Smile Like You Mean It

It’s easy to be miserable. That’s why many of us make it our default emotion. It’s the bad parts of the story we lead with and the part of the memory that sticks out in our minds the most.

Tales of fun activities in many of our lives always seem to have a pitfall attached. Sure, it was a great time when you got to the party, but maybe you had to wait in line for a while before getting in. Once you get in, maybe they didn’t have the food you wanted or the host didn’t spend the right amount of time with you. No matter how great the overall event was, it’s easier to remember the aspects that kept it from being all that it could be.

So you make that a big part of the stories you tell after the fact and, in turn, the dominant aspect of how you remember it. I would find myself doing the same thing.

How was that party the other night?

It was good. We had to wait in line for a long time before we got in. There was this guy on line talking really loud on his phone the whole time.

But it was good when you got in?

Yeah, but what sucked was that they ran out of those little shrimps I wanted.

But you had fun?

Yeah, it was OK. Oh, man, you should have heard him on his phone…

It was almost as if whomever I was telling had to try and convince me that I had a good time while I made it my mission to convince them otherwise. I guess I figured I would win something if it turned out that I didn’t have fun. I was the guy with a ham under my arm crying the blues because I had no bread.

Then, when someone gave me bread, I complained that it was the wrong kind and cried as I ate it.

cornI realized this reality a long time ago. My go-to answer when someone asked how I was doing was to say that I had the “day from hell.” No matter how great my day really was, I would present it as awful and immediately begin listing my contentions to prove it. Some days were easy to tear down. Some days weren’t. Those days were the ones that gave me pause.

Upon hearing that my morning had been sent by the devil, the person I was complaining to would inevitably ask, “Why? What was wrong with your day?” Rather than being able to quickly rattle off all the terrible things that happened, I’d be stuck. My brain would begin scanning everything that had happened since I woke up and I’d wind up with some forced response like, “I have a headache” or “I have so much to do this week.” In reality, my day wasn’t from hell. It was fine. It was me who was making it worse than it was for the sake of being worse.

Feelings of desperation and hopelessness carry over throughout our lives. I know that a lot of those negative feelings in me were from decades earlier. Whether it’s the ways we are conditioned to think or answer others, our desire to prove how bad our lives are to one another usually overrides the reality of the situation. They say one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. That goes for experiences too.

It isn’t just how we tell others about our day, but how we react to the day itself. I can remember watching stand-up comedy or hearing jokes and making a concerted effort to not laugh. Even if I found it funny, I would try to keep the straightest face possible. Laughing would somehow invalidate the misery I was trying to surround myself with. Through clenched lips, I would force an unimpressed look to the person I was with. I guess a part of me thought that they’d be impressed by how humorless I could be.

What makes the whole thing pretty crazy is that none of this had an endgame. Complaining about your life might garner you some sad faced reactions to a Facebook post, but it doesn’t really affect anyone else. In fact, the more you gripe, the less credence others give to you when you do. Even if they do pity you for a moment, then what? They validate your exaggerated unhappiness and then go on with their business. You feel worse because all you’ve done was reinforce your negative feelings to someone else.

The bottom line is that you get the life you get. All the positives and all the negatives come with it. You only get dealt one hand. Telling others that the cards you’re holding are terrible won’t get you new ones. All it does is force you to sit there with a Full House that you’ve convinced yourself is a pair of twos.

We put so much importance on others in our lives to make us happy. Other people may say mean things to you, but that’s not what truly hurts. It’s when you repeat them back to yourself in your own inner voice that they do real damage. No one is capable of making you feel happy or sad more than you are yourself. You’re the only one who can control that.

So flip the script. Rather than finding the one negative in an overall positive party experience, find the positive moments in the abundance of negative ones. Just as you can convince yourself that life is miserable, you can do the opposite.

I’m not saying to fake it or ignore moments of genuine sadness, frustration, or anger. I’m saying that if you can notice yourself finding a way to latch onto the bad parts of a great day, you can find a way to do the opposite. Sure, it’s not easy, but you have your whole life to master it. At the end of the day, this is the one life you’re guaranteed to have. You’re going to live it one way or another. Might as well be happy as you do.