I’m a huge proponent of doing tiny things for daily happiness. I’ve learned that a simple change in behavior can create a significant shift in thinking and feeling. But I’ve noticed I run into problems when I slip back into my old ways or doing or thinking.
It all starts so innocently. I get outside and hop on a swing—spend a good 20 minutes acting my shoe size. Then BAM. I fall out of the present moment and start worrying about the work I have to do when I get home.
Or I decide to un-strange a stranger—really open up to someone new, and take the risk of being rejected. Then BAM. I start thinking about that friendship that ended in drama, and retreat back into my shell.
I decided today that doing happy is actually two-fold: it’s about doing things that will bring you joy, and not doing things that sap it up. I’ve identified a long list of these things–so long it will take me at least 5 posts to explore it all. I’m honored to share this series here over the next several weeks.
Today I’ll start with two types of thinking the get in the way of happiness:
1. Dwelling on things that happened in the past.
You’re eating dinner with friends, enjoying your favorite meal, two sips into your first drink of the night. BAM. Your mind wanders. I shouldn’t have said those things to my mother. That look on her face—I’ll never forget it. What I should have done was… Like rehashing the past will somehow change the way you feel about it. Maybe even change what happened.
2. Obsessing over things that might happen in the future.
You’re watching a movie, cuddling close to the person you love. You feel warm under a blanket. Your popcorn has just the right amount of salt and butter. BAM. Your mind wanders. I hope I do well in that interview on Monday. I really need to make more money. If I don’t get that job… As if you could find a way to shape the future by thinking really hard right now.
If you can relate to either of these, the good news is you’re human. Everyone thinks about the past and the future at some point. Even the most enlightened person reflects and imagines on occasion.
Since I’m not willing to spring for that lobotomy, I’ve accepted that part of life is learning how to use my mind well.
Which means learning to let go. To release the past once it’s over. To do all you can to shape your future, and then accept that on some level the future will always be unknown. To open your eyes to what’s right in front of you, and allow yourself to fully experience it.
I’ve found these 10 steps helpful in keeping me in the now:
1. Schedule time to dwell or worry.
Give yourself specific windows of time when it’s perfectly OK to worry about the past or stress about the future–a half-hour in the afternoon for example. If you start doing it at another time, write down the thought and put it away for later. This won’t be easy at first–but even a little time gained makes the practice worthwhile.
2. Replace your thoughts.
Get in the habit of observing the way you think. When you start dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, change your thought to something helpful. As soon as you think, I shouldn’t have said that… think, Stop. I said what I said. From this experience I learned…In the future I will…. I’ve written change that thought on a rubber band that I wear on my wrist when I’m having a hard time being present. Seeing the reminder helps. Seriously.
3. Focus on what’s in front of you.
I have a mantra I tell myself when I start slipping away from now: “All that exists is what I can see.” Of course this isn’t true, but it heightens my sense of awareness within the present. The flowers look brighter. The birds sound prettier. My breakfast tastes sweeter. Then I remember nothing’s certain but this moment. Everything can change in an instant.
4. Bring it all back to you–and right now.
Most of the time when we’re living in the past or future, it has to do with other people. What they said or did, what they may say or do. Personal responsibility roots you in the present. If you didn’t get a promotion and start blaming your boss, think, I’ll get the next one if I improve my communication skills. I can work on that today by…
5. Ask yourself What can I control right now?
Not only is it draining and potentially depressing, it’s an unproductive use of time to dwell on things you can’t do anything about. Focus on things you can control, and back them up with actions right now. This list of 50 things you can control may give you some ideas.
Most of the time, when we’re clinging to the past, we’re holding onto anger or bitterness. You see how much better things could be if only he did this, or she didn’t do that. But he didn’t. Or she did. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. Sometimes without remorse. Holding onto anger doesn’t punish the person who hurt you. It just prolongs your pain. Let go of that pain.
When we pin our happiness to future gains it’s often because we feel we don’t have enough. So maybe things would be easier if you had a more reliable car or a home that didn’t need any work. But you have a car and don’t have to wait for the bus—woohoo! You have a home and don’t need to crash with your parents—woohoo! It feels good to look around and notice things you take for granted.
8. Focus on your breathing.
The best way to get out of your head is to focus on your breathing and ground yourself back in your body. A simple method is to count breaths. As you inhale and exhale, think and one, then on your second breath think and two. Breathe in—and—breathe out—one. Breathe in—and—breathe out—two. The goal is to get through a set without letting your thoughts wander. Work in sets of 4, 6, 8, or even 10 if you’re able.
9. Get in the zone.
Meditation doesn’t have to involve sitting Indian style, chanting or anything like that. You just need to get in the zone, at least once a day for a half-hour. Read a book. Play an instrument. Get on the elliptical machine. Allow your mind to focus completely on one thing for at least a half-hour a day and your thoughts will start to slow down.
10. Override your thoughts with action.
It all started with the Do Happy ideas, so it feels appropriate to end this way. It’s hard to do things in the past or the future. Go ahead and try it. Can you hug your kids in 1998? Ride your bike in 2015? OK, that one’s a little more doable—but it’s a long way off! If you get caught up in your thinking, stop. Tell your thoughts you’ll get back to them later. And do something that makes you feel good.