Cultivating Hope (and Attitude)

With the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and reports of an over 30% increase in suicides nationwide, much has been written in recent days about who may be at risk for suicide, the symptoms, and ways in which we can all be more aware of and ready to help those who have reached such deep levels of desperation or depression. Social media has been full of posts asking everyone to remember that we are all fighting a battle and to be more compassionate with each other, which is all good advice, of course.

Today in one such post, I read these words of the Dalai Lama and this really stuck with me. “It is important to cultivate an attitude that allows you to maintain hope.” Two facets of this idea are intriguing to me. First, that our attitudes have such a powerful impact on how hopeful we feel and second, that a more hopeful attitude can be cultivated.

Neither of these ideas is new or earth-shattering. We’ve all heard about the significant role that attitude plays in our day-to-day happiness, but few think of someone who is feeling hopeless as having an attitude problem. And it seems too harsh to accuse a person who is already feeling down of having a bad attitude, doesn’t it?

But listen to the phrasing the Dalai Lama uses… “it is important to cultivate an attitude that allows you to maintain hope.” The attitude has to be cultivated first, and then the ability to maintain hope will be present. Maybe the very fabric of hope is woven from our attitudes about life.

The last few days I have been feeling really down. There are practical and imagined reasons for this, I suppose, but when and where did my attitude go so far south that I was unable to see or feel any hope? And how does one cultivate the sort of attitude that’s needed for hope to grow and more importantly, to stick around through life’s many difficulties?

Maybe the key is just to recognize that life is uncertain. Period. A resilient attitude, one that encourages us to count the highs and learn from the lows every day, is bound to result in a more resilient spirit, a more hopeful spirit, over the course of a lifetime.

And when you have already begun to go down the rabbit hole of self-doubt, fear, longing or sadness? My mother often said, “This, too, shall pass.” Such a simple thought, and so true. Can you remember happier times and how you got there? Can you know that those happy times will return? Can you rest in that knowledge just for today and be at peace with it? Maybe one day at a time is how one cultivates a more hopeful attitude, despite whatever is happening in life.

The Dalai Lama had one other thing to say, “Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.” And so it does.

Ten Ways to Keep a Positive Perspective

Everybody goes through rough patches, times when they feel very alone or perhaps misunderstood by the world. Rough patches can sneak up on you. Things are going along just fine, and then one by one the little things add up and all of a sudden life feels intolerable, a trap set by surroundings or circumstances beyond your control. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? How do you find your way back to a positive perspective when you have forgotten how?

Depression runs in my family and I am well-acquainted with the its defeating weight, with how desperate you feel when you’ve forgotten how to hope. But I have found ways to recognize early on when I have begun to sink, and ways to help me keep a positive perspective, even when things look bleak. Here are ten that work for me (most of the time!):

1) Recognize that what you are feeling is a feeling and not a way of life. Someone once told me that saying “I am depressed” is not ever true. You are not depressed or sad or despondent or rejected or misunderstood. You may feel those things, but they do not define who you are.

2) Recognize that all feelings come and go, and this one will, too, if you let it. Try to remember a time when you felt hopeful and positive about your life and relive it in your mind. It may feel false to do this, but it is a gentle reminder to your soul that you will feel this way again.

3) Breathe. Right now, this second, you are fine. You have all you need and probably most of what you want. Relax and breathe again, and every time that those feelings of desperation rise up within you. Those few seconds of pause throughout the day can keep everything in perspective until hope returns.

4) Feel gratitude. List five or ten things or people or circumstances for which you are grateful. Keep a notebook by your bed and do this every night before you sleep. No other habit has been so effective as this for helping me to remember how truly fortunate I am.

5) Envision where you want to be, how you want things to change or grow. Spend a couple of minutes in meditation every day envisioning in as much detail as you can how you’d like to feel and what you’d like to be different. Everything starts with an idea.

6) Do something, anything, to move you closer to where you want to be. There is something about taking action, however small, that reminds us that we are in fact the active agents of our own lives. Life isn’t happening to us if instead we are making our lives happen.

7) Get a little more rest. So often a down mood really just stems from being overtired. Treat your self to a nap.

8) Be nice to yourself. Treat yourself as you would a friend who was feeling down. You wouldn’t berate a friend and tell him or her to get their act together, and you wouldn’t tell them they were hopeless and they might as well give up. Talk to yourself as you would a good friend and see how well you feel.

9) Take care of yourself. Get some exercise and eat healthy foods. Just like rest, these habits improve your well-being both inside and out.

10) Spend some time in nature. Few things can calm the spirit so well as a walk in the woods or on a beach.

When things aren’t going your way, sometimes the only thing you can do is keep it all in perspective and know that this, too, shall pass.

Simply Say Thank You: Gratitude Journals

With the cold and gray days of winter lingering, it is easy to fall into a bit of a funk. Winter seems so long sometimes, and everything takes more effort, more energy, and definitely more clothing! It is gray outside and at this time of the year, I often feel gray inside, too. One way to feel hopeful again, and to stay on the brighter side of the remaining weeks of winter is to keep a gratitude journal.

I know, I know, you’ve heard this all before and it seems either too cheesy, too time-consuming or unlikely to be something you stick with for any length of time, so why start? And did I mention it sounds a little cheesy?

But if you can keep it simple, a gratitude journal can be a five minute practice at the end of each day that will change the way you approach your life.

A couple of years ago, I moved into my current home. I had never lived on my own before, and while I was excited and really happy about my choice in a new home, I was also feeling very overwhelmed with the ‘what-ifs’. What if the roof leaked or I had an electrical problem? What if my basement flooded or someone broke in? Was I safe here (and of course that meant physically, mentally, emotionally)? It was easy for my mind to spin out of control as I imagined the infinite number of scenarios in which something bad could or would happen.

I knew that this way of thinking was harmful and that this negativity was keeping me from enjoying my new life. And besides, I was OK. Everything negative was in my mind. It stood to reason that if I replaced those thoughts with more positive ones, my approach to this new life would change, too.

I began a simple habit that I still use almost daily to make sure I stay focused on what matters. I keep a small pocket sized notebook in my nightstand, and each night before I go to sleep, I list five things for which I am grateful. On good days, I can think of specific events to list, good and serendipitous things that have happened. On the rest of the days, I can list the basics: my daughters whom I love so much, my special friends who care so well for me, my health, my job that pays the bills, my warm bed, and if nothing else, the fact that I can go to sleep in a few minutes and forget the day ever happened!

Five things… simple. If I spend a minute thinking about each one, that is enough to remind me of my good fortune, and to make every day, no matter how gray and wintry, one to be thankful for!