By Salley Shannon
We know Mama was right when she said, "Money can't make you happy." But we also know financial worries can shake us up. As we wait for the economy to turn around, is there anyone who isn't feeling anxious? If you've been laid off and there's no job in sight, you may feel like life is whirling further out of control with every hoarded dollar you spend.
But that "so-scared-I-can't-breathe" feeling doesn't have to take over. You can stop it by deliberately tuning out fear and turning up the volume on other things like love, faith and community. Focusing on life's positives can help you feel grounded.
"We tamp down fear by noticing the blessings and opportunities the economy has handed us," says the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. "Having less money for eating out can result in healthier meals eaten with family, and more time to build and strengthen relationships." Being aware that there are others who are worse off may spur you to volunteer.
Here's another thing: A financial challenge such as an impending foreclosure, a layoff, a house worth less than the mortgage, is just a problem to get through. How we deal with that problem may shape us for good or ill, but the fact that it happened to us says nothing-we're the same people we were before.
Even in the depths of the Great Depression, when 1 American in 3 was out of work and there were breadlines everywhere, people still managed to fall in love, play with their children, sing along with the radio, enjoy life. A lesson we can learn from those times is that there are always pockets of joy, and many ways to foster inner peace.
1. Accept that troubles are part of life. With all the focus on celebrity lifestyles during the past decade or so, "it's almost as if we've been told life is supposed to be perfect all the time, and something is wrong with us if it isn't," says Victoria Moran, author of Living a Charmed Life. "That's not true!"
Sometimes you just happen to be the person whose car runs over a nail in the road, and you end up with a flat tire. You didn't do anything to deserve it. Being careful won't eliminate every last chance of picking up a nail. Neither will being nice and working hard on your driving skills.
In the same way, you aren't any more unlucky than anyone else if the economic slowdown is creating new difficulties for you. The answer to "Why me?" is "Why not me?" When you keep reminding yourself that life has its ups and downs, you're better able to "change your default setting," as Moran puts it. "All of a sudden, 'Everyone's healthy, and we're safe and content, even now,' becomes as good as 'Rich and getting richer,'" she says.
2. Don't obsess over the news. Molly Peter, a real estate agent and mother of four in Bethesda, Maryland, never watches the news anymore. "It's surprising how much more positive I feel every day," she says. Instead, she listens to music or an audiobook while in the car or cooking.
This technique is OK to use as long as you're not in denial about the upheavals going on, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a University of California, Riverside, professor of psychology and author of The How of Happiness. Of course you want to stay informed-just don't let it overwhelm you. "Your life will be happier if you focus on affirming things," rather than things that depress you, says Dr. Lyubomirsky.
3. Reach out to friends. The way you cut fear down to size, says Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, author of 25 books including Freedom from Fear, is to avoid the urge to isolate yourself when trouble hits. It's crucial to be with people, and by "people," he means more than your immediate family and the dog.
But that's not what most of us tend to do. When we get laid off, we feel singled out and helpless. We may be furious, bitter or sad. Most certainly, we feel embarrassed. So we hunker down and hide.
"You can't let yourself do that," Dr. Church says. "When you do, you get into a conversation with your fear, and it builds." You may even start blaming yourself. "One neighbor at a time, one friend at a time, break out of your isolation every day," he says. "When we start engaging with other people, we find ways around that wall that's in front of us, solutions and ideas we might not have seen by ourselves."
4. Cultivate gratitude, now more than ever. You may be eating more rice and beans these days, but if there's food on the table, that's a blessing. You can be grateful that your son is learning to read, for your health, for the neighbor who waved as she mowed her lawn.
In a 2002 study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, researcher and psychology professor Martin Seligman, PhD, asked severely depressed people to go to a website once a day, before they went to bed, and write down three good things that had happened that day and why. (These were people who were so depressed that just getting out of bed might be worthy of the list.) Listing three good things daily was their only treatment. Within 15 days, 94% felt less depressed.
The study has been repeated several times since. Every time, researchers found that being thankful actually made the subjects feel happier.
"Saying thank you is powerful," says Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who recently became the first woman to become executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, representing Conservative Jewish rabbis worldwide. "It turns us from a mindset of lack to a mindset of gratitude for the good things in our lives."
5. Decide not to worry. Studies have found that some people worry 10 times more than other people do, although their life circumstances may not be much different from those of people who hardly worry at all. Not surprisingly, the champion worriers were more likely to report being unhappy than those who worried less. Some people are predisposed to worry more than others, says Boston College psychologist Maya Tamir, PhD, but we do have some control over it, meaning we can choose whether to worry or not. Deciding not to worry is not the same as pretending everything is fine. By all means, be practical. But once you've made a plan for "what if I get laid off," don't continue to fret about it in your head or talk about it to others, advises Dr. Lyubomirsky.
6. This goes for dwelling, too. Dwelling, or replaying a stressful event over and over in your head, can keep you stuck. Dr. Lyubomirsky has documented the negative effects of dwelling. Psychologists call this rumination, and there are tricks to stopping it, she says. One is to see whether you have any worry triggers and to distract yourself when you begin to ruminate.
Try different tactics until you can turn off worry the way you change a TV channel. Solitary exercise may not help unless you work out so hard you don't think about other things. "I used to go for a run when I found myself ruminating," reports Dr. Lyubomirsky. "Well, running made me do it more!" Good bets: reading to a child or watching a funny movie.
Another trick she finds effective: Make a worry appointment with yourself. Plan to worry from 9 to 9:30 a.m., for example, and if you find you're worrying at any other time during the day, tell yourself to put it on hold. Silly, maybe-but it works, Dr. Lyubomirsky says.
7. Work at staying upbeat. In her latest book, Dr. Lyubomirsky makes an interesting point: A growing body of research shows that our sense of well-being is about 50% dependent on a happiness setpoint. This factor is genetic, much like a weight setpoint. Of the rest, only about 10% is circumstantial: big income or small, married or single, gorgeous or plain. "What's exciting is that the other 40% percent is under our control," she says. "It depends on our daily, intentional activities." Even something as simple as smiling can lift your spirits. "Staying positive is really important, right down to the effect it has on your immune system," Dr. Lyubomirsky says.
8. Take part in your faith. Worship offers transformative power of its own because it "takes us out of ourselves," says Rabbi Schonfeld. A faith community can feel like a supportive extended family. Going to the church or synagogue during the week to meet friends or volunteer our time can be a mission when we have no job to go to daily or we don't know what to do next. And there are a lot of opportunities to help with service and outreach projects.
"Miraculous things can happen when we join hands to help one another," says Rabbi Schonfeld. "It isn't just the good works, though they are important. Working together also relieves our fear and anxiety, and gives us a new surge of energy." Another benefit: We can't shelter our children, especially our older children, from the troubles related to the present economy. "But we can let them see us acting with a sense of faith and purpose," which shows them that we're able to cope, says Rabbi Schonfeld.
Maybe you just flat-out know you need help. If you haven't been involved with a church before, turning up when you need groceries or you just got a pink slip can feel embarrassing, even hypocritical. Do it anyway, suggests Rev. Jefferts Schori. "Many times we change our lives for the good, or begin a spiritual journey, when we're feeling the most down and vulnerable," she says.Related articles at WomansDay.com:
10 Surprising Causes of Stress
Add More Joy to Your Days
How To Deal With a Difficult Person