Every day, during our morning meeting, I tell my students about my previous afternoon and evening, highlighting the kinds of things I want them to consider for their own lives:
The books I’m reading
The ways I exercised
The time spent with family
The writing I’m doing
The time I spent outdoors
The new things I tried
I also ask my students to tell me how their afternoon and evening went on a numeric scale. That scale changes daily to reinforce listening skills, but scores are always presented visually with fingers or ASL.
I do this to quickly check in on my students. If someone holds up an especially low number, I’ll touch base with the kid sometime in the first hour or so of class, to see if everything is okay. I might do the same for someone who holds up an enthusiastically high number, to ask about what good fortune took place the day before.
I also tell my students how my afternoon and evening (or weekend) went on the same numeric scale.
This past weekend was less than ideal for me. Elysha tested positive for COVID, the Yankees were swept out of the playoffs by the Astros, and Charlie’s toe remains painfully broken. My Stop & Shop order was delayed and didn’t arrive until after 11:00 PM on Sunday night, and at least half a dozen items were missing from the order.
I also received a bag filled with shampoo and deodorant that was not mine.
When it came time to write about my weekend as a part of my morning message, I didn’t write that my weekend was bad or disappointing or challenging or annoying.
I wrote that my weekend was “interesting.”
On a scale of 1-10, I gave it a 7.
Even though the weekend was filled with challenges and disappointments and even a little fear, I know that the way we frame things in our minds can alter our mood and disposition in significant ways.
I also know that our mind and our brain are two entirely separate entities.
Our mind is essentially us: Our thoughts, feelings, memories, internal dialogue, and sense of self.
But the brain is the hardware running the machine. It’s the operating system that keeps the heart beating, the lungs breathing, and the eyes blinking. And it’s always seeking out data, listening to us for signals about how we are thinking and feeling, which is why by saying that you’re happy, even when you are not, your brain will release hormones that help to produce happiness.
Saying you’re happy will make you happier.
Crazy but true.
So if I say my weekend was “interesting,” even if it was legitimately lousy in many ways, I avoid sending negative messages to my brain and compounding my feelings of frustration and worry.
I can trick my brain into thinking things were better than they were, and it will respond in kind. In other words, we can hack our feelings and disposition by the way we choose to speak about ourselves and our experiences.
I teach this to my students every day. When I ask them to rate their weekend on a scale of 1-10 and a student holds up a single finger, I remind them that a one indicates the worst possible weekend that a human being could experience. I’m talking plane crashes on your home, killing your beloved cat and setting fire to every favorite object in your bedroom.
It’s easy to think you experienced the worst weekend possible, but by reframing it into something more realistic and palatable, you can genuinely feel better about your past and happier about your life.
It doesn’t fix everything, of course. The Yankees still remain out of the World Series. Elysha still has COVID. Charlie’s toe remains broken. There is still a bag filled with shampoo and deodorant by my front door, waiting to be returned to the store.
But it helps, perhaps only incrementally, and maybe infinitesimally, and I believe in incrementalism. I believe that by piling up enough tiny victories and minuscule advantages, our lives can become significantly – even profoundly – better.
There are no magic pills. Overnight success is almost certainly not going to happen to any of us. Problems are not eliminated with the wave of a wand or the stroke of a pen. But if you believe, embrace, and relentlessly pursue tiny, positive steps forward, your life can improve significantly over time.
It can even go from bad to interesting to maybe even pretty great.