Sunday, January 10, 2016

From Hopelessness To Happiness—A Learnable Life Skill

May 12, 2015

Do you know happiness and joy are emotions that can be learned?

On this Mother's Day edition, I want to pay tribute to my mother who showed me sacrificial love in spite of her own struggles in life. Although she was mistreated and betrayed, she continued to live and love. I had many happy times with my mother because both of us enjoyed quality time and loved talking with each other.

In many ways, big and small, Mom sacrificed herself for her children. She encouraged me to keep on learning and seeking for a better future. She dealt with her hopelessness by putting her hope and future onto me. When Mom passed away at age 48, part of me died with her. My hopelessness and emptiness eventually led me to Christ; and my life, marriage, and family have never been the same!

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11)

Were you conditioned to feel hopeless from some childhood or recent traumatic experiences? Like me, you could also learn a new life skill -- from hopelessness to happiness.

If life could be graded, Anthony would give his an F. His new job is stressful, his teenage daughter is struggling with depression, he and his wife are fighting a lot lately, and he hates himself for the extra 50 pounds he's carrying.

Anthony feels hopeless and his life seems depressing and dark. Every setback reinforces his feelings of pessimism and grim certainty that nothing will ever get better.

Barbara's struggles seem just as daunting. Her husband just lost his job, two months after the birth of their first child. She is responsible for her elderly mother, who is becoming increasingly frail. To make things worse, her best friend and main support is moving to another state and the landlord just raised the rent by $200. Despite all this, Barbara gives her life a strong B+ and knows there are some A+ days ahead.

Unlike Anthony, Barbara sees her setbacks as temporary obstacles to be overcome. To her, crises are part of life, opportunities for her to gain in wisdom and courage.

Put simply, some people are optimists and others are pessimists. However, optimism isn't an accident—it's a skill that can be learned, one that can help us feel better, resist depression and greatly improve our lives.

Psychologist, clinical researcher and bestselling author Martin Seligman has spent 25 years studying optimism and pessimism. In his book, Learned Optimism, he states that pessimistic thinking can undermine not just our behavior but our success in all areas of our lives.

"Pessimism is escapable," he writes. "Pessimists can learn to be optimists."

By altering our view of our lives, we can actually alter our lives, he says. First, he says we must recognize our "explanatory style," which is what we say to ourselves when we experience a setback. By breaking the "I give up" pattern of thinking and changing our interior negative dialogue, we can encourage what he calls "flexible optimism." He believes that focusing on our innate character strengths (wisdom, courage, compassion), rather than our perceived failures boosts not just our moods, but our immune system. Research has shown that optimistic people tend to be healthier and experience more success in life; therefore, he encourages parents to develop the patterns of optimism in their children.

Have you wondered how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors all influence each other? Are you aware how parents are shaping their children's core beliefs about self, others, and future?

It is difficult to have happiness and joy without hope! So what's your basis of hope?

As followers of Christ, "We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf..." (Hebrews 6:19-20)

I have found techniques outlined by Dr. David Burns in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy effective in treating depression. He believes that changing our thinking has a profound effect on our moods, including cases of severe depression. It's not our lives that depress us, he writes, but our thinking about our lives.

So unless Anthony begins to change his thinking, his life's outlook may remain bleak and dismal. Barbara, however, is likely to graduate to even more satisfying and fulfilling years ahead because she believes her life is filled with challenges and opportunities.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
Author's content used with permission, © Claire Communications

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