For spring break, we went to the new aquatic center. It’s huge. It’s fancy. It’s mind-blowingly fun. If you can get in. Apparently we weren’t the only family to plan an afternoon of swimming and splashing. By the time we got there, fifteen minutes before open swim, the line was out the door.
The line crept forward until eventually they told us the pool was full. We had three options.
1. Wait for the next open swim session in two and a half hours.
2. Go home.
3. Cry so much.
I polled the kids. The two oldest, with faces of rage and betrayal, agreed that we should head home. But then Wanda crumpled into a four-year-old supernova and everybody caved. We waited for two and a half hours outside in the shivery cold, our toes going numb in their swim sandals. When we finally got into the pool, it was chaos, body to body, kids and confused parents stumbling all over each other.
Laylee and Magoo ran off and I followed Wanda through the kiddy area as she tried to shake me like an adorable flailing James Bond evading an enemy spy. Kids aimed water toys at my head. The water was too shallow for me to ever get warm.
“This is my nightmare,” my teeth chattered. I looked at the clock and started counting down the minutes until I could reasonably force the kids to leave. Drops of Awesome for being a martyr and bringing the kids here, I thought, But that’s the only thing awesome about today. Essentially, I decided to have a horrible time.
When this occurred to me, I asked myself the questions, Why do you want to have a miserable time? What’s the payoff? Are you already constructing a horror story with which to regale your husband and friends? Why are you focusing on only the negative here?
So I flipped it. Instead of seeing the press of humanity as overwhelming, I looked at individual faces that held expressions of delight and I enjoyed their happiness. Instead of thinking about how cold I was, I found a jet where warm water was pumped into the pool and counted my lucky stars I wasn’t still waiting outside. I reminded myself how awesome it was that Laylee and Magoo were old enough to swim independently. And most of all, I decided to watch Wanda’s joy with rapture, rather than with annoyance about her great speed. She was going as fast as she was thrilled.
That’s how long I had to work hard to focus on the positive before I began to feel happy. Three minutes of work to turn a nightmare into a great memory. And I saw parents who stayed in nightmare mode. There were plenty of them, haggard looks on their faces, having a marvelously miserable experience. Wow, was I glad I had changed my lens!
I’ve been reading a lot about positive psychology lately. Shawn Achor and Martin Seligmen have done a ton of research on this and I’ve been listening to the fabulous Dr. Paul Jenkins as well. What these and other happiness experts have in common is a scientifically proven theory that the world is what we believe it to be. Our attitudes, feelings, and focus shape our reality, not the other way around.
Laylee is about to start middle school and I’ve been terrified about this for years. I hated Junior High. I’ve heard a bucket load of negative things about our specific middle school and I cannot count the number of people who, upon hearing she’s going there next year, have either said, “Middle school was the worst three years of my life,” or the ever-so-helpful, “Ooooo. Are you scared!?”
Guess what?! If you tell her it will be the worst three years of her life over and over again, she will believe it and it will turn out to be the worst three years of her life. Guess what else?! Asking her if she’s scared tells her she should be scared because it is scary. And you know what? I’ve gotten to a place where I’m happy about middle school.
How can I be happy about middle school?
There are a lot of reasons I’ve come up with and I’ve gotten to the point where I believe them and where they are my focus. It’s a new adventure. She needs to figure out who she is in a wider world. She will have so many opportunities for personal growth and learning. The school is fairly small and we know many of the kids and parents. The teachers seem dedicated and the principal is interested in improving the school. Laylee is ready.
Just as you can take something that might seem negative on the surface and turn it to a positive by finding something to be happy about and focusing on that, you can turn any great situation into a disaster double quick by asking the opposite question, “How can I feel awful about this?”
You might laugh, but how many times have you finally gotten the thing you really wanted, only to instantly see all the reasons why it wasn’t so great after all? It’s easy to get excited about a vacation but end up focusing on the stress of packing, the inclement weather, the bad-tasting food. How about when you’ve spent years praying for a better job? Then the moment you get one, all you can think about is the added stress and pressure, the insecurity, and the possibility of failure.
Stop. Remember what there is to be happy about. That’s my challenge for you this month. When you notice yourself feeling anxious or upset about something, think, How can I be happy about this? And mean it. Think about the answers. Focus on them. When a negative thought enters your head, say, “That’s not productive,” and imagine yourself plucking it out of your brain. Then go back to the happy. It works. I promise.
Look at things differently and they will become different because you will become different. Teach your brain to see and be happy.