When I was a college instructor and advisor at Fort Valley State University, I used to worry about a few students because they looked so unhappy and dwelled on their perceived defects (“I’m too fat,” “I’m too shy”), on unfair things happening to them (“Professor X doesn’t like me,” “My classes require too many papers”) or on both.
It came to me at one point that most of these unhappy students differed from others who seemed happier in that the deeply unhappy students were constantly thinking about themselves. Once I’d had this epiphany, I tried to encourage them to get involved in groups and projects. I can only hope that my advice helped some, at least.
Once these women and men get out of college, some of them mature and find fulfillment in their work, and others continue the self-fulfilling prophecy of being unhappy with their existence and dwelling on that. We have technology today that connects people, but online match-making efforts, social media, and especially online games sometimes lead to greater isolation.
I was talking with a friend recently about the subject of managing our own thoughts. At the time, she had every reason to be unhappy due to more than one recent death in her family. What she told me offers another solution for people who are caught in a vicious circle of negative thinking—about themselves, about their lives, about society, or about our country.
My friend was listening to the audio of Pema Chödrön’s “Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality.” (Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun and teaches meditation. I have not tried meditation, but my principled, conservative father recommended it to me a few years before he died, so I’ve felt for a long time that maybe I should.)
The truth my friend learned from this teacher, which she shared with me, is that it is natural and healthy to feel—anything: disgust, sadness, self-doubt. You might think, “I feel alone,” “I don’t know what I should do with my time—or my life” or “I am afraid of what will happen or of what someone will do.” Where we go wrong is in repeating these thoughts to ourselves night and day after the authentic impulse or feeling has passed. In so doing, we are making ourselves unhappy. Chödrön says to tell yourself, "Stay," instead of continuing with the bad thoughts.
We could be spending this time and mental energy building something big or small for ourselves or someone else, getting exercise to make our bodies and minds feel better, reading a book we’ve wanted to read, or just going out to a store and buying something useful. (I confess this last one is one of my favorites.)
Dwelling on what’s sad or what you think is wrong with you is a poor use of your life, and it creates a distance between yourself and others.
In business and education, we are told to call our problems “challenges” and to look for solutions. On the personal level, this actually may be something we can do!
Observations on the subjects of friends, family, country, cultures and nature.