Have you ever heard the one about the construction worker and the peanut butter sandwich?
Author Dan Millman tells the story of a fellow whose co-workers on the construction site came to expect the same thing every day. When lunch hour rolled around, this one guy would open his lunch bag, look in, sigh, and grumble, “Peanut butter again? Man, I hate peanut butter.”
After weeks of hearing the same complaint every lunchtime, one of the workers finally spoke up and asked the peanut-butter-hater why he doesn’t just ask his wife to pack him something different for lunch.
“Wife?” he responded. “I don’t have a wife. I make my own sandwiches.”
So the question for today is this: In what areas of your life are you making yourself peanut butter sandwiches day in and day out, even though you don’t like peanut butter?
We all do it. Some of us have the same futile argument with our spouse time and time again, knowing it isn’t getting us anywhere. Others struggle to wake up every morning and feel tired every day even though we swear we’re going to start turning off the TV earlier and getting to bed.
What would happen if each day, instead of doing just one or two of the things that make us feel frustration, anger, exhaustion, and worry, we substitute things that cause us to feel satisfaction, joy, energy, and hope?
The impact could be a lot bigger than we might think.
The Impact of Positive Emotions
Psychology researcher Dr. Barbara Frederickson has spent many years studying the effects of positive emotions, and her research makes it clear that one of the very best things we can do for ourselves is to take everyday steps to experience those good feelings more often. By doing so, we can lead happier lives, improve our relationships, and become more creative, generous, resilient, healthy, and successful.
Does that sound backward to you? Aren’t positive emotions the result of all that happiness and success rather than the cause of them?
It is true that happiness, strong relationships, meaningful accomplishments, and all the rest lead to the experience of positive emotions. But it’s also true that experiencing positive emotions leads to all of those good things. They reinforce each other in what Dr. Frederickson calls an “upward spiral.” And the good news is that we can take steps to increase our experience of positive emotions today and every day, leading not only to the pleasure of enjoying those great positive feelings themselves, but also to lasting increases in our happiness, health, resilience, and many of the other things that make life so good.
But how can we do it? We have work to do, families to worry about, bosses to cope with, bills to pay. Every life has its share of negative experiences, and those experiences naturally lead to negative emotions. We need to accept and experience those emotions as part of life. But we can still take practical steps to improve our positivity ratios.
In other words, we can’t control everything, but if we don’t like peanut butter sandwiches, we can certainly make something else for lunch. Here are a few ways to get started.
Reduce Unnecessary Negative Emotions
Limit your exposure to “toxic” media.
Watching sensational news programs and exploitive reality shows has a documented negative impact on our emotional well-being. Keep up on the news via a quality newspaper or online source instead.
Talk back to anxiety.
If anxiety is bringing you down, try this proven technique to get it under control.
Limit your interactions with cynical and negative people.
Other people’s attitudes are contagious. Spend time with people whose outlook will build yours up rather than tearing it down.
Replace self-criticism with self-compassion.
This is as simple as treating yourself as you would treat a loved one. Not only does it feel better; it actually leads to greater productivity and positive change. You’ll find a primer here.
Experience More Positive Emotions
Do things you enjoy with people you love.
Setting aside even fifteen minutes a day to talk, walk, cook, or do something else you enjoy with someone you love – and knowing that it will happen no matter what — can make your whole day better.
Align your values with your time.
Think about the five things that are most important to you, and the five things you spend the most time doing. Then think of one step you can take to better align the two. If your health is on your “important” list, but not your “time” list, commit to substituting an hour of exercise each week for an hour of something on your “time” list that didn’t make your “important” list.
Add more moments of simple enjoyment to your life.
Watch your favorite episode of an old program on Youtube, listen to some great music in the car, and open the kitchen window and listen to the birds while you make dinner.
Make progress toward goals.
While it sounds like work, it’s actually one of our greatest sources of pleasure. So set a goal that’s personally meaningful to you, and enjoy taking steps toward achieving it.
Perhaps most importantly of all, think back to your answer to the question we started with. In what areas of your life are you making peanut butter sandwiches day in and day out even though don’t like peanut butter? If you can choose just one of those areas and substitute something you enjoy for the peanut butter you can’t stand, you’ve found a great place to begin to shift your positivity ratio and actively create a happier life.
Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
If you’d like to learn more, Lynda invites you to explore the site, scroll down to sign up for her free newsletter, and get in touch to set up a complimentary consultation.
The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman, H.J. Kramer, 2006
Positivity, by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Three Rivers Press, 2009
Certificate in Positive Psychology Lectures, by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Kripalu Center, 2012