Photo by Geetanjal Khanna on Unsplash

Hello my dear happiness nerds, welcome (back)!

It’s a grey autumn’s day here in Zurich. The blanket of clouds is so thick that it’s dark even at noon. And it’s raining non-stop. Everybody I know would call this weather ugly and depressing. I get it. The beautiful warmth of sunlight on our skins is intuitively more pleasant. Also, one doesn’t have to wield a cumbersome umbrella just not to get soaked on the way to work. And it’s cold and windy and dark and so on. I get it. But also, not.

See, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and while I acknowledge that we’re probably hardwired to prefer sunny weather, I think we can calibrate our software to enjoy the allegedly depressing grey just as much. Part of the solution might be positive reframing, that is seeing the dark clouds and heavy rain in a more flattering light: Water is essential for life, it grows our beautiful trees, and people in other parts of the world pray for and even fight wars over water. We get it for free, pouring down from the sky. It forms puddles for children to jump into, it washes away the dirt on our streets, and it gives us a great opportunity to cozy up inside and listen to the sound of raindrops against our windows (they sound even better on a tent!).

Yet, positive reframing isn’t the whole story to enjoying undesired weather, which may look different from our heavy clouds depending on where you live. It’s neither the whole story for everything else that momentarily isn’t the way you want it to be, so listen up! In my experience, if you develop an attitude of presence, calm, appreciation, and gratitude, nothing’s rarely ugly, inconvenient, annoying, or wrong—and even if it is, it isn’t so for long*. The occasional positive reframing won’t accomplish much if you’re anxious, stressed out, and grumpy the rest of the day. And if you have to reframe most of the situations you’re in, you should probably change your life more fundamentally anyway. For a generally positive outlook on life, you need a general attitude and conduct that is conducive to such an outlook.

Building an attitude of presence, calm, appreciation, and gratitude takes time and effort, of course. But it is time and effort well invested, because the return of your investment won’t take long to materialize. Most of the benefits are instant, in addition to the more cumulative, long-term ones. The moment you behave in a present, calm, appreciating and/or grateful way, you feel better (it’s so simple, it’s almost tautological). This is, because these states are largely (but not always completely) incompatible with negative moods and feelings such as anxiety, stress, and grumpiness. We know this from psychological research and you can probably also verify it in your own experience: If you’re like me, you’re usually either grateful or stressed in any given moment, rarely both at the same time. And you’re definitely never calm and stressed at the same time, because those two states are incompatible by definition.

But how do you build such a “happy attitude” as we might call it? Do you, for example, just act calmly when you’re actually stressed out? That sounds awfully inauthentic and probably ineffective, too, right? Psychological research agrees. Suppressing negative feelings is rarely your best option and can have hidden costs. But sometimes in life it’s necessary, so don’t completely discard it. Also, I would argue, occasionally it can help to remember that you can act in a different (e.g., less stressed) way and the negative feelings will subside naturally and authentically. Doing things in a frantic way probably won’t make you accomplish more in less time, but it will definitely drain you. Therefore, do them calmly, deliberately, and efficiently instead, if you can. I love this quote from Laozi, the great Daoist: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

Additionally, positive reframing can help prevent unnecessary states of anxiety, stress, and grumpiness before they happen, which is generally better than fighting them once they’ve fully formed. If you suffer from such negative emotions chronically, though, I’d suggest you get professional help. It’s way less stigmatized than in the past thanks to increased mental health awareness, and it’s just unnecessarily hard to get out of such chronic misery by yourself. Like with repairing a car or getting a new haircut: If you want to get it done well, call a professional (in this case a certified psychotherapist). If you can’t bring yourself to do it or can’t afford it, call friends or family. They’re usually happy to help, so you actually do them a favor.

In any case, mindfulness of one’s emotions and the ability to step out of them can be really helpful. A daily five-minute mindfulness routine in the morning can already do wonders, but probably do a course or retreat first, so you can learn the techniques properly and experience the benefits more clearly. This way, you’re more likely to really make mindfulness part of your healthy habits.

Apart from such quick fixes in the moment, how could a long-term roadmap to a happy attitude look? I’ll try to give you a rough sketch and I’m grateful for any suggestions in the comments on how to improve it. A note on how to use this roadmap before I start listing and describing its steps: You don’t have to master one step before you can move to the next. In fact, you shouldn’t. I’d advise you to do the first step just well enough to move on to the next one and be able to perform it with only a reasonable amount of difficulty. When you’ve completed the last step, go back to earlier steps and deepen and widen your practices there. It’s an upward spiral in terms of development and insight. Its goal is to make you happier, wiser, and more resilient, which inevitably will also make you more productive, kind, and beneficial to humanity, which is and always has been in dire need of improvement. As you will see, I’ll rely heavily on the wisdom of various traditions of thought and practice, and I’ll point them out as I go. My contribution is merely to provide a possible framework for development that I haven’t seen in this form (at least I’m not aware of such a framework—please let me know in the comments if my roadmap reminds you of an existing one).

  1. First, know yourself. Know your strengths and weaknesses, your preferences and values, your patterns and baggage. What do you want from life? How can you be of service? Which talents and interests should you therefore nourish? I can recommend you looking into Ikigai, a Japanese philosophy that can really help with these questions. Also, Daoism, Stoicism, and Vipassana insight meditation offer great approaches to these questions. Another really important question here is this: Which of your patterns of thinking, feeling, or (non-)acting hold you back, lead to unnecessary conflict, and make you and the people around you miserable? We all have those, so be brave and acknowledge them without guilt or shame. Psychology and psychotherapy are the best approaches to this question in my opinion (but as a trained psychologist I may be biased). I’d especially recommend schema therapy as well as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
  2. Second, reduce, declutter, and say no. Say no to activities and people that unnecessarily drain you or don’t give you value. Note that this in no way is supposed to mean that you only use people and give nothing in return. Neither does it mean that you drop them once you got what you wanted, not at all. I think all people have inherent value and should be treated with dignity and respect. What I want to say is that you should surround yourself with people with whom you mostly have constructive and fruitful patterns of interactions and (respectfully and compassionately) cut ties with those with whom you mostly have toxic patterns of interactions. Don’t’ forget, it takes two to tango. Read up on this topic, because relationships are one of the biggest and most important elements in our lives, if not the number one. Regarding activities: Don’t follow every initial excitement or let alone hype, but choose a few or even just one activity that really suits you and that you love doing. Do less and therefore do it better and more joyfully. You know what you enjoy and what is of value to you from the first step. Likewise based on the first step, make working on one of your destructive patterns a personal project—you don’t want to say no to working on your issues. I recommend Epicureanism, Daoism, Buddhism, and minimalism/simple living as helpful approaches.
  3. Third, devote time, love, and attention, but expect nothing. Now that you know with whom and what you want to spend your time and you have removed distractions and obstacles, it’s time to devote yourself to them. But there are better and worse ways to devote yourself, even with the people and in the things that you’ve chosen wisely and with all your heart. Don’t do it in a half-arsed way (excuse my British), but really be present, pay attention, and invest some genuine effort. It’s scary, I know, because in the case of “failure” you don’t have the excuse that you didn’t really try, which can call into question your judgment, skill, and worth. But we’ll take care of this problem with the next aspect of this step: Don’t expect or even desire certain outcomes. Real success is not maintaining a certain relationship or meeting a certain target, which always involves luck and factors outside your control (you’re not omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, are you?). Instead, real success is having done everything you could to make a desired outcome most likely. Not at every price, of course, but in the most ethical way available to you. So, define success as doing what you should be doing and doing it well, because it would be very unwise to make your happiness hinge on factors outside your control (i.e., the outcome of your actions). The path will be much more enjoyable and with patience you’ll regularly attain desired outcomes anyway (but you don’t depend on them). Last but not least, engage in your relationships and passions with love—for the persons and activities, but also for yourself. If you dare to invest love and make yourself vulnerable, you will enjoy your relationships and activities more, and effort will be effortless much of the time. In the case of activities, you’ll also get started more easily and procrastinate less. But, like every human being, you’ll procrastinate at least a little bit, even the activities you usually enjoy doing. That’s ok, perfection just isn’t in the cards for us humans (and gods most likely don’t exist outside of ideas). Therefore, be loving and kind towards yourself, too—you’re worth it as much as any of us. For this step, I recommend Stoicism, Buddhism, and Daoism as the most useful approaches.

In a nutshell: In Step 1, getting to know yourself gives you the right direction in your life, because, among others, you identify what’s important to you (which definitely will be partly different from what’s important to others or society as a whole). In Step 2, decluttering gives you the necessary focus in that right direction, because you spend less time on activities that aren’t essential to you, and you get less drained from relationships that are toxic for you and your counterparts. In Step 3, devoting yourself to your path without expecting anything gives you true fulfillment, because you do what you care about and what you’re good at in a way that guarantees real success at every step.

I hope this roadmap will help you move from getting annoyed at the dark clouds to appreciating the beautiful sound of raindrops in a present, calm, and grateful way. As always, all the best, yours truly, Thomas.

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* I’m not saying, though, that you should just accept all negative circumstances in your life or that of others. Change what you reasonably can, vote and fight for freedom and justice, but also cope with the unavoidable and unchangeable as well as you can. Because, ideally, it doesn’t take much to be happy: Just marvel at the example of Diogenes in his “barrel” (actually, it was a large ceramic jar called “pithos”).

19 thoughts on “From Dark Clouds to the Beautiful Sound of Raindrops

  1. Hi Thomas,
    I read your post with interest. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was 40. I am now 63. About 5 years ago I was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder with deep depressive episodes and occasionally mild mania episodes. I seem to be getting worse as I age. I have had numerous admissions to a mental health facility and many medications. Unfortunately, none of the medications have had long term success. My psychiatrist is saying I have a drug resistant mood disorder. I have also had ECT which helped for a short while. Now I am on Ritalin. On this drug I am able to do a lot more than I have been capable of in previous episodes. I am also on Quetiapine, Lithium, and Olanzipine. With Ritalin which I take anywhere between 40mg and 60mg a day dependent on my mood swings. I am going okay but I’m not back to how I was 2 months ago. I am speaking to my psychiatrist soon and I have seen my psychologist too. I am not back to my “normal” self. When I am in a mood dip I usually have to take time out and read a book or lay down and listen to relaxation music till my mood picks up. Any other recommendations for getting through the mood dip would be appreciated.
    Robyn

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Robyn! Thank you for reading and for sharing your story. I’m very sorry to hear that you have been thorough so much. I’m not a clinical psychologist or psychotherapist, so please take my recommendation with a grain of salt (but you seem to be in good hands anyway, so you could evaluate my recommendation with them, too). You know yourself well and know how to deal with mood dips – that’s great! One thing that you could consider: I would maybe let go of the goal to restore your life to how it used to be (to your “normal“ self). Life is always changing, nobody can go back, only forward. Being in a mood dip is very unpleasant, but it also makes you more empathetic to the pain of others. Your old “normal“ self didn’t have this to the extent that you have it now. It may sound strange, but stop “fighting“ your condition. Work on it like I outline in Step 3, your success will be knowing that you did everything you could. But your happiness doesn’t depend on getting somewhere. Happiness is learning to love being where you are, even if it often entails being depressed. I hope this helps, I really wish you all the best. Thomas

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked your post, every point made sense to me. I also believe you need to be true to yourself. I also think it is important to say no to activities you don’t enjoy; however sometimes you need to attend those activities for other reasons, but free to say no sometimes.
    I am just a visitor for the first time, I hope it is ok I offer a point for improvement. Many readers of blogs will not read every point in a paragraph it it looks lengthy. In my blog I use space, like pauses when speaking to someone.
    Thanks for visiting my blog. Looking forward to your suggestions and comments if you are able to look around my posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, thanks for your great comment! Definitely, there are activities that one doesn’t enjoy, but that add value. Household chores may be such activities for many people. One shouldn’t say no to them. But by decluttering and then devoting oneself even to such activities they should become more enjoyable.
      Thanks for your advice, I’ll see if I can implement it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. As always, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! I’m not surprised that you like both equally much – I assume you’ve been doing much work along the 3 steps (as far as I can tell especially the first one, the others are harder to judge from a distance) 😃 Big hug from rainy Zurich 🤗

      Like

  3. Great post!
    So many lines to ponder on but this got me
    In Step 1, getting to know yourself gives you the right direction in your life, because, among others, you identify what’s important to you (which definitely will be partly different from what’s important to others or society as a whole).
    i was on a journey to self discovery and i will say i am still discovering myself and you said it gives you the right direction in life and make you set priorities right. well, i am glad i have achieved a lot of that and i am proud of who i am today. i am a work in progress. Thank you for going through my write up as well. i’ll definitely share to my friends and on my social media page as well.
    Thanks Thom!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey hey! Thanks so much for reading and for your great comment! I’m happy to hear that you’re already well into step 1! I think it’s the most important step. All of us are works in progress, nobody has figured it all out, not even the gurus and buddhas. You can be proud of that, indeed 😊 Wish you all the best and read you again soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like your wisdom. In fact I like all wisdom, provided it’s a bit sceptical about itself. My tradition is Christianity which is also good as long as it is held sceptically. Even scepticism should be held sceptically. I doubt, therefore I am, maybe. Thanks for your blogs and your interest in mine

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Emmock! I’m happy to hear that you’re a fan of scepticism – I’m, too! 🙂 Even the bit with being sceptical about scepticism itself. There’s definitely too much of a good thing with almost anything. One of my other favorite values: Moderation. Which also goes well with scepticism (and everything else, including moderation itself). Best wishes and read you soon, Thomas

      Like

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