Does it ever seem like everyone else’s life is better than yours? It’s definitely seemed that way to me. I’ve felt like “their” kids are doing better in school and winning awards. Or “their” houses are cleaner and less cluttered than mine.
In the coaching world, we call this compare and despair. And I even though I know what it is, I’ve often succumbed to it. Especially when I use social media as my measuring stick. I’m an imperfect mother of two teenagers. I often have a messy house, laundry that needs washing and folding, hair that needs styling. And my parenting journey certainly hasn’t always been a bed of roses.
When things seemed their worst for me, it also seemed as if everyone else was living their best lives. It was a double whammy. I was struggling. And I was feeling even worse about my struggles because I compared myself to everyone else.
You might think that my psychology background would have helped me avoid some of this “double whammy” suffering. And I guess it did a little. But it wasn’t until I really dug into one of the newest psychology disciplines, Positive Psychology, that I found a few amazing tools that really turned things around for me.
One of the foundational models in Positive Psychology is PERMA. That stands for: Positive emotions, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.
When the researchers began looking at what is different about those who seem to be thriving and living their best lives, these factors seemed to make a big difference.
Positive emotions sound simple enough and pretty obvious. Except that we tend to believe positive emotions just happen. But what research has found is that positive emotions are things we can actually cultivate and grow. Research has also proven that tiny shifts in our mindset can reap huge rewards.
Let’s go back to my story. Things weren’t great. I was scrolling through social media and comparing my crappy life to everyone else’s great lives. The P in the PERMA model taught me that I was paying attention to the wrong things and making myself feel worse, not better.
Instead of comparing and despairing, I learned about the miraculous powers of gratitude. Gratitude is a powerful positive emotion. When I started taking time to focus on what I was grateful for in my life, that simple shift in my mindset shifted my feelings about my life as well. Even when the circumstances remained exactly the same, my focus on what I could appreciate each day, no matter how big or small, changed my emotions, which changed my demeanor and outlook. Which changed the way I spoke to myself and to my kids and to everyone, really.
Engagement is simply finding something you can really “get into” or focus on or be really enthusiastic about doing. It can be a new project or hobby. It can be a job change. Big or small, when we feel really engaged in something, we feel better about our life and how it’s going. And just like with positive emotions, small things can actually make a difference. You don’t have to change careers. If doing a puzzle makes you feel focused and engaged (and if so, me too!), go do that puzzle.
Positive relationships also probably sound self-explanatory, and they are. But here’s the thing that was important for me to remember when I was in a funk: Often, when we need to engage with other people the most, is when we least feel like doing it. We are social animals, and we really need other people. My people make me laugh (which helps with those positive emotions I’m trying to cultivate.) They also say “me too” a lot, especially when I complain that my house is a mess and my hair has never looked worse.
Meaning is truly in the eye of the beholder. We all have things that are deeply meaningful to each of us. I derive a lot of meaning from the job I have raising good humans. And when I remind myself of that, things like straight A’s or big awards aren’t nearly as important as they seemed when I was scrolling through Facebook.
And finally, there’s an accomplishment. I have had a rocky relationship with this one because I’ve sometimes gotten confused and started to think that my worth as a person was purely based on my latest accomplishment. A little trick I discovered to help generate that feeling of accomplishment without basing my worth on those accomplishments was to create mini-goals. Mini goals are simply so small that it’s hard not to achieve them -giving me all of the joy of accomplishing something. But they are so small that I never confuse the accomplishment of the goal with my worth.
If you are like me and find yourself feeling like life has given you lemons in 2020, I invite you to take a look at what positive psychology has to teach us. Because as they discovered when this discipline was born, those happy, thriving people aren’t any different than you or me. They have just as many hard days and setbacks. Those thriving people just have better tools and handle the bad days.