by Sarah Chana Radcliffe
We're supposed to be happy, to enjoy all that God has given us. Yet why should we need to be urged to be happy? Does the tiny toddler who giggles with mirth throughout his day need to be told to be happy? No! He knows all about it. He immerses himself in his present activities, doesn't bother about future worries and doesn't brood over past disappointments. He knows how to have fun. But what about the rest of us? At what point did we forget the toddler's simple recipe for happiness? When did we allow ourselves to be consumed with worries, stress, anger, resentment and the host of other negative emotions that dampen our enjoyment of life?
For most, this turning point comes long before adulthood. Even small children lose their ability to be continuously joyous. In fact, youngsters have almost as many problems as adults do, and sometimes even more! Is it these problems, then, that rob us of happiness? If we had no problems, would we be happy?
Suppose a person wakes up to find himself in a beautiful palace. Everything he could possibly want is there. Servants bustle in and out to fulfill his every wish. Moreover, he has a perfect spouse and perfect children, lots of loving relatives and companions, and every advantage that life can offer.
Could we assume that this person would be happy? After all, nothing would be interfering with his ability to enjoy life. He would have no problems; on the contrary, all his advantages would seem to set the stage for true pleasure and satisfaction.
Yet the reality is that a person could be unhappy even if he found himself in such a blissful situation. Perhaps this person would get bored with having all of his needs so easily met. Perhaps he would feel that his life was empty and without purpose, since he had no challenges to overcome or tasks set before him. Perhaps he would experience a lack of excitement or focus.
Indeed, it's a well-known phenomenon that once people accomplish their various life goals, they can be beset by depression. The attainment of the goal creates a vacuum, a lack of direction and purpose. Challenges and problems actually shape our lives and give them meaning. Therefore, a problem-free life would be a problem in itself!
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Call to Action
It is important to recognize that problems are a call to action -- and thus, to life itself. They demand one's attention. Good things, things to be happy about, bring pleasure but don't necessarily demand a response. For example, if a woman needs to repair a hole in a garment, then she will think about this problem, making resolutions regarding it and maybe taking steps to solve it.
Her time and life become temporarily organized by her problem. On the other hand, if her garment is fine as it is, she probably won't think about it at all. She will certainly not have to do anything about it, since no action is called for. Similarly, if a parent has to deal with his child's poor school progress, then he will think about that difficulty and probably do something about it. If he's happy about the child's progress, then he will invest little thought in it and less action.
Even minor problems -- such as a dirty floor -- propel us to action: the floor must be washed. And major challenges, such as marital discord, financial disasters, serious illness and death, changes in one's life situation and so on, require long-term action. Thus, if people didn't have problems, they could just sit and do nothing with their time. Problems force a person into living -- money needs to be earned, clothes need to be purchased, a child's finger needs to be bandaged, a relationship needs improvement, time needs to be filled, meals need to be prepared, a personal or communal need presents itself -- these are all difficulties, which require attention.
The "bother" of the problem is the aspect of it which forces us to dwell on the challenge, to think about it and eventually to take action. Unfortunately, it is that same "bother" which can cause the negative emotional responses of annoyance, tension, disequilibrium or unhappiness in any other form. It is precisely the discomfort of those negative emotions that motivates us to solve our problems -- we want that pain to go away.
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Set aside time for problem-solving. Don't allow yourself to work overtime on problem-solving, because excessive rumination is counterproductive and exhausting. Keep your mind fresh and clear for thinking by limiting your thinking periods to short, scheduled slots of time. Think for awhile; play, work, learn and love the rest of the time. Trying to think while playing, working, learning and loving doesn't succeed, and it robs you of satisfaction and refreshment from these other activities.
When you have a problem, remember that the rest of life continues. Don't put your life on hold while you think about your problem all day. Rather, schedule problem-solving time into your day, and keep yourself free to live life fully the rest of the day. You will find that even fifteen minutes of scheduled thinking time is more productive than hours and hours of thinking-while-doing time.
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In addition to positive thoughts which can be generated on one's own, it is good to have a repertoire of "positive tapes" which can be "played" at various times. Positive tapes are mental messages which are inspiring, strengthening, empowering, encouraging, optimistic or positive in some other significant way. They operate like batteries which recharge a person, elevating her and enabling her to carry on in her task. A person who has a rich supply of positive tapes actually has an enormously valuable resource for coping with and doing well with all of life's enterprises.
Fortunately, positive tapes can be "acquired" at any point in life. Parents can create them as "gifts" for their children by saying them repeatedly throughout the childrearing years. Adults can "buy" them for themselves by learning some and silently repeating them over and over, in the same way that any new positive thought pattern is produced.
Once you have chosen some positive tapes, they can be used in various ways. For example, they can be used at moments of crisis, to provide the support needed to carry on effectively. Or, they can be used as companions throughout each day, helping to provide direction and power to every waking moment.
An image is used of an elephant walking down the street, his trunk reaching out and touching everything within its reach. When the elephant's master gives him a stick to hold in his trunk, the elephant is no longer distracted, but now marches proudly along, his trunk held high and steady before him; he has the stick to hold himself firm. Similarly, a person's mind wanders about here and there, reaching out for negative and disturbing thoughts in order to stimulate itself. However, given a "stick" -- a positive word or phrase -- with which to hold the mind steady, the person walks straight ahead, with calm direction and purpose.
Used in this way, positive tapes can be recited to oneself during any mentally free moment, such as times spent waiting for buses and elevators, doing dishes and laundry, cooking and vacuuming, sitting on the train, standing in lines, walking down the street, watching the children in the park and so on. A positive tape thus replaces anxiety-provoking, negative or other wasted or destructive thoughts with uplifting, calming and empowering ones.
Positive tapes can be one-word reminders or sentence-long thoughts. They should be repeated over and over, quickly or slowly, loudly or softly, however the mood strikes you.
Reprinted with permission from InnerNet Magazine