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How To Be Happier

Oct 05, 2012 | Updated Mar 13, 2015
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Everyone gets stuck at one time or another. What if we could cycle through the awful, paralyzing emotions and get to the positive, happy ones more quickly? A few experts show us how to do exactly that.

Figure Out if Your Pain Is Clean or Dirty
Fast-tracking your way out of a dark period starts with figuring out what kind of pain you’re feeling, says Amy Johnson, PhD, psychologist and author of Modern Enlightenment: Psychological, Spiritual, and Practical Ideas for a Better Life. Clean pain is the raw emotion that results from what happens to you. It’s real, and it’s logical. It crops up when you lose a spouse or your job or discover someone’s betrayed you, and it often causes you to say things like “I feel so lost” or “I miss him so much.” Dirty pain, on the other hand, is when you try to explain why the event happened or predict what will happen next, saying things like “He never loved me.” Or “My life is never going to be the same again.” What this does is add a distracting dose of punishment. Another way to think about it? The clean version is a recognition of what you’re feeling. The dirty version is a judgment about why you’re feeling that emotion and how long it will last. The more you can stick the former, the quicker you’ll get through the tough times.

Put Yourself Through 90 Seconds of Total Hell
Resisting and avoiding pain sucks energy -- and time. What usually happens, says Johnson, is that we try to divert ourselves from what’s upsetting us. We eat something or buy something or do whatever’s going to make us feel better in the moment. But “research has shown that when you sit with those clean, pure emotions like sadness or anger, they actually pass through you in about 90 seconds.” So if you can just be with it and say, “I can handle this feeling,” it will burn up and dissipate. This doesn’t mean you’ll be over your breakup or your dog’s death in 90 seconds. That emotion is going to come back. But the more you let yourself feel those minute-and-a-half hells, the quicker you’ll start feeling those minute-and-a-half happinesses.

Add the Extra Sentence
Many of us have a punishing, critical voice in our head. Every time it yells at us, it sidetracks us from figuring out what we really need to do. Silencing it is the ideal solution -- but that might take some serious long-term practice (Want to try? See Eckhart Tolle.) The author of On Grief and Grieving and founder of Grief.com, David Kessler, has a swifter strategy: adding one extra sentence to each negative, discouraging thought. For example, if the voice inside your head says, “My husband died, and I’m never going to love again,” you add, “in that way.” Another example? If the voice says, “I lost my job, and I’m never going to find another one,” you add, “exactly like the last one.” When you eliminate the punishing conclusion by tacking on a more positive (more realistic) one, you eliminate the weeks soaked with guilt and worry. You may find in one of your add-ons an unanticipated possibility.

Get Off the Sad Couch
Here's something we hadn't thought of before: If you lie in bed and think, “I’m such a loser,” for three days straight, pretty soon, whenever you look at your bed, you'll start thinking, “I’m such a loser,” says Johnson. Trying to fight that thought by disputing it might even make you more upset. You may, in fact, find yourself thinking, “I know, I know, I’m a loser for thinking I’m a loser.” Save yourself the time-and-mind suck. Get out of that bed or off that couch. Go to the park or the beach or even just the grocery store. The trip will break the repetitive cycle of your thoughts and may even spark a fresh one. After all, it’s kind of hard to think, “I’m a loser,” when you’re staring at a lilac in bloom, or eating $20-a-pound brie samples -- for free! -- at the cheese counter.

Hit the Library
When you want to rev up your physical metabolism, the first thing to try is working out. The same goes for your mind. It needs exercise. Reading books by people who have gone through similar struggles can spur on new solutions, says Ellen Oler, LCSW, which is an approach known in psychology circles as Biblio-therapy. It also lets you know what to expect after, say, a divorce or the death of a parent. (Random rage? Crying fits on not-so-obvious anniversaries like your last mortgage payment on the house your bought together?) You’ll spend less time puzzling out why the heck you’re feeling so bad and more on how to feel better. Another person’s story can also work like a personal trainer -- pointing out the pointless exercises to avoid, cheering you though the dark, hopeless stretches -- transforming you into a lean, mean, emotion-burning machine.

Find the author at Leigh-Newman.com or @leighnew on Twitter.

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