I wrapped up my Saturday with a smile, looking forward to the day ahead. Sunday was all planned out: tennis in the morning, then a hike in the woods with the dog. Later, a festive, poolside lunch with friends. I drifted off to sleep with visions of peach pie and laughter, kids splashing in the pool and puppies playing on the lawn.
I woke up to the steady patter of rain against the roof and a stream of texts about rescheduling plans, instead.
Within a minute, my disappointment faded to acceptance, then morphed into appreciation and even a sense of possibility. A slight smile spread across my face, warmth and contentment crept through my body.
Suddenly there was nowhere I needed to go. I burrowed into the pillows, relishing the delicious comfort that only seems to exist in a bed it is time to get up and out of. I even shot my husband a playful text, complete with heart-winking emoji. Nice morning to stay in bed. Care to bring me a cup of coffee?
A few years ago, this might have gone very differently. The frustration more likely to have lingered, the entire day a washout, my emotional reaction as dismal as the weather outside. That was before I discovered the simple power of acceptance, and the infinite value of a positive outlook.
Most of us think it is our circumstances in life that dictate our moods and overall feelings. We look to externalities—material wealth, relationship status, appearance, health, career—as a means to happiness. To the extent we aren’t satisfied, we assume there is something “out there” that needs to change. Some of us fall into despair, lamenting our misfortune but resigned to it. Others get busy with plans and strategies, determined to get more of one thing or less of another.
Either way, we tend to overlook the importance of mindset.
In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Sonja Lyubomirsky, takes a scientific approach to happiness. She explains that our happiness levels depend 50% on our genetics, only 10% on our personal circumstances and a significant 40% on our intentional daily activities—those thoughts, behaviors and activities which we choose with our own volition. Circumstances, in other words, are neutral. It is our judgment that renders them good or bad.
As William Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Or, as the late great Michael Fagin used to say, “Everything in life is perspective.”
I say there is nothing like a rainy day to illustrate the point:
Fact: It is raining.
Thought: This blows. I had a fantastic day planned, and now it is ruined. I have the worst luck.
Result: I am angry/frustrated/disappointed/sad or just generally negative. I will be sullen and self-pitying, likely to have an awful day, and possibly drag a lot of others down with me.
Now the alternative:
Fact: It is raining.
Thought: This isn’t what I had planned, but the flowers need the water and I could use a day inside to tackle a few projects and get a jumpstart on the week ahead.
Result: Acceptance. An unburdened sense that we can’t control the weather—or much of anything—but we can choose how we respond. I will likely experience lightness of being, and take productive action.
Our lives are undoubtedly rife with challenges, and few of them feel as manageable as a rainy day. Learning to accept reality and maintain a positive perspective isn’t about overlooking the negative or being pollyanna. It is a coping strategy, one that allows us to experience setbacks without falling into despair. It is a volitional act, requiring us to go beneath our knee-jerk reactions to a place of deeper understanding and more productive solutions. It is nimble and flexible, allowing us to feel our pain without breaking, to acknowledge difficulty—seeking whatever support or comfort we may need—but to focus on the pluses as well.
Accepting the things we cannot change helps free up the energy required to work toward the life we truly want.
Perhaps this rings hollow or feels too simplistic? Perhaps your mind is racing with all the unfairness in the world—the poverty and sickness and cruelty—and you want to insist that circumstances are not neutral at all, but are inherently good or bad, right or wrong, happy or sad?
I used to feel the same way.
When my parents divorced, when my father died during my Freshman year in college, when my mother died of cancer only nine years later, these circumstances felt far more tragic than neutral. I was devastated, broken and bitter, furious at the world and anyone who dared suggest ”everything happens for a reason.” By all appearances I was sturdy and functional, carrying on with my law practice, getting married, becoming a mom. All the while, I felt cheated, shaky and diminished—a table stripped of a leg—likely to teeter or crash if burdened by just one more thing.
This went on for years.
With time, I came to accept the various losses of my life as part of a larger story. I reframed the narrative, choosing to focus on all my good fortune rather than dwelling on all the pain. It was not easy. It was, however, the only forward moving choice I had.
I could not change the past, and no amount of bitterness was going to bring my parents back. I continued to miss and mourn them. I still do and always will. But I wasn’t going to allow my earlier losses to cloud the rest of my days, or to limit my experience of the rest of my life. If I did, that would be me choosing to darken my own life, to squander my own opportunities. That would be me choosing a more sorrowful path.
I chose positivity, instead.
In the years since, I have learned the science behind that instinctive choice. Neuroplasticity, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the power of practicing gratitude are all backed by research. Focusing on the positive helps us feel stronger and more capable, more relaxed and at ease, more able to rise to any challenge.
Seeing our days—and our lives—as a matter of choice is empowering. Far more so than constantly feeling like a victim of circumstance. The implications can be vast, improving everything from our health to our relationships to our professional achievements.
If there is one thing we have all learned this year, it is that life is unpredictable and largely beyond our control. It will shock and disappoint us, and never fail to challenge. Circumstances like the weather, illness or the irresponsible behavior of others will upend our plans and even wreak widespread havoc.
We would all choose to avoid unpleasant and painful situations. The question is, what do we do when we don’t have that choice? How do we respond when things don’t go our way?
Whether it’s rescheduling Sunday plans or recovering from a shattering loss, whether it’s overcoming a personal setback or protesting societal injustice, inspired action first requires acceptance. Acceptance is not approval or complacency. It is more like a crystal-clear vantage point from which to forge ahead. It allows us to get out of our own way, to rise above those heavy, murky sensations and channel our negative feelings in a more positive and active direction.
It is the stuff true happiness is made of.