The Feel Good Manifesto - Part 2
Updated: May 20
“Practice makes perfect so be careful what you practice.”
In Part 1, we touched on the built-in negativity bias we humans have to contend with. It makes it easy, even natural, to focus on what’s NOT working, what we DON’T want, what we DON’T have. The trouble is we tend to get what we focus on.
If we want something different, we can start by focusing on what IS working instead of what’s not, what we DO want instead of what we don't, what we DO have, instead of what’s lacking.
We focus on ‘what is’ (good or bad, wanted or unwanted) much of the time. We’re continually getting information from our five senses about what’s happening now, which is vivid, and compelling and naturally commands our attention.
But what if, by focusing on ‘what is,’ we’re creating more of what is? Even if it isn’t working for us and it's making us miserable?
WHAT IS vs. WHAT WE WANT TO BE. What if (as many believe) what we know as current reality was put into motion by past desires and beliefs, both individual and collective? And what if the seeds for our futures are being planted by our current desires and beliefs? Might we want to focus more on what we want in our futures and less on what is? Especially if ‘what is’ isn’t working?
Wanting sometimes gets a bad rap. Many of us were taught that we’re supposed to be satisfied with (and grateful for) what we have. We’re not supposed to be attached to things or to having things our way. Feeling content with our lives is sweet. Yet we’ve all experienced how desire can pull energy, lifeblood, passion, and motivation through us, keeping us learning and growing, and expanding our worlds. Whether it’s a material object or an outcome, we want what we want because we think it will make us feel better.
Developing the habit of focusing more on the positive and less on the negative naturally raises our baseline for feeling good. With intention and persistence, we can prune neural pathways from the painful past that project habitual negative thoughts and feelings into the present and the future.
THE SHIFT. After reading The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, I was motivated to clean up my negative thinking and behavior. One of the agreements is “Be impeccable with your word,” which is about saying what you mean and meaning what you say, as well as avoiding gossip and judgment.
I asked my husband to give me a hand signal (in the shape of a “C”) when he caught me complaining, criticizing, or condemning. I wanted to rise above my automatic, negative responses to the world around me. Over time I was able to catch myself and just drop my judgment. When my husband joined me in the game, our household became almost free from complaining and other forms of negativity.
HABITS OF THOUGHT. Habits of thought are not so different from habits of behavior. With enough repetitions we can re-wire our brains for both kinds of habits.
Say you want to break a deeply ingrained habit that no longer serves you. Imagine there’s a superhighway of neural pathways and environmental triggers that keep this habit alive. Then imagine erecting a roadblock on that superhighway and starting out on a new little goat trail through the weeds. At first you may have to hack through with a machete. But with continued use, the path becomes a packed dirt trail you can easily walk, then widens enough to accommodate a car. Eventually it can become a paved two lane road, or even a new superhighway.
Building new neural pathways is kind of like that. Importantly though, the roadblock to the old habit has to hold strong while the new habit is in development.
BELIEFS. Our beliefs are just thoughts we’ve repeatedly bought into. The thought may have originated with us or may have been learned from others. Either way, if it’s not working for us anymore, we can choose better feeling thoughts and replace our old programming with something more functional. It takes strong intention and lots of practice reaching for new, better feeling thoughts.
In basketball, if a player is dribbling down the court and gets blocked from shooting, he or she has to pivot in another direction to move or pass the ball. When we catch ourselves going off in a direction that doesn’t feel good and is not working in our lives, we are blocked and can also choose to pivot.
Or for a more gradual shift, consider this NLP (neurolinguistic programming) sequence: In your mind, bring up the image of what you don’t want, big and bold, full color, panoramic with surround sound. Then imagine reducing its size to a regular movie screen, then a TV screen with the sound turned down, then a tiny black and white screen with no sound and a fuzzy gray screen. Then, slowly, in reverse order, bring up the new image of what you want instead. Take a mental snapshot of that new bigger-than-life scene to focus on and motivate you as you build your new habit.
THE “WHY.” Reminding ourselves why we want something (like a behavioral change in our lives) helps keep motivation and commitment high. A chain of why’s can bring us face to face with our core values as we dive deeper into our motives. Clarifying and embracing these ultimate reason(s) why could be the single best way to inspire ourselves to becoming our best selves.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT. Pema Chödrön shares a popular story about a Native American grandfather who was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, “The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed.”
The stories we feed our minds matter. And the ‘food’ often comes in choosing between opposites. One diet leads to a closed heart and mind, the other to an open heart and mind.
VENGEFUL, ANGRY WOLF UNDERSTANDING, KIND WOLF
Anger & Blame Compassion & Acceptance
Self Pity & Resentment Gratitude & Appreciation
Lies & Excuses Honesty & Accountability
Closed mind & closed heart Open mind & open heart
Fear & Hate Faith & Love
STOP. THINK. PEACE. I volunteered years ago for a character education and anti-bullying program in our local elementary schools. The second graders decorated cardboard "peace glasses" that gave them the superpower to see peaceful solutions to conflict. They also learned a little hand jive that went: STOP (hands up in front of you, palms forward) THINK (two fingers touching each temple) PEACE (both hands in peace signs). It was pretty much a kids’ version of the skills we were teaching violent offenders in the Alternatives to Violence Program.
Soon afterwards, I heard a report about two grown men on a construction site, getting ready to rumble, pulling off their shirts and squaring off for a fight. A co-worker intervened, applying the simple lesson he learned from his seven year old daughter, urging his two upset co-workers to stop, think, and "Use your words, brah!" And it worked.
SELF TALK. Becoming aware of our self-talk or the “stories” we’re telling ourselves about a situation empowers us to choose again. Often our immediate reactions are distorted by
· Personalization (It’s all about me)
· Jumping to conclusions, mindreading (No need to check things out)
· All-or-nothing thinking (I made a mistake. I’m a loser.)
· Overgeneralizing (You always… They never… All women…)
· Magnifying/Minimizing (Often magnifying others’ offenses or flaws/minimizing our own)
· Catastrophizing (Making mountains out of mole hills)
· Emotional reasoning (I feel jealous. She must be fooling around.)
I might add blaming, judging, and thoughts of separation or attack to the list. And these:
10 ways you might be making your life hard
by Tim Hoch
1. You ascribe intent. Another driver cut you off. Your friend never texted you back. Your co-worker went to lunch without you. Everyone can find a reason to be offended on a steady basis. So what caused you to be offended? You assigned bad intent to these otherwise innocuous actions. You took it as a personal affront, a slap in the face.
Happy people do not do this. They don’t take things personally. They don’t ascribe intent to the unintentional actions of others.
2. You’re the star of your own movie. It is little wonder that you believe the world revolves around you. After all, you have been at the very center of every experience you have ever had. You are the star of your own movie. You wrote the script. You know how you want it to unfold. You even know how you want it to end.
Unfortunately you forgot to give your script to anyone else. As a result, people are unaware of the role they are supposed to play. Then, when they screw up their lines, or fail to fall in love with you or don’t give you a promotion, your movie is ruined. Lose your script. Let someone else star once in awhile. Welcome new characters. Embrace plot twists.
3. You fast forward to apocalypse. I have a bad habit of fast forwarding everything to its worst possible outcome and being pleasantly surprised when the result is marginally better than utter disaster or jail time. My mind unnecessarily wrestles with events that aren’t even remotely likely. My sore throat is cancer. My lost driver’s license fell into the hands of an al-Qaeda operative who will wipe out my savings account.
Negativity only breeds more negativity. It is a happiness riptide. It will carry you away from shore and if you don’t swim away from it, will pull you under.
4. You have unrealistic and/or uncommunicated expectations. Among their many shortcomings of your family and friends is the harsh reality that they cannot read your mind or anticipate your whims. Did your boyfriend forget the six and a half month anniversary of your first movie date? Did your girlfriend refuse to call at an appointed hour? Did your friend fail to fawn over your tribal tattoo?
Unmet expectations will be at the root of most of your unhappiness in life. Minimize your expectations, maximize your joy.
5. You are waiting for a sign. I have a friend who won’t make a decision without receiving a “sign.” I suppose she is waiting on a trumpeted announcement from God. She is constantly paralyzed by a divinity that is either heavily obscured or frustratingly tardy. I’m not disavowing that fate or a higher power plays a role in our lives. I’m just saying that it is better to help shape fate than be governed by it.
6. You don’t take risks. Two words: Live boldly. Every single time you are offered a choice that involves greater risk, take it. You will lose on many of them but when you add them up at the end of your life you’ll be glad you did.
7. You constantly compare your life to others. A few years ago I was invited to a nice party at a big warehouse downtown. I was enjoying the smooth jazz, box wine and crustless sandwiches. What more could a guy want? Later in the evening I noticed a steady parade of well-heeled people slide past and disappear into another room. I peeked and saw a large party with beautiful revelers dancing and carrying on like Bacchus. Suddenly my gig wasn’t as fun as it had been all because it didn’t appear to measure up to the party next door- a party I didn’t even know existed until just moments before.
I do this frequently. Those people are having more fun. Mary has a bigger boat. Craig gets all the lucky breaks. Ted has more money. John is better looking. Stop it. Always remember what Teddy Roosevelt said: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
8. You let other people steal from you. If you had a million dollars in cash under your mattress, you would check it regularly and take precautions to insure it is safe. The one possession you have that is more important than money is time. But you don’t do anything to protect it. In fact you willingly give it to thieves. Selfish people, egotistical people, negative people, people who won’t shut up. Treat your time like Fort Knox. Guard it closely and give it only to those who deserve and respect it.
9. You can’t/won’t let go. These are getting a little harder aren’t they? That’s because sometimes you have to work at happiness. Some hurdles are too difficult to clear by simply adjusting your point of view or adopting a positive mindset. Do you need to forgive someone? Do you need to turn your back on a failed relationship? Do you need to come to terms with the death of a loved one?
Life is full of loss. But, in a sense, real happiness would not be possible without it. It helps us appreciate and savor the things that really matter. It helps us grow. It can help us help others grow. Closure is a word for people who have never really suffered. There’s no such thing. Just try to “manage” your loss. Put it in perspective. You will always have some regret and doubt about your loss. You may always second guess yourself. If only you had said this, or tried that. You’re not alone. Find someone who understands and talk to that person. Reach out for support. If all else fails, try #10 below.
10. You don’t give back. One way to deal with loss is to immerse yourself in doing good. Volunteer. Get involved in life. It doesn’t even have to be a big, structured thing. Say a kind word. Encourage someone. Pay a visit to someone who is alone. Get away from your self-absorption. When it comes down to it, there are two types of people in this world. There are givers and there are takers. Givers are happy. Takers are miserable. What are you?
We drive ourselves home on automatic, our thoughts a million miles away, maybe eating while we drive and fiddling with the sound system too. Remember how much effort went into learning to steer, brake, accelerate, make judgments, and develop fine muscle control in the beginning?
Habits can work for us. We spend far less energy on a task once it becomes an automatic behavior. Habits allow us to be more efficient and accurate in our daily processes and even multi-task. Our automatic programs make life familiar and comfortable. A habit can be physical, mental or emotional, anything that we have repeated so often that it requires little thought or effort.
Often we fall into habits because they meet our needs. We repeat behaviors that have some pay-off for us. But for a variety of reasons, coping responses that were once useful may no longer be serving us. To change a behavior we have outgrown, it’s important to identify the needs it met for us and find new ways to meet those needs.
For example, some people overeat or drink or smoke or overspend (the list goes on) to reward themselves, to soothe negative feelings, to affirm their worthiness, etc. Some people are in the habit of yelling or swearing, or otherwise abusing those around them to release stress, make their case, or feel their power. Exploring healthy ways to meet those real and valid human needs is essential to breaking the destructive pattern.
Like our useful habits, our negative habits are also automatic responses (or programs). Habitual responses to negative emotion are learned responses and can be successfully unlearned IF the need signaled by the emotion is met in a healthy, productive way. Our needs don’t just go away…but we can create new ways to get those needs met. It’s like pulling weeds in the garden; if you don’t plant something in their place, what do you get? More weeds.
Breaking an old pattern can be challenging, but it’s possible to ‘extinguish’ it by catching ourselves quickly, and pivoting to the new more desirable pattern until it becomes as natural as the old one. Keep that mental roadblock on the old habit highway, and repeatedly strike out on the new path you’ve chosen instead, machete in hand.
Identify the pay-offs from the old habit and brainstorm new ways to meet those needs.
Get clear on the new behavior you want to develop. See yourself doing it, feel it, hear it, taste it, smell it. Describe it out loud to someone you trust.
Identify factors that could trigger the old thoughts and behaviors and plan ahead for them, How will you keep yourself on your new path?
Recognize that a habitual thought need not lead to an unwanted behavior. Change your story, and your feelings and actions will follow.
Reward yourself for the time and energy you are putting into developing your new habit.
You could think of a new habit as a thin thread, with each repetition adding a new strand until a thick rope or cable is formed. At that point, the behavior becomes the new ‘automatic.’ First we make our habits, then our habits make us. They can work for us or against us.
Our well-rehearsed, automatic behaviors have created hard-wired neural pathways in our brains. To create new habits and new neural pathways, consciously choose the new, desired outcome, and your reasons for wanting it, again and again. As you stretch your comfort zone, the new behavior starts to feel natural and easy.
As children we are blank slates and soak up new knowledge like sponges. As adults we may have to unlearn some old patterns to make room for the new. Repetition, practice, course correction, and patience are required. We accept that it takes practice to play an instrument, surf, and learn computer skills. But we often think we should be able to change our ways of thinking and acting instantly.
No matter how long we’ve fallen into negative habits of thought, we can still change. But if we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten.
Practice a new habit for 30 days, and it becomes the new “automatic.” The energyinvested in developing a new pattern of behavior is more important than time invested. Personal interest and emotional investment help us re-wire memories, patterns, and neural pathways in our brains.
Breaking the change process down into steps can make it more manageable. For example, imagine that you’re seeing fear on your children’s faces when you yell around them, and now the oldest one has started yelling too. You want to stop scaring your children, and stop modeling that behavior for them. And you want to avoid the stress hormones and rising blood pressure too. The steps might be:
Step 1 Receiving new information: Yikes. I don’t want my kids to be afraid of me. And my oldest is just following my example. I better start controlling my tone of voice.
Step 2 Practicing the new behavior: As you become aware of your voice getting louder, you start to catch yourself, take a few breaths, and search for the right words to communicate your thoughts and feelings..
Step 3 Sitting with discomfort: Although it feels awkward, you know you want to speak softly and respectfully to your loved ones during times of conflict, and take the extra time and effort to think before speaking.
Step 4 Repetition: With practice you start to catch yourself early, and flip to the new response before going too far down the old road. You get used to expressing yourself calmly and better at expressing your feelings and needs using your words.
Step 5 Forming a new habit: Over time, speaking calmly and respectfully feels natural and normal to you, even when you’re feeling negative emotions.
1. What are some of your “good” habits?
2. What are some of your “bad” habits?
3. What is one habit you would like to change?
4. What is your biggest fear about making that change?
5. What are the costs to you (or your loved ones) for not making the change?
6. What would the payoffs be for you (or your loved ones) if you made the change?
7. What steps would you need to take to make this change?
8. What obstacles might you encounter and how could you work around them?
You've got this. Make that change.
In Part 1 we focused on ways to dig out of a metaphorical hole. If you missed it, click here.
In Part 3 we'll explore raising our baseline of positivity, to feel "mo bettah" more of the time.