Who doesn’t love a good life hack, right?
We could all use some easy shortcuts now and again.
You know who didn’t have the luxury of a shortcut, though? A very insightful dude you’ve probably never heard of called Kazimierz Dąbrowski.
A little background: Dąbrowski was a Polish psychologist who studied coping skills — specifically, how people recover after traumatic experiences by researching WWII survivors.
His subjects had watched cities crumble, survived bombings, lived through the Holocaust, witnessed torture, lost family members — in short: some of the worst things a human could possibly endure.
Yet Dąbrowski noticed something really interesting among the survivors: their suffering led them to be happier.
…Um, come again?
Many subjects said the trauma helped them feel gratitude and appreciation for what they had. It gave them a sense of perspective they simply didn’t have before. And that helped them enjoy life more now.
Now, I don’t pretend like I know some 5-step secret to everlasting happiness. But I do know a few things that work for me. And I know that perspective changes everything.
Just like folding a Cool Ranch Doritos bag into a serving bowl, there are lifehacks for perspective. We can experience some of the same perspective-shifting benefits as Dąbrowski’s Polish survivors without having to go through the devastation firsthand. (Thank goodness for that, right?)
To help me show you, I’m sharing life lessons from four of my favorite teachers.
I’m a bit of a mentor hipster so these teachers are pretty niche. You probably haven’t heard of them yet. (Which is my stealth way of saying they’re friends and family members. 😉 )
Lesson 1: You’re (really) small
Teacher: Joe Prendergast
Something weird happened to my boyfriend, Joe, when he turned 30, almost eerily to the day. He developed this super nerdy interest in outer space.
Yep. We spent his 30th birthday at the planetarium and have become the kind of people who have star-mapping apps on our phones and go to astrophysics lectures, just for funsies.
Joe’s really into the science behind it all. But for me, learning about space is more of a spiritual thing. I remember walking out of a lecture on quark soup, how our universe got its start, and feeling so infinitesimally small in this unbelievably huge (and growing) universe.
It wasn’t that I felt insignificant in a my-life-is-meaningless sort of way. I felt like the pressure lifted. And it felt amazing.
My friend, Tamera, once put it this way: Steve Jobs changed the face of the earth in a huge, never-gonna-be-the-same-again way. But when it comes to the universe? He didn’t even make a DENT. Not even a tiny, gnat-sized nick.
The moral here is that we’re so small. What we do, in a universal sense, really doesn’t matter. It’s honestly a miracle that we’re alive at all. So we might as well lighten up a little and enjoy the ride.
How to harness this lesson:
The next time you’re stressing about something that doesn’t really matter, (I’m talking to YOU, fellow Type As,) watch this video:
Remind yourself that you’re a teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini in the grand scheme of things.
Then, gently remove the pressure you’re putting on yourself and promptly grab a glass of wine.
Lesson 2: You’re gonna die soon, anyway
Teacher: Susie Moore
Sorry to get all dark on ya. But thinking about mortality brings what’s really important into sharp, stunning focus.
I’ve heard Susie mention this on numerous occasions when she embarks on something scary in her business. She says, “Hey, we’re all gonna die someday. So I might as well really go for it while I’m here.”
I SO admire that sense of fearlessness.
Life has a funny way of making even the smallest stakes seem incredibly high. Reminding ourselves of the short-n-sweetness of life helps put things into perspective.
How to harness this lesson:
There’s a quote by Mary Oliver that’s both beautiful and, admittedly, a little hard to read sometimes because of how close it hits to home.
“Listen—are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
How do you want to live your life? Think about it the next time you’re on the verge of making a scary decision. Think about whether you’re breathing just a little or whether you’re “living it right”, as John Mayer would say.
Lesson 3: Your problem (probably) doesn’t really matter
Teacher: Bill Ryan
Whenever I called my dad, on the verge of tears, stressed about something to do with school / work / life, he’d ask me this question: “Is it going to matter a year from now?”
Apart from a very small handful, the answers were “no”s. And that perspective has helped me a lot over the years.
Recently, someone yelled at me on Instagram for reposting her photo without permission. I credited her and tagged her (which I thought was kosher) but she was still PISSED.
My knee-jerk reaction was to feel embarrassed. And then angry. I’m super sensitive to rejection of any kind so this felt like a swift punch to the gut.
I felt myself starting to get worked up and then thought, “Wait. A year from now, this won’t even register as a blip on the radar.” Knowing it wouldn’t affect the overall mosaic of my year (much less my life) made it easy to move on from.
I’m not saying there aren’t problems that don’t fit this mold. And I’m certainly not trivializing the actual problems that will affect us a year or more down the line.
But zooming back the lens helps you understand what’s really important and worth getting upset over, and what’s just a momentary blip that only feels like a big deal in the moment.
How to harness this lesson:
The next time you’re stressed, worried, or upset about something, ask yourself the question: “Will this matter a year from now?”
If the answer is “no”, take a deep breath and enjoy the fact that this problem won’t drastically change your life. Proceed with ease.
Lesson 4: Always look for the good (even if it hasn’t happened yet)
Teacher: Linda Ryan
One thing I believe to be true is that in life, there is always, always an upswing. If you can’t see it yet, your pendulum is just chilling at the bottom for a minute. Trust it will work out.
Here’s a pretty crazy example from my life that played out in two big ways:
When I was three months old, I broke my leg. On Father’s Day 1987, my dad was carrying me down the steps to a bevy of waiting family members.
…And he slipped and fell. (Polished wood stairs and new socks are a tricky combo.)
I went flying and, long story short, needed a full body cast for six months for my leg to heal.
My mom’s mother, my Grandma Honey, moved in during that time to help with the immobile baby that needed a maxi pad shoved into her body cast every couple of hours. (TMI? #sorryboutit)
Because of my broken leg, because of this horrific, traumatic thing my parents experienced, my mom got to have six months of rich, quality time with Grandma Honey. And shortly after my cast came off and Grandma Honey moved out, she passed away. Suddenly, quickly, completely
My mom is so grateful for those six months of time together and said it made losing her mother so much easier to bear. The upswing there is undeniable.
There’s an echo effect for me today, too. If I’m having a tough day and it’s hard to feel gratitude, I remember that I can walk.
One millimeter to the left or right during my fall, and I could have broken my neck. I could still be ME, consciously, but in a body that was unable to walk, or even unable to move from the neck down. This one always creeps me out a little, especially the more Joe and I get into cosmology / astrophysics / parallel universe stuff (see life lesson #1).
When I contemplate that, my proverbial cup runneth over with gratitude for all that I’ve been able to experience, thanks to my two working, walking legs.
Remembering what we’re grateful for reframes our perspectives. Dąbrowski’s subjects felt happier because it was easy to feel grateful for what they had, after experiencing trauma.
Gratitude is linked to greater enthusiasm, more energy, less anxiety and depression, and even less physical pain. Finding the good in a situation, or even just trusting that good will come out of it someday, helps us tap into this powerful effect.
How to harness this lesson:
The next time you’re in a funk, force yourself to think of three things, big or small, that you’re grateful for.
I’ll give ya a hand…If you’re reading this blog post, three things can be eyes that see, a brain that comprehends, and the magic of the internet.
Bonus perspective-hacking points if you keep a gratitude journal or happiness jar!
Life’s really about who can hack it best. It’s hard for ALL of us. We ALL feel like we have no idea what we’re doing sometimes.
So little perspective hacks make a big difference.
Life can be the elephant or the giraffes. It’s all about how you look at it.
Luckily, you don’t have to go through Dąbrowski-level trauma to experience a fresh dose of perspective. It’s entirely within your control to look at life differently.
So go on, tiger. Get out there and hack that perspective.
And if you want to grab a lecture at the planetarium, come sit next to me! I’ll be the hippie chilling in the front row.
join the convo
Which ONE of these hacks feels the most doable for you?
How else do you keep your perspective in life?
Who are your favorite teachers for mindset / life things?