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Make a Tough Situation Good: One Question That Changes Everything

Thinking Man

“The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” ~Viktor E. Frankl

For my livelihood, I lead workshops on how to let go of stress and experience deeper happiness. My occupation makes my occasional meltdowns all the more embarrassing. Fortunately, a meltdown I had last year led me to a question that completely changed how I view difficult situations in my life.

As I was checking in at the airport a few months ago, I was told I did not have a ticket for my cross-country flight. Fortunately, I had my confirmation number with me—which I promptly gave to the agent.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Although you have a confirmation number, you’re not in our system. You can’t board this flight.”

A wave of self-pity, anger, and anxiety seared through my body. Fifty people were expecting me in New York City the next morning to talk about how to be happier. Yet, here I was fully stressed out and making this situation mean I’m an unlucky hypocrite.

I asked the ticket agent if there were any more tickets available.

“Yes,” she said enthusiastically as she typed away on her keyboard.

“Okay,” I thought. “Maybe it’s not going to be such a bad day after all. I’ve been saved.”

She continued, “But if you buy the same ticket you had before, instead of $600 round trip, it will cost you $3200.”

“I was right the first time,” I thought. “This means I’ve been totally screwed.”

I needed to get to New York ASAP, so I reluctantly, angrily, and self-righteously bought the stupid ticket.

The irony of the situation did not escape me. Here I was feeling self-pity and totally stressed out while buying a ticket to lead a workshop on happiness. The universe definitely has a sense of humor.

For a long time I’ve known I can choose my attitude and the meaning I give the events in my life. Yet, there is a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it when the crap hits the fan.

Fortunately, the “ticket fiasco” I went through that day led me to create a simple question I can ask myself that has greatly impacted my daily life.

To make a long story short, I got to New York on time and led the workshop the next morning. That night I talked to the folks at United Air Lines and they confessed that my not “being in the system” was totally their fault.

In fact, they decided to refund the $3200 fare I had paid that day plus what I had previously paid for my ticket.

I actually ended up making $600. Now I was feeling like life is a bowl of cherries and everything works out for the best. It seemed like I had gone through a lot of bad feelings for nothing.

Then it hit me. I realized I often get “worked up” about things that frequently end up working out for the best. I wondered if there was a way to short-circuit this process so I didn’t spend so much time being unnecessarily stressed. 

As I pondered this situation, I wondered, “What question could I ask myself that would help me when faced with difficult situations?” I saw that when things occur that I don’t like, I’m basically asking myself “What could be bad about this?”

Since I ask that question, my brain feels obliged to give me many reasons why something sucks.

So I wondered what it would be like to ask myself, “What could (potentially) be good about this?” when facing challenging situations.

In retrospect, I realized that had I asked this question when finding out I had no ticket, I might have come up with a couple of good answers.

I might have guessed it would ultimately lead to a good story, or a new technique—or even a refund beyond what I had paid. Of course, that’s what ended up happening, but it would have saved me a lot of grief had I imagined that outcome while in the ticket line.

Of course, no one knows what the future holds. Yet, it seems we habitually make the challenging events of our life mean things that lead to bad feelings.

If you’re going to make up things about the future, you may as well come up with a meaning that empowers you—rather than stresses you out.

For better or worse, over the next few weeks I had plenty of opportunities to practice this simple method. For example, when my tax bill was unexpectedly high, I asked, “What could be good about this?”

That answer was easy. It could mean I’m making more money than ever before; it could mean I get to help contribute to the government so they can provide services to people less fortunate than I.

When I got sick, I asked, “What could potentially be good about this?”

Begrudgingly I answered, “It’s a helpful wake up reminder that I need to take my vitamins and not work too many hours.” Though still sick, I immediately felt better now that I had attached an empowering meaning to my illness.

The ability to quickly create a positive meaning to the events in our life is a great aid to being happy. Yet, this is the exact opposite of what our mind normally does. We normally create negative, disempowering meanings whenever things seemingly “go wrong.”

The question, “What could (potentially) be good about this?” is a simple way to change how we interpret each situation in our life. So when you get in an argument with your partner, you can see that disagreement as a doorway to deeper intimacy—rather than a doorway to depression.

When the argument is over, you don’t really know what the future holds. You may as well create a meaning that empowers you. Through such empowerment, you’ll feel better and you’ll be more likely to act in a helpful manner.

Nowadays, I frequently ask myself, “What could be good about this?” I always come up with at least two answers, even if I don’t believe them. I find that it immediately makes me feel better—and more empowered.

Instead of life feeling like a battle I need to put up with, it feels like I’m being given useful challenges that will eventually lead to a happy ending. It’s a much better way to live than being the victim of a mind that always delivers bad news.

Photo by wesleynitsckie

About Jonathan Robinson

Jonathan Robinson is the author of 10 books and the founder of the web site: FindingHappiness.com. He offers many practical tips for finding deeper happiness on his web site, including free articles and free audio downloads that detail very powerful methods.

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  • “Think positive” and “turn problems into interesting challenges” can be such annoying advice, especially if the situation we’re in already has us frustrated. However, this simple question of “What could be good about this?” is a really effective and easy way to get into a more optimistic way of thinking. Great advice! Thanks for sharing, Jonathan 🙂

  • Karthik Vallinayagam

    Excellent Post. Think positive and expect a happy ending Cheers 🙂

  • Gwen

    I think this is one of the best pieces of simple advice I’ve read in a long time. Thanks!

  • kclarin

    this is so helpful. it’s quite similar to my on-off practice of asking myself, “how can i see this differently?” when something i (still) don’t like happens to me. i picked that up from some reading i had (sorry, i can’t recall right now, but suffice it to say, that credit goes to someone else). i try to come up with other “viewings”, that i add to my still knee-jerk “pull-down” lens. that way i do not deny that were i still i am, but i “show” my self that aside from that view, there are other views, and i can choose that which empowers. but this article short-cuts the process somehow. i can go right off to choosing (helping me be more mindful) that which empowers me. salamat (thank you in filipino).

  • With such a difficult weekend this message really helped me!!!! Thank you!

  • Nancy

    Love this!!! Thank you 🙂

  • Hi Jonathan,

    Everything is a vehicle for our advancement. We choose to turn around or move forward.

    Thanks for sharing your ticket story 😉

    Ryan

  • Thanks for this helpful article, Jonathan.

    Viktor Frankl is a real hero of mine. Having seen the quote I remembered something he said, which goes:

    In between a stimulus and our response is choice.

    It’s ultimately our choice as to whether we see and harness the good or bad in a given situation.

  • evelyn

    Loved your thoughts. I am going to try and use this even more! Thanks Jonathan..

  • Mary Borchers

    Great article! Thank you for sharing. Great quote too – made me remember how much I learned from reading “Man’s Search for Meaning”.

  • RandyH

    Great article Jonathan…excellent advice…thanks for sharing!

  • Ariella Baston

    The mistake many make is that they are upset for a reason, a reason worth cherishing. Not moving to a new perspective so quickly prevents a tolerance for mediocrity and creates depth/resilience. Ex: Jonathan had to validate that he was upset/anxious long enough to complain, pursue a refund, and then become the creator of the happy ending he later self-deprecated as “things worked out.”

    This is not a “quick” process like how the article concludes. “The ability to QUICKLY create a positive meaning to the events in our life is a great aid to being happy.” You can blanket anything quickly and skate by DURING a crisis or difficult experience, to carry yourself through it. That’s fine. When drowning, stay calm and swim. But afterwards the honesty that you cannot just wash away having been upset flows back over you like a cresting wave just the same.

    Growth can’t be skirted. How you feel doesn’t need to be fixed quickly. It’s not wrong to be upset when upsetting things happen. Take your time. Breathe. Be observant and process the emotions without a re-labeling (do that later when your vision has become more clear and less distorted by the intensity of experience.)

    Jonathan’s article and the wisdom beneath it would not have been possible if he moved to sall-good-mon too quickly. It became possible by spending enough time in the difficulty and feelings of the event, including the delicious experience of noticing all the good that was hidden beneath after the fact, after the growth from not being happy right away, awarded him. =D

  • Nirvana

    Not wishing to throw a spanner into the works…but….I guess you chose this story because it did turn out well in the end.
    But what if the airline hadn’t refunded the money, your got airsick on the plane and when you got to New York, nobody turned up?
    I think you said you could have imagined a couple of good ways it could have turned out…one was that the money would be refunded etc.
    What was the other one? Would it have covered your annoyance?
    I do appreciate your sentiments and it’s not a bad rule to follow – personally I am always asking ‘What if this were ten times worse – then what wouldn’t I give to change the situation right back to where it is now!”
    But sometimes these little homilies I find a trifle trite.

  • Evie

    Your statement really resonated with me, thank you, Ryan!

  • Thanks for that…made me think. Just hope I can remember the principles the next time the crap hits the fan ;P lol

  • Jonathan that is a great story. “What could (potentially) be good about this?” Love this. always try to find the positive to anything that happens, but I really like your statement. There is always good to find in any given situation. Sometimes it may take a day or even a few years before we see the results. I always know that when one door closes another and better one will open,. Thanks for these words, i shall use them always.

  • Jess

    Will take this to practice, love the idea of staying incredibly
    positive even at our worst situations.

    Thanks 🙂

  • thanks Patrik. corny things are often what work the best. You just have to get over the “corniness factor” and really use the tool!
    -Jonathan

  • thanks Gwen. I find that people (including me) only use simple things–so I specialize in methods that take under one minute to do. that’s what I teach in my Deeper Happiness course, and people seem to like it because it’s actually doable.
    –Jonathan

  • Hi Nirvana,
    you make a good point. But even if it didn’t turn out “well,” I would have suffered less by thinking in the moment of good possibilities. Of course, there is always the idea that this could be good because it is teaching me to let go of illusory control and focus on finding happiness within.
    I like your idea of “what if it were 10 times worse?” it’s a similar idea, but one that may be more suitable to certain people. I’ll have to try it out. These homilies can be trite–until you use them. then, they are a challenge…
    –Jonathan

  • Hi Robin,

    good to hear it. Try this out. I’m sure the Universe will give you plenty of opportunity to practice it in the future!
    warmly, Jonathan

  • HI Jess,
    I hope you’ll go to my web site, FindingHappiness.com. There are many free articles and downloads that offer other equally simple and effective tools. I think you’d like them and find them very helpful…

    warmly, Jonathan

  • Hi Debbie, Please pass it on. It sounds like you got the philosophy down, so make sure you share it with those you know…
    –Jonathan

  • Hi Christine,
    I know what you mean. That’s why I keep the question simple. It’s good to let your friends know about it too so they can remind you!
    –Jonathan

  • Thanks for the kind words…that question seems to go to the heart of the matter, so I like how you said it’s a shortcut.
    –Jonathan

  • Thank you Jonathan for your article, wonderful tips. Asking yourself the question: What could (potentially) be good about this? is a great question!

  • Kaci Hampton

    “I realized I often get ‘worked up’ about things that frequently end up working out for the best.” You’ve basically summed up my entire experience in reacting. I’m *incredible* at getting worked up about things that aren’t worth getting worked up about. I’m definitely going to try asking myself what could possibly be good about a situation.

  • Rebecca

    Ha! This is soooooo me! I do often ask though “what is the universe trying to teach me?” But I’m still often stuck in the ‘this sucks’ attitude without too much positive thought. Thanks for the alternate question because I’ve definitely experienced something good coming out of challenging situations. Sometimes something better! 🙂 That’s what I’ll ask instead of always expecting that I’m supposed to learn and only be learning (i.e. I’m still not good enough). Mmm-hmm. Thanks again!!

  • TallestTree123

    I have an addictive personality so sometimes I feel like I actually get addicted to stressful thoughts. This is a nice change of pace for a Type A personality. I’m going to start this questioning in my own life. Thanks.

  • lucy

    Well this certainly made me think about what could possibly be ‘good’ about our family situation at the moment as our daughter has leukaemia….the ‘good’ is that she and i have an incredibly strong bond which has been made stronger by this nasty disease. Thank you for helping me realise that. Lucy x

  • tinsoldier

    when we think of the worst case scenario we are preparing ourselves mentally to deal with that so that it isn’t such a shock. Bad things happen and they are bad not positive. Its ok to live in the real world of negative and positive. This is the real world and the sooner you can deal with it the better off you’ll be. Its called developing coping skills. Hiding our heads in the sand or in imaginary positive universes is simply lying to ourselves. The key is just to look at the negative parts and acknowledge them, not blow them out of proportion. Then think of a solution and solve the problem instead of ignoring it.

  • tinsoldier

    if it helps try to think of negative and positive as we do numbers- thee is -1, 0, and +1 . We don’t think -1 is “negative” do we? we don’t attach ad feelings towards it. It has value. I think negative gets a bad reputation because fail to think positively about it. If your really Buddhist your not supposed to desire anything so whatever comes is fine but neither negative or positive. I am not a Buddhist.

  • tinsoldier

    when you imagine good possible outcomes your setting yourself up for disappointment. Do this enough and you will become quite cynical. Better to just be realistic and realize most times we have no control or at least very little and many bad things happen and accept it. Replacing an over-exaggerated negative thought with an over exaggerated positive one is simply lying to yourself. Your living in an imagined world.

  • tinsoldier

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201009/the-problem-happiness

    there is an overemphasis on “happiness” in our culture and its making people less happy.

  • Mark

    Read the hiding place by Corrie ten Boom for some real perspective. The woman and her sister were in a concentration camp and their cabin had fleas. They decided to not just think positive but thank God (not Buddha) for the fleas. It urns out that the Nazi soldiers were raping the girls from all the other barracks but they stayed out of theirs because of the fleas.Christians already know this as Biblical truth. Romans 8:28And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. Romans 3 says1Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.3And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. Those are very specific benefits of thinking positive in bad times that Paul lays out. Think about the context and what happened to the apostles and people like John the Baptist (beheaded). There have been more Christian martyrs in the past century than in the rest of all time.

  • kulandai samy

    It is an interesting article.
    Now, Iam living on streets in Australia,and trying ti see the good sides of this.Iam sure the result would be the best.
    Thank you.

  • tgbobbi

    I believe the pursuit for happiness is a valid one however, living in such a competitive culture makes happiness a sport to be ‘won’ against the ‘competition’, ie. friends, family, neighbors, the cultural ‘norm’ and it is here that the overemphasis quality is produced.

  • tgbobbi

    Hi Tinsoldier – I think this is a case of what one ‘sees’ in their expectations. Last week, my daughter broke her elbow and wrist, I was overcharged incorrectly and had my bank account drained to negative in the $1000’s and my wife had proclaimed she was no longer happy being a mother. Lastly, I discovered that while on vacation, several of my co-workers had thrown me under the bus. This happened all within a 24 hour period after my vowing to be more happy in my life. My first response was to try to ‘fix’ the problems but I instead decided to find the ‘good’ in this. So as not to be long-winded, I’ll spare you the details of my weekend but suffice to say, each problem would eventually be resolved regardless of my state so I took it upon myself to not put these issues in an ’emergency’ status but merely address them with an eye on the positive.
    Bottom line, my daughter will be fine, the bank corrected the error, my co-workers saw the errors of their ways, and my wife has chosen she needs more ‘me’ time. I was happy that these issues were addressed but more importantly I was able to see that they would be addressed and didn’t allow it to hamper my state of happiness.
    My daughter learned her limits, my wife learned she needed to reclaim herself, my co-workers knew they were wrong and my bank account is back in black. And I learned that seeing the good in these situations allowed me the freedom to not wallow in the temporary state of crisis but instead in the knowledge they would be resolved regardless of my feelings. So, I chose happiness.