Nine Reactions That Can Make or Break Your Contentment Quotient
Although life’s hard knocks may have convinced you otherwise, Todd Patkin insists that happiness really is a choice. If you choose to act or react in a more positive way instead of giving in to your urges to grumble and complain, he promises, you truly can influence how content you feel.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the expression “Happiness is a choice.” And unless you also live a Pollyanna existence in which you aren’t troubled by bills, work, disagreements, unmanageable schedules, and unforeseen accidents, your response to that particular platitude was probably “Yeah, right.” After all, nobody chooses to rear-end another driver, to bomb a big presentation at work, or to go through a nasty divorce. It seems that the things that make us unhappy (or downright miserable) are usually out of our control, and the best we can do is simply try to gut out the tough times without completely breaking down. Right?
Wrong. While it’s true that you’ll never wake up and magically experience the perfect day, according to Todd Patkin your day-to-day happiness is more firmly in your control than you ever dreamed possible…and it all comes down to choosing the “healthier” reaction.
“Happiness is not something that just happens,” asserts Patkin, author of the new book Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In “Instead, happiness is learning how to live your best life by—among other things—figuring out a more positive way to react to the negative things that happen to you. It’s the culmination of all of the seemingly small choices that you make throughout your day.”
“I was truly surprised to discover how radically different my life could be as I started to react and respond in new ways to various things, such as choosing not to participate in water-cooler gripe-fests,” Patkin recalls. “I realized that becoming happier is a lot like losing weight: ‘Little’ things like choosing to eat whole wheat pasta instead of regular noodles might not seem like much at the time, but they make a tremendous difference to your overall health in the long run.”
While you’ll never be able to avoid stressors, dilemmas, and other obstacles that life throws in your path, you can influence how deeply they affect your happiness if you learn to choose the “healthy” reaction. Read on to learn the “choose this, not that” explanation for nine common stressful scenarios:
Scenario #1: You’re having an absolutely terrible morning. You wake up late, throw on the first (frumpy) outfit you can get your hands on, and run out the door without breakfast. When you crank your car, it doesn’t start because the battery is dead. Fortunately, your neighbor is able to jumpstart your car, and after a quick “thank you,” you speed toward the office. After hitting what seems like every red light along the way, you finally arrive at your desk, frustrated and late. You go to the breakroom to get a cup of coffee and immediately start to rehash the events of your morning to your coworkers.
Choose this: After relating this series of unfortunate events to your officemates, make a joke about your terrible luck: “I’ve never been this happy to be at work before!” Then try to put the events of the morning out of your mind and carry on. Vow to live in the present moment as your day unfolds. Once you arrive home, make plans to ensure that tomorrow morning goes more smoothly: lay out your outfit for the next day, set your alarm for fifteen minutes earlier than normal, and decide ahead of time what you will eat for breakfast. And before you go to bed, be sure to tell your spouse about the kind neighbor who jumpstarted your car this morning.
NOT that: Once you have the full attention of everyone in your office, you say, “This has been the worst morning of my life!” and proceed to describe every frustrating detail in full. All morning you stew at your desk, and at lunch, you rant to your coworkers some more. You are fuming for the rest of the day and get nothing done. And when you get home, you rehash the details of your disastrous morning to your spouse before crawling into bed, still disgruntled.
Why? Stressing over things that have already happened drains your energy and accomplishes nothing. You can’t take back the events of the past, but you can choose to make the present and future better. Realize that you can’t control everything and try to put a positive spin on the situation…and maybe even laugh about it.
“It’s very important to get negativity out of your mind and avoid the victim mentality,” confirms Patkin. “Taking action to improve your situation—and thus your happiness—is a choice. Also, it’s important to realize that when you verbally exaggerate how bad something is, that becomes your reality. So if you must say something about what happened to you, it’s much better to say something like ‘Today clearly was not my best day’ rather than ‘Today was absolutely the most dreadful day of my whole life!’”
Scenario #2: You are planning a family vacation at the beach. Well in advance, you call to reserve a hotel room and then plan a detailed itinerary for each day to make sure your family is able to do everything you want while you’re there. The day before the trip, you do the laundry, straighten up the house, take the dog to the kennel, and help the kids pack their suitcases. Upon arriving at the beach, your spouse tells you that he forgot to pack the beach bag in the car (the only thing he was in charge of!). All of the toys, sunscreen, and chairs are still at your house, hours away! So instead of heading straight to the shore, you’re headed to the nearest store to pay a premium for things you already own.
Choose this: It’s natural to be frustrated, but try to focus on the big picture. Remind yourself to be thankful for the time that you have to spend with your family away from work, email, errands, and other normal responsibilities. Also, realize that it’s really the principle of the matter that you are upset about, not necessarily the situation. Next time, clearly define your expectations to your spouse ahead of time—perhaps he assumed that you would load the beach bag in the car along with the suitcases after he packed it. And keep in mind that handling this situation well can be a great learning opportunity for your children: first, how to handle a mix-up; second, how to treat a loved one when he or she makes a mistake; and third, that no one is perfect. (In fact, you might all end up laughing at the neon-colored beach towels you end up buying!)
NOT that: You immediately begin to scold your husband for his forgetfulness (in the presence of your children). Soon, the two of you are engaged in a huge fight that ruins the entire family’s day. And throughout the vacation, you continue to make snide comments about how it would have been nice to be sitting in your favorite beach chair instead of in a cheap replacement.
Why? Spending time dealing with poor performers and people who drop the ball (especially if it’s a repeated offense instead of a one-time slip-up) can be frustrating and draining. Since you can’t change what happened, it’s best to make the best of what you have to work with. And while you should try to correct the problem and prevent it from cropping up in the future, it’s useless to stir up unproductive contention.
Scenario #3: You just completed the second-round interview for a job that would not only mean more responsibility but also a pay raise. You really think you’ve aced the interview, and you’re already starting to imagine yourself settling into your new office and impressing your new colleagues with your work. Then, a few days later, you get a call back saying that you weren’t selected for the position. Now you’re home alone, and there’s a pint of ice cream practically screaming your name to ease the pain of this huge disappointment.
Choose this: Go for a walk to clear your head. Remind yourself that you do hundreds of things right in a day and that this is just one situation that did not turn out the way you would have liked. The fact is, you may never know why you didn’t get the job. Remind yourself of your qualifications and remember that this disappointment doesn’t necessarily mean that you are in any way lacking. After all, it’s possible that the owner’s son finally decided to step up and take the job himself! Again, you’ll never know for sure. After thinking things through during your walk, you’ll feel less stressed out. You still may want some of that ice cream, but (hopefully) you’ll eat only a small portion of it.
NOT that: After forcefully hanging up the phone, you grab a spoon and the ice cream carton and dig in. You tell yourself that your answers in the interview must have been much worse than you thought they were, and you replay the whole scene in your head with a negative spin. Meanwhile, you mindlessly eat until you hear the spoon hit the bottom of the carton. The sugar high lifts your spirits temporarily, but before long you develop a stomachache and feel sluggish. Soon, you feel guilty about eating so much ice cream and are even more stressed about your future.
Why? Focusing on what you do right will make you feel fulfilled and proud of yourself. Also, skipping the ice cream and going for a walk will make you feel better and, if you keep it up, look better too. Although gorging on sugary or greasy foods may improve your mood temporarily, you can bet that you’ll feel even worse once the effects wear off, leaving you with more stress than you started with.
“Beating yourself up over minor mistakes or things that might not even have happened, like assuming you must have actually blown the interview that you thought you aced because you did not get the job, is not productive and doesn’t contribute to your overall happiness,” Patkin confirms. “If you do identify anything that you might have done differently, learn from your mistake and then try to move on.”
Scenario #4: You’re in the grocery store on your way home from work because you have to pick up a few things for dinner. You’re tired, and you’re just trying to get in and get out as quickly as possible—you certainly don’t really feel like talking. As you’re grabbing a box of pasta, you see a woman who looks familiar to you on the other side of the aisle. You realize that she is the mother of a child with whom your daughter goes to school, though you and she have spoken only a few times before. The woman looks up and spots you, and you can tell that she recognizes you, too.
Choose this: Say hello and strike up a brief conversation. Ask how her child is doing. Mention that you are thinking about chaperoning the upcoming school field trip and ask her if she would like to join in. Then end the conversation by saying, “It was so great to see you! I’ll let you get back to shopping.”
NOT that: After seeing that this woman has recognized you, you look away quickly and pretend to be completely absorbed in reading the nutrition facts on a box of rotini. Instead of actually looking at calories and serving sizes, though, you just wait until the woman passes you, then you avoid her for the rest of the shopping trip. When you see her leave with her bags, you cautiously approach the check-out line.
Why? When you choose to be friendly, you’ll be surprised by the positive reactions you get from others and by how good you feel about yourself. And conversely, since you can never hide from yourself, you’ll feel like less of a person if you act in a weak, cowardly manner. Also, realize that if you do not engage with the woman in the store, she may feel that you were being rude, even though you know you were just very busy. This will shape her perception of you, and she will likely not respond positively to you in the future.
Scenario #5: You are going through a nasty divorce that you did not see coming. Except for hammering out the details of your separation (neither of you wants to give the other an inch), your former spouse seems to be moving on happily and has even started dating someone else. Meanwhile, you are extremely hurt and are having trouble putting the pieces of your life back together. Many of your friends and family members are doing whatever they can to support you.
Choose this: Talk with your loved ones about the situation. Tell them you appreciate their support, then try to stop rehashing events that are already past. If your spouse tries to sling insults and pick a fight, don’t indulge him or her. Do something special for you, maybe something you couldn’t do while you were married. For example, if you love dogs but your former spouse is allergic to them, adopt a puppy.
NOT that: You feel that you have every right to be angry and bitter, and you go over every detail of your situation with loved ones again and again until it is all you can think about. You have no problem with letting your pain consume you, and you participate in name-calling and petty fights over who gets to keep the television. You also spread horrible rumors about your former spouse and his or her new partner, and you feel that broadcasting arguments and trash-talk over Facebook is no more than your ex deserves.
Why? People will start to define you by this event and then possibly avoid you in the future. By taking the high road, you are choosing not to let the actions of others bring you down. Although it might not be easy to identify, you can actually find an opportunity within a bad situation. Engaging in fights and slinging insults only perpetuates negativity and blinds you to possible doors that may be open to you. Besides, if your spouse fails to rile you up, you will be able to conclude your business with one another as quickly as possible.
Scenario #6: You are giving a presentation at work. You feel fully prepared and you know what you’re talking about. The first part of the presentation goes smoothly, and the few jitters you felt at the beginning have been entirely replaced by confidence. When you look up from your notes to make eye contact with your coworkers, though, you lose your place in your notes. There is a long pause while you frantically search for the next point you wanted to make. You are a bit shaken, but you carry on and finish out your presentation without any other problems.
Choose this: Focus on what went well in the presentation. When people tell you that you did a nice job, accept the compliments with a genuine smile and thank them. Tell yourself, Overall, the presentation went very well, but next time I should organize my notes a bit better. Then you get to work on your next big project!
NOT that: You fixate on the pause during your presentation and disregard everything else. When people tell you that you did a nice job, you respond, “That’s nice of you to say, but I could just kick myself for messing up.” Throughout the rest of the week, you continue to tell yourself, I am a failure.
Why? One of the keys to happiness is choosing to be easier on yourself. Why let the one thing you did wrong ruin the hundreds of things you’ve done right? It is human nature to focus on the negative, but you have the power to change your thought process. As long as you learn from your mistakes, you should accept them as a part of life—you’re not the only person who has ever messed up! Plus, the mistakes you make usually pale in comparison to your accomplishments. Happy people acknowledge their achievements and keep their mistakes in perspective.
“Too often, we torture ourselves for not being perfect,” Patkin points out. “But aren’t we human and thus fallible? We all make mistakes, so doesn’t it make more sense to laugh at your own humanity? And believe me, no one cares about that little mistake you made in your speech, so why should you let such a small slip-up dominate your whole week?”
Scenario #7: Your family is planning a huge reunion cookout. Relatives you haven’t seen for years will be coming into town, and you’re even going to be meeting a few new cousins for the first time. You really want to help, but you do not know how to cook, especially on a large scale.
Choose this: Offer to make and distribute a list of what everyone is bringing and to be in charge of soliciting dishes that no one has claimed yet. Sign yourself up to provide items that don’t require pots and pans to prepare, like paper plates, sodas, and napkins. Tell everyone that you’re not the best cook, but you would love to take care of the planning and decorations because you have an eye for details.
NOT that: You vow that this will be the occasion when you overcome your culinary impediments, so you buy an expensive cookbook and choose a recipe that you’re sure everyone will love. Then you go to the grocery store the night before the cookout and try to find ingredients you have never even heard of. After you’ve collected everything you need, you painstakingly make one batch of your dish, only to realize that you missed a step in the preparation. Now, you have no choice but to stay up until 2 a.m. to make a second batch that turns out to be only slightly more edible.
Why? By playing to your strengths, you can save yourself a lot of useless frustration. This does not mean that you should give up when you are not good at something, but rather that it’s most helpful to direct the majority of your energy toward what you are good at.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you will gain the most self-confidence by doing what you’re best at,” states Patkin. “No one is good at everything, and part of being happy is accepting this idea and playing to your strengths.”
Scenario #8: One of your friends loves to complain about everything. Her marriage, kids, looks, everything! Each time you see her, the conversation turns into a major vent session that leaves you feeling exhausted and negative. In the middle of a girls’ night out, for example, she’ll mention how unhealthy Mexican food is and that none of the entrees on the menu are allowed on the new diet she just started. Or when you run into her picking up your daughter from dance class, she’ll want to gossip about the latest scandal involving the science teacher at the middle school. You can’t ever seem to talk about things that actually make you feel good!
Choose this: Without being rude, start spending less time around this person and more around people who are more positive. Casually listen to your friend’s conversations when you are together, and try to join in only if you have something positive to contribute. (Remember how negative you feel after these rants!) When the opportunity presents itself, kindly excuse yourself and join in on another conversation, or nicely segue into talking about the weather or your upcoming vacation.
NOT that: After hearing your friend rant on the negative topic du jour, you realize anew how unhappy you are with your weight or your husband, and you join in on the negativity. Soon you’re in a foul mood that rubs off on your family after you return home.
Why? Surrounding yourself with positive people leads to happiness. Negative people drain energy from everyone around them, even though that may not be their stated intention. When you give your friend positive advice and do not allow her to suck you in, she will eventually seek out someone else to listen to her woes.
“Negative people crave pity and sympathy—be understanding, but don’t overdo it,” Patkin advises. “Instead, hang out more with positive people. Their attitudes will rub off on you and you will have more mutually beneficial relationships because of these relationships. Remember, your attitude will be the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so please put some thought into who these people are!”
Scenario #9: You are feeling down about your financial situation, which is looking pretty dismal because of cutbacks at work. You wish you could move into a bigger house, but you don’t have the money. Your car is on its last leg and soon you will need a new one, but you don’t know how you’ll be able to afford something that won’t also break down in a matter of months. And for the first time this year, you had to severely curtail the extent of your kids’ back-to-school shopping and Christmas presents, which makes you feel horrible.
Choose this: Focus on what you do have. Every day, you make a point to be thankful for your health, your children’s health, and so, so much more. You also remind your family that money does not buy the things that truly cultivate genuine, lasting happiness, like the love for one another you all share. Because of these reminders, you are prompted to put more care into spending quality time with the people you care most about.
NOT that: Every day, you think about the things you want and can’t afford. Before long, you’ve fallen into a depression because you can’t acquire them, and you think of yourself as the most misfortunate person you know. In the midst of all this self-inflicted misery, you completely disregard everything that you have to be grateful for.
Why? Being grateful for what you have can turn your whole outlook around. When you gain a sense of perspective and recognize the blessings in your life, whatever you are lacking will not seem nearly as important. Start naming five things you are grateful for each day: anything from the good weather to spending time with loved ones. You may be surprised by just how fortunate—and happy—you really are.
“You can always find just as many people who have less than you as those who have more than you,” asserts Patkin. “It is up to you to choose the people to whom you compare yourself. And that decision, I promise you, will greatly influence your own happiness. Always remind yourself that you are lucky to be alive, healthy, and able to meet your basic needs.”
“Just as you would if you were on a long-term diet, expect temptations, rough patches, and bad days to occur in your life,” Patkin concludes. “However, if you realize that your reactions to these situations can make the difference between being happy and being bitter and negative, you’ll do yourself a huge favor. Remember, happiness is a choice…as long as you choose this and not that!”
# # #
About the Author:
Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.