“What am I doing wrong in this world,” my husband asked, walking out the door one Monday morning, a lousy day that began wrong right from the start. Blasting us awake, Livin’ on a Prayer streamed loudly on our Amazon Echo Dot that we use as our alarm clock. Though we’re an Amazon-enabled home with two-and-a-half tech-savvy users (the half is 10 years old), we’re having a hard time with the Dot.
“She” joined our family of other Amazon AI products several months ago, but this bot has a learning curve we’re still adjusting to. And this particular Monday morning, Dot shouted at us with a loud, warbly guitar, saying “Whoa, whoa… whoa, whoa,” like Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora’s distinctive opening chords.
Fumbling with the Alexa app on his phone, my husband walked into our tiled-bathroom, and no sooner had he found the setting to turn down Dot’s master volume, he dropped his phone. That dreaded plop sound of a phone falling face down on the floor… The fear you feel as you bend down to turn your phone over… You know what I’m talking about. I listened for the expletives to fly, but all I heard was, “That’s a good way to start your Monday morning.” He showed me his newly-cracked phone and my heart sank for him.
I felt his question needed answering because we’ve all been there. One thing after another. Can’t win for losing. Universe, can I start this day over? Alexa, can you fix this lousy day?
It’s possible, but not easy because it’s a mental workout that most of us have never exercised before. Alexa seems to know everything, so maybe she can help us re-program ourselves to overcome negative thoughts and turn around a lousy day. Here are some ways to do that:
The Snowball Effect is real
“I can’t catch a break.”
“I can’t do anything right today.”
“What am I doing wrong in this world?”
Imagine a cartoon snowball rolling down a hill. It grows larger and faster rolling downhill, gathering snow, debris, a cartoon character, and anything else that’ll stick in its path. The same applies to your mood and well-being, says Harvard-trained happiness researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage Shawn Achor.
“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost,” Achor writes. “It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.”
The human brain receives 11 million bits of information, or input, per second from the environment, but can only process 40 bits per second, according to University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Wilson. That means our minds have to choose what it’ll process, so the most efficient way to keep us safe is paying more attention to the negative threats to keep us alive than the positive ones that can make us happy. It’s called a negativity bias, but you can turn down the volume on those, just like the Alexa app my husband was fumbling with. You just have to stop the snowball.
Be mindful of your negative thoughts
Once you’ve been bowled over by a snowball of negative thoughts, it’s harder to go uphill from that slippery slope because you have no momentum, very little traction and gravity working against you. So, the next step in turning around a bad day is being mindful of your negative thoughts.
Mindfulness is one of those airy-fairy words in self-help that doesn’t say much. But mindfulness simply means paying attention to what you’re feeling and saying to yourself, says Daniel Goleman, journalist and author of the 1995 classic Emotional Intelligence.
“The mind is like a muscle,” Goleman says. “You can exercise a muscle the same way you lift weights in the gym, and the basic move in that exercise is focusing on something, watching your mind wander off and bringing it back. It’s called mindfulness. You can use your breath as an anchor.”
Evaluate the truth of your negative statement
In this case, it means re-evaluating those first words you said to yourself when things started going downhill. When you ask yourself, “What am I doing wrong in this world?” consider whether you believe things happen to you or you make things happen.
If you believe the former, do you feel like you’re not in control of your life? Ask yourself what one thing in your life you feel like you’ve mastered some control of— your work ethic, your parenting skills, your friendships, your personal fitness?
If you believe the latter, do you really believe you’re doing everything wrong? When you’re in the pits, it really does feel like the answer is yes, but break it down further. Has every single thing that you’ve attempted to do today failed? Likely not.
Here’s the thing about all the negative things you say to yourself: there’s no fact check. Just like they say in the Pixar film, Inside Out, facts and opinions all start to look the same. Dare I say it’s “fake news.” The point is don’t take the things you say to yourself at face value.
Focus on what you’re grateful for.
With another call to the “airy fairy,” the concept of gratitude sounds pretty abstract until you go granular with it. Think about what you are grateful for. If you say something like “I’m grateful for good health,” that’s too broad.
Literally, consider what’s good about your current surroundings on this lousy day. I’ll use myself as an example because it may sound silly asking these questions, but I ask whether I am comfortable right now, not hot or cold, feeling pain-free or wearing something I like.
“It’s the little details that are vital,” the famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said. “Little things make big things happen.” Pretty good wisdom from an unexpected source.
Amazon gives us another unexpected source of wisdom to remember on a lousy day: Be like Alexa, our machine-learning friend, who can teach us simple input and output processes.
When Alexa does something, she’s using the data we’ve given her to create an output, but the quality of what comes out depends on the quality of what you put in. So, if you’re talking to Alexa in garbled words that don’t constitute a rational phrase, she’ll probably tell you “I’m sorry, I don’t know that.”
In human terms, it’s like the old phrase “Garbage in, garbage out.” Think the worst about the situation, and you’ll end up with more of the same. Instead, break that negative-thinking cycle on this lousy day, catch yourself and reorient to get your mind right.
I’m not saying we should be like bots. But at least Alexa recognizes when bad input goes in, but she’s deferential enough to apologize for it.
If you have an idea for Shelby’s next motivation column, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.