What's life doing for you?
Have you ever gone to an amusement park, where you’re supposed to have fun and feel joyful, only to feel frustrated with the length of the lines for the rides, dismayed at the price of food and drinks, exhausted from the amount of walking you do over a very long day, and yet miserably determined to keep going so you get your money’s worth from the ticket price? I find that our response to this type of situation is a good analogy of how we may be living our lives.
If we feel frustration or anger toward the amusement park (“it was a total rip off!”) or if we feel resentment that other people looked like they were having fun (“they must have special tickets or something”), then we might have the mindset that life happens TO us. That’s actually the most common mindset and it extends way beyond spending a day at the supposed happiest place on earth. When we see our experiences through this mindset, we are either consciously or subconsciously believing that what happens in life is largely out of our control. Bad weather happens to us. Financial problems are put upon us: “only the rich get richer.” All of our health problems are genetic: “cancer runs in my family,” “my whole family is overweight.”
Of course, all of these things may happen in life, but our mindset determines how we view them. If we shift from assuming that life happens TO us, to believing that life happens FOR us, every life event is transformed into a completely different experience.
Having raised children in southern California and now having grandchildren here, I have spent a lot of time at amusement parks and I am grateful that I noticed the difference my mindset made in how much I enjoyed the experience, or not, depending on my mindset. When I first began going to these parks, it was definitely a hit or miss experience. That’s because my intention for going was to make my children happy. If they had fun, it was worth the long lines, expense and exhaustion. If they were cranky or misbehaving or if the weather was bad, especially when it was too hot, it was miserable. I had a “life is happening to me” mindset at that time.
I confess that I still go to amusement parks and don’t even need children with me anymore. I sometimes go for myself and have a lovely time. But that’s because I shifted my mindset long ago to believing that life happens for me. With this mindset, standing in a 2-hour line with my grandchildren is happening for me; it isn’t something negative. It means we have more time to spend with each other without anything else to do – no distractions. We end up talking a lot. Or making up games together to keep us entertained. If I’m alone, it means having complete downtime to think, or to observe other people and their interactions with each other. That expensive food is a great experience for me, causing me to think about whether I really need to eat junk, or as much of it at least. All of that walking is definitely good for me, as I don’t get enough exercise.
Albert Einstein said that the following question is the most important question we can ask in life, “Is the universe a friendly place?” He was referring to how we ultimately use our tools, technology and wisdom (constructively or destructively), but could have just as accurately been referring to our mindset about living. The real magical kingdom isn’t “out there” somewhere. It’s in our own minds. And whether you’re at a crowded amusement park, stuck in traffic, going through a divorce, having car trouble, losing a job or feeling unwell, the most important question you can ask yourself is “how is this happening for me?” What’s the lesson or opportunity that’s presenting itself? This is how you begin to shift your mindset toward a life that happens for you and not to you.
We’ve talked about how New Year’s Resolutions aren’t a great idea, not to mention pretty ineffective. And we’ve talked about how goal-setting in general frequently fails because the end goal is too big or too far out into the future. The solution to address these problems, you may recall, is setting intentions instead, so that you are living your goals each day. Intention-setting is also a great way to boost your shift in mindset. Take the time to think about why you are doing something and then set that intention before you start. Why am I taking my grandchildren to an amusement park today? It’s because I want to spend quality time with them, to have fun with them, and to get a little scream therapy on the roller coasters for myself. Now as the day progresses, if we’re stuck in a long line, I’m still meeting my intention – to spend time with my grandchildren. My intention wasn’t to spend the day standing in short lines, right? It’s the same with going through a difficult time. If you’ve asked the question, “how is this happening for me,” the answer provides you with the intentions to set. “This is happening for me because I’ve been complacent about xyz and now I am being pushed to look at this area of life and make changes that will better serve me or others.” Now you can set new intentions about xyz and begin to improve or enrich your life.
This isn’t to say that every experience we have in life is going to be pleasant, by any means. That’s just not how life works. We do encounter struggles and even suffering, but our mindset can drastically change not only how we experience the experience, but in what we learn and how much we grow from it.
Instead of waiting for events to occur that you respond to with a positive mindset, you can ask a slightly different question, which is “what do I want to happen in my life for me?“
You can take this a big step further by taking a proactive approach to the design of your life. Instead of waiting for events to occur that you respond to with a positive mindset, you can ask a slightly different question, which is “what do I want to happen in my life for me? “
Many people never take the time to really think about this. They go to school, get a job, have a family, retire and then, toward the end of their lives, look back and are full of questions or even regrets. Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I take the time to pursue that? Why did I spend so much time on that? We also spend little time noticing the quality of our day-to-day lives. Why all of the drama? Why believe that there’s no choice, that life is just difficult and stressful? It doesn’t have to be. We’re simply not paying attention, not approaching life with the right mindset and not taking actions we could take that would greatly improve our quality of living.
Regardless of where you are on the spectrum of life, why not consider designing a life that you love, where you thrive, where you feel your purpose? In other words, a life of meaning. What do you want? What would you like your life to look like? You can shift to a mindful way of being, noticing the quality of your life, noticing how you respond to various experiences, and noticing where you have control of your experiences.
Now if you don’t have a clear picture, perhaps you’re just feeling general discontent or like you’re a little stuck, one of the fastest ways to identify what you want is to make a list of what you don’t want. Our brains automatically go do the negative, so take advantage of that in this case. Take a few minutes to write down everything that bothers you or all of the things in your day-to-day life that you don’t like.
Now you have a list of what you want! You want the opposite of what you wrote down. That’s the easy part. Next, you have to prioritize your list. Trying to change multiple things simultaneously usually results in failure, so the way to enact effective change is to tackle one thing at a time.
I can’t tell you how to prioritize your list but I can make some suggestions to get you started in the right direction. First, are any of the items on your list time-sensitive? For example, do you have a project coming due that is causing you stress or pressure? The timing of the activity may dictate that it goes first on the list. Another consideration is the severity of your discomfort. Scan your list and see if you can identify the most aggravating or stress-inducing or most irritating thing on the list. Move it towards the top.
Another approach is to observe others, not in a competitive or envious mindset, but in a more analytical way. What do you see in other people’s lives that you would like to replicate in your own? What do you see that you do not want in your own life? Start creating a picture of that “ideal” life and then you can begin a list of action steps to take to achieve it. Again, this doesn’t happen overnight. But remember that time is passing whether you are doing something or not. So, five years from now, you can be living the exact same life you’re living now, or you can be living a life that is closer to your ideal. Either way, five years have passed by!
Finally, spend some time mindfully reflecting on your recent experiences, without judgment but discernment. How did the past three months go? The past year? What experiences made you feel great, content or purposeful? Which experiences felt like a waste of time and energy? What intentions could you set to reduce or eliminate the latter and increase the former?
Life is happening for you, but you have to notice. You can start by setting an intention each day to pay attention, to be aware. In other words, by living more mindfully.
So what do you WANT in 2019?