Most of us have experienced moments where everything just sucks. This can range from minor irritations such as standing behind the a**hole with 32 items in the express checkout line at the grocery store when the sign clearly says 12 item maximum, to major heartbreaks such as a loved one dying.
There’s a whole body of research that shows happiness or satisfaction with life has very little to do with external events and everything to do with how we interpret or perceive an event.
Shawn Achor, one of my favorite Harvard researchers and authors, said in his TED talk:
[I]f I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10% of your long-term happiness. 90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world. And if we change it, if we change our formula for happiness and success, we can change the way that we can then affect reality. What we found is that only 25% of job successes are predicted by IQ, 75 percent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.
Which brings me to what to do when life just feels sucky. I often work with lawyers who are really unhappy with their jobs. Many of them are Biglaw lawyers trying to find some semblance of balance or find meaning in their work. One attorney I worked with had a crazy managing partner who had a tendency to scream, throw things, and slam the door to his office so hard that frames fell off the wall. Understandably, working for a mentally unstable person like this can make every moment of the workday feel like hell.
Yet, the research shows that much of her misery isn’t caused by the horrible managing partner but rather her reaction to his behavior. When we really examined the situation, it turns out, she had minimal contact with this managing partner — a couple of hours or less per week. Yet, she spent an inordinate amount of time fearing and thinking about this person and what he might do next. Obviously, she can’t control his behavior, but she can limit how much airtime he got in her own head.
Additionally, when we carefully examined each interaction she had with this partner, not all interactions were negative. He didn’t always throw things, he didn’t always yell. However, because humans are hardwired toward a negativity bias and use cognitive shortcuts, she simply labeled him as the-most-horrible-human-being.
The way we interpret and frame a situation makes a huge difference in the way we experience it. For example, last week, I had an early morning networking meeting with another attorney. I got up extra early and spent well over an hour driving 20 miles in rush hour traffic. As I parked the car, I dropped him an email to let him know I was running few minutes late. He responded and said, “Sorry, I thought my secretary contacted you. I had a work emergency. I can’t make it this morning.” Needless to say, I was not very happy. I could notice my body and mind fill with irritation, frustration, and anger. My mind also started making up stories about the situation — he clearly doesn’t respect me or my time, he’s totally irresponsible, and so forth.
In mindfulness practice, we are taught to accept each moment, as is, without preference and judgment. In that moment, as I noticed all these negative emotions, narratives, and reactions bubble up to the surface, I was able to remind myself that I have absolute control over how I am going to feel about this situation. I can either allow the anger and frustration to take over or I can change my perception.
As I walked into Yerba Buena Gardens, a beautiful park in the heart of San Francisco, I practiced being in the moment. I looked up at the clear blue sky and took in the view of the park. I also noticed groups of tourists stopping to take pictures and realized how fortunate I was to call this place home. I also saw the many homeless people sleeping on the grass and thought but for the grace of God, I could be in their shoes.
I noticed my mind’s preference that I’d rather be at home, enjoying the extra hour of sleep, but also realized that’s like crying over spilled milk. I was awake; I was already here. I also noticed my mind’s judgment around this person’s behavior but also recognized how I, too, have been guilty of mismanaging my calendar or having unavoidable scheduling conflicts.
I found a park bench and sat in the sun (which is rare in San Francisco) and simply took in the beauty of this city. I was grateful for having this unexpected hour of free time. Then I noticed a hummingbird flying above my head, going from one flower to another. I sat there in the park enjoying the sounds of the birds chirping, listening to the sounds of the water fountain, and noticing the energy change as the city started waking up. The hummingbird, as if noticing my mood, stopped right in front of my face, just a few feet away, hovering. It felt as though I was being embraced by life.
So, my invitation to you, my dear reader is this: remember that the ability to find happiness in each moment lies within you. Instead of looking at all the ways in which the moment isn’t perfect, ask yourself — what am I grateful for?
Finally, I’ll leave you with words of wisdom from Rumi:
Be empty of worrying.
Think of who created thought!
Why do you stay in prison
When the door is so wide open?