Two women were walking through a park. The sun was warm as it climbed the sky and there were dark thunderheads of a coming spring storm on the horizon. The ground was wet from early morning rains and the birds in the trees chirped wildly. The two passed a child’s birthday party with balloons and all. They hiked up a steep hill and spent a few moments watching the storm clouds moving closer to the town. Both were careful with their steps as they moved down the slippery slope. Once at the bottom, they quickened their pace to get home before the rain fell once again.
Two Minds, Different Experiences
Let’s imagine we can look into the mind of the first woman in the story as she strolled through the park. Upon noticing the warmth of the sun and the sweat forming on her brow, we see that she took a moment to be grateful for feeling a bit overheated after a long, cold winter. She smiled and thought the cacophony of the birds made for a funny song. She recognized the happiness and innocence in the faces of the children at the birthday party and reminded herself to enjoy the little things. On the hike up the hill, with lungs burning and legs cramping, she made it fun by pretending to be the first person to scale a dangerous mountain. As she watched the storms roll in, she thought about the cycle of the seasons and the connection between the rains and new life and she was humbled. When she saw that the rains were coming on quickly, she made her trip home exciting by calling it a race against nature.
This first woman has a healthy perspective on life.
Now, let’s pretend to read the thoughts of the second woman on this walk in the park. In the warmth of the sun, we notice that she wondered why she was always too hot or too cold and couldn’t just be comfortable for once. At the sound of the birds she thought of the mess they made of the walkways and wished they would fly away. When she saw the children playing in the park, she compared their age and vitality to her own and was discouraged at the body’s slow decline throughout adulthood. By the time they reached the steep hill, she was angry with her friend for not being as miserable as she was. Upon seeing the storm racing in while standing atop the hill, she was certain that the world was somehow out to get her. She became even more irritated when her friend sped up on the way home because she just knew the rain would come pouring down before they got there.
This second woman has an unhealthy perspective on life.
Interpretations and Expectations
How we think about the world influences how we feel about it. When we think in terms of extremes and pay little attention to evidence, we find happiness hard to come by. When our thoughts are reasonable, we increase our endurance in hard times and find greater joy in simple pleasures.
Miserable people often think small problems are catastrophes or they foolishly hold on tightly to false hopes. Dwelling on worst case scenarios causes them to despair or give up when they come across a problem because they are certain it is just the first a long series of disasters. Believing that things will work out in spite of evidence to the contrary causes people to waste time or to make a bad situation even worse. For example, irrational optimism can keep people in bad jobs and broken relationships when there is no real reason to think they will improve.
Happy people consciously work through struggles and make choices that lead to peace of mind and greater well-being. Rather than catastrophizing or ignoring problems, happy people formulate reasonable plans for managing or working through them. In hard times, happy people deliberately set aside moments to find things to be thankful for in life. They also focus more on things within their control than those that are not. In good times, happy people accept that life can be exciting, joyous, and delightful; they fill their minds with gratitude and allow feelings of glee to wash over them. When we think rationally and make healthy choices, we develop peace of mind, we feel content, and we find reasons to smile more.
Be Both Reasonable and Emotional
“It is a truism that the richness of human experience is a blend of feelings and emotions” (Beck et al., 1979 p. 34). This quote comes from a classic work on cognitive therapy and its authors remind therapists “…to empathize with the patient’s painful emotional experiences as well as be able to identify his faulty cognitions and the linkage between negative thoughts and negative feelings” (p. 35). They teach that effective therapists will also “fan the embers” of patients’ positive and pleasant emotional experiences, which are often forgotten or ignored when someone is in a depressed state. In the decades since this book was written, cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that restructure thoughts and modify problematic behaviors have repeatedly been proven to be helpful in treating a wide range of issues including anxiety, depression, and relational conflict (Butler et al., 2006).
It is comforting to know that we can heal many emotional wounds by making changes to the way we think and behave.