Closing Doors

“When one door closes, another opens”

I love this statement because it reminds me to look forward toward possibilities rather than back on past losses. Usually I think of this phrase relative to big things such as jobs or relationships. However, this concept also applies to the small events that happen in our lives every day.

Recently I wrote about my minor injury. While starting my convalescence right before the 2 week holiday break, my computer also decided to take an extended vacation as well. So there I was during the break, bum ankle, a computer vacationing at Disney Land, cumulatively spelling disaster for this energizer bunny. My family will tell you there was a lot of pouting and off-couch rebellion during my convalescence. I definitely was not a little angel.

Normally when faced when the usual bumps in the road of life such as delays, repairs, reversals, injuries, mistakes and mishaps, I fume, storm, and fight back (sounds suspiciously like a temper tantrum). But I am more circumspect regarding setbacks these days (don’t worry – not even close to achieving angel status). What should I do instead? How can I better manage my frustration? What can I learn by sitting quietly? What should I do/not do? What in my life needs attention that I have been ignoring? What am I focusing on that I should be letting go of?

Setbacks, large or small, at minimum are invitations to reflect and regroup. They’re not an indictment of our quality or qualifications as a friend, potential mate, person or professional.  They’re not a sign that the universe is against you and your chance for happiness. Rather, they are an opportunity to stop, find a positive perspective, and reflect on life and the direction it’s heading. Viewing setbacks or delays as a wonderful gift and opportunity not only will make you feel calmer but more powerful and optimistic.  In other words, all those little frustrations are actually gifts.  It’s just like Christmas, every single day!

What is your most frustrating, recurring delay or problem?  How can you approach it as the gift that it is?  Within, you might find a lovely surprise.

Starry-Eyed Idealist

Be practical.  Be realistic.  Be careful.  Don’t trust others.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I know.  I don’t want to get burned or get my hopes up unrealistically.

But I also don’t want to live my life feeling like I can’t trust and hope.

We learned in school about realistic optimism:  being optimistic in a realistic way.  I think those authors were providing caution to people like me who tend to assume the best intentions from others and the best possible outcome.

I understand the theory and even agree with it to some degree.   However, there are two problems with that concept from my perspective.  First, what is realistic to one person is unrealistic to another.  In other words, we are not a good judge of our own reality.  On one hand, we might be unrealistically optimistic, but we may likewise be unrealistically negative or pessimistic.  I know anecdotally that a large number of us have a negative ticker tape dialogue running through our heads:  I’m not good enough.  I’m not deserving.  I’m unattractive.  No one likes me.  I’m not deserving.  I’m not smart/good at math/good at athletics.  I don’t belong.  I’m not loved.   We notice those things that confirm our belief (confirmation bias) but ignore the data that refute it.  In so doing, we create our own reality.

Running through my great, 50-year old wisdom is my ticker tape that I don’t belong and that I don’t have many friends.  I used to actually say that aloud.  And I would always notice when I’m not included or when I’m alone, each observation confirming my belief.  But some time ago I decided to challenge that belief and look for instances where I do belong, when my friends reach out to me, when I’m included or even celebrated and seen authentically by my friends.  Back then, I might’ve thought it was realistically optimistic to hope that I would have outside my best friend circle (3-4 people generally; this fact did not sway my belief mind you) another circle of at most 3-4 modestly good friends.

As you might guess, when I started intentionally looking for signs of friendship and affection, I started to see it everywhere.  Now I feel I have friendship in huge abundance – not that I’m ‘popular’ by any means – but that I have a wide circle of friends and affectionate acquaintances.  The graduate program that I’ve almost just completed expanded my circle of friends by more than 37 people.  In the old days, my ticker tape would’ve had me feeling like they’re not friends/they don’t care for me like the other classmates/we’ll never stay in contact.  I’m not naive enough to believe that all of us will be buddies forever, but with some effort I will be able to maintain contact and friendship with several of them and even expand the circle to other alumni and people in the positive psychology community.

In addition to not being a good judge of our own reality, the second problem with realistic optimism is that it will cause us to play it too safe sometimes.  Innovation takes leaps of faith, and if we all quit dreaming, where would our dreams be?

I can hear the naysayers out there saying that I’ll be disappointed or hurt by being hopeful or optimistic.  My answer to that is that I’d rather put myself out there to be hurt and disappointed on the rare occasion than to live my life without trust, intimacy, love or hope.  Yes, I’ve been burned, but I can honestly say that I’m more likely to be pleasantly surprised.  Life is not supposed to be free from pain or disappointment.  It’s part of the human condition and to close ourselves to that pain also requires that we close ourselves to pleasure and joy.

So when someone accuses me of being a starry-eyed idealist, I thank them for the compliment and say I would’t have it any other way.


The Karmic Parenting of Humanity

The unseen but tangible relationships between gratitude, positivity, forgiveness, optimism and productivity, creativity and even good luck have been shown in scientific research.   The more you embody positive emotions, the happier and more successful you are likely to be.  The phenomenon has much to do with creating your own reality:  the more that you expect good things to occur, the more they are likely to happen.    The better you feel (grateful, optimistic, forgiving), the happier you will be.  It’s a positive, upward spiral.  In other words, the happy get happier.

The reverse is also true:  the more negative, pessimistic and cynical you are, the more likely you will be to create that reality.  A negative, downward spiral.  The miserable get more miserable.

Some feel that they are victims in their own world.  For sure, there is much suffering and pain among people who have done nothing to deserve it.  But there are also victims and martyrs among the most affluent and successful regions of the world, and peaceful, contented, grateful people among the poorest.  Given that our economic or social circumstance may not be entirely within our control, and that neither of them guarantees happiness (or misery) anyway, then apparently our happiness starts with us.  It’s not the other way around. We are happy because we choose to be happy.  Our circumstances do not make us happy.

This upward spiral is described in many resources including Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage. From my personal experience, this phenomenon is so very true.  The more I maintain a positive, optimistic, grateful attitude, the more smoothly my life seems to go, things fall into place, and I can get into flow (I’m in my groove, my sweet spot!).

It’s almost as if there is some karmic parent out there doling out rewards and punishments:  Suzie didn’t say thank you, so she gets no more gifts; Suzie has a bad attitude and is going into time out; Suzie did something she knew was wrong and is going to get spanked; Suzie didn’t do her homework and has to stay after school. Suzie made A’s in school and will get to stay up late and watch Homeland.  Suzie wrote a nice thank you note and so will get a mani-pedi for her next gift.  Suzie ate all her dinner and will get chocolate cake for dessert.

That being said, a great attitude won’t prevent anyone from getting cancer, getting hit by a car, or losing their job.  It only means that you are more likely to turn a setback into an opportunity and weather the crisis gracefully.  In other words, positive, optimistic people are resilient. 

I don’t really know, in the end, about the karmic parent or the neurobiology behind the upward spiral.   I just know that it’s there and whether we’re riding up or down is our choice.  What are you choosing?