7 Ways to Stay Optimistic and Happy During Difficult Times
There is no point in sugar coating it – life can be really hard sometimes. There isn’t a person among us who doesn’t feel burdened at times by the obligations and stresses of life. From money, to relationships, to family problems, to an illness or disease – there is always a life stressor that we can pour so much energy and time into focusing on and worrying about, that we lose sight of what is really important in life – the present moment. While I am certainly not saying that it is not important to develop a plan to deal with these events and circumstances, we just have to remind ourselves that we do not have to completely compromise our emotional health in the process.
We all have our ups and downs, but here are a few tips and exercises that can help you get through even your most challenging of days.
Experience Gratitude: When we are experiencing a life event such as losing a job or having a relationship unexpectedly end – it is really difficult for us to feel thankful about almost anything. The challenge is to recognize that despite the fact that your situation has changed, you are still you. You have talents and gifts, and you have amazing people in your life or from your past, that have helped you become the person that you are today. Be thankful.
Spend 5 minutes a day reflecting on all of the good in your life. It could be your children, your mother, a job, your spouse, a special teacher, a morning jog with your pet, a delicious cup of coffee on a cold morning … it really doesn’t matter what it is that you are thankful for, the secret to feeling happy is in eliciting the positive thoughts and feelings that stem from recognizing the good in your life. Gratitude fills the void of emptiness and despair with a sense of happiness and fullness. It turns who we are and what we have, into enough.
“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” – Eckhart Tolle
Move Your Body: When we are feeling down, the thought of going to the gym or for an early morning bike ride sounds exhausting. Start slowly and break the cycle. Another hour on the couch with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is not going to bring you an ounce of happiness, most likely it will only reinforce your lack of motivation and negative thoughts and emotions. Studies have shown that people that are more physically active, report greater feelings of enthusiasm, happiness and excitement when compared to less physically active individuals. Get yourself out of the rut. Put your favorite song on your iPod, crank it up and dance, clean the house, take your dog for a walk around the neighborhood, do anything within your power to get yourself off of the couch and onto the path of emotional recovery. Before you know it, the gym or a new yoga class won’t be looking like such a long shot.
“You are only one workout away from a good mood.” – Anonymous
Don’t Expect So Much: I know that this may sound strange, but we often feel sad or depressed because we have created fantasies and expectations of how something or someone should be, without considering the fact that life is not the latest Hollywood blockbuster. While it is important and healthy to look forward to an upcoming vacation with your family, it is also easy to make the mistake of playing out all of the perfect vacation scenarios that you would like to see happen in your head, in the weeks leading up to your trip. These fantasies may make you feel good in the moment, but they are merely an escape. Guess what? Your child may end up with a stomach bug and you might be stuck in the hotel room with them while the rest of your family goes to Disney. Your boss may call you with some unpleasant and unexpected news that drags you back to the office, cutting your vacation short. Life happens, it always does and it always will. If you can learn to expect that things never go as planned, you will be better able to accept the small setbacks in life – and your expectations will no longer hold your emotions hostage.
“Disappointment = Expectations divided by Reality” – Anonymous
Be Present: Throughout the course of our busy day, our mind is constantly bombarded with thoughts about the past or of the future. We perpetually ruminate on thoughts, particularly the negative ones. “Why did I say that?” “Why did this happen to me?” “She is prettier than me, I’m so fat.” I think she’s cheating on me.” But instead of having a thought and letting it go, we allow it to build into a self-destructive negative dialogue in our mind – with each though leading to an even more negative thought, until we feel even more broken inside or ready to explode with anger or emotion. We worry about things that we cannot control and we construct complex worst-case scenarios in our head, despite the fact that we have no idea what may happen or what has happened.
Stop giving these thoughts so much power and control over your life. When the first thought pops into your head, accept it and then imagine a stop sign in your mind – don’t let the negativity cycle any further. You can even tell your thoughts to “stop” if you need to. Redirect your mind to what is happening right in front of you because the present moment is really all that you have.
When we focus too much on the past, we tend to feel guilt, resentment, disappointment – all of which are emotions that make it easy for us to feel depressed about our life. When we worry about the future, we often feel nervous, fearful, tense and stressed – emotions that can cause us to experience anxiety to various degrees. Only when we are truly present, can we find the inner peace and calm within ourselves – despite the chaos.
“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.” – Marcus Aurelius
Practice the Art of Mindfulness: To assist you in being more present in your life, you have to practice being mindful. Mindfulness is the art of being more fully aware of your surroundings as well as of what is happening inside of you. It connects you to the inner peace within you, the calm light in your heart – rather than focusing on the deceptive ego who does everything within it’s power to ensure that your mind is so distracted with thoughts, that it can never connect to the truth inside of you. Your ego is the person that you think that you are, it is the story that you have created of yourself based on your past, it is the thoughts in your mind that tell you that you are not enough. Your true self is not a fictional story, but rather the part of you that remains when all of your material belongings have been taken away, when you have nothing. It is the part of you that you feel when you sit amongst nature and take in your surroundings feeling nothing, when your mind is empty yet somehow your heart feels full.
Try this little exercise the next time that you take a shower. The shower is a great place to start practicing being mindful because you are completely alone, undistracted and in a setting that provides you with a multitude of sensory experiences. Start by being present and aware the moment you step into the shower. Feel your feet on the ground, notice if it is warm or cool. Feel your hand as you turn on the shower. Close your eyes and listen to the calming and soothing sounds of water. Let go of any judgments that you may have about yourself and allow yourself to be truly present. Step into the water. Feel the pressure of the water as it touches your skin. Put your head under the water. Notice how the sounds change as the water navigates over your body, hitting the ground in a completely different way. Take in the scents and aromas around you – your shampoo, your body wash. Take notice of the silky sensation on your skin as you lather your body. If you find your mind starting to wander, let the thought come and go. Become mindful again when you are ready. Wash your hair and feel the texture of it change with each passing moment, feel each individual finger’s placement on your scalp as you massage your head. Practice being present as you turn off the water and feel the rush of cool air on your skin. Feel the goosebumps as they appear on your body. Dry off and feel the texture of the towel as it passes over your body.
Mindfulness retrains our brain to focus on what we want it to attend to in the present moment, rather than the often self-destructive thoughts that dominate much of our time and energy. Mindfulness has been shown to help us be healthier, sleep better, become less affected by stress, improve relationships and intimacy and relieve symptoms associated with chronic pain.
“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different. Enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will). Being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” – James Baraz
Find Acceptance: Acceptance of an unexpected or negative life event or situation is not easy. Initially, when something unanticipated happens in our lives, we become consumed with emotion – be it grief, sadness, anger, etc. It is perfectly healthy to experience emotion – the challenge comes from recognizing that there is a part of you that is far stronger than any situation or emotion – your true self. Once you recognize that you are bigger than any obstacle, you can summon the inner strength needed to pull your self through even the most difficult of times. Understanding that life is a cycle of highs and lows is critical to preserving your emotional health – what is good will inevitably change, but similarly the difficult times will be intermittent as well. If you constantly view the world as stable and unchanging, you put yourself at a disadvantage and will most likely have a more difficult time finding happiness. Embrace the fact that emotional states and situations are transient, and try to find the silver lining in even the worst of days.
Changing our patterns of negative thinking is not an easy task. For example, let’s say that you are fired from your job. You are angry, scared, sad – overwhelmed with emotion and anxiety. While it is okay to feel these emotions, realize that you are much bigger and stronger than a job. Accept the situation and the way that you feel – but know that you are capable to getting a new job. You have been given the opportunity to start over, a clean slate to become whoever it is that you want to be. Do not view this as a loss, but rather as a new beginning.
“The past cannot be changed, erased, edited or erased; it can only be accepted.” – Anonymous
Be an Adventurer, Darling: Finally, it is easy to get so caught up in your daily routines (taking care of your children, working, cleaning, making dinner, grocery shopping, etc.), that we become disconnected emotionally from the things and people that truly matter. Make sure that you make time to travel and get away either by yourself, or with the people that you love. Traveling somewhere new gives a person a sense of excitement that cannot be paralleled. Seeing new sights, meeting new people, singing karaoke in a dive bar in front of strangers, getting lost in an unfamiliar city – these are the adventures that we were born to experience. It is difficult not to live in the moment and be present when that moment varies so wildly from the routine, daily grind of your existence. Traveling is not something that we should be doing all of the time as an escape from our life – but rather every so often, when we begin to feel as though we are losing touch with your own sense of self.
If you live in a part of the country where winters may be long and dark, and you may suffer from seasonal affective disorder – certainly plan a trip during fall and winter months to reinvigorate yourself. Find the sunlight – literally. Seat yourself by windows and plan your next getaway to a warm and sunny location. The sun releases ultraviolet rays that help the body release endorphins – those feel good chemicals that will allow you to better combat stress, anxiety and depression.
“Travel is the only thing a person can buy, that makes them richer.” – Anonymous