“The secret of happiness is to count your blessings while others are adding up their troubles.” ~William Penn
A friend recently asked me, “What’s the worst habit you’ve overcome?”
“Besides eating chocolate for breakfast?” I joked. “That would be complaining.”
I used to be an incessant complainer. Whining was practically in my DNA. When I was growing up, my father blamed the weather for his tennis elbow, the traffic, and his subpar golf game, and he frequently formed judgments and assumptions about other people.
If we drove by a neighbor’s nicely manicured lawn, he’d whisper that the house was bought “for a steal,” while waving to the owner. When his colleagues vacationed in Hawaii, he presumed that family money financed the trip.
So it wasn’t surprising when I started criticizing my friends during disagreements, or when I hit below the belt when my best friend invited another friend to Disneyland.
I admit, it felt good at first—powerful even. But soon after, I felt sad and guilty.
My turning point came during the fourth grade when my teacher gently pulled me aside one day after recess. “You know, sometimes we think our situation is worse than it is. But life is pretty great when you start noticing what’s going right.”
Though the lesson was indirect, Ms. Braun taught me the gift of gratitude. And gratitude is one reason I love positive psychology.
Positive psychology encourages us to question which thoughts and actions we can change to become happier.
This intentional focus inspires us to cultivate positive emotions, nurture relationships, and commit acts of kindness.
The following exercises can help improve your emotional well-being, and someone else’s, too.
Exercise #1: Three funny things
Write down three funny things you experienced in a given day, and why those things happened. For example, was this something you were directly involved in, something you observed, or something spontaneous?
When you can laugh at yourself and your circumstances, it means that you don’t take life too seriously. Best of all, laughing is contagious!
Exercise #2: Journaling
Journaling provides a snapshot of a moment in time. Not only does journaling create a healthy habit of self-reflection, it allows us to document positive changes to our thinking and our actions, and it helps us transition from a bad mood to a good one.
For example, if you earned a promotion at work this week, you would recount:
- How it happened (through hard work and spending fifteen minutes double-checking my numbers)
- Why it happened (I took the initiative to apply for the promotion.)
- What I did right (I talked to senior executives in the company about the best ways to improve job performance.)
- How I helped this happen (I gave up watching my favorite TV shows and read trade publications and stock reports instead.)
Next, record one activity that you didn’t like and how you can address it. For example:
I snapped at my roommate when she came home late on Thursday and woke me up.
Problem-solve the following:
- How this is keeping me stuck (I couldn’t fall back asleep because I obsessed over how inconsiderate she is.)
- What thoughts and actions I can take to get unstuck (I can be more flexible; after all, she’s a grown-up and doesn’t need a curfew. I can buy earplugs and wear them when she goes out during the week.)
Exercise #3: Write your future diary
Whether you’re trying to eat healthier, studying for an advanced degree, or starting your own business, the time between being an apprentice and reaching your goal can seem like an eternity. Envisioning your future can be a great motivating factor to get you over the slump.
Close your eyes and picture your future. Focus on how life will be different and what changes will be in place. Reflect on how you’ll feel and on how others will respond to the new, improved you.
Most importantly, think about how you’ll utilize the habits, skills, and talents you’re learning now to benefit others.
Exercise #4: Count kindness gestures
Keep a record of all the kind acts that you do in a particular day, and the acts of kindness you witness. These can be as simple as placing the morning newspaper at your neighbor’s doorstep, helping an elderly person cross the street, or smiling at strangers.
Exercise #5: Gratitude visit
Think of someone you should thank, someone who’s been helpful or kind to you (and not a family member, partner, or spouse).
Write a letter to this person, including details about how they’ve helped you and the lasting impact this has had on you.
Arrange to meet up with your friend and tell them you have something to read to them. After you finish reading the letter, present it as a gift.
A lovely gesture, though entirely optional, is to put the letter in a frame, or to laminate it.
Exercise #6: Cultivate a positive outlook
Despite the bad things that happen daily, it’s important to remember that the world is basically a safe place.
We all suffer pain and trauma. People who find the good in every situation possess the resilience to bounce back more quickly.
When you intentionally choose positivity, you look inward for resources and you trust your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Life still brings pain and heartache, but you know there’s a way out.
After dropping my son off for school last week, I found myself feeling sad and scared for no reason. What if something bad happens and I never see him again?
I knew these thoughts were futile, yet it was hard to shake the doom as I watched his disappearing frame recede amongst the sea of middle school students.
I then breathed deeply, closed my eyes, and reminded myself that my feelings are not facts, and I could get myself on the other side of anxiety with intentional action.
I looked around and savored the trees, the fresh air, the morning sunlight, and the giggly teens eagerly running toward the crossing guard at the edge of the street.
I focused on the simple beauty around me. And then it dawned on me: The difference between people who complain and those who do not is utter appreciation and gratitude for what you have, right here and right now.