How to Be Happier Without Really Trying
Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
The meeting was supposed to be boring.
In 2019 a bunch of academics and think tank policy folks were gathered for what should have been an uneventful conference of long-winded PowerPoint and bad coffee. Sadly, it would not stay that dull and predictable…
The presenter finishes his talk. A colleague comments that, due to how close the presenter was to the issues he was describing, there would be a lot of extra scrutiny and challenges ahead.
And the presenter… totally flips out. He felt this was insulting. Now he’s yelling. Demanding an apology.
But now the colleague is offended. He was just making a point and now he feels attacked. So he refuses to apologize.
The presenter starts packing up his things in a huff, ready to leave the conference. The other attendees try to calm the two down but are utterly ineffective. The two men both storm out, shouting the whole way.
Now it isn’t too surprising that something like this could happen at a conference…
But this was a meeting of global experts on conflict resolution.
UN envoys and high-level peace treaty specialists. As Columbia University professor Peter Coleman recounts:
One beautiful bit of irony is that an hour earlier one of the participants had presented an excellent paper on the power of identity issues causing stalemates in Middle East conflicts—and here we all were in the midst of one unfolding, and we were helpless. It was amazing. All of our inspired attempts at resolution fell flat.
At times, emotions get the best of all of us. And that’s one of the main reasons why happiness so often eludes us. It’s not what happens in life, but how we react. How we deal with our emotions when life doesn’t go our way.
This is something we all deal with and yet nobody teaches us how to cope with it. Instead, high school teaches us trigonometry. Sadly, we’re more likely to get insight into this fundamental human problem from a wise hairdresser at the local strip mall than from formal education. Yes, this is that emotional intelligence thing that everyone talks about — but is never able to explain.
We need answers. (Softly singing Hakuna Matata to myself hasn’t been working.) And we’d like the solution to be quick and easy. To happen without even trying. We want emotional coping habits that help when we deal with the Big Bads in life (or the Little Bads that can feel all too big when they’re occurring).
Well, here on my blog where I regularly
project my anxieties provide heartfelt wisdom, we’re going to get to the bottom of this. We’ll get quick, useful strategies from the book Pocket Therapy for Emotional Balance: Quick DBT Skills to Manage Intense Emotions.
Ready to learn how to deal with the negative feelings that threaten our happiness?
Let’s get to it…
The Goal is “Emotional Efficacy”
We’re often told we should “be in touch with our emotions” but that doesn’t seem to be such a great idea when it comes to negative ones like anger or anxiety. On the flip side, shutting down your emotions isn’t a great solution either.
What we want is emotional efficacy: “the ability to have real, full emotions (even strong ones) without them running the show.”
The problem is emotions don’t take IOUs or have payment plans. It’s one big bill, payable immediately — and that can be overwhelming. This often leads to a situation we will later euphemistically call a “learning experience.”
What to do?
It all starts with noticing your emotions. We often don’t, at least not in the thick of things. We don’t realize we’re wearing anger-colored-glasses until after the fact. We think this is just who I am but it’s only who I am right now.
Ever react in a galactically stupid way and later think, “Why the heck did I do that?” Yeah, feelings altered you and your decision making but you didn’t notice until your friend showed up to post bail. The Venn diagram of not noticing emotions and emotional hijack is almost a perfect circle.
So we’re going to leverage some tools from DBT, a weapons-grade therapy for handling powerful emotions. And it all starts with recognizing when we’re in the grip of strong feelings, when we’re not ourselves.
To simply be able to notice emotions and label them is surprisingly powerful. Just saying, “Right now I feel…” is often enough to get a handle on things — but we’re going to take that to the next level.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
You know what it’s like when feelings overwhelm you. The problem is by the time you notice, it’s usually too late. So we’re going to increase your ability to tolerate stress. This will be like boot camp so you’re ready when strong emotions hit. What’s the first step?
Your day is fine. Then something really bad happens.
< mental breakdown has entered the chat >
So we respond calmly and rationally, right?
Heck, no. We often turn to denial and blame, blame, blame. The voice in your head grabs a megaphone and says, “THIS SHOULD NOT BE HAPPENING. THIS IS AN OBJECTIVE INJUSTICE AGAINST ME, THE MAIN CHARACTER IN THE STORY OF THE UNIVERSE.”
I am sorry but the world is not going to suddenly come to its senses, change course, concede that you are right, and begin festooning you with garlands. Not gonna happen. Denial and blame don’t help. You’re here. It’s happening. So you need to learn to accept the situation without criticism.
Reality does not have an appeals process. Come up with as many voluptuous rationalizations as you like but no matter who you blame, you’ll still have to deal with what’s in front of you. So we must learn to acknowledge and accept the bad.
This doesn’t mean you have to like the situation, or condone the poor behavior of others, but resisting reality just increases your suffering and prevents you from doing things to make life better.
This also means accepting whatever your part might be in creating this situation. If you can’t accept how you may have played a part in this, you’ll never learn anything and this will likely happen again. No need to judge or beat yourself up. Be compassionate with yourself. But accept responsibility.
Memorize one of these phrases:
• “I can’t change what’s already happened.”
• “Fighting the past only blinds me to my present.”
• “The present is the only moment I have control over.”
Now start practicing. Next time you’re stuck in traffic and irritated? Accept it without criticism. “I can’t change what’s already happened.” Did you just read a news story that got you worked up? “The present is the only moment I have control over.”
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Acceptance gives you the right perspective but we also want to do something that slams the brakes on emotional hijack. Yes, Stephen Strange, we’re going to use “magic words”…
Your body and mind exist in a feedback loop. This is great because, as we’ve established, sometimes your brain can be too overwhelmed to cope. So changing what your body is doing allows us a sneak attack to change what your brain is doing.
Since the goal here is to be happy and calm without trying, we want to make coping a reflex reaction. That’s right: we’re gonna Pavlov you. The goal is to relax on command with just one word.
We’re going to use Progressive Muscle Relaxation to get there. You’re probably familiar with this to some degree – tightening muscles and then relaxing them to acutely get rid of stress. But that’s not the whole story of how PMR works.
You know when people say “you have to get in touch with your body” and that sounds really nice but you have no idea what the heck that means or how to do it? Okay, this is how. The real benefit in PMR is not forcing tense muscles to chill out, but in teaching you to notice when they are tight. As we discussed earlier, we’re bad at noticing how we’re feeling and this process can really help. So how do we do it?
Clench your fists for 5 seconds and then quickly release them. The “quickly” part is important because you want to feel the contrast between tight and loose. You want the juxtaposition to be as stark as possible. Take 15 seconds to just pay attention to the difference. Pick your magic word and say it. Then repeat the whole process. Do this for all the major muscle groups in your body, noticing the contrast between GRRRRR and AAAAHHHH and saying your magic word. This is going to build the association between the word and relaxing. (Think “Clockwork Orange” but without the bowler hats and ultraviolence.)
Practice this daily and you’re building an emotional early warning system for yourself. You’ll start to notice when you’re tightening up and getting stressed. And the next time something bad happens and negative feelings start clanging like a pair of cymbals, use your magic word to dispel the GRRRR and get back to AHHHHH.
(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)
Okay, that’s two skills we’ve built to increase your resilience in advance. But now is where the rubber meets the road. What happens when life does what life does and the clown car full of emotional lunacy pulls up to make an unwelcome delivery?
Living In The Present
Other animals are not as good at mental time travel as we are. This is a huge advantage for humans. We can reflect on the past to learn lessons and then project into the future to make better plans…
But this blessing is also a curse. It also allows us to spend a lot more time anxious about what could happen and regretting what cannot be changed. Mental time travel gone awry means even when everything around us is fine, negative thoughts can fly around in your head as if spun by some demented mental leafblower.
When this happens, ask yourself one question: “Where am I right now?”
Am I time traveling in the future, worrying about something that might happen, or planning something that might happen? Am I time traveling in the past, reviewing mistakes, reliving bad experiences, or thinking about how my life could have been under different circumstances? Or am I in the present, really paying attention to what I’m doing, thinking, and feeling?
Does a mugger have a gun in your face? No? Then you don’t need to feel this stressed. Step back from the thoughts. Recognize you’re time traveling. Bring your focus to the present. Take a few deep breaths. Label your feelings. And then use your magic word.
AHHHHHH. Now you’ve got an emotional EpiPen.
(To learn how to rewire your brain for happiness, click here.)
But sometimes the emotions are just too strong. Your brain feels like it needs an exorcism and the stress is redlining. What do you do then?
Distraction is when… Hold on. Do I really need to define distraction to anyone living in the early part of the 21st century? It’s our default state, right? Okay, then you get it.
Distraction is often bad but it can be a very good thing if you use it to temporarily to buy time until emotions die down a bit. It can be really hard to compete with the negative voice in your head because that jerk doesn’t even need to stop to breathe. So distract yourself.
It’s important to distinguish healthy distraction from unhealthy avoidance. Avoidance isn’t buying time; it’s an attempt to stay away from whatever stressed you out. Work bothering you? Don’t go to work. People bothering you? Never leave the house. This is not a good solution. Distraction is a temporary measure.
When emotions surge, try doing something useful or pleasurable until the needle is out of the red zone. Then return to the issue when you’re calmer. Make a note in your phone of what best works for you so you have a “go-to” distraction plan.
(To learn the 5 secrets neuroscience says will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
Okay, but what should you do in the most difficult of circumstances? When negative emotions are swirling inside you but you can’t step away?
Well, all you have to do is “R.E.S.T.”…
That’s an acronym for Relax, Evaluate, Set an intention, and Take action. This is a simple system to prevent bad coping strategies like lashing out or reacting impulsively. It’s a circuit breaker that can help you get a handle on your emotions so you can make better choices.
Normally we say, “Don’t just stand there! Do something!” But when emotions hit, we want to reverse that: “Don’t just do something! Stand there!” Whatever you would normally do, don’t do that. This is how we prevent impulsive decisions.
So just stop. Do not operate heavy machinery. Remember, the body-mind feedback loop. Relax the body to relax the mind. Take a few deep breaths.
Focus on the facts of what is going on. What is occurring? Is anyone in real danger? Is shouting required? Emotionally you might feel unsafe but it’s important to recognize if ninja skills or running are actually called for. (Hint: They’re probably not.)
Set an intention
You’re calm(er). You know the facts of what is going on. Time to unfreeze and answer, “What do I need right now?” You don’t have to solve the problem just yet; you only need a healthy way to cope in the moment, like deep breaths, acceptance, or your magic word.
You didn’t lash out impulsively. The extra steps above helped you to make a smarter choice and not escalate the situation. So now just calmly take action.
With practice, you can get results from REST in seconds. It can become a reflex. Think about common scenarios where you might need it and do some dry runs.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, time to round all this up – and learn how the above can not only make us happier but also improve our relationships…
This is how to develop emotional efficacy:
- Radical Acceptance: Denial and blame are like flailing in emotional quicksand: you just sink faster. Accept the problem so you can solve it.
- Cue-Controlled Relaxation: Practice associating PMR with your magic word and you can Pavlov yourself into instant calm.
- Distraction: I’m not worried about summarizing this because I’m focused on something else.
- R.E.S.T.: React violently, Enrage yourself, Slay your enemies and Terrify everyone around you. (Or try Relax, Evaluate, Set an intention, Take Action for slightly better results.)
The toughest part about bad feelings is that you’re at your weakest but need to be at your strongest. Negative emotions can be seductive. They add a seriousness and urgency to the boring moments of life. They can feel more real and authentic than being calm. You say you’re just “speaking from the heart” but, truth is, that heart may need a bypass.
It’s hard. But remember that it’s hard for all of us.
In Buddhism, there’s a story called the “Mustard Seed Parable”: A woman lost a loved one and went to Buddha seeking help. Buddha tells her he’ll make her a magic potion to cure her suffering. All she has to do is to get a mustard seed from everyone she knows who has never lost someone they cared for. She immediately goes searching but, of course, she can’t find a single person who has never felt this pain. And then she understood. We’re in this together.
You’re not alone. Even those conflict resolution experts fell prey to negative emotions. But being aware of this is our way out.
With practice, we can not only learn to deal with our own feelings but we can also help others deal with theirs. When people you love are under the spell of negativity, don’t be reactive – show compassion. You’ve been there too.
When you help others out of their pain it increases happiness for both of you. And then relationships bloom.
All of the good things in life will come to you by way of your emotions. But we want to appreciate our feelings, not be ruled by them.
And then we can leave the darker side of life where it belongs: in Quentin Tarantino movies.
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