moods. Remember, no food tastes as good as feeling good feels. Make this a mantra and fuel your body with the food that will power a positive mind as well.
11 – Connect with Others
There may be nothing as rejuvenating as a stimulating conversation with another human being. When we feel bad, it is easy to isolate ourselves, and that’s the very opposite of what we need.
I have actually heard people talk about having their own personal board of directors. For example, they have friends in great marriages who they can talk to and use as role models. They have people around them who are smart with money and can consult with them and help them navigate challenges. They have friends they exercise with and accompany on vacation. We call this creating your dream. Make sure to surround yourself with coaches, friends and role models. We make our lives exponential through others.
12-Engage in Music
In our research, we came across a very interesting pattern in people who are happier and find the most meaning. Most either played an instrument or were avid music lovers. Like meditation or prayer, playing or listening to music brings us squarely into the moment. The transgressions of our past are momentarily forgotten, as are our fears of the future. Our minds open up and activate. Playing or listening to music is often the birthplace of creativity and inspiration. Allow music to help you rise above your problems, and inspire the actions you need to take to solve them.
At the end of the day, all we really have are the moments of our lives. Life isn’t easy, and adversity strikes us all. The degree to which we can manage the suffering in our lives drives the levels of happiness and meaning we are able to squeeze out of our time. The good news, however, is that there may be nothing more important to our happiness than our ability to monitor and manage our mood. I hope the strategies above will help each of you do a better job minimizing the suffering you experience.