Reframing a Disadvantage and Making the Best of Trouble

>> Monday

WILLIAM COLEMAN HAD ONLY fifty percent of normal vision in one eye and only twenty-five percent in the other. The year was 1899 and although the electric light bulb had already been invented, not many people had one because electricity wasn't available in many places. Even with electricity, the light bulbs in those days weren't very bright. As a law student, the only way William could study at night was to have his parents read his texts to him.

His poor eyesight was obviously a disadvantage. Or was it?

One night William walked into a store brightly lit by a pressurized gas lamp. It was producing more illumination than he'd ever seen — it was bright enough to read by! He said it was the most important moment of his life.

Without the "disadvantage" of poor eyesight, it wouldn't have meant much to him. But since it did mean so much, he got involved in a gas lamp business — so involved he eventually owned the company.

A hundred years later, the Coleman Company is still in business with sales at about half a billion dollars a year. And even though electric light illuminates most of the world, people still use Coleman Lanterns when they go camping. More than a million of those original pressurized gas lanterns are sold every year.

If there's something you think is a disadvantage, think again. Assume there will be an advantage in it and then find it or make it. This intention is a fundamental key to a good attitude. With it, the inevitable setbacks in life won't bring you down as much and you will handle problems more effectively.

I know some people would scoff at this idea. Too airy-fairy. It might remind them of some annoyingly positive people to whom everything is great, but somehow, behind their forced smile, you can see it's all a facade. But this idea can be used with depth, not merely as a way to show a pleasant face to the world to hide your pain from yourself. It can be done with intelligence and wisdom.

I'd like to make a distinction here. Many people think that cynicism and pessimism show that they are mature. Usually these are young people, ironically enough. Somehow cynicism is cool. But it is actually dangerous and unhealthy. It makes you feel bad unnecessarily. It makes you less successful. And the bad attitude it creates is contagious.

In a study at Washington University in St. Louis, researchers interviewed people who had experienced a either a plane crash, a tornado, or a mass shooting. They interviewed the survivors a few weeks after the traumatic event and then again three years later. In the first interview, some people said they could find something good that came out of the event. Some reported they realized life was too short not to pursue their most important goals, or they realized how important their family was to them. Three years later, those were the people who recovered from the trauma most successfully.

In an interview in Psychology Today, the late Carl Sagan said, "This is my third time having to deal with intimations of mortality. And every time it's a character-building experience. You get a much clearer perspective on what's important and what isn't, the preciousness and beauty of life…I would recommend almost dying to everybody. I think it's a really good experience."

Think now about something you normally consider a disadvantage. Are you in debt? Did you have a rough childhood? Were you poor? Didn't have the advantages wealthier kids had? Do you lack education? Do you have a bad habit? Has something terrible happened to you?

What's good about it? Or how could you capitalize on your "disadvantage?" If you don't get a good answer right away, that only means it's a tough question. Try living in that question for several weeks or months. Ponder it while you drive. Wonder about it while you shower. Ask yourself the question every time you eat breakfast. Live with the question and you will get answers.

Take advantage of what you have, where you are, and when you are. It's the only practical way to deal with "disadvantages."

If you have a tendency to simply feel bad about your disadvantages, even that can become an advantage. Overcoming that tendency might teach you something valuable — something you couldn't have learned without it. And you can teach what you learned to your child, making a huge difference to the whole trajectory of her or his life.

Trying to make the best of something helps create solutions. It makes things better. It is even better for your health. It keeps you from feeling as bad when bad stuff happens, and that's important because negative emotions are not good for your health. As Richard H. Hoffmann, MD, said:

"The human body is a delicately adjusted mechanism. Whenever its even tenor is startled by some intruding emotion like sudden fright, anger or worry, the sympathetic nervous system flashes an emergency signal and the organs and glands spring into action. The adrenal glands shoot into the blood stream a surcharge of adrenaline which raises the blood sugar above normal needs. The pancreas then secretes insulin to burn the excess fuel. But this bonfire burns not only the excess but the normal supply. The result is a blood sugar shortage and an underfeeding of the vital organs. So the adrenals supply another charge, the pancreas burns the fuel again, and the vicious cycle goes on. This battle of the glands brings on exhaustion."

Bad feelings play havoc on your system. The idea that "trouble brings seeds of good fortune" allows you to consider the possibility that the bad event might not be as bad as it seems at the moment, and in a sense, makes it possible to procrastinate feeling bad. Procrastinate long enough, and you might just skip it altogether.

Volunteers at the Common Cold Research Unit in England filled out a questionnaire. The researcher, Sheldon Cohen, discovered that the more positive the volunteers' attitudes were, the less likely they would catch a cold. And even when they did catch a cold, the more positive their attitude was, the more mild their symptoms were.

Reframe your misfortunes. Make the best of them. It is good for your mood, your health, and your future.

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