“If momma aint happy, ain’t nobody happy. It’s an old saying with timeless wisdom. It’s the theme of many song lyrics, the driving force behind successful memoirs, and a truism of life. When the mom isn’t happy (or even the dad), it affects the mood and rhythm of the home and family.
Most everyone can agree that life has its trials. Parenting is stressful and unpredictable. Marriage and other significant relationships are hard and take work. Being an adult isn’t as fun as kids portray it to be. There’s way more work than time; more expenses than money, and more emotional demands and expectations than you can possibly address. And someone is always unhappy. Or so it seems.
What makes the journey better or worse is attitude. A negative mental attitude sets you up for failure. It spreads like a poison and affects everyone around you, and not for the best. It’s frequently intertwined with perfectionism, the need to get everyone done, to be good at everything, to be everything to everyone. And it’s impossible to be perfect. It’s unrealistic and it sets us up for failure before we’ve begun.
So what is the secret to a positive mental attitude and how does one achieve it? According to the Dalai Lama, one must achieve a calmness in mind to develop a positive mental attitude. For those of faith, prayers can achieve that inner state of calm. For nonbelievers, calm can be achieved through introspection and lived experiences. But here’s the kicker, lived experiences means living a full life, one with risk, learning, and introspection.
Another key to happiness and a positive mental attitude is a drive to develop our own sense of compassion toward others by helping others develop themselves. It’s a bit of a pay-it-forward mentality and it reaps return benefits to the recipient and to the giver. Think about the time you volunteered at the homeless shelter, served meals on Thanksgiving Day. Didn’t it boost your day?
A positive mental attitude requires work, discomfort, and constant effort. It also means we have to continuously feed our minds and hearts with messages that foster the positive.
Does that mean we ignore the negative, live under a rock, or listen to Anthony Robbins tapes on repeat? (Note: Just in case you don’t know him, Anthony Robbins is an international speaker, an affirmation guru, and life coach who has purportedly helped millions of executives, entrepreneurs, and regular folk reach phenomenal financial success and personal satisfaction). No. But it does mean that we should nourish our minds and souls the way we nourish our bodies.
I knew this message from the Dalai Lama, the need for introspection, compassionate service to others, and inner calm. But I must admit that I occasionally struggle with that positive mental attitude. I’m Type A personality to the max, listed as an ox (a work animal) on the Chinese Astrological chart, and turbo-charged as a person. I love work. I love goals, the rush of having just a little too much to do. I also know that having a positive mental attitude isn’t merely good for me. It’s good for my family and unless I live certain practices, I can’t expect my children to learn them either.
I decided to survey others, about a hundred of my closest friends to find out how they maintained a positive mental attitude. Okay, I’m lying but I did survey at least a hundred people at work and on social media. The following is a compiled list of responses from people who use methods that help them maintain a positive mental attitude.
1. Take care of your own needs. A wise mother in my community shared this story. On one family trip, she got to the hotel and realized that she had packed for everyone but herself. No clothing. No toiletries. Nothing. She realized that it was time to take care of herself and how often as parents we put ourselves last. Even if you go to the gym three times a week, or schedule an annual physical, you are taking care of yourself. You are putting yourself on a list along with the dry cleaning and grocery shopping. You have merit and value.
2. Stay in the moment. Also known mindfulness, its seeds sprouted in Silicon Valley, where technology and stress coexist in equal measures. Based on transcendental meditation, its focus is to teach the mind better focus and inner calm. It uses visualization, teaches the meditator how to isolate the stress and essentially excise it from the psyche. Being mindful also means to stay in the moment. It’s the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally,” Instead of harboring on all the unfinished chores, focus on the moments you’re spending with the kids. Enjoy and laugh through that movie. Savor the salty deliciousness of popcorn. Enjoy that book, the sensation of chocolate melting on your tongue. Get it?
3. Write in a journal. Journaling about deeply emotional events can be a transformative activity. That’s the analysis of Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and author of several books, including Opening Up and Writing to Heal. “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health.” They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up. People will tell us months afterward that it’s been a very beneficial experience for them.”
4. Tell yourself affirmations. I used to think this was totally hokey. But here’s the funny thing. The brain is the most impressionable organ in the body. You can convince your brain to change it’s thinking. Ever heard the expression, “Fake it till you make it?” Here is the premise. By surrounding yourself with positive messages or by using self talk to interrupt a negative tape recording you have going in your head, you can effectively train your brain to think more positively. Try it. The next time you’re beating yourself up. The dinner burned. The kids were upset with you. Your boss reprimanded you for missing the point of a meeting, interrupt any negatives thoughts by saying, “Stop!” Look in the mirror and say, “You stop! Now!” Sounds ridiculous. But one of two things will happen if you do it. First, you’ll be totally embarrassed and you’ll giggle. Or, you’ll realize that you’re no longer ruminating over the same issues.
5. Build routines to eliminate chaos in your life. Yes, chaos breeds chaos. If you’re running from one crisis after another, if your house is always in shambles, if you’re constantly missing appointments, you’re living without a routine. When you’re productive, when you feel like you’re organized, it’s builds confidence and that contributes to a positive mental attitude. In 2003, during my husband’s one-year combat tour of duty in Iraq, I was a wreck. I had seven teenagers at home and a four-month-old infant. I was in graduate school, working, and totally distraught. I discovered this bizarrely effective organizer website called FlyLady.net. The mission of the site is to teach its followers how to organize, accomplish, declutter, and think positively through the act of routine and organization. It’s based on the premise that everyone can be productive for 15 minutes. And 15 minutes at a time moves mountains. It helps us feel good, like we’re on top of life, like we’re in control.
6. Eat small regular nutritious meals. Eating small, regular, nutritious meals maintains and stabilizes fluctuations in blood sugar and can stave off moodiness, headaches, and fuzzy thinking. Include low-fat protein sources with each meal, lots of fresh vegetables, and some complex carbohydrates. Fresh fruit in the afternoon is a better pick-me-up than a candy bar; water or diluted juices hydrate better than coffee or soda.
7. Move. Movement of any kind is good for the body and the mind. In children, short movement breaks can improve concentration. Also, regular exercise a few days a week, a brisk morning or afternoon walk, aerobic or low-impact exercise is shown to reduce stress, improved sleeping, improves flexibility, and releases endorphins.
8. Take an adult education class. Learning is a transformative experience. It engages the mind. It builds confidence. It pushes boundaries and constitutes living a rich life. Many community colleges offer reasonably prices classes in just about anything–bowling, cooking, knitting, snorkeling, motorcycle riding and maintenance. Learning is fun.
There are so many other great suggestions offered by people on social media and I apologize if I didn’t include them. Just remember that a positive mental attitude is achievable but it’s something you have to work at, consistently and diligently. Unlike a brownie, it’s effect on your mental health has long-lasting benefits.