Positively Happy: How to Stay Optimistic in a Wacky World
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
Today's post is written by the wonderful Francesca Imbrogno, who I met during my undergraduate days at the University of Toronto. As someone who has such a contagious energy of kindness and joy, Francesca is such a special and wise soul, and I'm honoured to spread some of this into the world.
“You’re so good at looking at the bright side of things!”
“Wow, you’re always so positive!”
“It seems so easy for you to be happy all the time!”
These are phrases I hear all the time. And for the most part, I’m complimented! Who wouldn’t want to be perceived as a cheerful person?
I have been blessed with a sunny disposition. I’m currently working my dream job—a teacher—and love going to work every day. I come from a treasure of a family that has provided me with a solid foundation for the rest of my life. Most importantly, I’ve been blessed with a sound mind. The mind is such a beautiful and dangerous thing that can be your friend or enemy. Thankfully, mine is a friend that has been good to me over the years.
That said, I find it interesting when people say it seems so “easy” for me to be happy all the time. It seems to me that we judge people by their finished product and not the journey it took for them to get there. And while I may have been born with a natural propensity for optimism, happiness is also something I practice*. It’s no different than being an athlete: they may have been born with a natural talent for it, but you can be sure that they work at it every day.
So, since I love quotations and have filled many notebooks with them over the years, I thought I’d share a few that encapsulate my personal philosophies on happiness.
1. “Happiness consists more in the small conveniences of pleasures that occur every day than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life.” –Benjamin Franklin
Just like washing my face and brushing my teeth (and flossing, people!), I have established daily routines that help feed my happy mindset. Routine. Boy, hasn’t that word taken a whole new importance during the time of covid? Our daily routines have been completely uprooted. Now is the time more than ever to be gracious with ourselves—mind, spirit, and body. But it’s also the opportunity to establish new routines!
According to New York psychologist Dr. Danielle Forshee, “Routine helps us cope with change. It helps to create healthy habits, and more importantly, it helps to reduce stress levels. When your life is organized, and set in a routine, you know exactly what to expect. This takes out the guessing of what is coming, alleviating the symptoms of anxiety.”
Did you like pop quizzes in school? Probably not! Human beings like to know what to expect as it puts us in a calmer state. This is why routine is so healthy for us. It also makes the self-isolation days go by faster! Here are things that are part of my everyday life:
Exercise: I will not spend too much time listing all the amazing effects of endorphins because I’m sure you’ve heard about them. All I know is that I feel better on days I move than on days I don’t. As a morning person, this starts my day on a high note and keeps my energy going throughout the day. You don’t even need to do a vigorous HIIT class. A mindset that I’ve recently developed is some exercise is better than none. Sometimes we think if we don’t have the time to do an hour of an intense workout, we might as well do nothing at all. That “doing nothing” could then continue into the next day and the day after that. Ten minutes of stretching or yoga or a short outdoor walk can do wonders for the soul.
For some, working out during quarantine has morphed into the dangerous idea that we have to be our fittest selves now that we have the time. If you ask me, exercise shouldn’t be about being skinny or gaining muscles for aesthetic purposes. I have watched myself get stronger every day and I’m proud of that. But quarantine is not a beauty contest and if you don’t have abs by the time malls re-open, that’s really okay! Exercise for me is about keeping my mental health in check more than anything. I also love cheese way too much to ever have abs.
Gratitude Journal: I read a study once that said those who practice gratitude live longer lives than those who don’t. At the end of each day, I write a few nice things that happened. I have to do this every day because if I don’t, I’ll completely forget what I did the previous day. I also doodle little stars on days that were especially good so in the future, if I’m ever having a rough day, I flip open my journal and read about a great day in the past. My friends have taken on this lingo themselves, which has been awesome. If someone says they’ve had a “Star Day,” it means they’ve scored high on their Barometer of Happiness.
If this seems like a lot of writing, you can start with a baby step! I have incorporated this practice with my students. I find that Wednesdays can be such a blah day so we often need a pick-me-up to get through the rest of the week. I established an exercise called “Wonderful Wednesdays,” where we each take a turn saying one wonderful thing going on in our life. Sometimes it’s really hard to think of one thing. That’s when we know we need the activity the most. The wonderful thing can range from having had a good night’s sleep or getting a ride to school! It’s all about finding the little joys in life.
Reading: The Benjamin Franklin quotation above was actually in a book I read last week and it really stood out to me! Reading is absolute magic. It allows you to travel without leaving the comfort of your own home. It shows you things that you can’t unsee and widens your perspective. As an avid reader, my to-read list NEVER gets shorter, only longer! Quarantine has been the first time in a long while that I’ve had so much time to read for pleasure. When my students say they don’t like to read, I highlight the fact that maybe they don’t like reading fictional books. You don’t have to read an epic to be “reading.” Articles, blog posts, magazines, newspapers, and even photo captions all count as reading! Even if I only have time to read half a chapter a day, I make sure to read something. It’s best if I establish a set time to read every day so it becomes part of my routine. My favourite is with my morning coffee. It’s so cozy!
If you want some great ideas on how to add joy and comfort to your life, I suggest The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking. It teaches us to never underestimate the sense of well-being that can be brought by immersing ourselves in comforting atmosphere such as candles, pillows, and blankets. I have really been trying to incorporate the Danish concept of hygge as much as possible into my life.
It’s important to remember that if we have an off-day where we skip some (or all!) of these steps, it’s okay! This is the time to be gentle with yourself. The rules of society have completely changed and when you’re in your own home, the only rules you have to abide by are the ones you create for yourself. This is actually a concept I have struggled with throughout my life. I am the person who imposes the strictest rules on myself. But I’ve learned that since I’m my own boss, I can loosen up the reins a little whenever I want!
2. “People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they're not on your road doesn't mean they've gotten lost.” -H. Jackson Brown
Sometimes we don’t do the things we love because we’re scared others might judge us for it. Our critics are always louder than our admirers and the human mind is wired to remember negative information so much more easily than positive information. So unfair, right?? Even knowing this fact helps me remember to try to give extra love and attention to the good feedback we get. But just like the above quotation states, everyone has to take their own path to happiness. If their path isn’t hurting themselves or others, just let them keep trekking. I’m currently reading a book by Glennon Doyle called Untamed (highly recommend), which discusses how we so often do things out for fear that we’ll disappoint other people. But what about disappointing yourself? The advice she gave to her daughter was: “Every time you’re given a choice between disappointing someone else and disappointing yourself, your duty is to disappoint that someone else. Your job, throughout your entire life, is to disappoint as many people as it takes to avoid disappointing yourself.” Of course, I don’t set out to disappoint others; I am actually perhaps too much of a people-pleaser. But it’s important to recognize that the longest and most important relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself, so your priority should be keeping yourself content. Also, you’re not a jar of Nutella, so it’s impossible to please everyone.
In Untamed, Doyle also talks about how she frequently put off doing what she wanted because it “wasn’t the right time.” She writes, “I told myself: ‘Maybe in a different life.’ Isn’t that interesting? As If I had more than one.”
The point is, there will literally never be a “right time” to do something. You have to dive in. Have my dives backfired a time or two? Yes, they have. But I’ve never hit my head on the bottom of the pool! Not yet anyway :)
3. “Stop looking for happiness in the place you lost it.” –Anonymous
This is pretty simple advice to give, but difficult to heed. I don’t know what brings you joy, but I have a good idea of what WON’T bring you joy, which is repeatedly doing the same things that have only proven to make you unhappy in the past. This could be returning to a toxic relationship, believing that if you were five pounds lighter your life would be exponentially better, or trying to revive an old friendship when you’ve just naturally become different people. I’m not advising you to give up on something or someone at the first sign of unhappiness or conflict. But if something is repeatedly not bringing you joy, you might as well try a different approach. I also think it’s VERY important to note that you don’t have to be happy all the time. In fact, you SHOULDN’T be happy ALL the time. That’s not real life and it’s not realistic. If something bad happens to me, I let myself be sad. I let myself be so sad that all the sad comes pouring out. Holding it in would just prolong the unhappiness. And if I’m in a sad mood, I don’t pretend to be happy or cover it up with a smile. I am very open with my friends and students if I’m having a bad day. If I know there’s a shift in my attitude, I openly recognize why my mood is affected so I don’t take it out on someone who doesn’t deserve it. A student once told me the biggest lesson I taught her is that it’s okay to be sad. If you’re sad, be sad. Be so, so sad until you’re not anymore. Then you can try to move on. Masking a mood just makes it stronger. Your feelings are meant to be felt. Honour them and give them credit before trying to move on to a better emotion.
4. “Comparison is the thief of joy.” -Theodore Roosevelt
This is a hard one, especially with the ubiquity of social media. But someone else’s good fortune does not take away from yours. I constantly remind myself that what people present on social media is their highlight reel. Everyone’s life can look perfect when from that angle. Whenever I feel myself down about how I’m “measuring up,” I say this phrase out loud to myself. When you compare yourself to others, you’re allowing your joy to be taken away. There is so much pride to be had in the work you’ve put into yourself and what you’ve accomplished. One of my favourite phrases to say to my students is: the only person I want you to be better than is who you were yesterday.
The Bottom Line
“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” -Buddha
I’ve saved my favourite quotation for last. I actually have this blown up on a poster and framed in my room. The BEST way to be happy is to share your happiness with others! There is nothing I love more than knowing I’ve made someone else’s day. It’s really hard to give compliments sometimes. I don’t know why they sometimes get stuck in our throats. I always give someone a compliment if I’m thinking it because the way I see it, there are two options: a) It can hang around in my head and be wasted or b) I can tell the person and brighten their mood. There’s no point in wasting that positive energy. When you help others, you can’t help but make yourself feel good at the same time.
I know so many people say I’m a walking Hallmark card with the way I speak such flowery language, but that’s honestly just who I am. Being someone else would be exhausting. And yes, some people will look at my posts or hear my words and roll their eyes. But I know that so many more are uplifted or inspired (their words, not mine) or even just a smidge happier than they were earlier that day. So, I will keep being a Hallmark card. I will keep smiling (when I am in a good mood). I will keep finding the little things that make me joyful and it doesn’t matter if they’re things that make no one else in the world joyful. And to end this off in the wise words of the great philosopher that is my father: “Being nice is free. So give it away.”
Francesca Imbrogno is a Toronto-based high school teacher. She is in love with her job and in love with life. She graduated the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelor of Science and then a Masters of Teaching degree. Her hobbies include reading, baking, traveling, and just about any activity that gets her up and moving. She feels she has been blessed with a beautiful life and finds joy in sharing joy with others.
* Author’s note: It is really important for me to preface that when I discuss “choosing happiness”, I am NOT suggesting this to people struggling with mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and an array of illnesses like those are not choices and can’t be willed away with establishing new routines and a cheerful attitude. It’s very important we all recognize that. That is something chemical and much of the time needs the aid of skilled professionals and/or medication.
If you or someone you know is struggling with persistent low moods, please do not hesitate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org for individual, couples, or family psychotherapy or nutritional counselling in Markham, Vaughan, or online.