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In this episode of The Optimized Mom Podcast, I chat about the habit many of us have of romanticizing the past and/or the future. I discuss strategies for living in the moment, overcoming negativity/confirmation bias to enjoy that moment more, and loving what is–even when life sucks.
Note: This transcript was produced using speech-recognition software and has received minimal edits. If possible, I encourage you to listen to the audio version.
Welcome to the Optimized Mom podcast where we explore strategies for trading, burnout, overwhelm and exhaustion for simplicity, efficiency and joy. Why? Because I want you to have the time and energy to care for yourself. Have fun with your family and share your sparkle with the world.
Well, hey, there Anissa here, and I’ve got a question for you this week: when you look back on your life, what is something that you will remember fondly about right now? Do you have anything that pops up immediately or are you like most of us where it, it’s kind of hard to think about what is particularly good about right now.
I was talking with one of my dearest friends this weekend. She was one of my buddies from the days when I used to tour in musical theater shows. She’s going through a tough time right now and she said, “Anissa, we were so lucky. Life was so good out on tour. Why didn’t I appreciate it?”
I’m willing to bet that you can say exactly the same thing about some long-ago, rosy period of your life back when things were so amazing. But life is hard now, right? This is what we do. This is what we all do. Well, this is one of two things that we do.
From my observations about people, we tend to live our lives, one of two ways. And as I said, I’m a theater person. So I’m gonna use a theater metaphor to talk about this. One way that we could live our lives is by living them as if the big show already happened. And we’re looking back at maybe a box full of programs, play bills. You know, those of us that are in theater tend to save these things from time to time. So you’re looking at this old program, you’re looking at the old pictures with, you know, a little tear at the corner of your eye thinking, I wish I was back on stage. I wish I was doing that show and it’s over.
Or we do the other thing we look at life as if the show is starting sometime in the future. Like today is your rehearsal for the real show that’s gonna open soon. I will say that for most of my life, I was one of the, “I’m in rehearsal for real life” people. And I still, I would say from time to time, I can, I can go back to that, that mindset that I’ve really practiced. But I spent most of my life wishing away time thinking about how much better things would be after this particular phase of my life was over.
So the way this presented itself was that when I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to grow up in high school. I knew that college was gonna be so much better. And then in college I was focused on getting into a good graduate school. And in grad school I worried about what jobs I would or wouldn’t get in the future. Then when I got good jobs, I worried that I didn’t have a fulfilling enough love life and then I would get a serious boyfriend and then wonder about when he would marry me. And then when someone did marry me, I stressed out about when we would have kids and when we had kids, I wish they would grow up a little faster so that life wouldn’t be so hard, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
And now I look back, I, I’m almost 47. I look back at a life that has been absolutely amazing. And during almost all of it I wished that I was somewhere or some time else. And now I’m near my 47th birthday and if I’m not careful I can start to move into that other life outlook. The one that my friend referred to, I can start to think, uh, all of my best days are behind me. You know, I, I’ve had the good life but the good life was when I was in college. It turns out I didn’t know them but that it was, or when I was singing and, uh, I had two summers where I sang in Italy and it was wonderful. Uh, or maybe it’s when I was touring in Asia or spending that year when we traveled as a family that was amazing. But now what with me, life will never be that good again. And that’s where I’m tempted to go.
Sure, I can think that way. Or I can take in the lesson that is inherent in this conversation that I had with my friend. It’s not, “Life was so great. Why didn’t I appreciate it?” It’s not, “Life will be great at some point in the future.” The lesson is “life is amazing now. And how can I appreciate it more?”
You know, I’m really fortunate if the actuarial tables are to be believed, my buddy and I that I was talking to last weekend, we have several decades left. We’re not lying on our death beds, you know, in hospice care, chatting with each other, we have time to actually inhabit and appreciate and enjoy the rest of our lives. The truth is that life was beautiful then and it’s beautiful now. It was also hard then and sometimes it’s hard now that’s life. It’s always gonna be some mix of good and bad. But the problem is we see the past and the future through a filter life stinks. Now it was so much better before or if you’re a future-focused person, like many of us optimizer are life is tough now. But I’ve got a plan or I’ve got 10 plans to make it better. Life is gonna be awesome.
But if we truly want to optimize, we can optimize best by loving what is even while we’re taking the steps to try to make it better. The Ancient Roman Stoics actually thought about this a lot. They called this concept, Amor Fati, which literally means loving one’s fate or loving what is not gritting your teeth through it or grinning and bearing it but truly loving it. There’s a really nice Marcus Aurelius quote that says, “accept the things to which fate binds you and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” I love that. So beautifully said. So recognizing that there is good stuff and bad stuff that’s gonna happen in life and all of it contributes to the rich tapestry that is our existence here.
Now, this is a great idea in theory, but this is really, really tough to actually practice because we as humans have both a negativity bias and a confirmation bias. So, negativity bias is our human tendency to notice negative things more readily than we notice positive ones. And this was actually a really great genetic adaptation to help us stay alive. It’s probably the reason that it is so prevalent in our culture because you needed to remember which berries it was that poisoned your friend after he ate them or which cave the bear lived in. So you didn’t go there to a certain extent. Looking out for danger, keeps us safe, but it also keeps us on the lookout all the time for what is wrong with life.
And in the 21st century, when we have access to limitless information, boy, can we ever find things that are wrong with life? So then we have confirmation bias. In addition to this negativity negativity bias, this is the tendency that we all have to use any new information that we get to reinforce the things that we already think or that we’re already thinking about. So that’s why if you’re thinking about buying a Tesla, then all of a sudden you see Teslas everywhere. It seems like everyone in your community is driving a brand new Tesla. It’s because you’ve told your brain this is important. And so it’s gonna go try to find it.
So this means that we’re looking for negative things anyway, just as part of the way humans are and we’ve told our brains to be on the lookout for negative stuff. So then they find it and your brains are glad that they find it because this is awesome. I found something that sucks. Give me a cookie. You know, it’s like I did the job. And so if we want to be happy and enjoy this life, we’re gonna have to try to hack these natural human tendencies that we all have to look at what we’re experiencing right now and think if it’s not good, we have to seek out the good stuff on purpose and we have to encourage our brains to be on the lookout for it.
So, how do we do that? Well, I think that the first step is to actually drop back into our lives and start paying attention, you know, in order to begin cherishing and celebrating individual moments, we have to actually look around and experience them and that’s not really something that we do in our culture right now. We live in a culture that is just rife with distractions in a world where most people are tuning out, it takes a conscious decision to tune back in.
So you might look around and consider where you can decrease some of the inputs that you allow into your life. Do you need to turn off some of your notifications or cut out one of the shows that you’re binge-watching or turn off this podcast in the interest of actually experiencing and inhabiting your life? Pay some attention to the places where you’re attempting to multitask and ask yourself if you’re truly able to enjoy any of the activities that you’re trying to combine when you put them together.
You know, there’s an intelligent way to stack tasks. If I walk to the park with my kids and a picnic basket. I’m knocking out physical activity and quality family time and dinner and all those sorts of things. That’s great multitasking. But there’s also a less optimal way if I’m chatting with my kids while I play a game on my phone. Which, um, yeah, full disclosure. I totally done that many times. I’m sort of paying attention to my kids. I’m sort of relaxing and enjoying the game, but they don’t get the gift of my full attention and I don’t get the true relaxation and fun that comes from connecting authentically with two of my favorite people. So most of the time strive to do one thing at a time with your whole heart and your full attention and know that there’s nothing wrong with you.
If this takes some practice, if you are constantly, you know, like squirrel being drawn to, to the thing out of the corner of your eye, if you’re constantly being driven to distraction, you’re not alone. We all are dealing with this in the 21st-century world and the game is how quickly can you regain your focus once you’ve lost it? All right. So once we’re actually paying attention to our lives again, now, we can start working to hack our confirmation bias so that we remind our brains to pay attention to the good things and help us notice more of them.
And I personally have two main exercises that I’m using currently for this. Um, the first one I call something beautiful and I did not come up with this on my own and I’m gonna apologize and say, I believe I heard about it on, um, Laurie Santos podcast. She, it’s, oh, shoot, I’m not gonna remember what it’s called. It’s a happiness podcast. She runs the Happiness course at Yale, um, and she has a podcast and it’s fabulous, but she had a guest on one time that was talking about purposely going out and finding things every day that were beautiful. And I thought this was such a nice idea because it beauty wasn’t really a concept that I ever really thought about.
So I’ve started every evening in my journal writing down something beautiful that I saw and it’s not earth-shattering stuff. Yesterday, I wrote down that I saw a little cotton-tail bunny that hopped across the street. I was out walking first thing in the morning and I live in the desert and we have these little brown bunnies with little white tails. It hopped across my path and I thought that’s beautiful. And then later at night, I wrote it down. Um, things out in nature often make an appearance in my something beautiful. Um, but sometimes, you know, it’s that my kids helped each other with something or the other day I saw these gray-haired guys. Um, you know, I figure they have to be at least in their sixties, gray beards, gray hair had all the pads on and the helmets and they were riding skateboards in the skate park and they looked good like they knew what they were doing. I’m like, man, that’s beautiful. Like getting together with your buddies, um, doing something that probably they’ve done since they were teenagers. I thought that was beautiful. And what’s fun about this is I went from somebody who never saw beauty to somebody who now will spontaneously just say out loud to myself, that’s beautiful. Throughout the day. I’ve signaled to my brain that beautiful things are important and it magically finds them for me.
Another exercise that I love to use is my grateful five. Now, if you followed me for any length of time, you know, I talk about gratitude a lot. Lots of people agree that gratitude is, is a really great path to happiness, appreciating what you already have. So I have talked about and experimented with it a lot, but there are lots of studies that talk about gratitude. How best to practice it. Sonia Lyubomirsky who is, is a, a big positive psychology researcher. It turns out she found that people who practice gratitude once a week for six weeks did better than the people who did it three times a week. So, you know, you might experiment and find that, that you don’t like to do it as often in my current season of life. I’m doing it. Once a night or once a day rather.
Every morning when I wake up, I list five things that I’m grateful for. And it’s just, it’s a really feel-good way to start the day. It is hard to be cranky after. You’ve, you’ve spent time purposely looking for and celebrating what’s good you, and again, you’ve started the day telling your brain to look out for things to be grateful for because, you know, tomorrow there’s gonna be another list. So you’re book-ending, your day, you’re starting in the morning with reasons to be grateful and you’re ending the day remembering what was beautiful that day. OK. So this is good, right? This is how we’re hacking that, that confirmation bias and how we’re overcoming that negativity bias by focusing on what’s positive, looking for it on purpose.
So now we’re paying attention to what’s going on being a little bit more mindful, actually trying to inhabit our lives. We’re practicing hacking our brains to notice more of the positive things. But what do we do when life actually does kind of suck? You know, we were talking about love your fate. But what if, how do you love your fate when it is really, really, really hard.
You know, a lot of folks talk right now about toxic positivity and um, the fact that you shouldn’t be expected to keep a positive outlook all the time. I’m gonna be honest and say the term toxic positivity bugs me because I don’t personally see a whole lot of benefit in dwelling in negativity. But I want to be clear that what we’re striving to do here is not to just tell everybody things are fine when they’re not, not tell ourselves things are fine when we’re not, we’re trying to find legitimate joy in our current circumstances. And there is always joy to be found.
I know this is true because when I look back at the time that I consider to be the toughest time of my life, which was back when I was battling breast cancer, I had a newborn and a toddler in the house. I was actually diagnosed with cancer while I was pregnant. I still have these beautiful rose-colored joyful memories from that time. I remember my mom and my dad came to stay with us and my mom and I would sit on the couch and watch Call the Midwife on PBS that I couldn’t even tell you any details about the show. But I remember sitting with her and us having that time together. I remember my dad sticking turmeric in absolutely everything that he cooked. He did a lot of the cooking. And so all of my food had this sort of like yellowish tint. I remember my birthday. I turned 38 shortly after I was diagnosed and on my birthday, my brother and one of my very best friends um from graduate school. Uh Both surprised me on my birthday, they arrived within like 10 minutes of each other. And, um, you know, just came, one came from Philadelphia, one came from Chicago and I was living in Washington DC. So they really went out of their way to come and see me and make my birthday joyful. Um And yes, that was a long time ago, but even while I was going through cancer treatment, I used to play little games with myself about like what are the bright sides of chemo and, and you know, wax free Brazilian, you know, and little things like that where um you know, it was silly, it was goofy, but there’s just, I, I do believe that if you look hard enough for it, there is always a bright side.
So yes, sometimes things really do suck. Sometimes things don’t suck that bad. We just kind of grumble about them. So if it’s a small thing that is bothering you, I like to turn complaints into gratitude. I’ve talked about this before. So let’s say something. My living room looks terrible because my kids left their legos out there on the floor and I stepped on online. You know, that, that is irritating. That is something that bothers me and could make my experience of the moment a lot less good. But what about when I have that trigger to complain about it? To be annoyed? What about if instead I think about, I’m so grateful I have these healthy, vibrant, creative Children that are in my life and making my home so much more vibrant and fun and making my life so much more rich. You know, that’s not putting lipstick on a pig that is legitimately finding the joy in this circumstance that was annoying.
And what if it is something really big–cancer–death. You know, major trauma with a capital t. that’s when I think we really have to remember that we can’t control what happens to us, but we do control our response. And I invite you and I remind myself to accept the challenge of responding with joy or at least equanimity to the things that we see as trials. When life tries to knock you down, how long can you stay standing or how quickly do you jump back up? How can you change your thoughts to change what somebody else might see as something awful into something that makes you and your life better?
And with this attitude, you become unstoppable when “good things” which I’m putting air quotes around, when good things are happening, you notice them and you celebrate them and when bad things are happening, you turn them into fuel to make yourself better. So no matter what life is dishing out to you right now, I invite you to embrace this moment right now as one of the high points, one of the best moments of your life as Emily Dickinson said, forever is composed of nows. Let’s appreciate the beautiful nows while they happen, find the beauty in the everyday nows, and use the challenging nows to help us grow and evolve. Because in the end, not only might now be the very best time of your life. It’s also all you ever really have and you don’t want to miss it. Thanks for listening, talk to you soon.