I’m happy to report that I have returned (at least for now) from the land of stress, chaos and mild nervous breakdowns. The return trip was plush, jovial and stocked with a wide variety of cold, craft beers. I actually began the return trip before I even posted last week’s blog. I wrote it Sunday afternoon and then later that evening I watched a TED talk by Shawn Achor out on my patio. Oddly, I had seen this TED talk before and remembered enjoying it, but something different clicked when I watched it this time.
It’s about happiness and success. His research deals with positive psychology and the differences positivity can make in our lives in terms of happiness, intelligence, creativity and success. I’ve always been skeptical of the “positive psychology” movement. It’s always seemed very pollyanna to me. “Look on the bright side!” “Things could be worse!” “Count your blessings!” Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. I’ll just “pretend” to be happy and everything stressful and frustrating in my life will suddenly be fine. Right.
But there I was last Sunday night, eight and a half months into the most discouraging, disheartening and demoralizing period of my professional life, stressed about school, fearing failure, and I thought (not for the first time): “The negativity permeating my life is draining all the enthusiasm and joy right out of me. I can’t keep being frustrated, angry and pessimistic every day, every week, every month. It just can’t continue like this.” And then I pressed “play” on Shawn’s video. And it finally struck me that his message was not to “pretend” to feel good about the crappy stuff that is happening in my life. I don’t have to feel good about what has been happening at work – and I shouldn’t, it’s a downright crappy situation and I deserve better. I don’t have to be happy that my electrical engineering professor doesn’t know how to teach. But I can shift my focus away from what’s wrong and toward what’s right.
A lot of awesome things are happening in my life. And it goes way beyond the canned stuff we often say when we’re pressed to write down things we’re thankful for. Yes, I have a great family that loves and supports me. Yes, I have great friends. Yes, I’m healthy and living a comfortable middle class existence in a stable, developed nation. And I don’t mean to discredit those things. They’re the bedrock of my life. I don’t know where I’d be without them. But it’s so easy to take those things for granted. Positivity is about seeking out the novel, new, wonderful things that are happening to us every day.
So I decided last Monday to start writing down, each day, either:
- Three new things I’m grateful for, or
- A narrative description of something positive (or multiple somethings) that happened to me that day
According to Shawn, if I do this for 21 days I will start to notice my brain shifting its focus from the negative experiences of my day to the positive ones.
So it’s been a week that I’ve been doing this. Please try to resist the overwhelming urge to roll your eyes when I say that I honestly think it’s already working. For me, just knowing that my little booklet is waiting for me at the end of the day causes me to focus more on the good things happening to me. I go through my day mentally collecting them, stacking them up, deciding which ones are good enough to go into the booklet.
The things are not epic. They’re simple, mostly — I went to Target and they still had the jeans that fit me (yay!), I’m meeting lots of other nice ECE students who are struggling in my class and we’re helping each other with homework, I learned how to cut and drill metal in the shop, I visited farm animals on south campus with a good friend and it was a great stress reducer — just little things that would have happened anyway but that would have been forgotten in favor of focusing on what upset me at work or the fact that I still didn’t find time to clean my bathroom.
So this is only a week old. Maybe all of this is just a placebo because I want it to work so badly. But Shawn’s research makes a lot of sense. We tend to view the world through the lens of our focus and energy. So I’ll give “focusing on the good stuff” a try. I’d like to enjoy my life now, instead of waiting for next summer, or for graduation, or for some other imagined goal post. I’ll let you know how I feel at day 21!