Why bother to “make lemonade”? It takes effort, whereas feeling miserable takes no effort at all; it just feels miserable. You know why: because the best ideas and encounters happen when you’re excited. It feels good to be happy.
Personally, as a nonconformist, I give happiness a try because it’s harder to reach out for happy thoughts when you’re not in a good place. You really have to push your brain to make sense out of suffering. Going to being happy from being unhappy is an act of transcending oneself.
Startup self-help literature and a stampede of motivational business coaches lurk around every online corner. That guy on YouTube that really wants to show you his “crib” and all the secrets to making millions of dollars…really has to stop. Although he seems to have a brand new plan on how to retire before you’re even born. God bless him.
However, I strongly believe humans today are over motivational coaches and in need of inspirational coaches. It’s not a coincidence that Al-Qaeda’s magazine is called Inspire, not Motivate. One doesn’t become a committed terrorist because a proper incentive was provided; one decides to die for a cause when deeply inspired.
Human life is full of pain and frustration.
Our loved ones die, we get diagnosed with diseases, file for bankruptcies and divorces, don’t get accepted to schools we wanted, etc. We’re constantly troubled by the evil trivialities of life – social media trolls, traffic jams, way too frequent software updates, delayed flights, and what not.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t turn negative into positive.
How To Turn Negative Into Positive Life Lessons
1. Acknowledge your negative feelings.
It’s true that even a fake smile can shift your mood. But is that really how we want to go about life? Moreover, is a fake smile sustainable? How long can one pretend that certain devastating circumstances don’t exist? How long can one pretend that the experience of pain is just another reason for joy? Not for too long. That’s why motivation doesn’t work long-term.
For a while, it sounds really good. Everything is in your mind. You can do whatever you want. Focus on what you love, hire an assistant to do what you don’t love for you, sleep two hours every night, have a cold shower every morning at 3:30am, learn another language, read a book every month, stretch, get into a speed reading course, workout at least two hours a day, focus on your goal 100 percent…sounds familiar?
For a hot minute, they get you. You’re in. This time, you’re really in. Until that next time…when you’re out. If you could only be more positive, more motivated. Well, the good news is, there’s NOTHING wrong with you. You can only be that kind of super human you think you should be – if you completely disregard your human nature.
Grief isn’t a feeling reserved for “losers.” It’s perfectly healthy to acknowledge that you’re in pain over something, to question why the painful event happened, and ponder what kind of interpretation to give to it. Understanding this process is a way of becoming what you want to be.
Listen to your pain, process it, and understand where it came from. It’s how you can start to turn negative into positive things. Only through understanding can you give negative feelings meaning. And even derive content from knowing your suffering was purposeful.
2. Find the meaning and purpose in your negative experiences.
As humans, we crave meaning. We can only get over ourselves if we understand the meaning behind our circumstances. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor, elaborates on how even surviving in concentration camps depended on finding meaning.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he makes the case for “tragic optimism.” Frankl explains how to remain optimistic despite pain, guilt, and inevitability of death. He doesn’t motivate in any way, but inspires in many. Particularly talking about the American culture, Frankl notes that:
“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
Here’s how Frankl’s recipe for true happiness looks like – go to the gym, listen to Anthony Robins, work 18 hours a day. That’s how folks survived those camps! Just kidding and obviously, didn’t mean to offend anyone.
On a more serious note, according to Frankl, there are three avenues to arrive at the meaning in life:
- Creating a work or by doing a deed;
- Experiencing something or encountering someone;
- Turning suffering into an achievement.
Therefore, starting a company or a project can, indeed, give life meaning, loving someone is a powerful generator of meaning as well. Finding meaning is key to turn negative into positive lessons.
Edith Weisskopf-Joelson, psychologist and a professor, finds that Frankl’s approach “may help counteract certain unhealthy trends in the present day culture of the United States, where the incurable sufferer is given very little opportunity to be proud of its suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading” so that “he is not only unhappy, but also ashamed of being unhappy.”
Indeed, perhaps the first step towards happiness is NOT being ashamed of not being happy. You can be sad, it’s OK. Sadness, or happiness for that matter, are not what makes you, you.
3. Realize that long-term happiness is a choice.
Dominance of motivation over inspiration has produced a lot of unhappiness. But it is also teaching us, these days more than ever, that money, indeed, can’t buy happiness.
Humans have been long trained to be incentivized with money, almost reduced to simple market transactions. We all live under the rein of capitalism and, capitalism speaks money. For a long time, we were made to believe that money is the meaning of it all. And, of course, if possible, sex and fame.
Awakening from this dangerous collective belief considers certain realizations. An important one certainly being that, what makes us happy can’t come from outside of us. Turn negative into positive by choosing to be. From that realization, a more sustainable happiness can be developed.
Whatever circumstances of our life, we have free will. Our free will is what makes us human. We can use this freedom to respond to situations in this way or another. By making that choice, we define who we are. This means that, not only are we not ever helpless, but also have an amazing creative power when choosing among possibilities on the table.
Whatever we choose, we embrace our freedom. We embrace responsibility and, ultimately, nurture our identity. In the end, there can be many true ways to tell a story, yet only ONE narrative is authentically yours.
4. Know that it’s the negative experiences that truly transform you.
There are days, or even months or years, when, in spite of your best efforts, you just can’t get to the light. You simply can’t make sense of it all; the pain is too excruciating, too blinding.
Leonard Cohen wrote his most amazing poems while in serious depression. The lyrics of his song You Want It Darker, where Cohen speaks to God are self-explanatory:
“If you are the dealer, let me out of the game, If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame, If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame.”
Suffering can be beautiful if we let it be. Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist and author, writes, “Self-improvement can have temporary results, but lasting transformation occurs only when we honor ourselves as the source of wisdom and compassion”. Showing this kind of understanding to oneself, when we’re happy and when we’re not, is a wise thing to do.
Human emotion is impermanent, in whatever shape or form it comes.
Sometimes, we’re ought to find meaning in suffering. But sometimes, suffering is the meaning. Either way, you’re going forward – for that is the very nature of life.