There are times when I am extremely thankful to all the work done by researchers on the topic of happiness and mental well-being. It seems that in recent years, one can find increasingly more information on these subjects. I have never been someone to just accept the things that happen to me. I was lucky, the Wall fell and I was able to travel to other countries. But many of my childhood friends stayed behind and never even explored the world that is now open to them. An accomplished goal is never a final destination for me but rather a motivation to set another goal. But when it comes to controlling my mind, I have often, and still miserably fail. I let it wander. And this wandering can sometimes cause quite some waves, often ending in complete frustration and unhappiness. As a teenager growing up it never occurred to me that this is something I can actually control. I always felt I was the victim of some unfortunate external complot directed only towards me. Sure, you hear encouragements such as “Stay calm, keep your head up, it will get better,” but I found these never really helpful. And then I started coming across the topic of controlling one’s thoughts in leadership books, usually mentioned as a strategy for leaders trying to build a positive work environment. And for some reason, at work I am more successful than at home with this concept. I am comfortable that I contribute to the happiness of my employees by practicing a leadership style that is build on empathy, passion, communication and a positive attitude. In my personal life, however, events and situations vary much more than at work. Two days ago, Texas was hit by severe hail storms and several tornados. As I am standing in the shelter at work waiting out what is to come, I am thinking about my house and the possibility of it being gone. And I thought a lot about the reaction I would have if that was the case. Mostly, however, I feel there is not enough time to think about a possible reaction. Many events are sudden, but even more are slowly building up in our minds. It could be a slightly offensive email that we read first thing in the morning, followed by other small events that put us on the edge in the course of the day.
A few weeks ago I read an article in the Jan/Feb edition of the Harvard Business Review. It talks about how our bad mood can be attributed to our minds wandering. We are great at controlling what we will do with our physical selves, but often forget about the mind. We should focus our thoughts. Coincidentally, I am reading a book on coaching that takes a similar approach and states that we have the tendency to exaggerate both the good and the bad things in our lives. And to top it all off, I received a speeding ticket the other day and as I go through the online defensive driving course, again, I am being reminded to be aware of my state of mind as it interferes with our judgment or reasoning abilities on the road. I discovered that the power to control my mind will make me a better person because it affects all aspects of my life. But how hard is that? Very. But it can be done.
So, here are a few tools I have compiled for myself on my quest to make sure my mind does not wander off in directions where I can’t reach it anymore:
- There are really bad events that occur in some peoples’ lives and that warrant very emotional reactions. For the rest and the majority I always ask myself “Is this worth dying over?” Meaning – is this really so bad to justify a bunch of fuss? The answer is usually no.
- I try to recall similar situations that have happened to me in the past. In almost all cases, I was a happier and wiser self after these. Thus, I try to envision a positive outcome. Sayings like “there is always something positive in every negative situation” are not far off. The trick is to imagine that positive something while you’re in the midst of a crisis. It can be tough.
- I keep a list of things I have accomplished in my mind. When people say “Wow, you came to the US all by yourself and started a life here?” I don’t think that it is such a big deal, but maybe it is. But when I am thrown off course and lost without direction, these things come back to me and help me to stick it out.
- I will call a friend. Usually it helps me organize my thoughts better when I can talk through them. I am action-oriented. When I can finish the call with a couple of steps to take then I feel much better. This will prevent me from just reacting and prepare me to react. For example, for a tough conversation at work, I may write down a few notes to help me organize my thoughts.
- I divert. As a manager I cannot afford to display my negative emotions. So I discovered that, by making an effort to be friendly with others and even complimenting their work, I completely distract from myself and begin to realize that it’s not all about me and that other things matter just as well.
- I look at my dog or a picture of her and say to myself “learn from this wonderful creature.” She is happy no matter which stands in stark contrast to my exaggerated complications. It makes me realize how insignificant some of them are.
- And lastly, I try to avoid the spiral of negativity. Here is a good one: “My life is nothing compared to others. I should be already in a higher position, making more money, having a greater impact. I am useless.” Don’t dwell, is all I can say. I love this phrase. Don’t dwell on the negative, the sad, the lesser, the frustrating. Focus on the positive. Every day. I put a reminder on my phone that pops up at 8pm every night: Write down one of today’s many successes. Then I review them once in a while and for me, there is nothing more satisfying than a sense of accomplishment.
Still, controlling one’s mind is hard work. Its so easy to slip. Just seeing someone in better shape and in nicer clothes can be the onset for a really depressing evening. Don’t get distracted, I tell myself. Cottrell calls it focus inside your boat in order to control what you can. As for the rest, smile and move on.