I do not feel that I am a naturally optimistic person. I can be funny, satirical, laugh easily with friends. But my natural set point is one of worry, anxiety, stress and foreboding. All my life I have replayed the past in my head rehashing something that has happened, or more commonly, attempting in vain to see ahead, to understand how a pain or error today can affect my future. For large chunks of my teenage and adult years, these mindsets have limited me in what I will attempt, in what I risk.
I grew up in an environment immersed in anxiety and worry. Through no fault of her own, my mother was and is a highly anxious person, who constantly regretted the past and worried about the future. Whether through nature or nurture, I have found these patterns are hard to break. So much of my headspace is analyzing everything that has or could go wrong and trying to see my way around it. To an extent, this is not a bad process. When we learn from our mistakes, we can make changes to avoid them in the future. When we foresee possible problems, we can make choices to steer clear of them. But so often worry and regret take over our lives, stalling us from any action at all, keeping us “safe” by never letting us try. And all of this occupation with worry and anxiety keeps our mind from truly focusing on what matters, the life we have in front of us right now.
A couple of months ago I read Deena Kastor’s Let Your Mind Run in hopes that it would help me harness my mental strength when running tough races. What I found however, is a lesson in life that went much deeper than running. Through a slow, intentional practice in positivity and gratitude, Kastor changed her mindset from one fueled by negativity, set limitations and a “need” to succeed, to one of love, acceptance, patience, optimism, and a hunger to test herself. I have always struggled to control my thoughts, to intentionally choose my reaction or my mood to a situation. I must admit I didn’t believe it was always possible to change your natural response to stress. But here was Kastor, describing an intentional choice in her reaction, intentionally choosing to be grateful, intentionally choosing to be joyful. It wasn’t an immediate change, it wasn’t a quick lesson. It takes years to relearn a thought pattern, years to alter your gut reactions. But reading about her process, her slow transformation into a more intentional, grateful, and joyful person, gives me hope.
I have been trying to intentionally practice joy on a daily basis now. Some days it is easier than others. When a run goes well, I check off all my to dos, the schedule stays in place, and everything gets done, it is easy to be joyful and grateful. But when, as is more often the case, some niggle crops up in what should be an easy run, I’m always seeming behind, and the house erupts into the chaotic mess only a 7 year old and a 60 pound dog can create, joy is elusive and gratitude is easily replaced with impatience and anger.
I have a reminder on my bathroom mirror, a reminder to choose joy. Choose… not Be. And Joy… not Happiness. To me those little words hold a big distinction. The Reggae song may tell us to “be happy.” But happiness is a feeling brought on by outside forces. We are happy when we eat our favorite food. We are happy when the weather is beautiful. We are happy when our child is kind and considerate and cleans up his toys. We are happy when we get time away with our special someone. In all of these situations happiness is brought on by outside forces, we can “be happy” because we find happiness in what is happening to us. But to me joy is internal. Joy is how we consciously decide to react, no matter what is happening in the world around us. We choose joy, it doesn’t happen to us. And we can choose joy even when everything seems to be coming down around us. We can choose joy when our child misbehaves, when we have deadlines, when the house is a disaster, when we go to bed feeling like we worked hard all day but have absolutely nothing to show for it. We can choose joy when injured, or stressed, or frustrated. Joy is a choice, and no one and nothing can take that away.
And so I am trying to choose joy, consciously, intentionally, daily. I try to reset and frame each situation with gratitude, love, patience, and joy. It has not been easy. I fail frequently. Many times my ability to choose joy is inhibited by hormonal shifts beyond my control. More often than I like I slip back into my old patterns of coping, full of stress and anxiety. But on those hard days, I try to give myself grace. For it is not possible to relearn a lifetime’s process of thinking in a few weeks. And it is also not possible to browbeat and regret myself into joy. I will make mistakes, and I will fail, but that is part of the process, that is how we learn. And to miss the opportunity to choose joy today because of regret from past failures to make that choice, well that misses the entire point of the process. So today I forgive myself for my anxiety, forgive myself for my worry and my regret, forgive myself for my stress and my anger. Today I forgive myself for every time in the future that I will fail to embrace this new positive lifestyle. Instead, today I simply choose joy.