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Moving Towards Happy

Creative Commons LicensePhoto credit: davidhorne

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

— John Milton

When I got hired into my first “professional” job in Corporate America, I was ecstatic.  Although when I went back to college, I hadn’t even thought about where I would work after I graduated, I knew one thing – I’d be entitled to respect.

As I made my way through the “more advanced” accounting classes, a lot of it just seemed arbitrary and boring.  As I got to work with “real accountants” I also saw how different our views of the world were.  So, with a nudge from my marketing professor, I dropped my accounting major and leapt – into what I wasn’t sure, but I knew it wouldn’t be accounting.

I had done some programming, so I thought that working for a computer company would be fun.  This was my first attempt at goal setting and it actually worked out pretty well.  When I graduated from college with a BS in Marketing (some would call that redundant), I went to work providing technical support for computer sales.  It was my dream job – or so I thought.

From Heaven to Hell

Once I started, I learned my first year would be another year of school.  This was hard to take because I’d been working steadily for years and now it was as if I’d taken a step backwards into being a college student with no responsibilities.  While most people would love this kind of break, I hated it.  I took my “dream job” and made it into something awful.  I had a job where I didn’t have to be in every day and could stay home and study in a tank top and shorts – and I thought it was horrible.  (What was I thinking?)

I did what many of us do.  I changed my focus from the wonderful things about my job into focusing in on the things which caused me stress.  Instead of being thrilled with the opportunity to learn new stuff and grow my skills, I focused on all the ways I could fail, the long drive into downtown, being at the bottom of the totem pole yet again, and anything else I could think of to worry about.  In no time at all, I went from being ecstatic to being miserable.

Focusing on Adversity

What I did is fairly common.  In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor writes about witnessing a similar phenomenon at Harvard.  After graduating with an undergraduate degree, Achor decided to continue at Harvard for his graduate work and he became a Proctor, overseeing undergrads and assisting them in adapting to their new life at Harvard.  What he saw over and over was similar to what happened to me.  Students who came to Harvard were initially thrilled to be there and then the reality of hard work and new challenges quickly wore them down and they became unhappy with the experience.

It wasn’t that the undergrads misunderstood that there would be hard work and new challenges when they came to Harvard, it was that the adversities were all they focused on.  They missed the opportunities for fun and adventure by labeling the new experiences as adversities.  The more they saw their new experiences as adversities, the more pessimistic they became and the more unhappy they perceived themselves to be.

We’re exactly the same.  We may not be heading off to Harvard, but we do get into a rut about how we see things.  If we perceive things as difficult, then we see more and more difficulties.  As the difficulties pile up, we become more pessimistic and more unhappy.  We get worn down and habitually unhappy.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

We don’t have to follow this path.  According to Achor, our brains can only focus on one thing at a time.  If we’re focused on adversity, we’ll see adversity.  If we’re focused on opportunity, we’ll see opportunity.  We see what we’re looking for.  So, the trick is to look for the right stuff.

To train our brains to notice the positive, we need to choose the positive.  Achor writes that when we smile, we literally light up parts of our brain.  Even if we don’t feel like smiling, if someone smiles at us, we “mirror” that smile in our brains, even if it never makes it to our face.  In other words, if someone walking towards you smiles, your brain lights up as if you were smiling.  Because your brain lit up, you’re more apt to smile and over time, you’ll actually feel better.  If you can’t bring yourself to actually smile (I’ve had days like that), you put a pen in your mouth horizontally; by forcing the edges of your mouth up, your brain thinks that you’re smiling.  Dumb, huh?

Now, I’m not going to tell you that this is easy.  I’m watching his PBS presentation and he smiles constantly.  My mood is such that although my brain must be lighting up because he’s constantly smiling, it doesn’t feel like it is.  Even so, I can see the hopefulness in his presentation.

His message is clear, if you want to be happy, look for the positive.  It is possible to learn to notice the good in life every day.  It just takes commitment and practice.  And, if worse comes to worse, you can always stick a pen in your mouth.

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Cup o’ Inspiration

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Take a short break and consider the following:

“A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”

Phyllis Diller

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