How to be happy when your life doesn’t turn out as planned . . . psychologist Dr Melanie Woodfield offers some tricks of her trade.
So life throws you four boys when you’ve longed for a girl. Or a surprise third baby. Or twins. That wasn’t part of the plan. Circumstances that are one person’s dream, can be another’s nightmare. How can we make the best of these unexpected circumstances? Or, how can we stop wishing for what we don’t have — that “grass is greener syndrome” that can seriously steal our joy? Contentment is what we’re after, but it’s as elusive as a full night’s sleep.
Contentment. What is it, exactly? Not sure about you, but I tend to associate contentment with a lazy stretch and a drawn-out “ahhhhhh…”. It brings to mind words such as satisfaction, fulfilment, joy… Like many emotions, contentment is sometimes tricky to define. Unscientifically, it’s a feeling that is fleeting but powerful. It hits us and we think, “All is good with the world.”
I felt it recently when paddling in the shallows of a deserted West Coast beach near Auckland with my family. It hit me like a wave (pardon the pun) of: “This is good. I’m content.”
But how do you find contentment? Surely there’s more to it than standing in front of the mirror chanting “I am happy with my life.” That might work for some but if you feel slightly silly chanting, here are some other suggestions.
Most of us had a vision of what life would be like. Yet, for many of us, life didn’t turn out quite how we’d planned. It can be a real challenge to live a meaningful life when things aren’t perfect or how you imagined they would be. It might mean accepting that you’ll never have biological children, or that one is your limit or that pink is just not your colour. Obviously, acceptance is only difficult when you’re accepting the unacceptable. It’s easy to accept and be content with one child if that’s your heart’s desire. But what if you wanted more?
Essentially, acceptance involves embracing a difficult thought or feeling, without pushing it away or beating yourself up about it. It’s being willing to experience a situation as it actually is, rather than how you want it to be.
So what do we need to do, practically, to foster acceptance? Professor Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) has a great technique called Radical Acceptance. First step, Marsha says, is to notice that you’re not accepting. Your clues might be that you’re feeling angry, bitter, resentful or falling into the “why me?” sea.
Next, “turn your mind” to the actual situation you’re in, rather than what situation you think you should be in. Each time your mind wanders to what it could be, or what might have been, consciously choose to turn it back to this situation. Marsha says that the third step is to do it again. And again. You may need to turn your mind several times in a short space of time.
The key is not to judge your thoughts and desires, or feel bad about them. Don’t fight with them or push them away. Just consciously choose to turn your mind to the situation you’re in. The present moment. You’ll find that this a theme running through the tips in this article: being fully present in the moment and accepting it for what it is. Mindfulness is the epitome of this.
Mindfulness versus mindlessness
I recall many a moment of rocking a scrummy baby to sleep. I also recall very clearly being very focused on my to-do list, rather than said scrummy baby. This list usually involved things that seemed very important at the time, like yet another load of washing.
If I’d been more aware of strategies such as mindfulness at the time, I would’ve taken a very different approach. I would’ve concentrated on the moment. Not the past. Not the future. That moment. I would’ve noticed, in as much detail as possible, the sensations I was experiencing (sight, smell, taste, sound). If thoughts like “I should be doing…” popped into my head, I would’ve noticed them, without judging or feeling guilty, and just let them pass by, like leaves floating down a stream. After this, I suspect I would’ve been very content indeed. To be content, we need to cultivate this “in the moment” joy, and not get carried away by thoughts of the past or the future.
Children are excellent examples of how to practise mindfulness. Have you ever noticed a child’s fascination with a butterfly or a bee? His world slows and narrows to an intense focus on his current experience of watching the insect. He notices each flap of the wings, each movement. And he is content. Curiosity and interest are powerful mood states. They make us receptive and open to new experiences, including contentment.
Mind your busyness
Dr Susan Hayes, who is a psychologist and mum of young children, suggests that to foster contentment, we need to value serenity over busy-ness and success.
She cautions though, that this is not very fashionable or popular. Imagine if you were to shun the Gymbaroo, the baby yoga and the music lessons, explaining that you’re “content to be at home, with my delicious children”. You would likely get some flak. You’d probably feel guilty for not doing those activities, yet you may feel a sense of relief. I’m not suggesting this is a cure-all, but it could be just what the doctor ordered.
Broken record thoughts
Be wary of thoughts that suggest that arriving at a particular destination, or set of circumstances, will make you happy. Happiness researchers call this “destination thinking”. Have you ever noticed yourself thinking, “I’ll be happy when we have another child” or “my husband came home on time”?
These sorts of thoughts can be helpful — sometimes they help us to problem-solve. For example, noticing that hubby getting home late leads to your own feelings of sadness or being overwhelmed, and behaviour like snapping at the kids or pouring one too many wines, might lead you to asking hubby how his working hours could be tweaked.
But watch out for those thoughts that get stuck on replay in your mind. Those thoughts that don’t help you solve problems, they just repeat themselves and lead to feeling down in the dumps. Rumination is the fancy word for it. Various therapy approaches within psychology have started paying a lot of attention to rumination and what sense we make of it.
An approach that’s becoming really popular (for good reason) is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT theorises that we choose to buy into our thoughts in a process called cognitive fusion. We tend to believe that our thoughts are reality, that they’re desperately important, that they need to be followed, and that they’re frightening.
Imagine a thought like, “She’s so touchy-feely with her baby. I should be like that.”
Underlying this is likely to be the thought: “I’m a bad mother.” Imagine the effect this thought could have on how we act and feel! If we buy into the thought, over time it could lead us to a not-so-happy place. ACT theorists suggest that instead of buying into these thoughts, we distance ourselves. One way is to think of thoughts as merely sounds, words, stories or bits of language. They may be true, but they may not be true. Instead of running over things, we can ask ourselves a few questions:
The thought “I’m a bad mother” is likely to be seriously unhelpful. It’s also likely to be seriously old! What we need to do is get some distance from that thought. We need to remember that it’s just a phrase, which has no power or meaning and is probably not true. Try not to connect with the thought. Try adding, “I’m having the thought that…” beforehand. Somehow “I’m having the thought that I’m a bad mother” allows us to see it as just a thought.
The feeling of contentment is not some gold-plated utopia that we ought to aspire to. It’s not a euphoria that will magically come upon us one day. We spend our lives striving for that day when everything will fall into place and life will be, well, joyful. What we fail to realise is that life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans (thanks, John Lennon).
What would happen if we stopped striving, stopped reaching… just stopped. How would it be if we accepted the present moment for what it is, not what we think it should be? Lived in the moment, rather than five minutes (or five years) in the future? Or, dare I say it, in the past.
Believe it or not, it’s not realistic to expect to be contented all the time. Contentment is in the little things. Those moments where life just feels right. Paddling in the shallows with a laughing toddler. Sipping a hot latte on a freezing cold day. Hearing, “I love you, Mummy” for the first time. My challenge to you is to find your own contented moments and enjoy them.
Dr Melanie Woodfield is a clinical psychologist in Auckland and parent of two young children. She can usually be found consuming contentedly.
Dr Russ Harris, an Australian medical doctor-turned-therapist has written a great book called The Happiness Trap, which is based on ACT principles. His website has free resources related to the book: www.thehappinesstrap.com
Professor Barbara Friedrickson’s “Positivity” (2009) is a must read. Her website’s worth a visit too: www.positivityratio.com
Dr Martin Seligman’s website is an essential go-to for broader happiness information. It’s a big read, so grab a cuppa and settle in for a read www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu