What's Tony Thinking

Something I Found Helpful . . . Maybe You Will Too


The holidays are emotional times, which can be wonderful and also challenging.

Arthur Brooks, not to be confused with David Brooks a NYT columnist whom I frequently quote, is a writer for the Atlantic who is devoting his current work to the topic of “happiness.”

What is happiness and what can we do to enjoy a greater level of it? Of course, some will be skeptical of such an endeavor. “Happiness” and its pursuit may sound shallow, given the challenges of human life and suffering.

But in the business of day to day living and relationships, would you rather live with a person who is mostly happy or mostly unhappy?

In early December Arthur Brooks published an article titled “When You Can’t Change the World, Change  Your Feelings.” 

Sometimes the world, or your world, isn’t what you want it to be. For example. At this moment our family of five grandchildren, six adults and two dogs (one more person and dog are expected) are sharing a VRBO on the Oregon coast. While it is fun to be together, the weather is very grey and very rainy. To be fair, you have to expect this kind of weather at this time of the year on the Oregon Coast. Still, sunny and bright, even just for a little while, would be nice. But it’s not sunny and bright. Nor is it likely to be. A small instance of the condition Brooks has in mind.

So what does he suggest? You’ll find four suggestions in the article to which I link above, but I’ll just highlight the first two.

“Notice Your Feelings.”

“When you observe your emotions as if they belonged to another person, you give yourself better advice. After all, you would never advise a friend anxiously waiting for a medical-test result to ruminate all day and then get drunk. Self-observation requires that you be mindful of what you are feeling in the moment and approach your emotions with detached curiosity.”

Brooks notes that there is actually a space between conditions (rainy and socked in) and how we might feel about them (disappointed, irritable). In that space you can notice your feelings, take a step back and “observe your emotions as if they belonged to another person,” and possibly give yourself better advice.

(An interesting aside, when I last opened the Brooks article the first advertisement spliced into the text was for Jamison’s Irish Whiskey, which is another way to cope with a disjunction between reality and how you would like it to be, but with side effects that aren’t always desirable.)

Brooks’s second point is “Accept your feelings.” When I’m feeling frustrated or irritable I often compound the problem but telling myself, “you shouldn’t feel that way . . . bad you.” Here’s Brooks,

“The idea that you need to change your circumstances if you’re sad is based on the assumption that your negative feelings should be eradicated. In many cases, negative emotions can be debilitating and can require treatment, as in the cases of depression or clinical anxiety. But in much of life, negative feelings are part of a full human experience; erasing them would make life grayer. Furthermore, ample research shows that negative emotions and experiences help us find life’s meaning and purpose.”

Suggestions 3 and 4 are also very helpful, but I’ll leave it to you to read the article. For now, in a season of perhaps more intense feelings than at other times, Brooks invitation to “notice your feelings,” and “accept your feelings” without letting them drive the bus can be helpful. At least it is to me. Happy Holidays!

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