On finding the bright spots

I’m going to start off with my usual spiel: I’m not a psychologist, or a life-coach, or any other such thing. I’m just a 24 year old girl who thinks a lot and writes to connect with other people. Everything below is my humble opinion, and it is not meant to tell you how to live. Now onto the show:

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Those positivity posts usually feature photos such as this one, because people on mountains can only have positive thoughts. Obviously.

I’ve read a lot of blog posts about positivity, and how positive thinking can turn your life around. But those are vague. Sure–I think as I read yet another one that explains the link between positive thinking and having a happy, productive life–it’s easy to say that you should be more positive. But how do you actually do it? What about the moments when you’re moody and things go wrong? What about the times when you’re tired and cranky?

Also, the advice that those posts offer generally turns me away right at the start, because I don’t want to be the sort of person who never acknowledges negative things. Those people seem fake and inauthentic to me (and authenticity is one of the things I value most in others and myself). Sometimes it’s okay to feel sad about something, or have a negative thought about someone. The important thing is that you keep that negativity in perspective.

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Chara is one of those obnoxiously positive people.

Most of us have pretty wonderful lives. The people that I know read my blog have loving families and adorable pets and awesome significant others. Or they have great jobs and exciting lives. Even if some truly miserable things have happened them, chances are that they have something good going on in at least one arena of their lives.

But having a wonderful life isn’t guaranteed. Bad things happen to the best of us, no matter the good karma we put out, or the luck that has guided us through life up until that point.

It’s the way that we deal with those bad things that makes or breaks us. And I honestly believe that being able to deal with small setbacks– finding ways to brighten dark moments–helps us cope with the larger ones.

My advice about keeping negativity in check comes from my dad. And I want to share it because not everyone has had the privilege of being raised by him.

I’ve learned a lot of things from my dad. He taught me to ride a bike (with the assistance of our neighborhood greyhound, Petey), to draw a snazzy trumpet with only one line, to entrance a cat by rubbing its scruff.

The lesson that has most impacted my life, however, isn’t something that he purposefully taught me. It’s something that he does day in and day out. Something that I picked up after years of watching him navigate the world.

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This guy is pretty extraordinary.

My dad is a positive thinker.

Instead of defining his life by the things he doesn’t want to do, he turns the dull, boring moments–or the unpleasant moments–into bright spots in his day. He finds ways to make them wonderful. And through that, he’s always excited about whatever it is that he’s doing.

For example, I remember dreading the thirteen hour car ride that we took to Michigan each year for Christmas as a little girl, and my dad turning it into something to look forward to instead–“We’ll eat in greasy little diners with homemade pies and the best french fries in the world. And you and Jenna will snuggle up with blankets and books, and we’ll tell stories and sing songs.”

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Chara is also a big fan of car rides, especially if they take place in our Subaru, since she actually fits.

Even the driving itself became something exciting, romantic. He made the idea of staying up all night, crammed in a car, fun. And it worked. Our car rides to Michigan (which could’ve been an annual nightmare), are some of my fondest memories from my childhood. I still look forward to long car rides.

This is something that I do unconsciously in my life today. When I have to stay up late to get an assignment done, I put on music and curl up and drink tea. I savor the quiet moments with a warm cat on my lap, or bask in the warm yellow lamp light beside me. Something that could’ve been miserable, exhausting, defeating, instead turns into a treasured moment.

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Minerva is also good at this. Instead of fixating on the terribly unfashionable cone she had to wear after her spay surgery, she used it to better funnel the smell of flowers into her nose.

It even carries through to those unplanned events that quickly turn a day nasty. When I got locked out of our apartment in Madelia (without shoes or my phone, for four hours in the middle of  a Minnesota winter!), I ended up befriending the four year old boy across the hall, and we played spelling games and motored miniature fire trucks across the hall until I managed to borrow a phone to call Jordan and let him know I was locked out. It’s one of my favorite memories from living in Minnesota, but it easily could’ve been one of my worst.

And because of this mindset, there isn’t much (aside from truly tragic things), that I mind. I like storms that make the power go out, because there’s something magical about hunkering down and lighting candles. The car breaks down and I’m stuck in some random town waiting for it to be fixed? To me, it’s sort of nice having forced time to sit in a diner and drink crummy coffee.

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When bad things happen to Chara (like she gets locked out of the apartment on a very hot day because her human is careless with her keys), she takes the opportunity to explore the world and reflect on the things she does have.

I took that attitude for granted for a long time–I suppose I recognized that I didn’t mind bad things happening as much as the average person–but I believed that everyone thought similarly to me.

I’m not trying to claim that I’m the only person who does this. I’m not. I see this sort of thinking all the time in the people I admire. I see it in Jordan’s sister Anna’s old Facebook posts about how she had a ton of homework to do, but she was going to make bread so that she had something to look forward to while staying up late. I see it in Jordan’s love of crummy coffee on late night drives.

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Homemade baked goods can go a long way to turning an unpleasant situation into a happy one.

It’s a willingness to make the best out of unpleasant situations. To overlook the bad things and get excited about the good things. And when the situation seems mostly bad, it’s thinking creatively about how you can make it better. This sort of thinking can be applied to almost anything.

When I don’t feel like exercising, I think about how nice it will feel to come back and shower. Or I think of the wonderful peace that I’ll feel as Chara and I trot along the trails together.

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When I’m nervous about flying or stressed about traveling, I think about how I’ll see the clouds from above, and how the houses will turn into tiny miniature models that I could almost scoop up with my pinky. I think about the bags of peanuts, and chewing gum so that my ears don’t pop. I imagine people watching–and seeing joyful and sad moments–while waiting to board.

When Jordan and I cooked our first Thanksgiving meal together for ten people, and it turned out to be way more work than we imagined, I focused on how fun it is to work alongside him, to stay up late peeling potatoes and listening to my favorite music. To try new recipes.

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“Eat this.”

These examples might be small things, but I believe that history of finding bright spots adds up over time. It means that you’re happy enough in your day to day life to overcome the really hard things–like getting fired or dumped, or mourning a death in the family.

As I get older, I encounter more and more of the type of thinking that defeats people. The negative spiral of excuses for not doing something or for avoiding something. The meltdown when things don’t go as planned. And I wonder if they could just spend a year watching my dad, if maybe they’d be better off, happier.

Life doesn’t have to be a trial. If you let it, it can be full of joy and triumph and excitement.

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Even though our engagement didn’t go as planned (it was freezing, the lighthouse where he was going to ask didn’t allow dogs, there were tourists everywhere), this was one of the most joyful and triumphant moments of my short life.

So I challenge you to acknowledge the negative things and choose to rise above them by focusing instead on things that make you happy–even if it’s as small as that first sip of coffee.

How do you make unpleasant things better?

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