A Series of Unfortunate Events

Given the events of the day, I had every reason to feel a bit sorry for myself. Stringing together the Series of Unfortunate Events that occurred, it would be very easy for me to convince you of it, too!

When the alarm went off one morning, I bemoaned the fact that I wasn’t feeling well. My stomach hurt and my bones ached, as they had the past few days. I lingered in bed just a little bit longer, convincing myself that just a few more minutes would cure the malaise I was experiencing. On days like this, being unproductive would be perfectly predictable. An evening previously, I had texted a colleague of mine asking if she’d like to meet up today for a snack and study session. We agreed to arrange the place to meet in the morning. Well, this morning I just wasn’t feeling like it — and I had an easy out. After all, I wasn’t feeling well, and my friend would have certainly understood if I chose to cancel our plans.

One trick I like to try when I’m not feeling particularly like doing something is to ask myself what I would do if I did feel like doing something. So I said to myself, “Self, if you did feel like getting out of bed today and studying, what would you do?” And so, reluctantly, I texted my friend and arranged a place to meet in a couple of hours.

After I got ready, I started heading for the coffee shop where we decided to meet. I typically take the same routes every day. I had traveled this route hundreds of times. I like to think my contributions via tolls and taxes have given me partial ownership of the road — I should own at least a mile or two of those painted white dashes. I darted in and out of traffic, annoyed at these other people who had dared to trespass on my piece of Colorado’s infrastructure. Then, it happened: Red and blue lights flashed behind me, as I was pulled over for speeding.

After the State Trooper wrote me a ticket and before I pulled back into traffic, I called my friend to let her know I’d be late. My heart wasn’t pounding, I wasn’t the least bit annoyed, and I wasn’t terribly distraught at the exorbitant fine which had just been assessed against me. In fact, I found myself in an inner monologue about how great it is we have people who keep our roads safe, and briefly mused about what accident this officer had just saved me from getting involved in. I drove to the coffee shop without further thought about the traffic ticket.

After my colleague and I enjoyed a cup of coffee and a pastry, we talked about psychological theories, discussed ideas, and read each other things we had written (what can I say… the life of an aspiring depth psychologist is extraordinarily geeky). After a few more hours, I decided to check my e-mail. I excitedly observed that one of the universities to which I had applied to be a part-time instructor had e-mailed me. I was delighted!

As I read the e-mail, however, I realized it was a letter advising me that they were putting hiring on hold for this position due to budget constraints. I was disappointed for a brief moment, after which I said to myself, “Self, keep thinking positively. This is just a no for right now — not forever.” And then I moved on with the day.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Oh brother. Here’s another one of those power-of-positive-thinking guys, making lemonade out of lemons!” And, if I were you, I’d be thinking the same thing, too. But the truth is, today was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. I don’t have a history of being the most positive thinker in the world. In fact, I have been known to be quite the worrier. Why was it that despite some pretty crummy things happening, it seemed like such a great day? Is there a science to positive experiencing, or happiness? Okay, that’s a leading question. The answer is, yes, there is.

(Full disclosure: I actually teach a course in positive psychology that teaches many helpful concepts — check it out at on the workshops page.)

Try this simple exercise. Take a sheet of paper and fold it in half the long-ways. Label the first column “Column A: Timeline” and “Column B: Narrative”. In Column A, list everything that could be recorded if your whole life were on a security camera (Just the facts, ma’am!) These are things that occurred in time, space, and distance. In Column B, list the personal narrative that you have about this event, or the meaning of the event.

My day’s Column A might look something like this:
Woke up with a stomach ache
Texted friend
Got in car, started driving
State Trooper pulled me over, wrote me a ticket for speeding
Talked with friend
Received e-mail about hiring freeze
Went to dinner with my friend and her husband

Now, here’s my Column B:
I am so sick of feeling sick.
No matter what I do, it seems I always have a stomach ache.
I’m a good friend for texting my friend even though I didn’t feel like it.
I’m kind of lucky to have friends in the area that I can meet for coffee.
It feels like I haven’t seen her in a long time.
Yuck. I really hate getting pulled over.
I can’t afford this ticket.
I’m so embarrassed.
I love studying with a partner.
This is great!
This is so disappointing.
I really wanted that job.

You’ll notice that the events that happened (Column A) don’t have much room for interpretation. They’ve already passed, and no amount of discussion is going to change it. They are, in fact, physical happenings that can no longer be manipulated. It’s simple physics.

Now, Column B is a completely different story. Column B is where I have a lot of creative license. In this column, I’m free to write any sort of narrative I please. Note that not all of my narrative is rosy sunshine-and-unicorns. There’s plenty of negative in it. Based on my choice, I could have had the worst day ever or one of the best days ever. The reality is, I get to construct what narrative therapy calls a dominant theme. My dominant theme, as I’ve explained earlier, was that today was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. How is that? Why wouldn’t the dominant theme be “today stinks!”

Well, first, it takes some practice. I’m not perfect at it, but over time it has gotten easier — and at least 65% of the time, my dominant theme is positive. It starts with a conscious choice to highlight positive events instead of negative. Neuroscience is finding and positive psychology is proving that humans have a natural tendency towards negativity bias. The reasons for this are not entirely known, but one theory is that it exists from a survival instinct built into the human brain. The human brain will automatically highlight perceived threats, as it would have done in prehistoric times, for survival of the species. Identify the threat, charge it with emotional intensity, and seal it in memory. This has worked to help us survive, but doesn’t work so well when we are not likely to be attacked by a wild animal and want to be happy. Make no mistake about it! Your brain is not designed to make you happy.

Although this new way of thinking isn’t easy at first, it does get easier. Certainly genetics and predisposition factor into mental habits — that cannot be denied.

The good news is that we can literally re-pattern our thinking to highlight positive events and re-frame them to create a new, more beneficial dominant theme. All it takes is practice, practice, practice. Then, it becomes habit. I was surprised that my dominant theme was so positive on this day — so much that it seemed strange to me that I wasn’t having my old patterns of negative thought! Give it a try for at least 21 days. I’d love to hear about your results.

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