“…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Hamlet was a dreary guy to be around.  He had it all:  he was the Prince of Denmark, which means he had money and power.  His life was full of potential.  Plus, he had the love of the beautiful Ophelia.  Anyone else in his position might have been very grateful to be so fortuitously placed in life.  But not Hamlet.  Hamlet was chronically depressed and whined and moaned about everything.   From the outside looking in, Hamlet’s life seemed pretty cushy; but from his point of view, Denmark was a prison, and “a goodly one,” at that.  Like I said, Hamlet was a real drag.  Do you know people like that? Just being around them can suck the life out of you; a few minutes in their presence and any good feelings you had begin to grow mold and rot.

When your brain is stuck in a negative groove like Hamlet’s was, it’s really hard to see things in your life to feel grateful about.  Once you’ve let yourself get to a dark place inside your head, your thinking goes on autopilot, and one negative thought breeds another even more negative thought.  Your mood spirals down into the dark pit of despair, pulled down by the stories you tell yourself in your head.  The more negative thoughts you entertain, the more momentum your negative thinking gains, and it becomes harder and harder to jump back out of that groove.  Eventually,  even suicide looks like a pretty sweet option, which is why Ophelia ended up throwing herself in the river.

Learning to keep an attitude of gratitude requires that we be vigilant about policing our thoughts.  When we find ourselves miserable, upset, depressed, angry, or hurt, it’s almost always because we’ve told ourselves a story about the situation that justifies those emotions.  Here’s an example:  You’re supposed to meet your partner for dinner, but they don’t show up.  If you’re a person prone to be angry, you’ll make up lots of reasons in your head for why he’s late, all of which make you angry.  “He’s not here because he’s cheating on me.”  If you’re a person prone to worry, you’ll make up reasons that cause you to be worried:  “He’s not here because he was in an accident.”  See how it works?  We decide how we want to feel, and tell ourselves a story that will get us there.  We all do it.  The question is, how do you really want to feel?

The key to feeling grateful and happy about your life is to catch yourself whenever a negative emotion begins to take hold of you.  Pay attention to the story you are telling yourself in that moment.  I guarantee that if you’re honest with yourself you’ll notice that you were telling yourself a negative story, which is why you got upset.  Change your story.  Look for the positive aspect of the situation.  Tell yourself a better story about whatever it is that has you upset, and your feelings about it will change almost instantly.

Someone once told me, “You can only think one thought at a time, and YOU get to choose what that thought is.”  At the time I was guilty of some chronically negative thinking, and I think that person was sick of hearing me complain all the time.  Someone else has said, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  Bad things will happen, because life, as the Buddhists say, is sorrow.  How we react to those inevitable bad things is entirely within our control.  We can think happy, grateful thoughts, or we can think angry, hurt, worried thoughts.  The choice is ours alone.

As my friend Steve likes to say, “Point of view is everything.”  Don’t believe everything you think.  If you find yourself getting caught up in a negative emotion, take a step back and look for the faulty thinking that is generating that emotion.  Then change your story.  Make it your practice to look for the positive aspects of your life situation, and stay focused on what’s good and right in your life.  We are each responsible for our own attitude towards life.  Make yours a grateful one!

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