It is easy to feel powerless against the recession. Headlines are rife with doom, and we have control of almost none of it: unemployment, the housing market and the national debt. In this constant stream of negativity, it is easy to focus on what we do not have control of and forget about what we do have control over.
How can one person feel worried sick while the next person is not? Why is one person depressed about the layoff while the next person is actually happy about it? The answer lies not in the circumstances but how we handle it.
I, myself, have been laid off during this recession, and I have struggled with depression and pessimism for most of my life (see “My Story: From Suicidal to The Happy Therapist“). Therefore I can deeply empathize with clients and students who tell me their story, which is usually peppered with words like “stuck,” “trapped” and “can’t.”
It is important to acknowledge sadness, hopelessness and worry. These feelings are not merely uncomfortable emotions — they are guideposts to feeling better; a divining rod to their belief system. In the very first class of Happiness 101, I tell students not to slap a plastic smiley face over their pain but to feel it and learn from it.
Positive psychology teaches that each emotion is feedback to us about our underlying belief system. It is here that we find choice and empowerment. For instance, if a man feels shame because he was swept away by the latest wave of layoffs, he might have an underlying belief like “If I am not providing for my family, I am a failure.” You will notice this belief statement leaves little room for extenuating circumstances — for instance high unemployment rates.
We do not have control over the world or national economy, but we do have control over our own belief system. In this example if the man replaced his belief with “As long as I am doing my best, I am okay,” instead of feeling shame, he might not only feel hope but possibly pride because his focus is on his efforts and not the outcome.
Whether suffering job loss, death of a loved one or a personal failure, we can always choose how we weather the storm. In his famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
James Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sail.” You might imagine that one person who believes he is helpless against the storm of the recession would have a very different feeling than the person who believes, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (“Invictus,” William Ernest Henley)
After people have told their story and properly honored their feelings, they might be open to discussion about what they do have control over, rather than lamenting about what they do not. In the above example, this hard-working American had no control over being laid off. He can continue to apply for jobs but have no control over call-backs. He can do well in the interview but still not get the job.
Research has proven (Dan Gilbert, “Stumbling on Happiness”) that when people feel that they have no control, depression often follows. This is why it is important (at the appropriate time) to turn discussion toward what one does have control over.
In session, I challenge phrases like “I’m in a rock and a hard place,” “there’s nothing I can do” and “I am trapped.” Invariably I find that there are many choices — all at varying degrees of attractiveness.
For instance, the unemployed man might believe that his only option is to just keep applying for (local) jobs and pray that something comes through. When brainstorming, he might find several other options including: filing for bankruptcy, taking a job out of state, renting out the basement, filing for unemployment, asking for loans from friends, moving in with mom and dad and/or starting his own business. This man might find all of these options to be unsavory, but I have found that depression immediately begins to loosen its grip when we explore what is possible rather than lament over the lie that “there is no hope.”
We may not have control over the economy, but we do have control over our pessimism. If you believe that you are born pessimistic, I would like to point out that this too is a belief. Ironically if you believe yourself to be a born pessimist, you will behave accordingly, making no effort to change. Pessimism can not only poison one’s attitude toward braving the economic storm but it can adversely affect decisions that might have helped to pull you out of it.
For instance, if one says, “What’s the point in applying for the job? I’m not going to get it anyway” and he does not apply for the job, then his prediction comes true. Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you can’t, you’re right.” Hope is always a choice.
I have documented the progress of dozens of students and found that those who make the greatest progress are those who turn from hopeless to hopeful during the eight-week course. You can test your own level of optimism at www.authentichappiness.com and start improving your outlook by taking your cues from the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, in his book, “Learned Optimism.”
Cultivating optimism is just one of 12 scientifically proven happiness activites suggested by Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book, “The How of Happiness.” Others include:
- Expressing gratitude
- Practicing acts of kindness
- Nurturing relationships
- Savoring life’s joys
- Practicing religion or spirituality
Focusing on these activities (which you do have control over) will help you to feel empowered. Focusing on what you do not have control over will likely lead you to feel helpless and disempowered. There is much in this world over which we have no control — including the recession — but we always have control over our own positive attitude. The Nazis could not take it from Viktor Frankl. The recession can not take it from you. You always have a choice.
Frank Clayton, LPC