I usually write about things we can start doing to make our lives better, but it’s just as important that we stop doing the things that are getting in our way. So here are three things worth doing a lot less of, and some practical ideas about what to try instead.
1. Seeing Lions on the Savannah
The human species evolved in a situation of scarcity and danger where survival demanded that our ancestors react more strongly to threats than to pleasures. Reacting to a lion on the savannah was a lot more important than enjoying the sunrise.
We still have essentially the same brains as early humans, but most of us live in vastly different circumstances than they did. As a result, our automatic responses are often out of synch with our circumstances.
Try This Instead
If you find yourself reacting to an unexpected meeting with your boss as if you’ve just caught a glimpse of a hungry lion running in your direction, take a minute to try to get your emotions in synch with twenty first century reality. Here’s how.
Ask yourself “Am I facing a real threat here, and is my reaction in proportion to what’s really going on?”
If your answer is yes, take a deep breath and think of a concrete step you can take to address the situation. And if your answer is no, remind yourself not to let imaginary lions get in the way of very real sunrises.
2. “Fixing” Your Weaknesses
We all have areas of strength and areas of weakness, and it seems to make intuitive sense that it’s our weaknesses are where we ought to be focusing our efforts to improve. But because developing our strengths is usually more enjoyable and a lot more productive than working on our weaknesses, we’re more likely to stick with our efforts when they involve our strengths.
For that reason, research shows that we’re not only happier when we focus on our strengths; we’re also more successful. We’re a lot better off working to develop our strengths and finding ways to minimize the impact of our weaknesses than we would be banging our heads against the wall trying to “fix” those areas where we’re a little behind the curve.
Try This Instead
Are you hosting Thanksgiving this year in spite of the fact that you’re better at making people laugh than you are at making them dinner? You really don’t need to spend the next six weeks learning to make gravy without lumps if the very thought of it makes you miserable.
Use your natural friendliness and good humor to make it a great Thanksgiving your own way. Send your guests a funny email asking them to help save Thanksgiving – if they’ll each bring a dish, you’ll plan an afternoon of fun and games everyone will enjoy. This way, you’ll get to enjoy doing what you love, your guests will have a great time, and no one will go home hungry!
3. Brooding About Ordinary Hurts and Worries
When something goes wrong at work or a friend says something hurtful, do you find yourself going over and over it in your mind, fixating on why it happened or what it means?
If so, you’re not alone. Excessively replaying our negative experiences and feelings and continually focusing on our anxieties and problems is one of the most common causes of unhappiness. Research psychologists call this sort of brooding about life’s everyday troubles and worries “overthinking” and they’ve convincingly shown that it worsens feelings of sadness and anxiety, impairs our ability to solve problems, interferes with concentration and initiative, and even makes us less attractive romantic partners and friends.
There’s no doubt about it — this is one habit worth the effort to break.
Try This Instead
Learning to short-circuit those unproductive cycles of negative thinking about life’s inevitable hurts and worries is one of the most powerful things you can do to get on the road to greater happiness. Here’s a method that’s been shown to work.
When you find yourself overthinking, follow these steps.
Recognize and acknowledge it.
“I’m overthinking this.”
Remind yourself that it’s counterproductive, and decide to stop.
“I know it doesn’t help, so I’m going to shift my attention.”
Change the subject by doing something absorbing.
Choose the most interesting thing you need to accomplish today and work on that, or do something you really enjoy that will fully occupy your mind instead.
Repeat as often as necessary.
If you find the brooding thoughts coming back, just acknowledge them as neutrally as you can and try to quickly shift your attention back to what you’re doing. It may take some practice, but I think you’ll find that this is one of the most useful skills in your happiness tool kit.
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.
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