Oh, Happy Workday: 14 Ways to Boost Your Mood at Work

If you’re like many Americans, your job doesn’t exactly thrill you. Maybe you don’t loathe it, and maybe you even acknowledge that it’s a good fit for your skills, but still…work is work. You come in each morning, do what you have to do, and leave the pursuit of happiness for your personal time.

I’m not going to patronize you and tell you that yes, you have the power to feel totally, completely, and incandescently happy from 9 to 5 each weekday. Like anyone who’s lived in the real world for more than five minutes, I know that work isn’t always fun and games. (In fact, early in my career, my family was genuinely concerned about my physical and mental health due to job-related stress!) But you know what? It is in your power to become happier at work.

When you focus on improving the simple things that are within your control, you’ll improve your attitude and be better equipped to handle the not-so-simple things that aren’t within your control, like fractious clients and looming deadlines.

Here are 14 tactics to boost your on-the-job happiness that I’ve collected over the years, ranging from the familiar to the surprising to the “why didn’t I think of that?”

  • Decide to be in a good mood. Make a conscious decision to be in a good mood each morning and make it part of your brand (even when you aren’t feeling so chipper). Put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror or set an alarm on your phone to remind you of this intention. Often, you’ll be surprised to find that a “fake” smile becomes genuine as the day goes on. Whatever you do, don’t give everyone at the water cooler a play-by-play of the hectic morning you had or the argument you and your spouse got into the previous evening.
  • Take exercise breaks. Especially if you have a job that requires you to sit at a desk for long periods of time, I can’t overstate how important it is to get up every hour or two and move your muscles. Go for a walk around the building, walk up and down a flight of stairs, or stretch out with a few yoga poses. I promise, even a few minutes of activity can help you destress and improve your mood and focus.
  • Personalize your space. I know a lot of people whose cubicles and offices remain as generic throughout their careers as they were the day they were assigned. But unless there’s a rule specifically prohibiting it, I say let your inner interior decorator loose! Plants, pictures of your family, inspirational quotes, small sculptures, awards, even funny cartoons clipped from the paper—all of these things can make you smile and help you to feel comfortable in your workspace.
  • Be a poser. Body language isn’t just a way to communicate nonverbally with others. Research shows that your stance can actually influence your own mood and mindset, too! So-called “power poses” like lifting your head and chest and placing your hands on your hips can help you to feel more confident and less stressed. If you’re interested in learning more, here is a link to a very interesting article and TED Talk on power posing.
  • Allow food to work for you. If at all possible, don’t eat lunch at your desk. Going somewhere else for your meal, even if it’s just the break room, will give you a much-needed respite from the tasks you’ve been working on and the tension you may be feeling. It’s even better if you can eat with colleagues and/or friends whose company you enjoy. And whenever you eat, whether it’s a meal or a snack, try to avoid junk. The food we put into our bodies has a real impact on how we feel physically and mentally. Choose foods that will boost your energy, not ones that will make you feel sluggish or cause you to “crash” in a few hours.
  • Mark your calendar. Of course you have all of your work meetings and deadlines marked on your calendar. If you haven’t already, pencil in personal events, too: family vacations, drinks with your girlfriends, poker night with the guys, your child’s school play, etc. Being reminded of things you’re looking forward to outside of work will lift your mood, give you something to look forward to, and remind you to pay attention to your work/life balance.
  • Use those vacation days. Sounds straightforward, sure, but 70 percent of North American workers don’t use all of their vacation days! I understand that sometimes our desires just don’t line up with reality, but much more often, I think, we let guilt or a misplaced sense of obligation push us in the direction of workaholism. Even if you don’t have time for the tropical vacation you’ve been dreaming about, a three-day weekend getaway can still do wonders for your attitude and resilience. Hey, they’re not called “mental health days” for nothing!
  • Clean up your office. Seriously, even if you protest that you’re a “naturally messy” person and you know where everything is in the chaos, nobody does their best work in a cluttered, dirty environment. I’m not saying that you have to hire a professional organizer. Start by doing a few simple things like clearing the piles of paperwork off your desk and putting each document in the appropriate file, getting rid of the flotsam you no longer use (broken staplers, dried-up pens, etc.), and scrubbing your desktop with a disinfecting wipe. I guarantee that having an organized, orderly workspace will put you in a better mindset to work, and in turn, being productive will improve your mood.
  • Be a team player. Yes, you could be an office hermit, stick solely to your own to-do list, and scoot out the door as quickly as possible each day. But if you push yourself to be a team player, you might find that you’re in a consistently better mood. So offer your help, opinions, and guidance to others. This will enable you to build more positive relationships with your coworkers (e.g., less drama!), and, as “givers” the world over know, helping others is a great way to feel the warm fuzzies.
  • Quit procrastinating. We all know what it’s like to dread certain items on our to-do lists. What you might not realize is how big of an impact these tasks have on our moods while they’re hanging over our heads. For the next week, I challenge you to look at your to-do list each morning and tackle the thing you want to do least, first. I bet you’ll be surprised by how much better you feel throughout the rest of the day.
  • Come in a little early as often as you can. This gives you a bit of breathing space that sets the tone for the rest of the day. It lets you get a jump start on projects and eliminates that “behind the eight ball” feeling that stresses you out until—and even after—it’s time to go home.
  • Have some fun. All work and no play really does make you a dull employee! If you’re able (i.e., if you won’t be violating company policy or risking censure), set aside a few 10- to 15-minute blocks each day for enjoying yourself. You can play a computer game, read a book, shoot some hoops (buy a miniature basketball goal that clips onto your office door), or whatever else you choose. The point is to totally step away from your work and place your attention on something that you enjoy. It’s a really effective way to improve your focus and resilience and to recharge your creativity.
  • Listen to some tunes. But isn’t music a distraction? you ask. Not necessarily. At the very least, putting on some headphones is a better alternative than listening to your cubicle-mates’ conversations, or to flinching every time you hear Cameron across the hall blow his nose. And believe it or not, some experts say that listening to music at work can boost creativity and productivity. If you’d like to learn more, here’s an interesting article on the role of music in the workplace.
  • Space out stressful meetings. If you can, give yourself time to recover between stressful meetings. It’s feasible to bounce back after one intense conversation or debate, but several in a row can completely erode your resilience.

Like it or not, you spend 40+ hours a week at work. So do yourself a favor and do what you can to boost your mood!

The Perfectionism Antidote

In my last blog post, I discussed perfectionism (which, in my opinion, is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society) and why it’s so harmful. I also shared that for much of my life, I was the “poster child” for perfectionism. Yes, my desire to avoid mistakes, mediocrity, and certainly failure pushed me to achieve great things…but they also contributed to a life of stress and anxiety. As a perfectionist, I was never comfortable with where I was, and I certainly didn’t love myself. I was always worried about the future, because I felt that I was only as good as my next accomplishment.

Finally, after experiencing my breakdown, I admitted to myself that my perfectionist tendencies were doing much more harm than good. Over the past decade, I have made an effort to leave this type of unhealthy ambition behind, and to develop a more balanced outlook regarding what I expect from myself.

Working to overcome my perfectionist tendencies has been one of the most liberating things I have ever done for myself. I promise, when you successfully shed the belief that everything in your life has to be just so—or else!—you will feel a weight lifting from your shoulders, too. You will take more risks, have more fun, live in the moment more often, connect with others more effectively, and most of all, experience a ton more relaxation and happiness. I promise! That said, here are a few things you can do to overcome perfectionism:

  • Learn to recognize the signs. In order to change any habit, you must first be able to identify when it’s manifesting. Take a few minutes to list what you actually do and feel when your quest for perfection kicks into high gear. Are you zoom-focused on something in particular? Do you feel anxious and stressed? Does a certain thought play over and over again in your mind like a continuous mental loop? Do you start to ignore other areas of your life? Knowing what the “symptoms” are will help you to consciously recognize when perfectionism is taking over.
  • Ask, “How much is this helping?” I know from experience that perfectionists tend to get bogged down in the details. In more recent years, I have also learned that those nitty-gritty things don’t always matter as much as you think they do. When you notice yourself beginning to obsess, ask yourself, “How much is this helping?” For example, is it worth spending several more hours tweaking a small part of a report to your boss, or would that time be better spent on another project? Often, running this type of cost-benefit analysis in your mind will give you the clarity you need to let go and move on.
  • See goals as guidelines. When perfectionists set goals for themselves, they tend to see any other result as a failure—even if it’s still very positive. Remember, life is unpredictable, and people—as well as what they want for themselves—can and should change as they move forward. That’s why it’s much more helpful to see goals as guidelines instead of harsh, inflexible benchmarks. Use your goals to motivate, inspire, and direct your progress, not as standards by which to negatively judge your achievements and progress. If you do encounter difficulty after difficulty in your pursuit of a goal, try not to see those incidents as reasons why you are failing to measure up. Instead, use them to assess your overall direction and development. Do these challenges reveal skills and abilities you would like to develop further…or are they telling you that you’re driving yourself down a path that isn’t right for you? When the latter option is the answer, don’t force yourself to continue moving in an unhealthy direction.
  • Celebrate successes. When I look back at my career as a student and young professional, I see many, many successes. However, what I don’t see is my younger self celebrating those victories. Instead, I immediately focused my attention on the next challenge and began to worry about the mistakes I might make in the future. I wish I had learned earlier in life how important it is to acknowledge your own accomplishments and reward yourself for them—it raises self-esteem, boosts morale, and reaffirms how capable and valuable you really are.
  • Focus on your strengths. Perfectionists tend to obsess over the areas in which they fall short. However, experience has taught me that you’ll be much happier as well as more effective if you focus your efforts on the areas in which you excel. Plus, when you’re more frequently doing things that you’re good at and that you enjoy, you’ll be able to look at the inevitable mistakes that you will make with a healthier perspective.
  • Get rid of all-or-nothing thinking. Have you ever worked on a project or task that was mostly a success? If you’re a perfectionist, the answer is “no,” because anything that’s not a free-and-clear win is a loss. The problem is, this kind of thinking robs you of so much happiness and fulfillment. The next time you think you have failed, take a second look at what happened. You might even ask a friend or family member to discuss the event or project with you. Try to identify things you did well, progress you made, and lessons you learned—all of which are positive! No, you don’t have to ignore what went wrong, but at the same time, don’t ignore what went right, too!
  • See life as all for one, not one versus all. As I mentioned in my last post, perfectionists have a tendency to isolate themselves from other people. Some compare themselves to others in a negative way and voluntarily withdraw; others are overly competitive in their quest to be the best. If you see yourself taking either one of these routes, make a conscious effort to connect instead. Rather than trying to outdo your coworker, for instance, realize that you’re on the same team and collaborate with each other. (Chances are, you’ll achieve more when you combine your respective talents and abilities!) Or, when you catch yourself listing all of the ways in which you don’t measure up to your running buddy, switch gears. Find out what has helped her to succeed and ask if she’ll help you to improve.

Ultimately, I believe that the best way to overcome perfectionism long-term is to learn how to love and accept yourself simply as you are and for who you are (which, in my opinion, is the very definition of happiness!). The more you value and accept yourself for the unique person you truly are, the less you’ll be driven to draw your self-worth from other areas.

I urge you to practice treating yourself with the same kindness you would show to a beloved friend or family member when you fail to live up to your own expectations. Remember that you are human—which means that you are fallible—so you will always make at least one mistake a day. And that’s okay!

 

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Masks: The Other Side of the Coin

Two weeks ago I wrote about the “masks” we so often wear in our daily lives—an appropriate topic to post about on the day before Halloween, I thought! Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

As many people go through life, for a variety of reasons, they feel compelled to “be” someone they’re not. Are you one of them? You might wear a mask all the time, or only in certain situations. You might be trying to please others, to make them believe a certain thing, or to keep a secret. You may be using your mask as a defense mechanism. You might even be trying to prevent yourself from having to face the truth…

…As I eventually learned the hard way, there are consequences to wearing a mask. Masks prevent you from living fully and authentically. They limit your potential and rob you of joy while compounding your feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, unworthiness, and more.

As far as they go, I did—and still do—stand by those words. Living an inauthentic, out-of-balance life in which you deny yourself self-love (and perhaps don’t live by your values) is a mistake.

However, after that post went live I received an email from a friend that caused me to think about masks in a different, more positive light. Essentially, this friend reminded me that sometimes masks can help us become happier, healthier, less dysfunctional people. And you know what? She is exactly right!

Have you ever been in this situation? You’ve identified something that isn’t working in your life (perhaps it’s a negative mask that you’ve been wearing), but you aren’t sure what to do next. You may not think you have the tools or the ability to move forward and make a change.

For example, maybe you’d like to be more assertive at work, but you consistently lose your nerve when it’s time to speak up in meetings. Maybe you’ve ended a relationship and want to move on, but can’t seem to find the motivation to add events to your empty social calendar. Or this year, you’d like to be more welcoming and engaging at your extended family’s holiday party…but how, exactly, do you stop dwelling on your bitter, judgmental feelings about half the people in the room?

In any of these situations, you can—as my friend suggested—put on a positive mask. You can “try on” positive new habits and attitudes. They may not feel natural at first, but you’ll be surprised by how quickly they become habit. Here’s what I mean:

  • As a young leader in my family’s company, I often felt through-the-roof stress and tended to handle my anxiety poorly when a crisis cropped up. Sometimes, I even felt physically sick. (In fact, my father told me that if I couldn’t learn to manage my anxiety in a healthier way, he might have to transition me to a different role.) So I put on a mask. Even though I didn’t feel calm when a manager quit with no notice, for instance, I reminded myself that handling instances like this was part of my job description and challenged myself to act with competence. Before long, I learned that I could handle what my job threw at me, and my “mask” of capability soon became reality.
  • Later in my career, I worked with a lot of salespeople. Many of them were naturally outgoing individuals, but some weren’t. I challenged these more reserved salespeople to think of and imitate their favorite comedians while talking to potential customers. When these salespeople put on their “comedian” masks, their sales numbers usually shot up!
  • After going through a difficult time, a friend was stuck in a rut. Tired of feeling like a victim, she decided to “copy” a vivacious acquaintance. In time, my friend found that acting more open and friendly made her feel much happier—and brought a lot of exciting opportunities into her life! Now, she says, what was once a mask has become second nature.

So, friends: Continue to be vigilant about recognizing and moving away from masks that are holding you back and keeping you from living an authentic life. But don’t be afraid to try on new masks that have the potential to make you a happier, healthier, more vibrant individual.

Remember, you may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you think and react. Making a conscious choice to change those things—even if it doesn’t feel comfortable or natural at first—is the best way I know to become more resilient, capable, and happy.

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The Bad News Monopoly Explained

Have you ever noticed that the world seems to run on bad news and negative opinions? Every time you turn on the television to see evening headlines, for example, you’re bombarded with one depressing, concerning, or pessimistic story after another. (Although sometimes news outlets will throw in a story about cute animals or the like to lighten things up.) Often, the subjects of our conversations, the Internet links we click on, the books we read, and even the private thoughts that run through our heads aren’t much better.

Nobody (at least, no one I’ve ever met) thinks that being so immersed in negativity is fun. In fact, bad news decreases the quality of our lives in a very real way. The things we hear, think about, and discuss shape our attitudes, moods, and actions whether we’re conscious of it happening or not.

So, since nobody enjoys a lowered mood or a Debbie Downer, why don’t we simply change the things we report, read, and talk about? In this blog post I’d like to share several reasons why there’s such a bad news monopoly (if you’re like me, you’ll find them eye-opening and interesting). And in a later post I’ll share some strategies to help you change your mental diet for the better:

What’s driving the bad news monopoly?                   

*Survival. To some extent, humans want and need to know about worrisome things on the horizon so they can plan and prepare. From inclement weather to criminal activity to the economy’s projected fluctuations, it’s important to have an accurate picture of what’s potentially ahead. Unless you like to be blindsided, ignorance is not always bliss. And on the other hand, we can benefit from hearing about how others went wrong in the past. Some parts of history don’t need to be repeated!

*Negativity is in our language. One study shows that of all the words we use to express emotion, 50 percent are negative, 30 percent are positive, and 20 percent are neutral. Scientists believe that this is the case because negative words often convey danger or a threat (again, survival is at stake)…but this vocabulary breakdown doesn’t exactly predispose us to talk about, process, or share positive things.

*Curiosity. Let’s face it—most people have a healthy sense of curiosity. And often, it’s of the morbid variety—hence the popular saying “It was like watching a train wreck—I couldn’t look away!” In general, our society can’t resist hearing the details about this politician’s sordid secret life or that celebrity’s descent into drug addiction or even our own neighbor’s messy divorce, to give just a few examples.

*Schadenfreude. (If you’re not familiar with the term, click here for a brief German lesson!) It’s definitely not the noblest aspect of human nature, but I’d venture to say we’ve all felt a sense of pleasure when we heard of or noticed another person’s misfortune. Ha—happy it wasn’t me! you might think, or even, I’m glad to see him getting what he deserves. The media takes advantage of this fact to sucker in viewers and readers; so does your office’s resident gossip. At times, you probably do, too.

*Misery loves company. In the short term, it’s satisfying to rant and gripe about what’s bothering you with people who feel the same way. You feel validated, understood, important, and, most of all, not alone. Also, when you’re feeling depressed, frustrated, or generally crappy, you probably don’t want to surround yourself with people who seem like happy, hunky-dory Pollyannas.

*“Bad” really is news. I’ve heard the theory that—despite what you may think in your more cynical moments—the world and the people in it are still basically good; therefore, “bad” acts are out of the ordinary and thus newsworthy. I’d like to think it’s true!

So, there you have it: the bad news monopoly explained—at least partially. However, even if there are valid reasons for hearing significantly more bad news than good, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Again, when you continuously put negative opinions and information into your head—for whatever reason—sooner or later they’ll begin to infect your own attitude and happiness levels. In an upcoming post, look for my tips on how to overhaul your mental diet.

 

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Calling All Graduates: Tips for Taking on the World

’Tis the season…for graduation! All across the country, students are throwing their caps into the air and basking in the glow of their newly acquired diplomas. If you’re one of them, let me first extend my heartfelt congratulations. Whether you’ve just finished high school or have a technical, four-year, or graduate degree, you have put in years of hard work to get to where you are today, and you should feel incredibly proud of yourself.

So, what’s next? If you’re like most graduates, you’ll probably be filling out as many job applications as you can get your hands on—or maybe you’re planning on staying in school and applying for a higher degree. Whatever your goals are, I assume you’re aiming to be as successful as possible. That’s great—but as you shoot for the moon, don’t become so focused on your achievements and career that you neglect other important areas of your life.

Trust me, you don’t want to reach retirement only to look back and wish that you had spent more time with family and friends, or that you had focused less on making money and more on doing things you enjoyed. And you don’t want to spend decades in the workforce living a life of unhappiness, boredom, and constant stress while feeling that nothing you do is ever good enough.

To help you build a future that’s both successful and fulfilling, here are some of my tips for taking on the world while staying happy and balanced:

Live in your strengths. After graduation, focus on choosing a major (if you’re going to college) or finding a job (if you’ll be entering the workforce) that plays to your strengths. Take your time and consider all of your options instead of committing to the first opportunity that comes your way. The decisions you make today can have a very real impact on your long-term quality of life. Trust me, you don’t want to wake up 20 years from now stuck in a job that doesn’t inspire you and that may even make you miserable! Whenever possible, choose to do things that you’re good at and that you enjoy. You’ll be happier andhigher performing. (Plus, trying to shore up your weaknesses only causes you stress while yielding mediocre results.)

Always remember that you are good enough. In fact, you’re perfect and worthy of love just as you are! However, you might not always feel that way, especially when a job application is denied, when you’re passed over for a promotion, or when a future boss describes your errors and shortcomings in detail. Never make the mistake of believing that your worth comes from your achievements, paycheck, or even what others think about you.

Sweat the small stuff—but not too much. When you get the small things right—at work, in relationships, during home-improvement projects, and just about anywhere—the big things tend to take care of themselves. (Plus, baby steps are much less daunting!) Be aware, though, that one of the biggest causes of stress in our society is perfectionism. So while it’s important to get the small things right, keep in mind that 95 percent right is usually plenty. Don’t beat yourself up over that last 5 percent. We’re all human, and no one is perfect!

Be a team player. It’s a dog-eat-dog world only if you allow it to be. The truth is, you’ll accomplish more and be happier if you support others and allow them to support you.

Remember the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated, whether you’re having a good day, a bad day, or anything in between. Being kind will help you to develop a reputation you can be proud of, and it will attract positive opportunities into your life. Best of all, it will make you and other people feel good!

Hang out with the right crowd. Leave frenemies, mean girls, bullies, and Negative Nancies behind. If you spend a significant amount of time around other people who are negative, your own outlook will begin to mirror theirs. Instead, gravitate toward people who refresh, energize, encourage, and support you. Remember that in terms of your attitude, habits, behaviors, relationships, and more, you’ll be the average of the five people you spend the most time with. So choose wisely!

Say—and write—thank you. Don’t forget the manners your mother taught you when you were young. A timely thank-you—or better yet, a handwritten note conveying appreciation—will have a powerful effect on others and help you cement and improve relationships. Plus, it’s always smart to give credit where credit is due: to your boss, to a trusted mentor, to a supportive friend, or even to your parents for the lessons they taught you!

Make good choices. Happiness isn’t winning the lottery or driving your dream car or dating a gorgeous celebrity. Happiness is the sum of all of the daily decisions you make: how you react to setbacks, who you spend time with, whether or not you allow yourself to dwell on mistakes, what you allow to influence you, how you see the world, and so (so!) much more. In other words, it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you look at and react to what happens to you that matters. And the choice is yours!

Feed your mind a positive diet every day. There’s more than enough bad news in the world. You’ll see it on TV and hear it from others every day. Keep things in perspective by reading, listening to, or watching something positive every day. Exposing yourself to new, constructive ideas dispels unnecessary stress and keeps you from becoming stuck in a self-destructive rut. (And even though they may sound hokey, motivational materials can change your life—it happened to me!)

Don’t leave home without a smile. In other words, be friendly! You never know—a smile and a “hello” could introduce you to a new friend, a future employer, or even Mr. or Mrs. Right. Plus, when you make friendliness a habit, you’ll attract smiles and goodwill in return.

Exercise. Exercise is one of the easiest, least expensive, and most effective ways to improve your physical, mental, and emotional health. When you’re active, you’ll feel more powerful, creative, energized, and balanced. You’ll sleep better, you’ll feel more relaxed, and you’ll be better equipped to deal with stress. Exercise has even been scientifically proven to be as effective as medication when combating depression! In a nutshell, it’s the best thing you can do right now—and throughout your life—to experience a quick boost in your happiness levels. So get rid of the excuses and make physical activity a permanent part of your routine.

Most of all, as you go out into the world, I implore you to really think about the differences between “success” and “happiness.” They aren’t always the same thing! Do what’s healthiest for you—not for your parents, your coworkers, or your friends. And whenever you have to choose between your close relationships and work, choose the former. Nobody looks back at age 80 and says, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office and less time with my friends and family!”

Good luck, graduates! I can’t wait to see the wonderful impact you have on our world.

Mental Health Stigma: Fast Facts and How to Help

Since May is Mental Health Month, I decided to write about what I see as the biggest issue facing people who struggle with mental health issues today: stigma.

It’s true that we’re learning more every year about mental health issues and how to treat them. And well-known personalities including Larry King, George Stephanopoulos, Brooke Shields, Terry Bradshaw, J.K. Rowling, and Sheryl Crow (to name just a few) have opened up about their own experiences with illnesses like anxiety and depression, and have urged that this topic be brought further into the light.

However, there’s still a definite stigma attached to mental health—one that usually isn’t present with more “physical” illnesses like cancer or diabetes. And that stigma has been hurting many, many Americans for decades. Thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds aren’t getting the help they need and are living lives overshadowed by fear, anxiety, sadness, low self-esteem, and much more. (And in extreme cases, they’re even committing suicide.) With one in four adults suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder each year, the importance of addressing, reducing, and eventually erasing mental health stigma shouldn’t be ignored.

Here, I’d like to share my thoughts on why people don’t get help and what can be done to lift the stigma.

Why people don’t get help:

  • I think I’m alone. Because it isn’t common for people who are being treated for issues like depression and anxiety to “go public” with their stories, sufferers often mistakenly believe that they are one of only a small group of people who have felt this way.
  • I don’t want to be judged. It’s no surprise that people would want to avoid attracting hurtful labels, including: crazy, lunatic, nut job, wacko, psycho, etc. Our society’s tendency to describe sufferers of mental illnesses in negative terms like these is extremely destructive because it creates shame where there should be none.
  • I don’t want to admit that something is wrong. Trust me, it’s incredibly hard to admit to yourself—let alone others—that you aren’t in control and that you can’t “handle” things on your own. Making this admission can be a huge blow to your pride and self-esteem.
  • I honestly don’t realize that I need help. Diseases like depression and anxiety don’t just pop up overnight. Often, they are the result of months, years, or even decades of stress and negative circumstances. For instance, if someone has a high-pressure job, he or she might write off mounting anxiety as “normal.” People often don’t realize that the scale has tipped from “normal” to “needing help.”
  • I just don’t feel up to it. Unfortunately, the very nature of mental health disorders can often make it difficult for sufferers to reach out for the help they need. For instance, since depression affects your energy levels, patients might literally not have the will to call the doctor, make an appointment, and go.
  • I don’t want to take medication. Many people are either fearful of taking medication or too proud to do so (e.g., “I can handle this on my own.”). Alternatively, many prospective patients may be reluctant to take medication because of other health implications, such as a desire to avoid negative side effects. Furthermore, many young people especially are resistant to medication because they don’t want to be teased, labeled, or bullied by their peers. (I’m sure the same thing happens among some groups of adults, too.)

What we can do to lift the stigma:

  • If you have a success story, share it! It is one of my greatest hopes that more people who have experienced issues like depression and anxiety will become less reluctant—even eager!—to share their stories. In a perfect world, I envision our society congratulating and honoring people who have battled and conquered these mental illnesses, just as we currently (and rightly!) celebrate those who have survived cancer. If there’s one thing I have learned from sharing my own story with others, it’s that there are so many other people “like me”—people who have felt absolutely sick, miserable, and hopeless due to depression and anxiety, have gotten the help they needed, and have gone on to live successful and happy lives. I believe that if more people talked about their success stories, the truth about mental health issues would quickly come to the forefront, and the stigma would begin to recede. Most importantly, all of these “success stories” could serve as a vital source of hope to those who might currently feel hopeless.
  • Learn the truth about mental illness. If you don’t have personal experience with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, learn more about them. Make sure that you, personally, are not buying into myths such as “if you’re feeling depressed, you should be able to tough it out.” Also, familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms so that you will understand how these diseases affect the body, and so that you’ll be more likely to recognize them in yourself and in your loved ones.
  • Be supportive and nonjudgmental of others. If someone in your life is suffering from a mental health issue, do everything you can to be helpful. Let the other person know that you’re on his or her side and that you want to help. Depending on the relationship, you might offer physical help—such as running errands or cooking meals on a bad day, or accompanying the person to medical appointments—or emotional support. At the very least, always strive to be sympathetic and reassuring. Remember, no one chooses to be depressed or anxious.
  • Turn the conversation in a positive direction. In some ways, this step is the most important of all. Whenever you have the opportunity, turn the conversation about mental illness in a positive direction. When appropriate, correct misconceptions about these issues. Always do your best to share truthful information. And even if it’s uncomfortable, I urge you not to shy away from this topic. As long as people don’t talk about it, the stigma won’t go away.
  • Get help if you need it. Yes, this can be incredibly scary. But I promise, you are not alone. And you can experience a positive future no matter how you are feeling right now. For your own sake, as well as for your friends and family, don’t let fears of being seen as “weak” or “sick” hold you back. I promise, addressing this illness is one of the healthiest things you can possibly do for yourself. And please, please—if you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out as soon as possible. You can call hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for immediate help.
  • Don’t forget your medication. …when it comes to destigmatizing mental illness, that is! Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are essential tools for recovery in most cases. Yes, it’s true that some individuals overuse and abuse them, but the same thing can be said of any medication. Make sure to never, ever belittle a particular drug or those who take it. In my opinion, doing so is every bit as insensitive and judgmental as making fun of or criticizing someone with cancer or heart disease for taking the required and/or recommended medications.

I truly do believe that it’s possible for people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and many more illnesses to feel comfortable sharing their stories and getting the help they need. But that will happen only through a grassroots movement. So please, make an effort to learn the truth about mental health issues so that you’re part of the stigma solution instead of the problem.

Beauty After Winter

Not too long ago, I posted the following tweet: “Winter is officially past (according to the calendar, anyway) and spring is here. I can’t wait for nature to start blooming!”

After I posted that tweet, I began to think a lot about how the flowers, blooms, and buds of spring are a tangible symbol of hope and new life after months of cold days and long nights. I also thought about how a similar rebirth often happens in our own lives. Now (as you might know from personal experience), Twitter doesn’t let you elaborate too much on your thoughts. Your posts are limited to 140 characters or less. So, since I couldn’t stop thinking about that tweet after I posted it, I thought I’d write some more about it in another forum: my blog!

If you’re familiar with my story, you know that I have experienced a lot of anxiety and some depression in my life, and that I even suffered a total nervous breakdown at age 36. For several months at that point, I was a shell of my former self. Some days I could barely manage to function at all. I had trouble sleeping and eating, and my mind was totally checked out. I didn’t think it was possible for me to ever feel happy again.

For obvious reasons, I would describe that period in my life as my own personal “winter.” Things were cold, dark, and bleak, and I wasn’t experiencing any positive growth. Your experiences may not be the same as mine, but I’m sure you have been through your own winter, too. It might have been the death of a parent, the loss of a job, a divorce, or a mental or physical illness, and you may still be dealing with the aftershocks: guilt, regret, grief, sadness, fear, or anxiety, for example. You might even think that your life will never be as good as it once was, and that your best days are in the past.

Every spring, I am reminded that this isn’t true. Take a moment and think about what a miracle it is that after a freezing, icy, dark winter, nature manages to come to life again and turn into a thing of beauty. The best part is, we humans possess that same resilience. We might need the help and support of others, and it might take some time for our lives to “warm up” again, but I know from experience that it is possible to move in a positive direction after negative experiences.

I wouldn’t have believed it was possible in the midst of my breakdown, but today I am honestly happier than I have ever been. Because of my breakdown, I feel that I have discovered and tapped into my life’s true purpose: helping others learn to build happier and healthier lives.

This week, I encourage you to take a walk or two around your neighborhood or a local park. Look at the bright green grass and the budding trees, and take some time to notice the color and shape of the flowers as you feel the sun on your face. And if you’re living in the shadow of your own winter—whether it has been big or small—please try to tap into the hope that spring represents. Trust that you can and will experience life’s sunshine, warmth, and beauty again.

If you’re not sure how to begin this journey, you might want to visit the Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life tab on my website. Developed based on my own experiences and using small, doable steps, this program is designed to help you move from dissatisfaction, anxiety, sadness, and stress to a more fulfilling, healthy, and happy life. For each of the twelve weeks, you’ll find a video of me explaining a new task or lifestyle change to focus on. And if you’d like even more tactics to help you move out of the winter you may be experiencing, look back through my past blog posts (also on my website). Many of them elaborate on the steps of my Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life program.

Lastly, if there is ever anything I can do to help make your own winter a little less cold or dark, please reach out and ask. We are all in this together! You can email me anytime at tpatkin@tgpco.org.

How Not to Expect the Worst: Part Two

In my last blog post I shared six strategies to help you stop expecting the worst in every situation. I won’t rehash why fixating on negative possibilities is bad for you (look back at my March 6, 2013, post if you want to review), but what I will do is share my final six tips to help you let go of some of your worries.

Yes, I have spent quite a bit of time writing about the topic of expecting the worst. That’s because kicking this habit and rewiring your brain to live more fully in the present is so important! Trust me, friends, what you allow yourself to think about and fixate on plays a tremendous role in determining your quality of life.

I hope you’ll add the following tactics to your building-a-happier-life toolkit:

*Trust the master plan. No, the universe is not out to get you. In fact, things usually have a way of working out. Often, though, it’s impossible to see the “master plan” until you’re viewing it through the lens of hindsight. The next time you find yourself focusing on a future fear, stop and remind yourself that you’re not omniscient. You don’t know for sure how a dreaded event will ultimately impact your life. For instance, maybe the pay cut that has you so worried will force your family to cut out extraneous luxuries and activities, ultimately bringing you all closer together.

When I look back on all of the twists and turns my own life has taken, I see that many of my fears were never validated…and the ones that did come to pass often ended up being positive turning points that helped me to move in a better direction. And often, the opposite is true as well: The things we expect to be wonderful can turn out to be unhealthy and debilitating. Just think of the stereotypical ambitious businessman who is thrilled to start a high-paying and high-powered job, only to look back in ten years and realize that his workaholism has cost him his family and friends.

My point is, realizing that you can’t predict how something will ultimately impact your life—that all you can do is make the best decision possible with the information you have now—really takes the pressure off. In all situations, especially when you’re worried and expecting the worst, I encourage you to use this Susan Jeffers affirmation: “It’s all happening perfectly.” It really is!

*Stop being so unkind to yourself. Beating yourself up, dwelling on how inept you think you are, and engaging in negative self-talk are all unhealthy behaviors in general. What’s more, they encourage you to view the future through a worst-case-scenario lens. For example, if you don’t get the promotion you had hoped for, you might think to yourself, I’m so stupid and incapable. I’m never going to move up in this company because I don’t deserve to. Nothing ever works out well for me. Then, you’ll probably go on to list all of your past failures in order to prove your own point.

If this is how you tend to think, I can’t stress how important it is that you stop. Remember, we are all human, and we will all make mistakes from time to time. In the future, realize that this is just one promotion that you didn’t get at one particular time. That doesn’t mean you won’t be chosen the next time a spot opens up. Don’t generalize your failures, and don’t let your disappointment bleed into the future. Instead, make a point of celebrating your successes and reminding yourself of all the things you do well.

*Try giving others the benefit of the doubt. Do you find yourself assuming the worst about other people when it comes to their attitudes and actions, especially toward you? Say, for example, that your spouse is unusually quiet because she has a mild headache and is preoccupied with a work problem. However, you didn’t ask her what was wrong when you both got home for the evening—you “read her mind” and decided that she wasn’t talkative because she was mad at you. As a result, you have needlessly spent the whole night in a state of anxiety.

Unless you actually work for the Psychic Friends Network, remind yourself that you aren’t a mind reader the next time you find yourself assuming the worst about someone else’s thoughts or motivations. Most of the time your guesses will be incorrect and will only be an upsetting waste of your time. Instead, have a conversation with the person in question. If that isn’t possible, put yourself in his or her shoes and list reasons why you might behave in a similar way. Unless you’re mean-spirited, cruel, and selfish, you’ll probably realize that the other individual isn’t out to get you after all.

*Live in the moment… Seriously, take time to smell the roses! While it might be cliché, this old adage is fundamentally solid advice. To put it simply, when you’re engaged in the here and now, you’re focused on a reality that you can control, and you’re in a position to notice and appreciate all of the blessings around you. But if you’re fretting about what might come to pass, you don’t have enough bandwidth left to enjoy other aspects of your life. You’re exacerbating your anxiety and unhappiness by choosing to dwell on things you can’t change or control.

I used to spend a majority of my time worrying about what might happen in the future, which did nothing for my peace of mind or self-esteem. But now that I’m making a conscious effort to live in the present, I’m actually enjoying all of the great things in my life instead of letting them pass me by unnoticed. Plus, I’m a lot more productive now that all of the mental space that used to be occupied with worries has been freed up!

It may sound simple, but the following exercise has really helped me. Whenever you catch yourself worrying about the future, stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. Concentrate on breathing in and out for a few moments. Then, open your eyes and use all of your senses to anchor you to the present moment. Look out the window and enjoy the view. Smell the scent that’s coming from an air freshener or a candle. Pet your dog and notice the soft feel of her fur. Then, consciously shift your attention to solving a problem or completing a task that you do have control over. Often, that’s all it takes to break out of a debilitating mental rut!

*…but take a mental trip to the future when you find yourself dreading the worst. When we’re expecting the worst, we tend to wear mental blinders. All we can see is the thing we’re dreading. As far as we’re concerned, the world ends with that event or outcome. But…does it really? Take a step back and look again. The truth is, even when things don’t go our way, life goes on. That’s why it’s so helpful to take a mental trip to the future when you’re dreading the worst.

Try this exercise: Imagine that your worst expectations come true. Now, fast-forward six months, a year, or even five or ten years in your mind. Is that dreaded event still impacting your life? Has it made you permanently unhappy, restricted your options, or blown your bank account? In most instances, the answer will be no. In fact, in six months or a year, the thing you fear probably won’t even be on your radar anymore. (And if it is, figure out what you can do now to prevent it or minimize its impact.) “Traveling to the future” is a great tool for putting negative expectations into context…and more importantly, out of your mind!

*Write it out. Our anxieties can often seem bigger and scarier the longer we allow them to float around in our heads. The remedy? Sit down and write out the things that you are afraid of. As you do, consider each one. Where does this worry come from? Is it internal or is it from an outside source? Is it likely to happen? How will it impact me if it does?

Sometimes the simple act of putting pen to paper can help you to break the vicious cycle of mental worrying. It helps me to make the things I dread seem less overwhelming and more manageable. I recommend recording your fears in a format you can revisit, such as a journal or saved computer document. Once the crisis has passed (or failed to happen), look back at what you wrote and compare your expectations to what actually occurred. This will help you to hone an increasingly balanced perspective as you move into the future.

If there’s one thing my quest to find happiness has taught me, it’s that things really do have a way of working out. It can be hard to accept that truth and choose to let go of your worrying, especially if it’s a long-standing habit. But I promise, when you learn to manage your mind by taking the focus off your fears and by being more productive in the present moment, your life will be so much healthier and happier.

How Not to Expect the Worst: Part One

In my last post, I talked about a problem that plagues a whole lot of us: constantly expecting the worst. Instead of feeling hopeful, optimistic, or even neutral about the future, we assume that bad things are going to happen.

  • Your husband has been coming home late from work all week? He’s having an affair with a coworker!
  • Your family is preparing for a move? You just know that half of your dishes are going to get broken…and the movers will probably scratch up your antique pie safe, too.
  • Your boss is putting together a “dream team” to woo a big client? She’ll pick your showboating coworker, even though you’re better qualified.

Enough examples—you know what I’m talking about. And if you read my last post, you also know that expecting the worst is detrimental to your emotional, mental, and even physical health. Here are six ways to help yourself break this bad habit:

*Acknowledge how busy people are. When you don’t see results or receive a response from someone else in (what you think should be) a timely manner, it’s easy to get upset and jump to the worst possible conclusion. He doesn’t want to work with me. She isn’t interested in going out on another date. I didn’t get the job. And so on and so forth. But wait a second. Maybe the current radio silence doesn’t mean “no”—it might simply mean that the other person is busy.

The next time you’re waiting on a response and find yourself worrying, think through your own schedule and remind yourself how busy you often are. In this day and age, almost everybody is overscheduled and overstressed. Maybe the other person hasn’t had time to decide, your suggestion dropped off their immediate radar, or they haven’t read your email yet. No news doesn’t necessarily mean bad news—it just may mean the other person has a lot to do!

*Stay busy yourself. You can’t always control how long you have to wait on an outcome, or even what that outcome is. But you can control how you wait. As I see it, you can torture yourself by dwelling on negative possibilities…or you can distract yourself by staying focused on and engaged in other things. Preferably, occupy yourself with tasks that use your strengths and that will bolster your positive attitude and self-esteem. Whatever you do, don’t torture yourself by sitting by the phone or computer while you fret! Watching the metaphorical pot won’t make it boil any faster. All you’re accomplishing is worsening your own mood and mental state.

*Take a dose of muscle medicine…or meditate! Have you ever heard of “a runner’s high”? It’s a real feeling—and it can help you to stop expecting the worst. That’s because exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins also decrease the amount of stress hormones—like cortisol—in your body. In fact, various studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective as taking prescription antidepressant medications…without the potential side effects. In other words, pumping iron or going on a run can literally melt away some of your apprehension.

If you’re familiar with my message, you know that I’m a longtime proponent of exercise because it makes you feel more powerful, relaxes you, and enables you to sleep better, all of which can help you to worry less. I always head to the gym whenever I can’t shake a particular worry. After my workout, I feel much more at peace, and sometimes, my unconscious mind even “solves” my problem by coming up with a new idea or a more balanced perspective while my body has been occupied with vigorous activity. If you don’t have an hour or so to devote to concentrated exercise, simply get outside and walk around the block a few times—it can still effectively change your mood.

I also recommend meditating when you’re fixated on a negative possibility. You might be surprised to learn that meditation can actually spark positive changes in your brain’s biochemistry. I used to think exercise and antidepressants were the only two things that could accomplish this! I can tell you from recent personal experience that meditation can help you deal more effectively with stress, lower your blood pressure, help you to feel content, and make you more mindful in the present moment…all of which are helpful tools when it comes to not worrying so much about the future.

*Take steps toward a solution. When you find yourself expecting a particular negative event (however likely or unlikely it might be), ask yourself if there is anything you can do to prepare for or even prevent it. In many cases, you’ll be able to take concrete steps toward a solution. Not only will you be keeping yourself busy, you’ll also be moving from helplessness to empowerment.

To use a work analogy, imagine that you’ve heard rumors that your company will be downsizing. Your worst expectation is that you’ll be laid off. Instead of fretting every day about losing your job, take steps to make yourself more valuable. Ask for feedback from your boss and incorporate her suggestions into your work. Always go the extra mile. Help your colleagues to succeed and improve. Take continuing education classes, if possible. All of these actions will distract you from worrying, and hopefully, they’ll highlight to your supervisors just how essential you are. And if you are laid off, you’ll have made yourself into a more valuable candidate for another organization to hire.

*Phone a friend. This “lifeline” can really help! The next time you catch yourself ruminating on just how bad things are going to get, pick up the phone and call someone you trust: your spouse or a friend, for example. Specifically, ask this person to help you think of several alternative outcomes (which, by definition, can’t be as bad as the worst-case scenario you were envisioning). A more neutral third party will have more perspective and will probably find it much easier to come up with not-as-bad, and even good, alternatives to help you stop thinking in extremes.

When you expect the worst, you’re essentially discounting thousands of other possibilities that could occur. In other words, you’re mentally thinking in black and white. But the truth is, life is made up of many shades of color. Asking a friend to help you see more of those shades will talk you down from the emotional ledge you’re standing on and will help to break you out of your mental rut.

*Retrain yourself to look for the positive. Numerous positive thinking masters and even scientists agree: The things you think about and center your attention on shape the way you experience life. In other words, if your focus is on all of the horrible, negative, crippling things that might happen to you in the future, you’ll be calling more of them into your life. How? You’re engaging in self-sabotage. Your fears will hold you back, and your low self-esteem will prevent you from developing yourself and taking risks. At the very least, you’ll be so fixated on the worst possibilities that you might miss positive opportunities that are right under your nose.

Some people call this the law of attraction. But whatever you want to call it, I know from experience that if you train yourself to look for the positive, you’ll attract more positive things into your life. You’ll be happier, friendlier, kinder, and more optimistic…and that will bring better people and better opportunities into your orbit.

One of the best ways I’ve found to help myself focus more on the positive is by developing an attitude of gratitude. (Again, if you’re familiar with me, this advice won’t come as a surprise!) When you’re actively being thankful for things in your life, it’s harder to let yourself spiral downward into negativity and have a doomsday mindset about what’s to come. Every evening, I look back on my day and identify several things I am thankful for. If something bad or disappointing happened that day—or if I’m worried about something in the future—I challenge myself to find the silver lining. For example, if I didn’t get a speaking engagement I was hoping for, I remind myself that I won’t have to spend that evening or weekend away from my family.

Without a doubt, these six tools have helped me to retrain my brain to look for the positive when I consider the future. This week, if you find yourself dwelling on a doomsday scenario—no matter how large or small it may be—try to employ one of these tactics to help yourself let go of your bad expectations and refocus yourself on the here and now. And stay tuned—to close out this topic, I’m going to share my last six how-not-to-expect-the-worst tips in my next post!

Not-So-Great Expectations

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.”

—John Milton

Have you ever noticed that people often expect things to go badly? Without any conscious prompting, our minds automatically jump to and fixate on the worst possible scenarios. Consider the following two examples and see if either of them sounds familiar:

  • It’s 2 p.m., and your boss still hasn’t responded to the report you sent him this morning. As you check your email obsessively, you conclude that you haven’t received any feedback because the report is terrible and your boss can’t use it. (What really happened: Your boss’s noon call ran unexpectedly long and he hasn’t had a chance to finish reading the report—but he’s pleased so far!)
  • Your spouse has seemed distant the past few days, is being secretive, and is evading your questions. You’re consumed by the thought that he is involved with someone else and is thinking of leaving you. (What really happened: Your fifteenth anniversary is only a month away, and your spouse is trying to plan a surprise getaway without alerting you.)

Recently, something similar happened to me. Working to collaborate with a well-respected professional, I put together a packet of my materials, mailed it, and waited for a response that I expected to be forthcoming in a day or two. By the time nine days had passed with no response, I was completely convinced that this individual was thoroughly unimpressed with my work and had absolutely no desire to be associated with me. This assumption caused me a ton of distress and anxiety, and prevented me from truly enjoying a weekend spent with my family.

Imagine my (very pleasant!) surprise when I received word that my negative conclusion had been incorrect: This person was excited about the materials I had sent and would love to work with me. His recent schedule had simply been packed, and he hadn’t had a chance to immediately look at what I had sent—hence the delayed response. I immediately realized how shortsighted and unhealthy my reaction had been. I resolved anew not to allow myself to waste time I can never get back by wrongly assuming the worst!

The fact is, we all do this sometimes. We all put ourselves through large amounts of stress, anxiety, and mental anguish because we dwell on negative possibilities that aren’t actually happening! It’s a case of an overactive imagination being used for ill, not good. We would save ourselves a lot of suffering if we could stop our minds from dwelling on the most horrible “what ifs” we can come up with.

Clearly, when we expect the worst, we don’t do ourselves any favors. So why do we persist in this unhelpful mental habit? For one thing, I think, expecting the worst is a way to cushion ourselves emotionally—we’re trying to soften the blow if things go wrong. Think of the popular saying, If you expect the worst, you’ll never be disappointed.

Expecting the worst can also be a symptom of a generally pessimistic, glass half-empty attitude. And some people expect the worst because it often happens to them. They’re caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy cycle of negativity—they don’t even try to make positive outcomes happen anymore.

Before I started my happiness journey, I used to be a master of dwelling on what could go wrong, how I might screw up, and how circumstances could conspire against me. (And, as the story I shared above shows, I still find myself getting caught in this mental trap from time to time, as we all do!) If you’re familiar with my story, you know that I paid a high price for my negative mental habits: a complete lack of peace, an inability to enjoy the present moment, high levels of stress and anxiety, difficulty experiencing quality rest, and more. Constantly expecting the worst can also take a toll on your relationships, your ability to trust and collaborate with others, and even your physical health.

When it comes to thinking about the future, positive thinking is definitely the better and healthier path. Over the years, I have learned a number of tactics that can help you to stop fixating on the worst possibilities your brain can come up with.

As with all major life changes, this shift in thinking will take time. And as my recent experience with anxiously waiting on a response shows, it’s something you’ll need to continuously work on. (When you do slip up and allow a negative outlook to take over, don’t beat yourself up—nobody is perfect! Instead, look for the lesson.) But I promise you, when you make a genuine effort to conquer the suspicion, fear, and worries that are driving you to expect the worst, you’ll become noticeably happier.

In the coming weeks, I will share my tactics to help you stop expecting the worst, including the lesson I learned when I jumped to conclusions after not hearing back from the person with whom I wanted to collaborate. Stay tuned!