The cosmic lessons of a broken arm

broken armBuddhist broken arm proverb: What’s the sound of one hand lathering up soap? 

(Hint – It sounds like: grumble, grumble, grumble, why is this taking so long??) 

Thirty days ago, my bike got caught in the infamous Toronto streetcar tracks as I was making a left turn, and the routines of my life came to a thudding halt. 

Not that I recognized it right away. I was shocked, lying in the middle of Queen Street with a useless right arm and a laptop (thankfully unharmed) slung over my shoulder. A Red Cross volunteer and a pregnant lady rushed to help me up. (A bad omen – you know something’s wrong with you when a pregnant lady is helping you up.) 

For a while, I thought I would just go on with my day with a sore arm. “How silly!” I thought. “One little fall can’t be so catastrophic it will affect me for weeks to come, could it?” As the pain got worse, I realized it probably would…

The early days of my broken arm – A.B., after break, Fred jokingly called it – were just a series of dawning realizations about what I could not do. I could not type. I could not floss my teeth. I could not sleep on my side. I could not do the dishes (darn!). I could not eat with chopsticks. I could not go the gym. I could not cook. I could not pull my hair back into a ponytail. 

For someone who often feels rushed, who prizes efficiency, I was suddenly forced to go slow. Showers took an hour, and I usually needed a nap afterward from all the exertion. I had to peck away slowly at my keyboard until I discovered voice dictation. Even lathering up soap to wash my face was an exercise in patience.

Right after my fall, while I leaned against a building waiting to get driven to the emergency room, I actually laughed. Good one, universe. I had all these to-do’s and worries for the afternoon, and you just gave me a slap in the face (or elbow) to get my priorities straight. For the next two weeks, try as I might, I could barely put in two hours of work a day. The God-given painkillers started making me miserably nauseous whenever I tried to read email, and I napped like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t stray far from my apartment for fear of a sudden attack of exhaustion. I slept fitfully the first 12 days, trying to construct elaborate pillow pyramids to make my fractured elbow comfortable.

But the world carried on. My colleagues graciously stepped in (thank you Will and Camila!), and I didn’t die from not blogging or not finishing that week’s book. My inbox didn’t appreciate the strain, but it’s now (mostly) under control.   

I learned that happiness is all about your attitude – because at first, that’s literally all I had to go on in judging the quality of the day. I track my happiness level every day using AskMeEvery, and the usual things that would make me happy – being productive, or discovering a new cafe – were completely absent. All I had was read, nap, lunch, read, nap, dinner, Survivor – and my attitude. It usually came down to: did I struggle and sigh under my burdens, or stay positive? Did I get frustrated and impatient, or smile at the random strangers who offered me help and the barista who gave me extra chocolates because I looked so pitiable? 

(If you’re wondering, it took me 12 days to recover my usual 7/10 happiness level, after dipping into the 4-6 range. That’s coincidentally the same number of days it took to start sleeping normally…) 

In the end, I leaned on other people to get me through it. Even a nice nurse or a friendly fellow patient – who saw me tearing up in the waiting room and struck up a conversation about the ridiculous wait times – could turn my mood around. When I was in the emergency room, feeling sorry for myself because it was 3 am and I’d been there for 6 hours – all I could focus on was the elderly man across the hall who kept crying out for nurses to bring him water. I heard the doctors mention his nursing home and my heart sunk: he obviously had no one. I, on the other hand, had my long-suffering boyfriend and de facto caretaker holding my hand. I hope that man is okay.

I may forget lots of these details, but I won’t forget the way Fred took care of me. All my grumbles, all my 2 am despair from lack of sleep, all my exhaustion crashed on the shore of his positivity, warmth, and acceptance. Where others might have grumbled themselves, he pushed me to do less: “Nope, you are not independent anymore. Nope, you can’t make your own smoothie. Now get back to bed, broken-arm girl. Your full-time job is healing.” 

IMG_3475Thirty days later, I still can’t put my hair up in a ponytail, or chop apples, or twist a door handle. I’m back to the gym (left hand only), and back to doing dishes occasionally. Over the past few weeks, I’ve felt like a child going through a series of firsts: “Wow, Kira, you can put your clothes on now? You can make your own cereal? You can tie your shoes?” 

And at this point, all I can do is laugh.

Most of your to-do list is irrelevant

joy machine

This is day 28 of #30DaysofVulnerability: “Make a “joy and meaning” list: List the ingredients that you need in your life to feel like things are going well, and compare it to your to-do list.” More info here.

One of the little tips in Brené Brown’s The Gift’s of Imperfection caught my eye:

“One of the best things that we’ve ever done in our family is making the ‘ingredients for joy and meaning’ list. I encourage you to sit down and make a list of the specific conditions that are in place when everything feels good in your life. Then check that list against your to-do list and your to-accomplish list. It might surprise you,” she writes.

Okay, okay, I get the idea. We have to focus on the essentials. But it didn’t hit home until one evening when I was stressing about my to-do list and forced myself to follow her suggestion: 

Joy and meaning list:

  • A career I love
  • A happy relationship
  • Friends and family
  • Low stress
  • Health

To-do list

  • Be #1 on the writer’s leaderboard for Tech Cocktail
  • Get my work inbox to 0
  • Get my personal inbox to 0, and answer all my dad’s emails
  • Impress the people at the talent agency I have a (totally random) appointment with tomorrow
  • Never make my boyfriend upset
  • Go to gym class three times a week
  • Read one book a week
  • Work on my blog for 10 hours a week
  • Meditate every day

…you get the idea.

You may find related items on your lists – for example, “go to gym class three times a week” and “health.” Health is my real goal, so I need to cut myself some slack when I miss a class (which hasn’t even happened, except when my arm was broken). All my work-related to-do’s should be in service of “a career I love,” not the need to be perfect or hyper-efficient or inhumanely productive. Just because I don’t reply to one of my dad’s emails or say something when I’m hangry that I later regret doesn’t make me a bad daughter or a bad girlfriend.

These lists remind me of Shawn Achor’s concept of meaning markers, the symbolic goalposts in life that guide our actions. Sometimes, we forget about our real meaning markers and get distracted by “hijackers,” false sources of meaning that end up making us frustrated and unhappy.

In other words, most of our to-do lists have been “hijacked” – and if we want our sanity back, we need to find our way to what’s really meaningful.

Photo by Flickr user atomicity

What’s your happiness proxy?

happiness proxy

This is day 28 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question “Why should accomplishment not be your main priority?” More info here.

Ever since I was 7 years old, I thought productivity was a magical thing. I had just started playing violin, and I made a nice little chart with dates that I taped on my wall. Every day when I practiced for 20 minutes, I put a little check mark in the appropriate box.

Some nights, lying in bed, I would jolt awake realizing that I hadn’t practiced, and hop out of bed to put in my 20 minutes in my pajamas. Apparently my 7-year-old self hadn’t read up on the science of sleep yet.

These days, I still act like productivity is a magical thing – and by “magical thing,” I mean a proxy for happiness.

You can’t wake up and try to be happy, so most of us wake up and try to be something else. I try to be productive; Fred tries to achieve freedom; other people probably try to be good parents, altruistic, or healthy.

I suspect productivity is one of the most common happiness proxies. As Shawn Achor explains in The Happiness Advantage, “Most individuals follow a formula that has been subtly or not so subtly taught to them by their schools, their company, their parents, or society. That is: if you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy.” He spends the rest of the book explaining why this formula is “broken,” and it’s actually happiness that leads to success.

But if science isn’t enough to dethrone productivity, we can just look at our own lives. Lately, I’ve been hyper-aware of the negative consequences of deifying productivity: I begrudge a weekday trip to the grocery store because I “should” be working; I get irritated at Fred because he’s not getting out the door fast enough, wasting time; I ignore stress and persist, which makes my stress worse.

The problem with productivity as a happiness proxy is that – at least as I conceptualize is – it’s not a trait but an action. When I’m working, I’m (usually) productive; when I stop working, I cease being productive and start itching to be productive again. That’s probably one of the reasons why people become workaholics: because productivity is their self-worth and their supposed path to happiness, so being at home makes them feel lost and frivolous.

A workable happiness proxy should be some kind of trait that we have all the time, or at least more of the time. Productivity is hard (not impossible) to apply to leisure time, and to do so you have to fight the cultural stigmas against play, self-indulgence, and doing nothing. Goals like being authentic, brave, or grateful might be easier to apply.

It’s not enough to say, “Authenticity is my new goal” and be cured. As Gretchen Rubin points out, we all have “True Rules” for behavior, or rules of thumb that we unconsciously follow. Mine include “If you have free time, work”; “To-do’s must be finished, no matter what”; and “TV is a waste of time.” We have habitual emotional patterns that won’t disappear with the snap of a magician’s fingers. The only way to change our happiness proxy is to put in the hard, introspective, emotional, honest work – but remember to cut ourselves some slack along the way. We’re not productivity monsters, after all.

Photo by Flickr user mikerastiello

Weekly research roundup: Danish DNA, Katy Perry, and self-control can make you happier

Happiness research

Danish DNA – Research out of the University of Warwick found that the closer a nation’s DNA is to Denmark’s (the happiest country), the happier it is.

Don’t put off happiness – Research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that well-being and life satisfaction improved at retirement, dipped a few years later, and stabilized around age 70. In the end, retirement doesn’t make you much happier than before.

Sing along – Research by Spotify and the University of Groningen explored the relationship between songs and emotions, finding that “Birthday” by Katy Perry and “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors produce happiness.

Glass two-thirds full – Research by PsychTests found that people who are happiest, most satisfied with relationships, most resilient to stress, and subjectively healthiest aren’t extreme optimists. Instead, on a scale of 1-100, they rank around 63-68 on optimism.

Move to Louisiana – Research out of Harvard and the Vancouver School identified the happiest cities in America. The top five are all in Louisiana – Lafayette, Houma, Shreveport-Bossier City, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria – and New York City is the unhappiest. In general, growing and metropolitan areas tend to be unhappier.

Surprise me – A survey of 2,000 Brits by DoubleTree suggested that little surprises are what make us happiest. 82 percent of people said the best things in life are unexpected, and their top five happy moments included finding money you forgot about, the sun shining, getting an unexpected discount at the cash register, getting something for free, and climbing into bed with fresh sheets.

Control yourself, man! – Research in the Journal of Personality suggests that people with more self-control are happier.

Mixing business and pleasure – A LinkedIn study found that 46 percent of professionals believe work friendships are important to their happiness. This is particularly true of millennials, 67% of whom would share things like salary, relationships, and family issues with coworkers.

Photo by Flickr user col&tasha

Are you passing life’s little tests?

Brown - experiment 13+15

This is day 24 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question “If you’re able to persist and engage in life despite discomfort, what does that say about you?” More info here.

The man who survived the Holocaust and came through with a positive attitude. The 17-year-old girl who spoke out against life under the Taliban. The cyclist who beat cancer and went on to win the Tour de France (before all that drug stuff).

I’ve always felt an odd combination of awe and uneasiness when contemplating the greatness of such people, and now I think I know why. I admire them for their resilience – bouncing back after adversity – at the same time that I question if I’d be capable of it.

There’s a widespread belief that these traumatic moments are when our true self emerges. But how can we know how we’d react to cancer, abuse, tyranny? It’s like contemplating heroic acts – I think I would save someone from drowning…right?

If we want to know the answer, we need look no further than life’s daily discomforts. When Gretchen Rubin created the Happiness Project, she realized that part of her motivation was to prepare for tragedy – her husband’s future liver failure. Not only was she creating a storehouse of happy memories, she was also learning to deal with life’s frustrations.

If we can’t deal with losing a sock, will we be able to deal with our spouse’s liver failure? If a cold is devastating, what will diabetes be like? If we can’t stop thinking about the $5 we lost, what will happen when we lose our job? And so on.

To eliminate the fear that we’d collapse under the adversity, we need to start with the lost socks and colds and bills. Instead of getting annoyed, we can think of them as life’s little exercises – mini-training in resilience. And slowly, the uneasiness and fear may give way to calm and courage.

Photo by Flickr user r.nial.bradshaw

The bad feelings won’t go away – and that’s okay 

theater masks tragedy comedy

This is day 22 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the questions: “How do you run away from discomfort?” and “Why do you need to normalize discomfort, or understand that discomfort is a part of life?” More info here.

Every time I do a guided meditation, the soothing Andy Puddicombe asks me to remind myself of my motivation for sitting down to practice. 

But just before “Stop my rambling thoughts! Get rid of my stress!” comes desperately to mind, he adds a caveat: meditation doesn’t stop thoughts or feelings. Your motivation has to be in line with the nature of meditation, which is to help us observe, accept, and be present with them. 

Really, Andy, that’s all you’ve got to offer me?

Brené Brown would agree with him, but her way of saying it is that we need to “normalize discomfort.” Discomfort is part of life, normal. She even tells her students that if they don’t feel uncomfortable during the semester, they’re doing it wrong.

“The simple and honest process of letting people know that discomfort is normal, it’s going to happen, why it happens, and why it’s important, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame,” she writes. 

Well, it would have been nice to know that a while ago. Most of us grow up learning that discomfort, like pain, is a sign that something is going wrong. Now I understand why some parents resolve not to fix all their children’s problems and tears, but let them sort it out on their own. If every unhappiness or cry is treated like a catastrophe, we grow up into adults who live in fear of negative emotions. 

So, we devise all these techniques for keeping them at bay. I avoid emotionally risky situations – I’m aware that I have an aversion for trying new things, because it’s uncomfortable for me to be an uncertain beginner. It takes Herculean effort for me to go networking, because I constantly feel awkward. I distract myself – with movies and lolcats, reading books, meditation, or talking. 

But probably worst of all, I try to minimize my feelings. I blame other people when the cause is within myself. If I’m in the mood, I make jokes (“I’m stressed about stress! How ridiculous is that!”). I tell myself it’s irrational, I shouldn’t feel upset, to be optimistic. In short, I do everything Andy says not to – I deny what I’m really feeling and try to get it away from me!

“For many of us, our first response to the vulnerability and pain of these [powerful emotions] is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but rather to make it go away,” writes Brown. 

The good news in all of this – besides the fact that we’re not nuts, messed up, or flawed for feeling blue sometimes – is that negative and positive emotions are separate things. According to positive psychology research, emotion isn’t a single lever, but two. Women, in fact, have more positive and more negative emotions. Even if you’re feeling bad about something, you can also cultivate good feelings. 

My dad often reiterates words of wisdom from his best friend: “Who said easy?” A lot of the time, it’s our assumption that life will be smooth sailing that makes the rocking and bumping unbearable. As in meditation, the point is to ride out the storm and wait for the waves to settle, not steer the ship as if nothing’s wrong. 

Photo by Flickr user mikecogh

If you’re stressed, you’re not alone 

This is day 19 of #30DaysofVulnerability. More info here.

One theme of Brene Brown’s research is that we’re not alone. Whatever we’re feeling – shame, fear, anxiety – someone (everyone) has been there before. 

But when we’re experiencing these things, we often feel so uniquely dysfunctional. We don’t speak for fear of being judged, when we’d actually be embraced into the fold of common humanity. 

I’ve started writing about stress and perfectionism lately, and it’s a weird feeling talking about these parts of myself. I’m worried I’ll sound weak, self-indulgent, “messed up.” But whenever I get a note from someone telling me to keep writing, I feel like I’ve made a connection – they must understand, too. 

In the spirit of “you’re not alone,” I took to Facebook and asked, “What in life stresses you out the most/when do you feel the most stressed?” Here are some of my friends’ answers: 

Brown - experiment 11 Daniel Daniel T. Richards: Immediate uncertainty stresses me out. Not knowing if I got a job or approved for an apartment or if a loved one will be OK after a health scare. Once I *know* I can act. Cheer, cry, research, etc. But being uncertain is a constant state of stress.”

Brown - experiment 11 Jason GroteJason Grote: “The illusion that I need to be socially relevant – which at times surfaces and overwhelms my ego.”

 

Brown - experiment 11 Michael ShapiroMichael Shapiro: “Put abstractly, competing for limited resources with unpredictable arbitration. For example, waiting in a deli counter or bar where the next person served is whoever catches the eye of the employee. General admission at theaters rather than assigned seating. Traffic. Just about any interaction with organized medicine.”

Brown - experiment 11 Zach DavisZach Davis: “Doing anything other than what I know I *should* be doing (whether it be due to self-induced obligations, bad habits, or losing perspective of the bigger picture). The internal compass always knows where I should be going; stress is the signal that tells me if I’m moving the wrong way.”

Brown - experiment 11 Kane TanKane Tan: “Managing money as a resource. Fixed income, variable wants :-) Basically anything where I am aware of a looming cost and a fixed line of resources.”


Brown - experiment 11 Irene Ngo
Irene Ngo: “
When I feel trapped or like I have no control over something. This can apply to different parts of life :-)

 


Brown - experiment 11 Morgane Heyne
Morgane Heyne: “
Having to hand in my notice at my job because I got a better job at another agency. And as a result, dealing with my clients for a month when all I want is to move on to the next thing.”

Planning too much means you may lack self-confidence

planning

This is day 15 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the questions: “What happens when you try to control things?” and “What would happen if you stopped trying to control things?” More info here

Writing about control before, I used the analogy of a violin bow: when I gripped my bow too tightly, trying to control the bouncing rather than letting it do its thing, I couldn’t get the technique right. 

It’s telling that you could come up with any number of analogies to show that excessive control and rigidity is detrimental. I remember a particularly painful roller coaster ride that threatened to give me a migraine; halfway through, I deliberately relaxed instead of reflexively squeezing my neck and shoulders, knowing that would make the pain even worse. The best swing dancers adapt to the music, not planning their flourishes and flare but acting on the spur of the moment. And it’s well known that when your car skids, you don’t try to pull it back in the right direction but follow the skid. 

In other words, roll with the punches.  

Through a bit of self-reflection, I realized that the reason I try to control and plan things is so that I know what’s going to happen so I can prepare for it so I’m certain I’ll be able to deal with things. That was a bit of a shock – does that mean I’m not confident that I can deal with things unless I know what they are? 

To survive in this world, we have to cultivate the belief – somewhere deep down – that whatever happens, I’ll be able to handle it. Because whatever is definitely going to happen – day after day after day. I went to a talk by a Buddhist who matter-of-factly explained that we go through life expecting everything – from our loved ones to our dinner to the guy in the next highway lane – to act the way we want.  “Why don’t you spend more time with me?” “I don’t like this tomato sauce!” “Why are there no parking spaces?” – all that could be paraphrased as “Why isn’t the world conforming exactly to my wishes and whims??” 

Well, when you put it that way…

It takes a supreme amount of self-confidence to be open to the unknown, to the “whatever.” We have to believe that, just as we have in the past, we’ll be able to survive the bangs and blows and disappointments. Planning and scheduling and over-preparing, beyond a reasonable amount, may just be creating an illusion of stability. Paradoxically, we show control by giving up control. 

For control freaks, the unexpected becomes a problem, an anomaly. Sushi is my favorite food and – as silly as this example is – when someone suggests sushi for dinner and I was expecting something else, I find myself getting frazzled rather than jumping for joy. We risk ignoring or dismissing happy accidents because they’re not part of the plan.

So we have a choice. Be the stiff violinist, the thrill seeker with a headache, the mediocre swing dancer, and the car accident victim. Or be flexible, adaptable, wide-eyed, flowing – and confident. 

Photo by Flickr user Nomadic Lass

The grace of reaching out

holding hands

This is day 14 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “Who is there for you when things don’t work out?” More info here.

When I’m afraid to reach out for help, I sometimes ask myself: how would I feel if the roles were reversed? 

If a friend or a loved one were in pain, struggling, hurting, would you want them to come to you? Or would you want them to keep quiet, afraid of what you might think of them? 

The fact that these questions are a no-brainer means that our emotional antennae are a little haywire as far as reaching out goes. 

Researcher Brene Brown goes even further: if you see yourself as weak for reaching out, that means you can’t help but see others as weak for seeking your help. It’s only logical. So the choice is clear: let yourself off the hook, or admit that your friends are spineless, too. 

I was raised to value independence, and things started getting tricky as soon as I formed strong relationships. Did having a boyfriend mean I was no longer independent? What if losing him would be devastating? Maybe it was then that I started to “make up” for the weakness of having a loved one by trying to handle all my emotions alone.

Some sort of confused pride held me back from sharing all my struggles, but fear is another culprit – the fear of judgment. Talking about our pain and problems is like handing off a fragile glass globe to someone else, hoping they won’t break it. And sometimes our friend or family member drops it on the ground accidentally by judging us, dismissing our feelings, or one-upping us with their own problems. Other times, the judgment is just in our heads, projected onto them.

But a theme that runs through Brown’s two books on vulnerability is that we can’t go it alone. As much as I’m loath to say it, I need my father, my fiance, my friends. Shame gets its power from the unspoken, and the fear of what will happen if we speak. People who are resilient to shame are the ones who reach out, seek help, and ask for what they need. During her “spiritual awakening” – her euphemism for a breakdown – Brown made the most progress when she forced herself to dial a friend in the middle of a “shame storm.” 

And those moments are the stuff of real connection. If someone can handle your glass globe of emotion delicately, without judgment, with sympathy and love, you’re weaving the threads of unbreakable connection. And when that person needs someone – as they inevitably will, because they’re human – they’ll be more likely to reach out to you. 

Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, writes: 

“Brilliant people sometimes do the most unintelligent thing possible. In the midst of stress, rather than investing, these individuals divested from the greatest predictor of success and happiness: their social support network. Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress, both an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance. But instead, these students had somehow learned that when the going gets tough, the tough get going – to an isolated cubicle in the library basement.” 

It’s time we reject our double standards and get truly tough – and see reaching out not as weakness, but as courage.

Photo by Flickr user Valerie Everett

Weekly research roundup: Here are the happiest languages and vowels

Happiness research

This is a weekly series on the latest happiness research. Learn and be merry! 

There’s an “i” in happiness – Researchers in Germany found that pronouncing an “i” sound – which contracts your facial muscles into a semi-smile – makes you happier, while an “o” sound – which produces a less chipper facial expression – makes you sadder. They also found that words with “i” tend to be more positive (“like”), while words with “o” tend to be more negative (“alone”).

Talk happy – Researchers from the University of Vermont found that Spanish, Portuguese, and English are the happiest languages. They picked 100,000 popular words from 10 languages and asked 5 million native speakers (total) to rate how positive or negative they are. Although all the languages had a positive bias – more positive words than negative ones – Chinese was the least happy.

Thanks, moms – A study of 315 same-sex couples in Australia found that children to same-sex couples had 6% higher physical health and family cohesion than children to heterosexual couples.

Don’t quit Facebook – A study out of Kansas State University found that people who take smartphone breaks during work report higher happiness and well-being. Using social media apps like Facebook and Twitter has more of a positive effect than playing games. Participants used their smartphones an average of 22 minutes during the work day.

Put up the fence – According to a pan-European study by the UK Office for National Statistics, connections to your community aren’t associated with higher levels of happiness.

Get your priorities straight – According to a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education of 10,000 middle and high school students, students care more about achievement than happiness or caring for others – and believe their parents and friends do, too.

Beware the big 3-0 – Research has shown that career satisfaction dips in your 30s, and a study out of Australia suggests that it’s because time pressure at work increases (as new recruits ask for help and mentoring) and coworker support wanes (as you compete for promotions).

Adapted photo by Flickr user TobiasMik WhatWeDo

 

 

That moment when everything is perfect and you think about…someone dying

storm line foreboding joy

This is day 13 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question: “What things in life are you afraid of losing? Instead of feeling fear, can you feel gratitude?” More info here.

For a long time, Brene Brown thought she was the only one who stood over her sleeping children and, “engulfed with love and adoration,” immediately imagined them being killed in car accidents and her getting a call from the police. 

This phenomenon, which she calls “foreboding joy,” is one of those things that everyone does and no one talks about. Curled up in a warm embrace, my heart fit to bursting with happiness, is when I tend to have my shudders of fear about loss and mortality. 

Brown’s topic is vulnerability, and she brings up foreboding joy as an example of how avoiding vulnerability keeps us from fully experiencing positive emotions, not just negative ones. It’s hard to accept that the things in our lives that we love the most are tenuous, fleeting, and fragile, so we back off. Woah, there, don’t get so happy. It might be too good to be true. 

In our heads, we might think we’re preparing ourselves – steeling up our emotions for those worst-case scenarios, or at least reminding our children to be extra cautious. But the idea that we can prevent or minimize the effects of tragedy is an illusion; tragedy is tragedy, and it will be just as devastating if our kids die in a car crash whether we imagined it over and over or not. 

The antidote to foreboding joy is gratitude. Instead of fearing their loss, I should be grateful for my health, family, friends, job, money, and happiness. I should feel lucky that I care enough for these things to be afraid of losing them.

Full-blown, no-holds-barred, vulnerable happiness is the best way to prepare for tragedy, Brown says. Those moments of love, adoration, and joy are filling up our stores of resilience, which will be sorely tested if tragedy strikes. And particularly if it does, we’ll wish we spent all those moments appreciating what we had, not perfectly predicting the future. 

Photo by Flickr user jasohill