Managing the Downturns: 4 Happiness Strategies for Coping with Challenge


” Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

Challenges4LifeThis summer, I planned to take it a bit easier. I scheduled a few teaching engagements, intended to concentrate on the piano, and planned a trip to California to meet my new baby grandson. The rest of the time was going to be devoted to seeing friends, swimming and hiking, catching a lot of concerts in New York and in Northwest Connecticut and reading the ever-growing pile of books on my shelf. 

Instead of following Plan A, life intervened. I landed up in the hospital to have surgery, thereby scrapping the piano lessons, the trip to San Francisco, the outdoor exercise and the concert-going.  I also had to postpone all of my teaching engagements.

And yet, I managed to get through this episode with relative good cheer and happily am on the road to recovery. Here’s what helped me to cope with my challenges:

1. Meditation
2. Exercise
3. Gratitude
4. Social Support

All four of these strategies are equally applicable to anyone who sets out to make a plan and then finds that life throws you a curveball.  In faat, that’s the hallmark of a music entrepreneur:  how to get past challenges when the chips are down. All of these strategies are inspired by the research from positive psychology on happiness that Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky described in her book, The How of Happiness, along with the research and resources from the Greater Good in Action website from the University of California, Berkeley. 

Let’s take a closer look at how these happiness strategies can help you turn around your challenges and deal with life when your plans go awry.

1. Meditation
I have previously extolled the merits of meditation and have posted a great info graphic on the Skeptic’s Guide to Meditation

Studies confirm the many benefits of meditation:

Regular meditation improves physical health and cognitive function, reduces mental and physiological stress, boosts positive moods, improves self-esteem and feelings of control, and gives rise to greater empathy and creativity, lower anxiety and depression and deeper spirituality. And not surprisingly, Dr. Lyobomirsky’s research shows that meditation can enhance long-term happiness.

My own experience bore this out. I am fortunate to have begun meditating this winter and to have taken an 8-week mindfulness meditation class based on work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who started the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

During my illness and recovery, I have been meditating every day. In those long days in the hospital, meditation helped me to pay attention to how I was feeling in the moment: no drama, no obsessing about the past, and no worrying about the future. Instead, I focused on my breathing and  how I was feeling right there and then. When my mind wandered, I gently paid attention to my thoughts and then brought myself back to my breathing. Most of the time, I felt okay. Even when I was experiencing pain, meditation helped me to realize that the pain was not constant and that I could manage it just fine. Finally, meditation helped me to accept my situation. I was not able to change it so it was a lot easier  to accept the reality.

The result? I was able to maintain a cheerful disposition most of the time. And when I felt down and scared, meditation helped me to accept my situation. Moreover, meditation also helped to clarify mu thinking so that I could ask good questions of my medical professionals in order to enhance my recovery.

So if you find yourself going through a tough patch, take a seat or lie down and start breathing slowly. Focus on your breath. If your mind wanders, notice what you are thinking and then return to your breath. If you can do this on a daily basis, you will be surprised at how much better you can cope with your challenges.

2. Move
Another strategy that helped me was physical exercise. Even in the hospital, I was encouraged to walk as much as possible. Thanks to that great little health app on my iPhone, I was able to track my walking and racked up between 2 and 3 miles a day!

Moving helped me to feel my body and realize that I could do more than just sit around and mope about my condition. Walking also helped me to stretch my body and feel a lot better. And that helped to boost my psychological happiness. Now that I am home, I make it a point to go outside everyday and enjoy the beauty of nature, the bustle of the city and the infinite variety of stimuli that I find on the streets of New York.

Dr. Lyubomirsky explains that physical activity produces both physical and psychological benefits and enhances great long-term happiness strategy for a variety of reasons:

  • You feel in control of your body and your health and you see results rather quickly.
  • Physical activity takes your mind off of your problems and provides a great “time-out” from stress.
  • Exercising helps to boost your positive emotions.
  • Exercise produces long-term benefits to your physical health.

When life upsets your well-made plans, start moving! Go to the gym, take a walk outside, do some yoga, play a sport, dance or do anything that gets your body moving.

3. Gratitude
Gratitude is another well-documented happiness strategy.

And no wonder! Recognizing and expressing gratitude helps you to focus on the things that are working in your life. For myself, I was full of gratitude for the high-quality medical and nursing care that I received, for my wonderful family and dear friends who took the time to visit and call me on a daily basis, for the fact that my surgery was successful, for my ability to walk and get better quickly. I also made it a point to thank everyone who helped me and tell him or her how grateful I was for his or her support.

When the chips are down, try the following ways of recognizing and expressing your gratitude:

  • Write down 3 things for which you are grateful.
  • Keep a gratitude journal so that you can keep track of the things for which you are grateful. Be sure to change things up and be creative so that the exercise does not become rote.
  • Express your gratitude out loud to someone.

4. Build Your Social Support
Gratitude is closely tied to an overarching theme of building long-term happiness through social support.

I am incredibly blessed to have a rich community of family and friends with whom I can share both my joys and my challenges. And they were there for me in full force during my recent illness!

These strategies have been shown to produce long-term happiness. Having close friends with whom we have meaningful relationships can help to provide comfort during the tough times. They can also provide support as you recover and work hard towards improving your health. And it’s okay to admit your vulnerability to your close friends because that fosters stronger relationships.

In addition, I made it a point to be kind to the hospital staff, going out of my way to thank them for helping me and looking for ways to connect with them personally.  Kindness as a happiness strategy works when you do not seek anything in return. To me, it’s just plain human decency. Moreover, it feels better to treat people with respect and decency than to complain and act abusively, even if you are not feeling your best. It boosts your own self-esteem because you see yourself as a compassionate and altruistic person. And you reap the rewards because if you treat people with kindness, they will most likely be kind to you.

So build your social circle and be sure to be kind to others. Not only will it make you feel better about yourself but it will also provide you with the kind of support that you need when the chips are down.

Bottom Line:
When life throws out those curve balls and presents you with challenges, don’t despair! There is a lot you can do to manage your situation and make the best of a tough patch. While I would have preferred to go along with my Plan A for the summer, I was able to make the best of the situation. And I still will get to California later this summer, I am making my way through the pile of books, I am seeing my dear friends who are supporting me in my recovery and I am ever so grateful to have my life back.