When a person steps back and looks at their life as a whole, those observations almost entirely fall into the things that they have or the things that they’re missing. These might be physical objects, or they might be things like relationships and personal skills, but many life assessments tend to break down into what you have and what you don’t.
I do this very thing myself. If I’m taking stock of my life, I’ll notice a lot of wonderful things that I have: my health, my family, home, friendships, hobbies, some of my meaningful possessions, my ability to think, skills and so on.
At the same time, I’ll also notice a lot of things that I don’t have, things that I wish that I had. I’ll think about places I want to visit. I’ll think about things I want to do. I’ll think about possessions that might be nice to have. You get the idea.
I also notice that the set of things that dominate my thinking have a lot to do with the mood that I’m in. In general, if I’m in a positive mood, I tend to think about the things that I already have — my kids, health, friendships, career and so on. If I’m in a negative mood, I think about the things that I’m lacking — missed opportunities, not enough friends or that new gadget I’ve been eyeing.
If I carry that a bit further, I notice that if I’m thinking a lot about the things that I don’t have, I try to remedy those missing things, often in less-than-ideal ways. I’ll convince myself to buy things that I really don’t need and, if I were thinking rationally, I really wouldn’t even consider buying. It’s that same mindset that can convince people who are depressed to try to talk to an old flame (usually disastrously) or to eat an entire poundcake and a pint of ice cream in one sitting.
In short, when we’re in a good mood and feeling optimistic, we tend to make better decisions for the short term and the long term of our life; when we’re in a bad mood, we tend to make very shortsighted decisions that are often disastrous in the long term. Spending money as “retail therapy” is a really poor long term choice, just as is eating an entire large pizza and staring at Netflix all night because you’re feeling blue.
I could offer a bunch of little tips that help with this challenge, but they all really boil down to one big strategy and how to practice it often: think about the things you have, not the things you lack.
I could think about how I don’t have the latest iPad, but I could think instead about the tablet I do have and all of the many things I can already do on it. (I use a tablet computer quite often.)
I could think about the things that are imperfect in my relationship with Sarah, but I could think instead about all of the things that are good about it.
I could think about a missed opportunity in my past, or I could think about how I can get ready for opportunities yet to come.
Invariably, if I think about the things that I have now that are good, and I do so consistently, I feel better about my life and just feel happier in general. If I feel better about my life and happier in general, I’m more likely to make good short term and long term choices. If you have one, the other follows.
The thing is, you always have the power to decide what to think about, to intentionally consider the good things you have, and to intentionally divert your thoughts away from what you don’t have. You can always choose to do that, and when you make that choice, you nudge your thoughts toward the more positive side of the equation.
One good daily practice for this is to keep a gratitude journal or even just a mental list. Each day, come up with five things in your life that you really like. They can be small things, like your daughter’s laughter or the way your carpet feels under your feet, or they can be big things, like your partner as a whole or your career. Just intentionally look for good things in your life, and make it a daily routine.
Another practice is simply noticing when your thoughts are dwelling on things you don’t have, and intentionally redirect your thoughts elsewhere. If you find yourself dwelling on something you don’t have (and trying to talk yourself into buying it), or if you’re dwelling on some major stressor that’s out of your control, recognize it and find something else to think about. Think about something interesting that’s coming up soon or about a great person in your life or about something as simple as how good a big glass of water would taste right now. Make this into a natural habit, something that you do as a normal response to negative thoughts.
Another practice, one I’ve found very useful as of late, is to make a giant, giant list of those things you’re grateful for, add to it regularly, and keep it somewhere, then look at it when your thoughts are in a more melancholy direction. I try to add to this list a little every day (and a lot on good days), and it is incredibly valuable to have it around when my thoughts move in a more negative direction. It’s a reminder for me when I’m unable to bring about more positive thinking on my own.
This goes on top of basic strategies for feeling mentally positive and good, like spending time outside and getting some mild exercise each day and eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
Doesn’t negative thinking motivate us to make changes? No, critical thinking does that. Negative thinking usually leads to big mistakes and poor temporary fixes. You can think positively about your life while still being critical of specific aspects of it. For example, I recognize that there are a lot of things I can work on and improve in my life, but I also feel that my life is pretty good as a whole and I have a lot of good things in it. I’m happy on the whole and feel positive that I can make changes to my life, but I’m aware of things that aren’t perfect that I can and should change.
Aren’t some negative thoughts normal? Isn’t it okay to think about what you don’t have? Such thoughts are definitely normal, and there’s nothing wrong with having them. The issue is when those thoughts become frequent enough that they’re driving behavior, meaning you’re buying things frivolously via “retail therapy” or doing other shortsighted things. Those are signs that it’s a good idea to consciously nudge your thoughts in a different direction.
Nothing here is a radical change or a big shift in living. Rather, it’s just a nudge where, when you find yourself in a cycle of negative thoughts, you recognize it and intentionally move out of it. Intentionally think more about what you have, and if you notice your thoughts dwelling on what you lack, nudge them in a different direction.
It seems comically simple, but it makes a profound difference. Simply listing the good things I have and coming back to it when I’m dwelling on what I don’t have goes a long way toward keeping melancholic thoughts from piling up, and it is those melancholic thoughts in a pile that drive things like impulsive spending and bad eating decisions and just being in a bad mood around family and friends, none of which are things I want in my life.
Think about what you have, not about what you lack. Don’t get upset with yourself if you think about the things you lack – that’s normal human life – but nudge yourself away from them, and make an effort sometimes to think about what you’re grateful for. It’s that simple, and it makes a subtle but profound difference in your financial, professional, and personal life.