Pet owners and parents of young children know how important it is to acknowledge and reward behaviors that we want to encourage. Whether it be rubbing your dog’s belly for coming when you call his name or clapping and smiling at your infant when they start trying to walk, providing some sort of positive reinforcement is critical in getting them to repeat this action. Why is it then, that as we mature and grow into adulthood there is a gradual shift in focus from promoting, productive performances to examining and eradicating errors? No parent would punish their child for stumbling and falling as they are learning to walk, but when that same child is learning to drive 16 years later, the most attention is often paid to their mistakes or areas that need improvement. Why do we feel the need to change our focus to what we are doing wrong, instead of what we are doing right? By concentrating on the negative more than the positive, you are welcoming negative thoughts and emotions into your life, which will greatly diminish your happiness. I learned long ago, if you want to build a happy, fulfilling life, that you need to be sure to acknowledge and accentuate your achievements, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.
My entire life I have always had tasks that I have had to work hard and struggle to accomplish due to my disability. Things as simple as getting my hand and fingers to cooperate and work in unison so that I could write my own name or manipulate a fork were no easy feat, but when I finally did it, it was like I had just climbed Mount Everest. There is no better feeling than reaching that summit. I remember being so proud of myself, and seeing my mom beaming with joy, as I showed her what I had done. The first time I was able to eat solid food after my trache surgery, I was so relieved and excited at successfully swallowing that macaroni and cheese that I actually cried. While swallowing a bite of macaroni and cheese without choking is not something that you would even reward an infant for, when you are not sure if you will ever eat normally again, this is an achievement worth noticing. While these daily activities are trivial and insignificant to most people, for someone with a physical disability they can require a lot of effort. It is this large amount of work that makes an accomplishment something to be noticed and rewarded. That is why my family and I have always made a point to acknowledge each other’s effort in our achievements, as opposed to the achievements themselves.
A great example of this mentality on rewarding success is found in how my parents treated my siblings and I about our grades. For Stephanie and I, academics always came very easily to us, and we could get all “A’s” without much effort. As a result, my parents rarely made a big deal about our report cards. They would congratulate us and be proud, but they didn’t over emphasize it because of how little effort we put in. For Ryan however, school didn’t come naturally, and he had to work twice as hard to achieve half as much. When he would bring home a report card of all “A’s” and “B’s,” it was a huge achievement. My mom and dad would make sure to recognize and reward his hard work, and you could always see how good that made him feel. Looking only at the outcomes, it would not make sense to make a bigger deal of Ryan’s grades over mine or my sister’s, but that is not the whole picture. When you take into account the time and effort required to obtain our grades, what Ryan did is a much more impressive accomplishment. The important part is the journey you take to reach your goal, not the destination itself.
In addition to focusing on the effort put into an achievement and recognizing positive behaviors, in order to promote a happy life you must also address the flipside of the coin and stop concentrating on everything you do wrong. As we grow up, we are programmed to do our jobs and go about our lives trying to make as few mistakes as possible. Our teachers, bosses, even our spouses frequently make many more comments on our mistakes than our successes. While I agree that we should try to make the minimal number of errors as we can, I disagree with putting the focus of your life on something negative, because putting negative thoughts in your head is never a good thing. So instead, I live my life trying to succeed as often as possible. While these two mentalities are no different in theory and behavior, mentally the difference is huge. One fosters thoughts of accomplishment and the other failures. One makes you remember the good parts of your day, the other the bad. In sports, coaches always talk about the enormous difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. This change in mindset and thinking can make a huge impact on your life, as you will no longer be worried about erring, but instead have your eyes on the prize as you work to reach your goals.
I could so easily go through life feeling sorry for myself and concentrating on all of the things I cannot do because of my disability. With my physical limitations, no one would even fault me for doing so. I’ll be honest, there have even been moments where I have wanted to throw in the towel and have my own little pity party. Whenever thoughts like that enter my head though, I think, “Where’s the fun in that?” Sure, I could give up and my life would be much easier, but it would also be boring and empty. You cannot feel the exhilaration of a new adventure or enjoy a novel experience, if you are already busy feeling sorry for yourself. There is a reason Debbie Downer never ran a marathon, and Negative Nancy never swam the English Channel. Focusing on the negative aspects of life would only give me another handicap and even more greatly shrink my world. By concentrating on all of the successes I have had instead, I expand my world, because every time I succeed I think, “If I can do this, then there is no reason I cannot do that.” This mindset has opened up so many opportunities to me that I would have never thought I could do, but because I remembered my success in other areas, I had the courage to try. This simple change in focus has been a valuable resource as I have created my happy, fulfilling life.
By refusing to relent to the negative-focused mindset of society, I have managed to maintain a positive, optimistic outlook and a happy, fulfilling life. It is critical to acknowledge the efforts and achievements of others, and most of all yourself, to build this positive point of view. You must also shift your focus from worrying about making mistakes to concentrating on achieving your objectives. When was the last time you did something that took some effort and thought to yourself, “Wow. I did great. I am kind of a bad ass.”? Take a moment at the end of every day as you are in bed going to sleep, and think about everything you did right that day, no matter how trivial or inconsequential. Let yourself feel proud for having achieved all of these successes in one day. You will be amazed at how great you feel as you are drifting off to dream land, and that is nothing compared to the added happiness you will enjoy during the following days.