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I remember traveling with my friend a few years ago. Jim and I had been in Europe and we had landed in New York ready to take our connecting flight to Orange County. Upon arriving at JFK, we received the bad news: Our final leg home would be delayed eight hours.
By this point in our travels, both of us were exhausted. Thus we weren’t happy hearing we’d have to wait hours in the airport. We spoke to the ticketing agent to see if we had any other options. Unfortunately, there were none. So we were both stuck. From this shared point of being stranded in the airport, we made different choices.
I decided to hop on a bus and ride into The Big Apple. With a few
hours to kill, I thought I could enjoy the city. Meanwhile, Jim couldn’t snap out of his frustrated state. Rather than join me, he opted to stay behind and sulk; he was in no mood to have fun.
I returned after my brief trip to the city refreshed and ready to hop on my flight home. Jim, on the other hand, was just as miserable as he was eight hours prior. We arrived in Orange County at the exact same time, but how we felt as we flew home was completely different.
This story illustrates one of the most important pieces of advice I can give you as a licensed clinical psychologist whose clients come to me every day seeking help to navigate their life journeys. I call it the “happiness reset button.”
Simply put, it’s our response to circumstances out of our control. When we’re confronted with something in our lives that we don’t like, we ask ourselves, “Is that anything I can do about (input your predicament here) to make it better?”
If yes, by all means, we should pour our energy into doing so.
If no, we press the happiness button, which means we accept what life has presented us. Period. We then let go of the outcome we wanted and replace it with wholeheartedly readjusting to the situation.
Hitting the button is a straightforward concept. But my experience working with countless individuals and organizations over the years has made it clear that actually doing so on a regular basis—until it becomes second nature—is one of the greatest challenges you’ll ever face.
In the example I started with, once I received news that my flight was delayed and there were no other options than to wait eight hours for the next one, I hit the happiness reset button.
From there I accepted my new reality, which motivated me to make the best out of an otherwise stressful situation. Meanwhile, for the time I was enjoying myself in Manhattan, Jim was stewing in frustration and most likely telling himself things such as “this is unfair,” “I don’t like this,” “Why did this have to happen to me?”
On the scale of life’s challenges, I would rate my airplane delay as a low-level obstacle. The next example is more serious.
When I was fourteen years old, I went with my father to his company’s corporate office in Nebraska. He was there to attend a meeting. He dropped me off in Omaha, we’re he would join me after he was finished. When we met after his appointment, the sullen look on his face told me he had bad news.
“Son, I’ve lost my job,” he said.
I knew being laid off was disappointing and completely unexpected news for my dad. Up to that point, he had only one job, and he linked his self-worth with his work. Despite his feeling like he was letting down the family by being unemployed, I could care less because I loved him deeply. But afterwards, he fell into a depression that lasted years.
He eventually found new work and reverted back to the dad I knew and admired. Had he hit the happiness reset button early on, he would have spared himself the unnecessary sadness that lasted nearly a decade.
Now how about when we’re struck with some of life’s whoppers? A death of a loved one, divorce, infidelity, major illness, financial hardship . . . You know what I’m talking about. When these biggies strike, every other tough moment we’ve faced prior seems like a walk in the park.
Even for those of us who are really good at pressing the happiness reset button, these tragedies really put our happiness to the test.
I remember when my beloved dog, Einstein passed away. I’ve always been a huge pet lover, but Einstein was a four-legged companion unlike any other I’ve had. For years, he would accompany me to work, we’d take walks together every day, and everyone in my family knew that Einstein was first and foremost committed to me.
When he died, it was a loss about as deep and sad as any I’ve ever experienced. That day, I had one of the biggest and most cleansing cries in my life. The tears just poured and poured out of me and the sobbing was intense. Afterwards, I felt much better, and although I have fond memories of Einstein, I have definitely recovered from his passing.
When we experience a loss, grieving is important. Exercise, therapy, journaling, time alone, crying—there are just about as many types of grieving as there are circumstances to grieve over. We must find what works for us best and then spend time grieving.
My recommendation is about an hour a day maximum.
There’s a big difference between my expression of sadness that resulted in a deep cry that made me feel much better afterwards, and crying for hours, days at a time, and only feeling worse. We should avoid the kind of grieving that only prolongs our suffering and invest in grieving that promotes adapting to new circumstances. In other words, we grieve so that we are able to hit the happiness button no matter what.
So after our hour-a-day of grieving, we spend the rest of the twenty-three hours in our day living in the present moment. In the here and now, we focus on what is beautiful. It may be the outdoors, a smile someone sends our way, or an affirmation we’ve read.
Whether the difficulty we face is mild or life altering, the good news is, we have all the resources inside us, right now, to overcome nearly any obstacle we’re charged to overcome. Specifically, we all have a happiness reset button inside us. The difficult part is that a lifetime of habits and experiences have resulted in most of us having trouble accessing it. With practice, however, we will be able to reconnect with our innate ability to recover from nearly anything. I’ve seen this many times with clients in my private practice.
As the saying goes, “The only constant in life is change.” While we rarely have a problem with change we deem good: a new beautiful relationship, a job we love, a new home, and more, it’s the bad change we struggle with. And here’s where the happiness reset button comes in. When we practice and become skilled at pressing it, we have learned one of the world’s greatest life lessons.