"Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and shadows will fall behind you." - Walt Whitman
Do you feel sad, empty, lacking, or worried when you look at other people’s pictures of happy vacations, redecorated houses, and perfect kids? (You can hardly miss them; they’re plastered all over Facebook, Instagram, etc.) If so, you are not alone. Apparently this is one of our newer modern ills: not just happiness envy, but the idea that if we’re not happy, something is actively wrong.
But here’s the thing: That idea is completely unrealistic. The world isn’t perfect, and disappointments and setbacks are bound to happen. We can’t control everything in our lives. In fact, the only things we can control all of the time are our responses.
However, even though your life isn’t supposed to (and never will) resemble a Pinterest board, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to feel rotten emotions from time to time. You know, those squeamish, troubling, upside-down, wish-you’d-go-away-what?-you’re-still-here? emotions that are as uncomfortable as they are hard to shake.
No matter what the cause might be, you’ve got to be real and feel what you are feeling. Think of it as building up your emotional muscles and increasing the resilience we all need so often in life. Maybe you have to hit a pillow or two, scream, or sing your own lyrics to “I Will Survive.” Do whatever it takes to vent and to bring things out in the open, then address what is troubling you (even if it’s “just” the fact that your Facebook friend’s child always seems to look perfect while yours is covered in dirt and crumbs!). Your troubling or uncomfortable emotions won’t go away by themselves. There’s a reason why most people will spend five times longer mulling over a negative experience than a positive one.
The fact is, we need our negative emotions. Fear, anxiety, and loneliness are integral parts of human nature. Some are for survival; others deepen our emotions or stretch our courage. And those rainy days of life make sunshine all the sweeter. But there is a tipping point between flourishing and languishing, according to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a leading expert in positive psychology who has been studying the effects between positive and negative emotions for over twenty years.
Most of us fall short of Dr. Fredrickson’s recipe for flourishing: fully experience three heartfelt positive emotions for every wrenching emotion we have to endure. Eighty percent of us weigh in at 2-to-1. And a 1-to-1 ratio or lower is linked with depression, failed marriages, and unsuccessful business teams. According to Dr. Fredrickson, positive emotions affect everything from our body biochemistry to satisfaction in our relationships. They increase our capacity for creativity, learning, pleasure, and success by broadening our ability to see the possibilities and solutions.
Meanwhile, negative emotions shut us down. They create an almost paralyzing focus on what we think is wrong instead of allowing us to see the big picture. They impede action, lead to poorer health, and make it harder to see solutions. And from a parenting perspective specifically, not only does focusing on what we don’t have cause us to miss out on happy times with our kids; it teaches our children to look at life with a glass-half-empty mentality.
Of course we all want to flourish, and we want the same thing for our children. But since most of us are 2-to-1s, how do we get to that 3-to-1 tipping point?
“Don’t pressure yourself to be positive,” Fredrickson advises in this video. “Lightly create the positive mindset. Be open, appreciative, curious, kind, real. We can’t eliminate negativity - it would be unhealthy to do so. No emotion needs to be forever banished. But a lot of our negativity is pointless. We can all do better by keeping it in check.”
To help you turn the tide in your own life, here are eight tips to help you flourish:
1. Change the Scene. When you find yourself in that never-ending mind loop of grumbling, stop. Go for a walk, watch something amusing, read a book, or do whatever it is that relaxes you and breaks the negative treadmill.
2. Do More of What You Love. For busy moms, “me” time is hard to come by. That’s why it’s all the more important to remember that you have the power to create what you want in your life. For example, some days laundry can wait. Remember that doing something you love can be as simple as a five-minute mini-mental vacation to the Bahamas or taking a moment to write down a poem that inspires you. As you build your Love It! list into your daily routine, you’ll see more ways to keep it growing so you’ll be glowing.
3. Connect with Friends. Good friends are good for your health. So is laughter. Combine the two and you’ll have Dr. Oz knocking on your door for an interview.
4. Disconnect with Drags. Avoid people who drag you down or who try to actively engage you in arguments. You can’t win every battle, but you can choose your battles. Eliminate known triggers as much as possible and recognize when to pull back if things begin to escalate. This takes practice and courage!
5. Practice Positivity. Even when you are angry, you can turn your mental state around. Be aware of the “Hey! I’m wearing blinders!” syndrome that accompanies negative emotions. First, accept everything you are feeling with compassion. Then do your best to practice the positive balancing act. Step back, take a deep breath, and try to see the situation more clearly. Ask yourself, How can I make this better? What is my part in this? even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
6. Be Grateful. Appreciate the beauty in each moment. Take time to bask in awe of a summer’s night sky, a beautiful flower, or an amazing meal with your family. Take the time to savor all that is right and good in your life.
7. Be Proud of Who You Are. Accept your vulnerability and your magnificence.
8. Ditch Vacation Envy. If you catch yourself feeling sad at someone else’s happy vacation pictures, turn off the computer and go do something fun! (And remember, social media rarely paints an accurate picture of what anyone’s life actually looks like.)