[WARNING: Learning in progress]
- Happiness is a way of life, that YOU choose
Last year, I was in the middle of a phone call with my sport psychologist. He was talking about emotions, and saying that it was okay to be down or upset every so often, as long as you tried to move on from it after a while. And suddenly it occurred to me: I could choose to be happy. It seems a bit dramatic to put it like this, but it genuinely felt like a moment of enlightenment. In that moment, I realised that I had complete control over my emotions, and that if I just chose to be happy, I could be.
Of course there is a limit – I’m not saying that if you’re really upset over something, you can just snap your fingers, smile and say, “hey, I’m completely over it”, but as long as you just recognise and accept that that is how you’re feeling instead of dwelling on it, very quickly it is possible to make yourself feel better. Happiness doesn’t come to you; you choose it.
- Don’t just fake it till you make it, fake it until you become it
One day my coach sent me a link to Amy Cuddy giving a TED Talk on the importance of body language and how it influences both ourselves and others (link here). She spoke about how while it is common knowledge that our minds affect our bodies, it is also the case that our bodies may affect our minds. For example, sitting hunched up before a job interview may actually impact your mind and make you feel powerless and inferior, which subsequently impacts on your performance and the outcome of the interview.
There were a lot of examples and stories in the seminar (it’s definitely worth a watch) but basically the moral of the speech was that you shouldn’t just fake it until you make it, you should fake it until you become it. Pretend to be confident even if you’re not, and eventually it’ll become who you are.
I’ve used this mantra on a number of occasions, all with positive results, but for me the biggest impact has been on my mood. By trying to be optimistic, putting on a smile when things are going wrong and generally just pretending to be happy, it’s helped me become a much happier person. And most of the time now, I’m not pretending anymore. I’ve become it.
- When you feel like you’re drifting, make a decision
This was something that one of my physics teachers told me this year, in my final year of school. He was telling me about how he had heart problems and had been given the offer of an operation to try and fix it. Because it had risks, he couldn’t decide whether or not to go for it, and so had been drifting aimlessly, unsure, for months. But as he was talking to me, he suddenly stopped and said that he’d been drifting for too long, and was going to do it.
This really resonated with me because for a long time while I was still swimming, I felt like I was drifting too. I would turn up to training sessions, not really enjoying them but most of the time not hating it either, and I would just swim. Up and down and up and down, along the eternal black line on the floor of the pool. I knew in the back of my mind that I needed to do something about it but I put it off, afraid to say the words I knew everyone would hate to hear. However eventually I did, and it was one of the best decisions I think I’ve made. And now I know, that drifting achieves nothing.
- Everything happens for a reason
Now I am in no way religious. I wouldn’t go out on a limb and say that there is no God and that when we die we die, but I wouldn’t say I particularly believe in a creator or an afterlife either. However, I do think that there is some sort of mysterious force in the universe that governs our lives, depicts which people we need to meet and teaches us the lessons we need to learn. I also strongly believe in karma and that good people attract good things. (However, at the same time I appreciate that sometimes bad things happen to good people, but I’ve yet to come up with an explanation for that!)
In September I’m off to Edinburgh for university, and my best friend Beth and I had applied to stay in the same flat. We were unsuccessful, and while at first I was devastated, I am now thinking that it has maybe happened for a reason. I have never been great at meeting new people and have always been quite introverted around people I don’t know, so perhaps the universe has laid out a personal development plan for me to improve. On the other hand it could just be bad luck, but either way I’m going to put trust in it and believe it was meant to work out this way.
- Some things in life you just have to accept
This is where we come to my favourite teacher of all time: my S6 chemistry teacher, Mr Semple. When he first started teaching me in 5th year, he said I looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights, and ever since then I think he was on a mission to try and ‘improve’ me. And while he is the most sarcastic person I’ve ever met and outwardly appeared to not care about anyone’s wellbeing, he definitely did care and he definitely did ‘improve’ me. One of my probably more irritating traits, to a teacher, is that I can never just accept what I’m told. I have to question it, and find out exactly why it happens. It was this trait that led to Semple barking “JUST ACCEPT IT” ten times a lesson. And while he initially meant it to prevent me asking more questions about chemistry, it started to spread to other aspects of my life. Now, if I don’t like it, I change it; if I can’t change it, I accept it; if I can’t accept it, I leave it.
- Sometimes you need to focus on the present
Near the end of my Higher year, I was insanely stressed. The walking out of class, breakdowns in the guidance office kind of stressed. Because of it I was invited to take part in a mindfulness lesson, in the pupil support base, once a week. It didn’t particularly sound like something I would benefit from, but I was in such a bad place that I decided it probably couldn’t do any more harm. Oh it did.
I hated those lessons. For one full period a week we would listen to depressing and sometimes incredibly awkward stories from the teacher (the kind of stories that you reeaalllyy shouldn’t take into your work, nevermind tell to a bunch of already stressed teenage girls), as well as practising breathing and talking about feelings. They left me absolutely shell-shocked and even more stressed, but I was too scared to say I didn’t want to do them anymore.
But as much as I did hate them, there was a few good principles that I’ve adopted into my daily life. Sometimes when I’m overthinking and getting stressed, I try to anchor myself back in the present. I notice things – sounds and smells – and just try to focus on where I am at that present moment. I did it while I was preparing for races too: instead of stressing about how the race might go, I would focus on preparing myself the best I could. Focus on the process, not the outcome.
- Unnecessary pressure does more harm than good
This is another extremely important lesson I learnt after my Higher year. I was putting myself under far too much pressure to do well in my exams, when realistically there was absolutely no need for it. I’ve always been really academic, and I was the kind of person who enjoyed and did well at school, so I knew I wanted straight As in my highers. But for me at the time, straight As was never going to be enough. I wanted band 1 As, and better yet, I wanted to get as close as I could to 100% in every exam. It became an obsession: I would be silently annoyed if I lost a few marks in a test, and refused to use my notes to help me with homework so that I could see exactly which areas I didn’t know how to do. I was fully capable of getting straight As, and I did, but the stress I went through to get them was insane and completely unnecessary. In S6 I was much more relaxed, and didn’t even react when I got multiple Bs in my homeworks (something that would have driven me mad a year earlier!). Get rid of unnecessary pressure and be rational – nobody is perfect.
- Do what makes YOU happy
I touched on this in my first blog post but it is definitely one of the more important lessons I’ve learnt this year. For months I was drifting through my training sessions: turning up, doing what needed to be done and then getting out. I knew I wasn’t happy, but I was so afraid of letting people down that I kept going, for months and months and months. And mentally, it destroyed me. Yes, there were a lot of people that were disappointed when I told them I was quitting. There were even a few people who verbally said “no, I think that’s a mistake” and tried to persuade me not to. But at the end of the day, why would I continue living a life I wasn’t enjoying just to satisfy a few people? It would make absolutely no sense. It’s your life – do what makes YOU happy and ignore those who say otherwise!
- Holding grudges is a waste of your happiness
I am a very stubborn person. I am the type of person to take pride in holding grudges, the kind who would store up all the bad things someone did to me in my mind so that when I’m accused of something, I can reply with “well you did this, and this, and this”. I’m now learning that this is a very stupid and unhealthy thing to do. Holding grudges uses up so much mental energy. How can you live a happy life when every time you see someone, you are reminded of that time they invited all your friends to a party and forgot you? How can you be happy when you can’t go out for pizza because the last time you did, a girl gave you a funny look? How can you be happy when you’ve got the weight of every bad memory you have on your shoulders?
Sometimes, no matter what somebody’s done or said, you just need to forgive them. Not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.
- Put only the good memories in the box
Yesterday, I was scrolling through my Twitter profile, reading tweets from the past couple of months and going all the way back to when I first made my account. A lot of them from years ago were very depressing – it was easy to see how pessimistic I used to be and how much tiny little things used to bother me. In contrast, my more recent ones are visibly more positive and show how much happier I am now. And it made me feel so good.
The problem with reflection, is that most of the time people don’t use it properly, and it has a negative effect on them instead of a positive one. When I used to think about things I’d done in the past, I would automatically go to the negative stuff and get myself really worked up about it. I would get embarrassed at stuff I’d done and get angry at people for doing things that once upset me. And I found that I used to return to that stuff far too often.
My coach once told me that you have to treat your brain a bit like a box. Choose which memories you want to put in the box, and throw the bad ones away. It’s easier said than done, but I’m getting better at it, and now I realise that I actually can’t remember a lot of the bad times in my life very clearly, because I’ve automatically thrown those memories away. Get into the habit of only putting the happy memories in the box. Because after all, who wants to look through a photo album and only see the bad times?