How to Feel Good When Things Are Good
Maybe you always knock wood when good things happen, or, like my mom, you say, “Poo, poo, poo kinehora,” which is Yiddish for “Don’t tempt the evil eye.” Throughout my life, my mom has trotted out this Old World expression whenever I’ve expressed optimism over a promising job interview, a new boyfriend, or a healthy pregnancy checkup.
Whatever your cultural background, it’s an all-too-common human trait to worry that if we are too happy and things are going too well, then fate is somehow going to come along and kick us in the butt.
“Many traditions have a superstition that if you give gratitude for your blessings, then something will come in and take them away, and parents often pass that on to their children, whether consciously or unconsciously,” says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend.
Why We Tend to Expect the Worst
It’s not just tradition at play; there are interior mind games working, too. “Waiting for the other shoe to drop is basically a coping strategy gone awry,” says Angela Ficken, L.I.C.S.W., a Boston-based psychotherapist, who notes that some tend to gird themselves for disappointment by imagining—and even expecting—the worst-case scenario. “That way, even though a disappointment after a success is still painful, you might feel like it’s less of an emotional drop than if you were riding high and the rug was pulled out from under you,” she explains.
The roller coaster of the last three years, with the pandemic and world-shifting political turmoil, haven’t helped with this mindset, both experts agree. Life may seem promising one day, and then you open the newspaper and everything seems to have turned sour overnight.
How to Stop Fretting When Good Things Happen
There are ways to enjoy the good things in your life without dwelling on what-ifs. Try this five-step process to learn how to savor the silver lining without looking for the dark cloud.
1. Dig a Little Deeper
The first thing you should do when you feel anxiety dampening your happiness is to ask yourself why you might be feeling this way, Ficken says. It could be because you were taught not to count your blessings for fear of jinxing them, or perhaps it’s because the last time you got excited about, say, a new job, you had a completely unrelated bout of bad luck, like a family member getting sick.
Noticing where that sense of unease comes from can help you come up with strategies to let it go.
2. Think What You'd Say to Your Best Friend
Step outside yourself and think, “If my best friend were happy but could only fixate on what could possibly go wrong, what would I tell them?” suggests Ficken. “You probably wouldn’t tell them, ‘Yes, you’re right! You should be worried about that,’ ” she says. You would probably tell them that they worked hard for their success, and you’d encourage them to enjoy the moment. Which brings us to…
3. Be Mindful of the Moment
Focusing on what could happen tomorrow or next week takes away all the joy from the here and now. One way to bring your mind back to the moment is to focus on breathing, Ficken says. “When we get stressed or anxious, we tend to hold our breath, and that just amplifies our physical response to anxiety, which then heightens our anxious thoughts,” she explains.
Her suggestion: Take a deep breath and look around the room, naming five things you can see and three things you can hear. “This grounds you and brings you back into the moment,” Ficken says, “and that can help you focus on the happiness you’re feeling now.”
4. Practice Gratitude Every Day
It’s important to feel gratitude not just when things are going gangbusters, but every single day, Manly says. This can help any changes in fortune seem a little less drastic. Choose a time at least once a day, maybe at breakfast or as you brush your teeth before bed, to list all the things you’re grateful for, including friends and family, your health, your pets, the smell of your coffee, the success of your favorite sports team.
“The more time we spend in a place of authentic gratitude,” she says, “the more our brains will be optimistic and positive, and that builds resilience when we do come across something negative.”
5. Be Careful Not to Self-Sabotage
Sometimes, Ficken says, the pressure of waiting for the other shoe to drop can become so oppressive that you just slam the other shoe onto the floor yourself to get it over with, like cheating on your partner so they’ll break up with you, or “quietly quitting” your job before your boss can fire you.
One way to keep yourself from turning your worst-case scenario into a self-fulfilling prophecy, she suggests, is to take it one day at a time: “Instead of worrying what will go wrong tomorrow, repeat to yourself, ‘Yesterday went really well, and today is going okay so far.’ ”
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