We often think emotions are driven by circumstances. It seems that way sometimes. When things go as we want them to go, we label it “good” and feel happy. When things don’t go our way, we label it “bad” and feel sad or angry. It’s the labeling that gives rise to the feelings, not the circumstance. The stories we tell ourselves about what’s going on – the meaning we ascribe to the events – create our emotional landscape.

That landscape is more complicated than we imagine because we are complex creatures. We greet each moment carrying with us our experience and expectations. We bring the past and the future with us into the now. Memories of what happened and expectations for what might happen weigh us down. This is not a problem to be solved. It’s something to notice and greet with tenderness and curiosity.

You and I can feel simultaneously happy and sad. One assignment I received in a class designed to increase joy was to think of something “bad” that happened to me and find three “good” things about it. In a way, I was increasing my tolerance for emotional complexity.

That is a useful skill for someone like me living with chronic illness and disability. I can be in pain and experience joy. Ali it takes is a shift of focus.

I begin each day with lovingkindness meditation. I start with myself: “May I be safe. May I be strong. May I live with joy. May I be peaceful and at ease.” I make the same blessings for people I love, people I don’t know, my “enemies,” and all beings. I move on to what I call “my reminders.” They are intentions for how I want to live. “May I choose joy, beam love, breathe peace, give thanks, find beauty, learn things, and live embodied.” I finish up with a quote by Thích Nhất Hạnh: “waking up, I smile. 24 brand-new hours stretch before me. I vow to live each moment fully and look on all beings with eyes of compassion.”

By the end of this routine, I am smiling and ready to move into the day with joy and thanksgiving even if my body is not as comfortable as I might wish. Sometimes mind over matter works.

Emotions are created through the stories that we bring to this moment. Why not tell a story of strength and joy?

In your journal:

  • do you agree with the idea that emotions are born from stories we tell?
  • Write about “emotional complexity.”
  • What would you include in morning reminders?