We’ve all heard about having the right metaphorical tools in our metaphorical toolboxes to help us handle any situation. We try to raise our kids with confidence tactics, coping skills and time management expertise so that when they enter the real world they will be able to handle whatever life throws at them.
But how often do we think about a toolbox for happiness? What are some things that we can curate and draw upon when we’re faced with a situation that is bringing us the opposite of joy? How can we consciously combat things like sadness, frustration, anger, resentment, and annoyance, to help keep us on the track to choosing happiness in those difficult times?
Well, after much experience, I have developed a toolbox of my own that I recently had to open up when I was dealing with a less-than-ideal situation from which I was physically unable to remove myself. Some of these may sound silly to you, but I will share them anyway, in the hopes that they might help someone else define and gather the set of tools that works best for them.
Music. I have a list of “Happy Songs” that I consciously listen to that helps me to get myself out of a funk. I also have songs that bring me back to reality, I have songs that take me back to a hopeful and exciting time in my life, and I have songs that, without fail, make me feel powerful and strong and optimistic. I don’t play those last ones very often because I don’t want them to lose their effectiveness from overuse, but I definitely pull them out when it’s absolutely necessary. Music, for me, always works, because I’m so viscerally tied to certain songs and because music has been such an important part of my life overall. But even if you’re not a musician, music can have a magical effect on your psyche and your mood so I would recommend creating a few specific playlists for when you need them, and making sure to add to them as new music is released into the world. You never know what is going to affect you and in what way so keep those ears open and keep the music flowing as you’re choosing healthy and happy thoughts and actions in your life.
Smiling. I have talked about this before. When you’re in a tough spot, forcing yourself to smile, and even laugh if you’re able to, tricks your brain into thinking you’re happy, and once your brain starts releasing those happy chemicals, the sad/bad ones dissipate and before you know it, you’re in a much better place mentally than you were before. I know it may sound strange, but I just did this last week and even I was amazed at how wonderfully it worked. It turned my entire angry/irritated/familiar feelings of exasperation with a certain group of people around, and even though the extremely unpleasant behavior did not stop, I found myself not getting bothered by it. Let’s hear it for self-created and sustaining endorphins!
Ribbons in my hair. I know this might sound ridiculous, but I simply cannot be upset or negative or sullen or cross when I have bright ribbons in my hair. I will often tie on ribbons when we’re cheering for our team in the Super Bowl or while watching the Olympics and this simple little act always brightens my spirits and gives me a little lift in my day. I have been known to put colorful ribbons in my hair even when there’s not a big sports event going on, but just when I’m doing the humdrum things like folding laundry or going grocery shopping, because it’s a tool that I have that I know works, even when it’s gray and rainy outside or I just heard something particularly bad on the news. It’s a concrete and physical thing I can do when I want to keep my thoughts and energies focused on the positive. Similar to this theme, I also own a tiara that I have been known to wear around my house if I’m feeling particularly low or blue. It’s not just a little toy plastic one either, it’s a full-fledged, if-you-attached-a-veil-to-it-I’d-be-ready-for-a-walk-down-St.-Patrick’s-cathedral number. Have you heard the expression “Always walk around like you’re wearing an invisible crown?” Well mine’s not invisible, and sometimes it can make the difference between me wanting to get back into bed and pull the covers over my head or being able to face the day with joy and strength and the power of a true queen.
Games/Table Topics Questions/Coloring Books and Crayons/etc. I remember a time when I would never bring my kids to a restaurant or an airplane or another such place where sitting still for a long period of time was required without a bag filled with books and toys and activities to keep them occupied. Talk about having a necessary tool box! I have found that the same approach works with grown-ups, especially with people that you don’t know well or even whom you might not particularly like. I was recently in that very situation, and although I was absolutely dreading it, I came armed with fun discussion topics, a big bag filled with board games, and a book of interesting and unique “Mind Bender” questions. Sure enough, there were multiple times when all of us were required to be in the same room with nothing to do, and there was even a time when a group activity became unexpectedly postponed and we were all stuck for 2 hours in a rather confined space together. As you might imagine, patience began to run low and tempers began to run high. Luckily, I had tools in my tool box and I started bringing out the questions and the games and encouraged everyone to join in. Almost immediately frowns turned into smiles, irritations cooled off, and we found ourselves laughing and acting out silly things and what started out as a difficult situation became a fun and engaging one instead. Sometimes all you need is a little forethought and preparation and those tools can make all the difference.
Consciously change your thoughts. I have quoted this many times before, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” It’s so true. This concept was brought fully to light for me when I had an interesting conversation with a former colleague. She was sharing with me about her childhood and being raised by an abusive father and how the horrors she suffered were still plaguing her even into her adult life. She had to learn how to cope with her past and not let it affect her present, and while that was an incredibly difficult thing to have to deal with, she had a tool in her tool box that helped her during the really tough times. ”I picture his funeral,” she said. “WHAT?!” I asked? I was flabbergasted at this, because it seemed to be such a morbid and kind of macabre place to bring one’s mind. She continued, “Yeah, I picture myself sitting there in the church, listening to people go on and on about what a great man he was, while I’m laughing to myself because I know the truth about what he was like in the privacy of his own home. I also plan what I’m wearing - sometimes it’s a dress, sometimes it’s pants, sometimes I wear a hat, sometimes I don’t…” and as she kept talking I realized that this was actually a very healthy way for her to deal with her seemingly never-ending, potentially life-destructing demons. While what she was doing could seem a bit grotesque and odd, it wasn’t hurting anyone, and in fact, it was actually making her feel better. I realized that if these thoughts helped her to get through her day and helped her to regain power over her own life and her own thoughts, then who is anyone to say that she shouldn’t do it? She made the choice to change her thoughts and in doing so, she changed her world from a dark, helpless, despondent one, to one of disengagement, inner strength, and freedom.
So those are just a few ideas for your own happiness tool box. Everything in life is better when we are as prepared as we can be, and for those unexpected twists and turns that could easily take us off of our choosing happiness path, we have to have the tools we need to keep us healthily on track. And whatever works for you is what works for you, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it. A plumber can’t do his or her job without the right wrenches and pipe snakes, a carpenter can’t do his or her job without the right hammers and saws, a doctor can’t do his or her job without the right stethoscope, medicines, etc., and we can’t do our jobs of living the best and happiest lives we possibly can without the right tools either. Figure out what they are, pack your tool box full, and you’ll be ready to handle any situation that isn’t inherently happy for yourself.
Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times. – Aeschylus
Sharpen those happiness tools, and use them! Make the choice!