How to Stop Living the “Have-To” Life
The new psychology of positive thinking.
Posted May 17, 2020
This post was co-written by sports psychologist Jenna Weinstein*.
Picture this: It’s Monday morning, post-pandemic. Life is, in many ways, at least, pretty much back to normal. Your spouse is away on business, and you are flying as a solo parent for the upcoming week. Your alarm starts screaming at you at 7:00 am sharp. “Gosh, I got to sleep in for months during the whole pandemic. Now I have to get up so early every day for work. Uggh!”
You start knocking on the kids’ doors to see how ready they are for the 7:30 arrival of the school bus. They both are still in a deep sleep. You now find yourself having to struggle for a solid 10 minutes to wake them up!
Your dogs are barking, both needing to go out. “Great!” you think to yourself with more than a splash of sarcasm, “now I have to walk and feed these guys. Who has time for all this? I have to lead a meeting, which includes people from three different countries chiming in via Zoom, at the office at 9:00 a.m. sharp. Great, just great...”
After your obligatory dog walking, you head into the kitchen, which looks like it was hit by a train. “Oh, dear. Now I have to make those kids the fastest breakfast ever, and then I have to make sure they have all their school stuff in order. Next, I’ll have to empty that dishwasher and get the kitchen looking somewhat acceptable before having to drive through rush-hour traffic to the office." Oh gosh, you notice how late it is and now realize that you have to shower in record time—Ackk!
Sound at least somewhat familiar?
Look, while every last one of the problems listed above is totally a first-world problem, this stuff builds up. The portrait drawn above includes exactly 10 have-to moments—all between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m.! With so many people living such busy, “modernized” lives, it’s no wonder that more people are seeking out therapy for stress-related issues than ever before (APA, 2019).
Cognitive Reframing and Healthy Living
Imagine this: truly seeing each of the aforementioned “have to’s” as “get to’s.” Like so:
I don’t “have to” quickly make breakfast for the kids this morning. I “get to” make breakfast for my kids, who are generally healthy and happy and who fill my life with meaning and purpose just by being there.
In a later section, we will discuss this idea of changing have to’s to get to’s in detail. In this section, we discuss the evidence for the effectiveness of such cognitive reframing as it relates to mental health.
Some of the most groundbreaking findings in the applied behavioral sciences pertain to cognitive reframing or adjusting one’s way of seeing things in the world. In fact, changing one’s own thought patterns in an effort to bring about positive outcomes for oneself and for others is a well-documented and effective way to move toward leading a richer life (see Dobson & Dobson, 2009; Geher & Wedberg, 2020).
Below are three empirically documented phenomena that all converge on this idea pertaining to the fact that we are capable of changing our perspective to achieve positive life outcomes:
1. Perceiving Yourself to Have Control Over Situations Helps
A broad set of studies in the field of social perception has documented the fact that perceived control over one’s situation (even if such perceptions are not warranted) helps people to achieve positive emotional and social outcomes (see Presson & Bensassi, 1996). Taking steps to see yourself as in control of situations (as opposed to having little or no control over situations) goes a long way to helping people effectively cope with life’s hardships.
2. We Can Train Ourselves to Be More Optimistic
In a groundbreaking body of research, Martin Seligman, the father of the modern positive psychology movement, demonstrated that optimism can be learned (see Seligman, 1990). Through standard conditioning methods, people can actually experience reinforcement for thinking positively and optimistically about situations. And reinforced actions famously become part of one’s behavioral approach to living.
3. Optimists Live Longer
A pessimist’s take on the points that we present here might argue that optimists have their heads in the clouds and that pessimism is really where it’s at when it comes to success in life. While we hate to burst the bubbles of pessimists out there(...), note that data from a recent intensive study on this issue shows that not only are optimists generally happier than pessimists are but, also, they lead healthier and longer lives than pessimists do (see Lewina et al., 2019).
Changing Have to’s to Get to’s: Cognitive Reframing in Action
Let’s reflect on that parent’s hectic morning. Even if you aren’t a parent, it is so relatable, right?! It is so easy for us to automatically default to this way of thinking.
And the moment we allow ourselves to have one thought that starts with have to, it is almost guaranteed for our next thoughts to be have-to thoughts as well. “I have to wake up right now.” “I have to wake the kids up.” “I have to walk the dogs.” “I have to make breakfast... lunches... dinners.” Before you know it, your entire day—your entire life—feels like a series of events that you have to do.
When our brains interpret the terms have to or need to, it can feel like we are being given a chore! Or maybe we can interpret that event as a burden that is getting in our way. And our motivation can become extrinsic. Ryan and Deci (2000) argue that when we are acting based on extrinsic motivation, we can demonstrate resentment, resistance, and disinterest. Does this sound familiar?
When we have to do something, we no longer feel like we are in control. There is some punishment or consequence that we are avoiding. “I have to wake up because if I don’t, everyone will be late.” “I have to walk the dogs because if I don’t, they will have an accident in the house.”
What is interesting about living a have-to life is that we still accomplish the tasks. We are getting everything on our to-do lists done. We are getting the mission done. So, then, why does it matter? (Great question!)
At what cost are we getting everything done? At what cost to ourselves? Our health? Our well-being?
How can we stop living the have-to life? By making a small shift in our interpretations of the events in our lives. Whenever we get the urge to say have to, change it to get to. It’s that simple.
You don’t have to wake up. You get to wake up and start your day. Not everyone is fortunate to live another day.
You don’t have to prepare breakfast/lunch/dinner for your family. You get to provide an enjoyable meal for your family. Not every family is able to say that they have meals on the table every day.
With this subtle shift in our perspective, these everyday burdens or chores are now becoming opportunities and blessings.
Importantly, the get-to approach to life is more closely connected with gratitude than is the have-to approach to life. And when it comes to our mental health, simply put, gratitude is a good thing. In fact, people who regularly notice and reflect on events in which they feel gratitude experience more life satisfaction, are happier in their relationships, and are healthier compared to people who focus on the everyday hassles and annoyances (Emmons, 2007).
Why is gratitude so important? Barb Fredrickson is renowned in the field of Positive Psychology for her work on the benefits of positive emotions. In her book Positivity (2009), she discusses how gratitude is the strongest of the positive emotions we can experience in relation to living a happy and fulfilled life. When we experience gratitude, we appreciate what we have at the moment, and we typically experience feelings of altruism—wanting to do good for others at no cost.
Imagine having an entire day filled with get-to's, and you are feeling so rejuvenated and happy that you are more willing to help others. Which will allow them to feel gratitude—and then the pattern continues!
So, if you’re noticing that you are living a have-to life, it’s time to make the decision to take control and change your perspective and allow yourself to live the get-to life. What’s the worst that can happen? Your life gets better?!
Look, so many of us have too many obligations. And stress levels for people from all walks of life seem to be on the rise—and this all was true before the corona pandemic. Think about that.
In such a world, it’s easy to go negative. It’s easy to see all of one’s obligations as hassles instead of as gifts. But you know, life is too short to go negative. The next time that you find yourself feeling resentful having to do something, try to step back and see whatever it is you’re doing as something that you “get to” do.
Changing our have to’s to get to’s is one simple way that we can turn resentment into gratitude. And lead richer lives along the way.
*Jenna Weinstein, the co-author of this post, is the owner of Ripple Effect Performance. Jenna provides consulting to athletes and professionals in the fields of Sport and Exercise Psychology to help them accomplish their goals and achieve higher levels of success. She has dedicated the last 10 years of her life to helping individuals and organizations uncover their true potential by making small changes in their mindset and thinking. Jenna has worked with collegiate and elite-level athletes, adaptive sports athletes, and the United States Army. She travels around the United States and the world, leading courses to help soldiers enhance their mental toughness to cope with stressors during deployments and at home. Jenna lives in Savannah, GA, with her husband, Gabe Maldonado, and two dogs, Oz and Daria.
American Psychological Association (2019). Stress in America: Stress and Current Events. Stress in America™ Survey.
Emmons, R., A. (2008). Thanks: How practicing gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Mariner Books.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Dobson, D. J. G., & Dobson, K. S. (2009). Evidence-based practice of cognitive-behavioral therapy. New York: Guilford Press.
Lewina O. Lee, Peter James, Emily S. Zevon, Eric S. Kim, Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, Avron Spiro, Francine Grodstein, Laura D. Kubzansky (2019). Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116 (37) 18357-18362; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1900712116
Presson, P. K., & Benassi, V. A. (1996). Illusion of control: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 11(3), 493–510.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.