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Bounce Back from Anything with the Resilience of Life's Silver Lining

Posted by Joe Robinson

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TO ERR IS HUMAN; to forgive divine. Especially when it comes to forgiving ourselves. It’s hard to let an unforced error or rough event go. We can be tougher on ourselves than the worst boss. That’s despite the fact that most of life is trial and error. 

Setbacks shake our confidence and faith, but they are not the end, even if they seem that way. That is because the essence of our species is adaptability and resilience. It’s hard to see that when we are in the middle of adversity, but we are super-hardy characters.

FINDING YOUR FOOTHOLD

Life itself is tenacious. I was hiking in Kings Canyon National Park a couple weeks ago on a trail that leads into the backcountry of one of America’s wildest parks. The trail follows the ascending South Fork of the Kings River, a raging whitewater flood after this year’s snows, and rises in the shadow of massive granite cliffs on either side gouged out by glaciers thousands of years ago to form a natural stadium carpeted by conifers.

Yet even on the steep walls of granite, it was easy see how stubborn life is. Sugar pine and manzanitas pop out from slivers of cracks in the sheer granite. Seeds blown hundreds of yards by gusts or deposited by birds fell into cracks, and nature did the rest. The trees hang on as if glued to the rock through bitter, stormy Sierra winters, roots battling solid rock to make a stand where they have no right to be.

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Get a foothold, and you can persevere, they tell us. For humans, that foothold comes in the form of a nutrient that helps us persist no matter what shakes us: optimism. It allows us to let go of negative events and the lingering thoughts about them by shining a light on a path forward. It doesn’t end pain and further setbacks, but the more you exercise your option to adjust to circumstances by taking a positive view, the more you broaden and build resiliency to life's slings and arrows, something we learn how to do in my stress management training and resiliency keynotes.

Winston Churchill said that the pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, while the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. As researchers led by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina have discovered, the positive emotions that come from the optimistic approach broaden and build our resistance to setbacks and increase resilience by focusing on the opportunity in difficulty.

FIGHTING THINKING TRAPS

Most of us would assume that the essence of resilience was something more macho than optimism. It doesn’t feel “warrior” enough, but the research shows it most definitely is. When we can see past the mistake, setback, or reversal through a belief that the verdict is not final, that all is changeable and momentary, we are defeating our toughest enemy, the inner critic/doubter that wants to stamp every adversity with the mark of permanent failure.

It takes serious fighting ability to shut down the default to view a setback as calamity, which is what the false beliefs triggered by the stress response want you to buy. We can overcome, though, by using what’s known as optimistic explanatory style to vanquish negative events.

It’s an adaptive skill that allows us to reframe events away from the negative three Ps, as the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman calls them—taking things not as “permanent, pervasive, and personal,” which is our first instinct, but as temporary, specific, and non-personal, as one-time, one-off situations that don’t effect every facet of our lives.

Some lucky people come by this skill naturally, always finding a silver lining or having a bias for action that allows them to take steps immediately forward that get them out of rehash, rumination and dwelling on the setback. Yet anyone can fight off the trap of pessimistic framing and bunker mentality if they know how to challenge the stories in their heads.

Managing the stories we choose to buy or not in our brain determines everything—self-belief, confidence, spirit, vitality, defiance, resistance, persistence, internal validation, all the tools we need to overcome setbacks. Most of the time, though, the thoughts and their stories are managing us, instead of the other way around. We take the most ludicrous thoughts seriously—because they are in our head. They must be true.

REBOUNDING FROM THE ABYSS

No, there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam sloshing in and out of our heads without our cueing any of it. Automatic thoughts. Worries. Fears. False beliefs. Our mind has a mind of its own. Taming that mind and the nonsense it can dream up is a daily practice, choosing what to ignore, what to reflect on, what to reinterpret and frame. This latter piece is the foundation of resilience, in which we counter the worst-case mindset with the power of possibility.

Oz Sanchez was a 25-year-old Navy man riding his motorcycle in San Diego when a car ran a stop sign and sent him flying off a 12-foot embankment. He landed on his back on a pile of rocks. He suffered a spinal cord injury, just a few days before his wedding. In an instant all hopes for the future were obliterated.

He would be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. “It really took a toll on me,” Sanchez told me. “I went into a very dark area, depression.”

Perfectly understandable. What could be more defining as permanent than a spinal cord injury? Why go on? The blow seemed too hard to bear. Months and months he lay in a body cast. Feeling helpless was a new experience for Sanchez, who was a proactive personality by nature. His friends and family tried to encourage him, but it seemed bleak.

One day at the hospital, though, he saw a wheelchair with a hand-cycle used for racing. It touched off a curiosity, one of the most important ingredients in finding a new path forward. Could he do that, pedal with his hands and compete in a sport?

The idle thought turned into a goal to try, and the cracks in permanence began. He began to build his upper-body strength and endurance, empowering acts in themselves. After a year of training, he entered a 10K race and finished it. It was exhilarating not to feel helpless. He was back in touch with his core needs of autonomy and competence, which we all need to feel gratified. Sanchez learned that he was not permanently exiled from movement, life, and achievement. He could change things.

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Photo: Oz Sanchez in action.

He would go on to become a multiple world champion in the sport of handcycling, and he won a gold and a silver medal at the Beijing Paralympic Games. Today, he is a renowned athlete and motivational speaker.

He is not alone in his comeback. Studies show that the majority of people who suffer spinal cord injuries go back to the well-being set-point they had before their accident. We are remarkably resilient.

THE COURSE OF COURAGE

The course Sanchez took was fueled by the courage to adapt, adjust, and imagine what-if. He got around the setback by not viewing it as an end to all aspects of life, to his self-definition, to potential achievements. Instead, he saw it as something that he had to work around and work with. His state and most importantly, the way he thought about his situation, was changeable, a key factor in optimistic explanatory style.

The story he wound up telling himself was not “woe is me,” or “why me?” He opted out of helplessness, a major driver of depression. He took a proactive course to physical training, learning a new skill, handcycling, and he also set a goal of getting his business degree, which he did. None of it would have been possible without Sanchez being able to reframe his story from a permanent catastrophe to a challenge he could surmount.

There is so much more in us than we ever tap, and it has the possibility to emerge when we rise to the challenge of setbacks and not allow them to define us. Negative events we experience and the emotions they set off in us are ephemeral. Only we can perpetuate them by clinging to them and bucking the nature of life: change. The adaptable species may not love to change, but embracing it is what life is all about—growth. That’s what our core, our brain wants—progress.

Like the tree-sprouting granite, we can make our stand wherever we find a toehold, however small or cramped or exposed. Then we set a course for growth, rising above momentary emotions and circumstances no matter what the elements throw at us.

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Tags: optimism, optimism and stress, optimistic explanatory style, resilience, persistence, stress management training

The Super-Medicine That Fights Colds, Cancer, and Setbacks: Optimism

Posted by Joe Robinson

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THE MOST POTENT WEAPON to promote good health and ward off serious illnesses is not what you’d expect—exercise or proper diet. Yes, they both definitely help the cause, but they don’t pack the punch of a mild-mannered wellness super-agent that can outperform the latest medical remedies: optimism.

A study of veterans who took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory showed that those who had an optimistic outlook had 25% less cardiovascular disease than the least optimistic. In a Dutch study of almost a thousand people aged 65 to 85 optimists had only 23% of the death rate of pessimists. Those with high levels of optimism died at a lower rate than average, while pessimists died at a higher rate.

THE POWER OF POSSIBILITY

This same pattern holds in large population studies. The Women’s Health Initiative measured 94,000 women and found that those highest in optimism had 30% fewer coronary deaths than the most pessimistic. Women were given statements to agree or disagree with, such as “in unclear times I always expect the best” and “if something can go wrong for me, it will.”

What we tell ourselves about why things happen to us and what we expect will happen to us in the future play an astonishing role in our health, stress, success on the job, and relationships at work and in life. An optimistic outlook strengthens health, the data clearly shows. It creates a sense of possibility and mastery, which pays off a core psychological need, competence.

Optimism is a hidden elixir for much of what ails us, a free medication we all have access to. It's something that forms a key part of programs I teach—from keynotes ("The Power of Possbility") to stress management and work-life balance training. The skills of an optimistic outlook are so invaluable for health and relationships, I'd like to see them taught in school from an early age. 

Optimism also prevents one of the most harmful responses to what life brings our way—learned helplessness, which drives powerlessness, pessimism, and depression.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

The connection between mind and body is closer than we imagine. In a groundbreaking experiment, Carnegie-Mellon's Sheldon Cohen gave healthy subjects a rhinovirus that causes the common cold. The volunteers were first interviewed over seven nights to gauge their mood, such as energetic, cheerful, sad, nervous, or unhappy. Then the rhinovirus was introduced through the nose. People with high positive emotion before the virus got fewer colds than those with average positive emotion, and that latter group got fewer colds than the ones with low positive emotion.

This resistance dynamic also holds true for cancer. A metastudy that included 18 cancer studies involving 2858 people, found that optimism resulted in better cancer outcomes “at a robust level of significance.”

RESISTING DISASTER AND FUTILITY

The quote and these findings were reported by the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman, one of the leading lights of practical positive psychology and author of Learned Optimism and Flourish. Early in his career Seligman set out to investigate the origins of depression. What he discovered was the power of pessimism to freeze minds in harm’s way, a paralysis of futility that he called “learned helplessness.”

He found that the way we frame negative events, the self-talk we concoct about them that leads to pessimism, is one of the most critical factors in human flourishing or flailing. The recipe for depression, he found, is failure meeting pessimism.

The story we tell ourselves when bad things happen either aggravates the situation by ginning up fear and pessimistic thoughts, or it gives us the power to be resilient and bounce back. All setbacks initially touch off exaggerated fears that create a false belief. Pessimists see that event, colored by the dire cloud set off by the stress response, in three ways, as Seligman detailed in Learned Optimism—“permanent” (you’ll never escape it), “pervasive” (the setback affects every aspect of your life) and “personal” (you get your ego and, thus, runaway emotions into it).

This pattern locks us into a worse-case scenario mindset that becomes self-reinforcing the longer it goes unchallenged. It leads to rumination that entrenches pessimistic and catastrophic thoughts. Beliefs of disaster and futility drive stress and the gauntlet of health conditions that can come from it.

DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

Optimists have an ability to counter the false beliefs and projections of fear. They respond by not taking the event as permanent. It’s only a temporary setback. They don’t exaggerate the situation into something that spells doom for every aspect of life. It’s specific to the circumstance of this event. And they have one of the best habits we can have—they don’t take things personally.

When you let ego set off a flood of irrational emotions, that just makes getting the event behind you all the more difficult. Panicked emotions blind us to the instrument that can extricate us from the darkness, the rational deductive logic of our prefrontal cortex.

For you Star Trek fans out there, optimism is like the deflector shields on the Enterprise. It creates a force field that protects us from incoming attacks. Positive emotions have been found to broaden and build our emotional resources. They serve as a buffer in hard times. Negative events still hurt, but they bounce off if you’ve got enough juice in your positivity shields.

Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, one of the world’s top researchers on positive emotions, along with mathematician Marcial Losada, have demonstrated that we need three positive to every one negative event to stay on the positive side, since the negative is so powerful—it’s our default as a species with a hyperactive survival instinct.

Increasing positive emotions increases the most potent medication we have in hard times, optimism. When we feel good, immune function is improved. Sheldon found the key factor is that pessimism increases a protein that causes inflammation, interleukin-6. High positive emotions lower interleukin-6.

SING FOR YOUR HEALTH

To show you just how effective positive emotions are at activating biochemical resources, one of my favorite studies—of singers in the Pacific Chorale— found that joy and also the intensity of that positive emotion can increase immune protection. As I reported in my book, Don’t Miss Your Life, Cal State Irvine School of Medicine’s Robert Beck and Thomas Cesario discovered that a protein essential to fighting disease, immunoglobulin A, increased 150% during the chorale’s rehearsals and 240% during concert performances!

Since optimism helps you live longer and happier, it would seem that evolution selected out positive emotions as a survival strategy. Optimism keeps our options open. We are receptive to new ideas, people, and settings that can help us solve problems and survive. That doesn’t mean we need to be Polyannas or discount negative information. We just need to weigh the most likely stories for a given situation, not reflexively the worst.

The secret agents of positive emotion can only be called upon to assist our well-being, though, if we know they are there and proactively deploy them. That seldom happens, because the default to fear and negative emotions in times of duress blocks the way out of the trap. The false beliefs are piled high: Things will never work out. I don’t see anything getting better. I don’t have any power to change my situation. I don't have any luck.

The negative emotions that charge a bad mood are intense, and we can’t stop clinging to them. Try to make someone laugh when they’re in a funky mood—they won’t have it.

FALSE NEURONIC BURPS

Building a healthier mind and body through optimism requires a new set of beliefs to counter the pessimistic and false neuronic burps that run our world when we are in blind reaction to events. Somehow I’ll get through it. I have the power to make choices that can change where I am. I’m not helpless, I can act. I know I can find a solution. Tomorrow’s another day. Maybe it will work next time.

Researchers find that optimists who live longer have something the pessimists don't—a reason to live and some form of meaning in their life—friends, family, creed, interests. They have learned that today’s reversal is not the end and that tomorrow will have challenges, too, but they can transcend or accept events without having to give up silver linings and gratitude for what they do have.

Controlling self-talk isn’t the only thing that leads to optimistic outcomes. If we want to increase the strength of our optimism shields, we have to participate in things that create positive emotions—social activities with friends, learning and mastery experiences, recreation and fun, and on the job, be more open and less defensive, and ask more questions. Losada found that people who exhibited those latter traits had better rapport with colleagues (which increases positive emotions), and higher sales and performance.

Happiness doesn’t come from success. It’s the other way around. Positive emotions lead to success. The study that proved that, by Sonia Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener, showed that success for chronically happy people was largely the result of their “positive affect,” the expression of optimism and buoyancy in facial expression and body language.

The science of optimism is telling us that our well-being is in our own hands—and minds. The resources to reframe events from calamity to opportunity are within us. The strength to overcome is within us. The power to see our lives as not static and stuck but ever-changing, depending on our outlook, is within us. And only one person can turn that life force on. When we do, we alchemize positive emotions into the essence of our survival as a species: resilience.

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Tags: optimism, optimism and health, keynote speaker, wellness, Joy and positive emotions

What We Can All Learn About Really Living from the Sudden Death of My Friend—While We Still Can

Posted by Joe Robinson

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PHOTOS BY MICHAEL JUSTICE

Michael Justice was one of the best photographers on the planet and one of my best friends. He went to work a couple days after New Year’s to get some pictures of ships at the Port of Los Angeles and never came home. The helicopter he was in crashed into the sea within sight of his home, and an investigation is under way.

The shock of a close friend vanishing off the planet after an accident is staggering. It’s so sudden the brain can’t process what took place. I had just talked to him the last day of the year, and we made plans for the new year. There was plenty more to talk about, but we would get to that next time. Except now there is no next time, only a gaping void.

WHEN THERE IS NO NEXT TIME

This is what I would like to share with you now, the state of not having a next time, and what that means while we have friends still with us, as well as the importance of using our next times and our present moment to live fully on this earth while we can, because he sure did. No one I know lived a fuller life. You can see by his photos here that he got around, to some five dozen countries, capturing the beauty and challenge of life along the way.

Life wasn’t a lukewarm affair for Michael. It was an event to be excited about. He wouldn't just say, "Hey," when he saw you, he would shout out your name--"JOE!"-- like he was hailing you from across the street.

He had what so many of us lose, the eagerness and enthusiasm of youth. We get beat down, talk quieter, worry about what others think, get more jaded, stay home. Mike had his demons too, like we all do, but he had something special that helped him override them.

THE POWER OF POSITIVE AFFECT

I saw it on our first adventure together. We met when I was doing a story on Zimbabwe. Mike and I got on the plane to our destination, and before we could take our seats in coach, a stewardess came up and said, “Wow, you guys look like you’re having a good time. Where you going?”

“AFRICA!!” Mike boomed, followed by the Justice laugh. Everyone on the plane now knew our destination. “Right around the corner isn’t it?” he said, laughing. 

“That’s a long trip,” she said with big smile. “You guys need to be upgraded to first class.” What? We were ecstatic. I didn’t know what had happened at the time. It was before I knew the science of something powerful and magical, something Mike had in abundance. It’s called POSITIVE AFFECT.

It’s the visible sign in your expression and body language of optimism, fun, and playfulness. When you have it, the world wants in. It’s the real law of attraction. Even lab rats are attracted to other lab rats that exhibit playfulness. It was Mike’s positive affect—the laugh, the loud, upbeat voice, that attracted the stewardess to the good vibes, and we were off in style.

We had plenty of adventures on that trip. One time, we were on a lake in a rickety motorized canoe and we ran over a sunken tree. A branch ripped a hole a hair above the waterline in a lake swarming with crocodiles and hippos. “You don’t have to worry,” Mike said to me. “There’s not enough meat on your bones.”

As I look back now, the most memorable event of the trip was not tracking the rhinoceros on foot in the bush or the power of the “smoke that thunders,” Victoria Falls. It was making a great friend, one who would be there for me whenever I needed. We would share our challenges in work and life, next ideas and destinations, and lift each other up. 

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THE SOULFUL SOJOURNER 

Mike and I were soul brothers—outdoors, adventure, exploring, and traveling the world. We also connected because he was a seeker, too. Photography wasn’t his real job. He was a seeker of light. His life was a quest for light, light that reveals what we are all too busy and stressed to see, the beauty all around us and within us—the little things we don’t notice, because we aren’t present for our lives. He also brought us images from realms of change and conflict, from the L. A. riots to Bosnia. He was our eyes, taking us to the heart of the matter.

Color is how our eyes perceive how energetic light waves are. Think about that for a second. Light is very magical stuff, literally coloring our world. Mike was an artist with this medium and capturing his subjects within the moment of illumination, like his photos of Mother Teresa, that in turn illuminated us. He took our eyes off our problems, our own self-consciousness to see truth and value.

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Michael wasn’t a religious guy, but he was as soulful as it gets. His life was a pilgrimage to find the spirit of humanity, the wonder of nature, the will to survive, the need to believe, with images that could reveal us to ourselves and redeem us from our default survival instinct to the negative and the dark side.

Did you know we need three positive to one negative experience to stay on the positive side? That’s how powerful the negative is. In a relationship, the ratio is five to one. So you have to work at bringing the positive into your life, and Michael was a master at that.

THE QUEST FOR WHAT'S RIGHT AT HAND

Some of his most amazing work came on a project documenting pilgrimage sites around the world and the faithful visiting them. He journeyed to India, Israel, Fatima in Portugal and elsewhere, capturing the devout as they desperately sought an answer, a cure, a miracle, a reason for things like why I am writing this story. He was drawn to that project because of his own inner quest for answers.

He loved to talk about philosophy and what it’s all about, whether he was with me or a longshoreman at a bar. He drew strength from some of the ideas of the pilgrims he chronicled. Impermanence, for instance, being the ultimate reality of life.

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In his search, he found what he was looking for, what we’re all looking for, we just don’t know it. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell was once asked what the meaning of life is. He said, it’s not about meaning, it’s the rapture of being alive we’re after.

Michael found plenty of that through his passionate love for photography, nature, travel, people, and life itself. He was a man of the people. The bear hug, The storytelling. The infectious laugh. We’ve got the preposition wrong. It’s not meaning OF life we’re looking for. It’s meaning IN life.

WHAT ARE FRIENDS FOR?

My friend didn’t just capture the light of others. He was a giver of light. He made us all laugh, try things we shouldn’t have, and crave his next barbecue.

This is what friends do for us. They warm a cold world. My big regret now is that I didn’t see him as much as I should have in recent years. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own concerns that we let excuses like traffic and time get in the way, when great friends are irreplaceable. We think there’s always time, but, as I found, there isn't. The drive, the time, it's all inconsequential when you will never see or hear your friend again.

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Studies show that in a busy working world, friends are the first to go, and the ones who suffer most. But we also suffer when we don’t keep our friendships active. They are precisely the tonic we need, since play is one of the best stress buffers. Stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain, making it hard to do the very thing you need to shake the false danger signal. It’s hard to get out of your head and play when a part of the ancient brain thinks you’re going to die that second. That means we don’t get out, we flake out, and wallow in our self-talk just when diversion is the way out. Difficult times are the best times to seek out your friends.

Talking out thoughts with friends brings perspective, consolation, and returns you to reality, because thoughts aren’t real; only experience is. Stress conflates every problem into a catastrophe. Our friends talk us down.

Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to your friends. They are only too happy to help or listen. We’re too distant and too under the spell of the mental block of busyness in this culture, and it has to stop. What is the work about if not to allow us the time to spend with those who make the journey worthwhile? What is a friend if we are a stranger? 

WE CAN ONLY LIVE NOW, NOT LATER

Mike was an amazing friend—generous, funny, supportive, humble, and a force of life. His life is a call to action for all of us to hold our friends closer and live our lives fuller. Here’s what I propose:

1. Call your friends more often. Just to talk. Not text. We think we have to have a reason to call, especially guys. The reason is friendship. If you live far away, get on Skype video, and be there more fully with them. It’s much better for the friendship to see and almost be in the same room with them. 

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2. Don’t say, “Let’s get together soon,” knowing you won’t. Set a date, put it on your calendar.

3. Tell people what you admire about them. Don’t leave things unsaid. Just a little admiration can go a long way. I admired Michael’s commitment to living the self-determined life and his tenacity. He was a battler.

4. Don’t flake on your life. Use Michael’s example and go for the experience. Experiences are where the juice of life is, and Michael knew that. When he had downtime, he’d head out to the Eastern Sierra or some other getaway or dive into one of his favorite hobbies or interests, usually with others. Experiences make us happier than material things. They can’t be compared to anyone else’s experience because they are your own personal event, so they don’t lose their value through social comparison like objects do.

Researchers have found that 50% of your potential happiness is genetic. Sorry about that. You’re stuck with what you got. Another 10% is circumstance, the state of your health, the environment you’re raised in. That leaves us with 40% we can actually do something about. It falls into a realm known as “intentional activities,” or, in other words, the very experiences that make us happier, which Michael naturally sought out, from social activities and barbecuing to fishing and kayaking.

The two keys to sustainable happiness, says researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon, are initiating intentional activities and sustaining them.

Why are they so important? Because the key to happiness is determining the content of your life. The more we do of that, the happier we are, because that gratifies your three core psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connection with others.

The great psychologist Erik Erikson, who studied the life stages, said we’re going to have three questions in our final days. They are all about self-determination.

• Did I get what I came here for?

• Did I do what I wanted?

• Was it a good time?

Let’s not wait until the end to get the answers we want. Michael could answer a resounding Yes to all three.

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5. Act for no payoff. Do whatever you’re doing just to do it, for the intrinsic reason. Michael dove into all of his passions for internal goals, fun, learning, challenge, expression. The science tells us those are the goals that make us happy.

We are programmed to act only for external goals—money, success, status, fame, beauty. Those things don’t make us happy, the science shows, because they are ephemeral, based on what other people think. That doesn’t do anything for you internally. You don’t really buy it because it’s someone else’s opinion. Lottery winners go back to how they felt before they won the money six months later.

6. Be present for your life and your friends and family. Michael was 100% there when you were with him. Eye contact, really listening, concerned. Put the damn devices down! Life isn’t on a screen or out in the future somewhere. It’s happening now every moment. Be there.

7. Linger. Michael wasn’t in a hurry when he was with you. You never felt rushed talking with him. He was there for you. Lingering is the key to all friendships, adventure, and good storytelling, as Mike knew. That’s when good things happen, and you get below the surface. Michael was unrushed enough to talk to everyone he met, and that’s why he had so many friends.

8. Play more. Playfulness was at the heart of the Justice motor. He worked hard, but knew when to turn it off and have fun. When you get home and are too lazy to get out, don’t fall for the first mood. Don’t let moods manipulate you and shut down your life. Tell yourself, “I can rally,” and say it the way Michael would have boomed it out: I CAN RALLY!

9. Follow the light. We bring more light, more positive affect into our life when we are more positive. How do we do that? Increase our optimism. It’s one of the hidden keys to a happy life, and it’s something we have to be proactive about, since the default is to the negative. Negative moods keep us in a bunker. That’s not living.

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Michael Justice on the road in India. Photo: Andrea Makshanoff

THE THREE THINGS THAT WENT WELL EXERCISE

I’d like to share an exercise with you that has been proven to be the most effective tool for increasing optimism. It’s very simple. When your head hits the pillow at night, you think of three things that went well over the course of the day. Maybe someone let you in front of them in traffic and didn’t run you over. Maybe you stopped long enough to see the amazing reds and oranges of a sunset. You were present for your day for a few seconds. Maybe something went well at work.

Then you ask why each of those things happened. I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and you will be amazed the effects that it has. Most of the day consists of neutral to positive experiences, the science shows, but we don’t see them because we’re focused on the bad stuff.

This exercise helps you notice the good things. We are as happy as the most recent positive and novel event we can remember. So we have to keep our memories primed. Your memory is an ongoing status report, telling you whether you like your life or not.

With this exercise, you start noticing as positive events happen during the day and make a note to put it on your list. You begin to notice the patterns of when postive things happen and what you did to make them happen. Already you are crowding out the appearance of all-negative. You go to bed on a high note, thinking about what went well, instead of your problems. I’m usually out by the second item 

Let’s all take Mike’s cue, then, and pay attention, be present, and notice the goodwill, the beauty around us.

That was his gift to us, making us notice. We can keep his spirit alive by participating in our world to the absolute fullest.

 

Tags: living the fullest life, optimism, positive emotions, meaning of life, Michael Justice, great photographers

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