Happiness can feel like elusive term when we’re in the midst of depression and other mental health roadblocks. Even the smallest joys can seem forever out of reach. To compensate, we may find ourselves seeking out imaginary milestones, goals we believe will have the power to change our state of being, instead of searching within for our emotional needs.
We’re left with obscure markers for contentment that dissolve if we actually clear them:
If I could just…
- …lose those 10 pounds…
- …get that promotion…
- …get a better handle on the kids…
- …win that person’s affections…
- …see justice served…
- …get a break…
…then, maybe then, I’ll finally be happy.
We may spend so much time seeking out excuses for our current misery that we fail to see what’s right in front of us: A difference in angle will alter any perception, and even small shifts can change just about any view. The way we look at our situations makes all the difference in how we perceive every aspect of our lives.
How is it that one person, nearly penniless and with limited resources, can be joyful and ready to take on each day, when another person, who’s only known privilege, can be perpetually miserable? One lives in gratitude, while the other lives in entitlement. Life will always get in the way of our happiness if we let it—especially if we’re constantly taking inventory of everything we want that we don’t have.
This is not to say we’re each totally responsible for our individual misery, nor that a difference in attitude will miraculously change a person’s life. Another perspective can, however, offer enough of a shift in view to open the doors to meaningful changes.
Make three lists:
- Everything bothering you that’s beyond of your power to change
- Everything you want that’s just beyond your reach
- Everything you have to be grateful for
List #1 might feel like it includes priorities, but if you cannot personally change something, it’s time to work on letting it go. This step can often be the hardest, especially for those of us who want to micro-manage every detail of our lives well out into the periphery.
We have more pressing issues to address, however, and we only have so many resources to spend on it all. Any worry or thought we put into this list is wasted energy. Time to let go.
List #2 is your goals. All of these items are achievable, even if it might take some work to get to them. Actions to realize our goals may include taking a chance on a new job, trying a side gig and taking online or night college courses.
We may need to ask ourselves how badly we really want them—because they will likely require at least a little effort on our part, and effort takes energy and motivation. Getting the ball rolling isn’t easy, especially when depression and/or anxiety have sapped us dry; remind yourself that inertia will eventually take over and help you along.
List #3 is the most important because it drives how we view everything else. Taking the time to acknowledge what we have, as opposed to focusing what we don’t, can help us appreciate the little moments that define our lives. It’s easy to take for granted all the positive we have to feel grateful for when we’re constantly redirecting our minds to all the negative.
All that negativity, as counter-productive as it may be, can become the go-to simply because it’s comfortable. It’s the least work, even if it’s infinitely more torment in the long run. Flipping the narrative and turning our gratitude lists into that go-to can paint color into an otherwise gray world.
And remember, there’s a difference between gratitude and complacency. We can be grateful for every little blessing, down to the food on our plates, while also striving for something better. The focus simply remains on what we have right now (and what we’re willing to do to achieve what’s just beyond our reach) rather than everything we don’t (and probably will never) have.
Like all positive, healthy habits, living in gratitude takes practice. Begin by starting each day going over that third list; work toward including items from your goals list sometime during the day, but only after your gratitude list has begun to click. Leave the list of items beyond your control in a drawer. When the mind tries to go there, redirect it to one of the other two lists.
Remember what’s important. You have limited resources, so spend your energy wisely. Every day is an investment; you can spend it worrying into the ether, or you can take every bit of extra you have and turn it into something meaningful and productive. The moment you realize you have a choice between the two is when the real magic begins.