Forty-two year old Marsha plopped down on the couch in front of me in my clinical office. Slightly overweight, but with a pretty face and outfitted in a fashionable pantsuit, she looked anything but the bitter and depressed person she described herself to be on her intake sheet.
Glancing down the sheet, I noted that what she was married, had two high school-aged children, held the title of manager in the company she worked, and had no health problems. What’s she got to be depressed about? I wondered.
It didn't take me long to find out. Contrary to many people who report depression, she did not have a history of child abuse or significant failure, nor did she experience current trauma in her life. What she did reveal, though, was a steady stream of negative thinking, complaining about everything from the state of the economy to the frustration in her job to the weather. The picture that she presented was that of a shopper in a giant clothing store, who only saw the items that did not fit her or were garish.
There it was, the root source of her bitterness and depression. Marsha approached life with the mindset of the quintessential glass half-empty person. She habitually focused on the negative, ignoring the good, thereby driving her mood lower and lower. It was as if she had committed herself to forcing all happiness from her life with her mental focus. My chore, and hers, was to break this habit and develop an attitude of gratitude.
The Power Of Focus
The focus of our mind matters. Why? Because we tend to act to produce that which we focus on. That explains the power of goals. By focusing on a desired goal, we tend, all things being equal, to act to make that goal a reality. To the contrary, by focusing on all the obstacles that make it hard to accomplish a goal, we discourage ourselves from acting to make that goal a reality.
The same is true for our mood. Try focusing on everything negative in your life for one week and see what happens to your mood. Then, for the next week, focus on nothing but the positive in your life, and watch your mood elevator.
So, what we chose to focus on has the power to enable us or disable us. It can greatly enhance or debilitate our happiness. But, here's the good news: we need not be the passive victim of the direction our mine takes; we can take control of the focus of our minds, whether we decide to focus on the positive or the negative. Our mind is like a muscle. We can train it to ignore the positives in our life, paying attention to only the annoying, the frustrating, the dislikable. Or, we can train it to see and appreciate the positives, while taking care not to ignore the negatives so that we can improve on them if we can.
Marsha proved to be a tough nut to crack. She initially approached her therapy with the same negativity she did with everything else in her life. “Yeah, but…” seemed to be her favorite sentence opening. But, I persisted in pointing out the steady stream of negativity out of her mouth and helped her see how this habit debilitated her mood, diminished her motivation, and even demoralized those around her. After weeks of struggle, she started working to rehabituate her mental focus and slowly but surely saw her depression lift and her happiness rise.
Sear This Into Your Mind
• What you focus on plays a major role in your mood. You, like everyone else, will experience both positive and negative in your life. If you ignore the positive and dwell on the negative, you likely will fall into bitterness and depression. If you wisely take note of the negative, so as not to be in denial and be caught off-guard, but take pains to note and appreciate the positive, you'll likely create pleasure and happiness for yourself.
• Your mind can be thought of as a muscle. You can strengthen either the habit of focusing on the positive or the negative. You will experience the consequence of which habit you choose to habituate.
• Happiness is not your birthright. As I said in my very first Happiness on Purpose blog on January 22, 2013, it is difficult to be happy. Why? Well, for three reasons: (1) we live in a difficult world, full of frustrations and hardships; (2) we do not live with saints or angels, but with fallible humans who will regulate thwart us; (3) we operate with a human mind that will easily think in irrational, happiness-thwarting ways. Therefore, to be happy, you must consciously – purposely – work at it. Focusing on what is good in your life is a powerful strategy to bring yourself happiness.
Let me take the Power of Focus to the next level. Being aware of what's good in life is one thing; being grateful for what is good is another. You can certainly increase your happiness by focusing on the positive, but you can juice it even higher by being appreciative of, being indebted to, and being grateful for the blessings you have.
Here are five practices you can adopt to practice gratitude, thereby bringing tons more happiness to your life.
1. Set the tone each morning. First thing each morning, review what it is that you having your life about which you are grateful. Ask yourself: What is good in my life? What do I have to be thankful for? Who do I love who also loves me? What are the opportunities I have this day for enjoyment, pleasure, fun? What are the possibilities that exist to do something good or helpful? By identifying and focusing on this to start the day, you can set the happiness tone for the day.
2. Be alert to the good. My wife and I watched a movie the other night titled About Time. The hook of the movie was a secret the father shared with his son on his twenty-first birthday: the males in the family could travel backwards in time. The young man did so throughout the movie to win the woman of his dreams, to save his sister from a life of drugs and debauchery, and to help his best friend realize a successful career. Shortly before his death, the father told him a second secret, the secret to happiness. It was to live each day first exactly as it unfolded; then, second, to go back in time and relive the day, but this time paying close attention to the beautiful little things that exist that were ignored the first time around. Of course, you cannot actually relive each day. But, imagine the pleasure you could derive if you did this in the one-and-only go-around you have.
3. Embrace good fortune. Albert Einstein once remarked: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” I know that he spoke metaphorically, but I also know that, when good fortune comes your way, you can go beyond merely accepting it to celebrating it, relishing it, embracing it. This way you not only enjoy your good fortune, but you both enhance it and enjoy your enjoyment of it.
4. Embrace death. I know this sounds crazy, but the fact that death looms in front of all of us can be our biggest blessing. For, our certain death can be a reminder that this is the one and only life we know for certain we’ll ever have. The wise of us keep this in the forefront of our mind and live each day accordingly. We then work to manufacture good times and make sure to savor those that we have. Death reminds us to never squander any moment, to relish each and every pleasure, and to be grateful for whatever good life grants us.
5. Revel in the miniature. Of course we all want to enjoy those big things in life – physical health and vitality; a loving, lasting relationship; the warmth of a close-knit family; a vibrant, engaging career; financial security. When we have these, we would be wise to be grateful for them. But we can also take pleasure in and be grateful for the little things as well – the beauty of the snow in the woods behind the house, a child's laughter, the warmth of the blankets as one snuggles down to sleep at night. These type moments are available many times each day. All it takes is for us to be alert to them and to savor them as they present themselves.
What better way to bring happiness into your life than to grow your gratitude quotient? You may not have control over all the circumstances in your life, but you sure can control what is the focus of your attention. By building the habit of paying close attention to what you have in your life for which you can be grateful, you increase tremendously the amount of pleasure you experience, your mood, and ultimately your happiness.
I hope this blog has been helpful useful to you in your quest for happiness. I know you deserve to be happy. But, I also know you have to make the effort to make it happen. So, dear reader, till next month, live healthy, happy, and with passion.
Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is the author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live. These include: Unrelenting Drive; Marriage On Purpose; and The Happiness Handbook (in preparation). You may contact Dr. Grieger for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.