The photo above is of my lovely niece Airlie – and in case you can't tell, she's currently in "time out". Yes, she is being punished. My sister posted this photo earlier this week on Facebook and it really cracked me up, because it so captures one of the greatest truths of life: the present moment is yours to interpret. A time-out is only a punishment if you convince yourself that sitting on the steps is a sad thing. Now I'm not trying to suggest that the time-out wasn't still effective, as I'm sure it at least temporarily ceased whatever actions warranted its initiation – but the large grin on Airlie's face suggests her mind hadn't interpreted the present situation as a downer in any way, shape or form.
As we get older and move out into a world without chaperones, we very rarely find ourselves in time-out (well, unless you end up in the court system, but that's a topic for another post). However, we often end up putting ourselves into a whole different type of time-out, one defined by our emotions and interpretations of the day. A time-out of the mind. An event or interaction, or lack of either can set us off, and before we know it one of several emotions begin to fog our experience of life. This can be sadness, anger, jealousy, frustration, self-doubt, apathy, fear or any number of negative moods that take you out of your typical routine and color that experience with negative thoughts that then only manifest themselves into a myriad of situations that seem out to get you. The experience can get so unpleasant that we cancel engagements and activities, break healthy habits and even hide from the world.
Much like a child being punished, who when asked why they're crying points to the parent rather than look within, we too often point to outside forces as the source of whatever affliction we presently find ourselves marinading in. It can be a relationship, a job, the community, the weather, an interaction with a store employee - there's endless causes if one looks hard enough - and typically the low hanging fruit is the first to be picked. However, if you're upset now because of something that happened a few hours ago, or days ago, or worse – years ago – then it's not that event or situation that is making you upset – it's you! You are choosing to feel this way.
Now this might be the point where like the small child you stomp your foot and run off screaming. We really hate to admit that we choose to feel the way we feel. We prefer the "outside forces" viewpoint. We prefer to experience our emotions like weather, waking up each day hoping for the good kind. When the storm-front comes in, most simply bundle up and wait it out, seemingly unable to do anything to prevent or diffuse it. I disagree – not only can you do work to prevent emotional swings within your experience of life, you can also utilize various techniques to eliminate those fluctuations quickly and keep their scale minimal when those inevitably bumps in the road do enter your life.
One of the key steps to prevention is taking time each day to appreciate just how wonderful your experience of life is. We often spend so much time looking to the future that we forget to appreciate how great we have it now. Self-improvement guru Dan Sullivan calls this "The Gap". Most of us spend our time focused on the future gap - the space between our goals and ideals and the present moment. This isn't always a bad thing – because it's important to set goals and have a clear vision of what you want out of life. However, this doesn't produce happiness. As I've mentioned before, achieving a goal doesn't create long-term fulfillment, it only creates new goals. In order to find happiness in our present moment, Dan Sullivan suggests we focus our attention occasionally on the past gap - acknowledging our accomplishment and achievements and how far we've come in the past year or two. If you've been setting goals and working to improve your life, looking back a year or two will allow you to reflect on the progress you've made. Rather than living in the shadow of your imagined future, you stand upon the precipice of your accomplishments. When negative situations arise, you won't be so quick to throw in the towel when you know how great you've been doing.
Another technique I enjoy comes from the 6-Phase Meditation by Vishen Lakhiani, the CEO of MindValley. In one of the six phases, you reflect on 5-10 things that happened in the past day or two that made you feel happy or positive. This might be a compliment you received at work, a delicious dinner you cooked for yourself, how the sun light felt as you sipped your morning coffee - it's just a few minutes you spend each day to recap the best parts of the previous day. So often we get caught up in our routines that our lives are seemingly on auto-pilot. The days have a tendency to blend into each other and this simple practice allows you to slow things down and really appreciate the smaller details that make your day fulfilling. By starting to focus on the simple pleasure and the small victories that occur each day, you bring more attention to them in your daily experience and thus they seemingly appear to multiply and grow in number. By simply taking the time to appreciate your days, you make it harder for your mind to shift into a negative space that ignores all the good.
When negative experiences do come into your life – and they will – it is certainly fine to feel whatever emotions they stir up. That's why emotions exists – to help us make sense of the experiences around us. However, once the alarm has sounded and you've acknowledge and dealt with the situation - TURN OFF THE ALARM! To persist with whatever emotional trigger the event or situation brought forth after that event or situation has passed is a choice and a poor choice at that.
One of the best techniques for clearing out a "funk" is to just throw reality a curve ball. Get out of your routine if it isn't working and try something totally different. Go to a restaurant you've never been to, take a long walk through a new neighborhood, take a road-trip to a place you've never been to and spend the night - whatever you need to do to get your mind to focus on something beyond the incident that has triggered you. Traveling is especially good as the mind has an amazing capacity to simulate environments it knows, and so staying at home or in familiar places allows the mind to used stored memories of the space you're within and focus its attention instead on making you miserable. By going to a place the mind has no prior records of, you force it to capture all the new information and it doesn't have the time to remind you that you're sad.
Another great trick for dealing with a mental time-out is to kick-start your health routine. This is typically the opposite of what most folks do when they get in a funk, but it is honestly the fastest way out. Exercise is an amazing stimulant and energizes you body and mind. A little detox also never hurt – and what better time to engage in a "big change" than when things aren't really working so well. Whereas indulging in food or alcohol might seem warranted by whatever funk is poisoning your mind's experience of life – those types of behaviors inevitably feed into that negative cycle. Exercise and eating healthy on the other hand can only have positive results that you can point to as signs you're moving out of that funk (when you do your daily appreciation for the day before).
You've been given this amazing opportunity to experience life. So much of that experience is based on your mental and emotional health, and yet so many folks see those aspects of their life as some type of game of chance. There has been a wealth of research and science in the past half-century about the mind and how the brain works. There is no reason so many people should suffer from so many ailments related to the mind when there are so many simple and free techniques to strengthen the mind and thus improve your experience of life. In October I'm helping to put on an event in Oregon called Activating Happy. It features various speakers talking about many of the topics I've discussed on this blog. It's the first of what I hope will be many events like this around the country where we introduce new research and personal stories of success from those who have broken free from passive thinking and have taken responsibility for their own happiness and well-being.
"It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about."
- Dale Carnegie