Happiness in the “Not Yet”
What the heck is the “Not Yet?” It’s the space and time between something we’ve hoped and worked for coming to fruition, and the moment we first conceived of the idea. Most of us suspend our ‘happiness’ until; until we get the job, pass the exam, meet our partner, become anxiety-free, etc. But research tells us if we allow ourselves happiness right now (before the when I am….when I have….), that it greatly enhances our well-being and ups the chances of our dreams materializing. If we keep happiness at bay ‘until’, we are letting tons of energy and opportunity run down the drain.
Here’s what happens in the ‘not yet’ space: because of the challenge, your neurons make more connections (enhancing your over-all brain functioning), you access the complex thinking centers while you ‘struggle’ to evolve or ‘struggle’ with the project/goal, your body creates more activating chemistry when in pursuit of something (more adrenaline, cortisol, oxytocin, more cardiac output), you become more social, have a reason to rise everyday, etc. The “Not Yet” is actually where all the action is, where all the important stuff is happening.
In fact, here’s something pretty wild. When they study people under major stress, if those individuals evaluate the stress as something positive, their cardiac output does increase and so does cortisol, but it strengthens cardiac function and actually adds years to life, where as, if the individual believes stress will ‘kill’ them the body responds in kind; vessels narrow, platelets get sticky….life is shortened. It’s all in how we view the ‘Not Yet’…pretty amazing, huh? And the thing is, while we can’t always control external events we can always control our perspective. Stress need not be bad after-all. So next time your heart is beating in anticipation, remind yourself, this is good, your body is rising for a challenge. Oxytocin is prompting you to be around others who care about you and your quest. Increased circulation is giving you more oxygen for thinking and acting. The learning is making your whole brain light up.
This “not yet’ concept has been tested with children in the lowest performing classes. Basically the only change was to teach the teachers and students about what was happening to them in the process of learning (a growth mindset). Once the children and teachers really got how proud they could be of what they were creating in the ‘Not yet’ space, instead of feeling defeated each time they failed a test, their learning and eventual aptitude went sky high. In fact, this concept alone transformed the lowest achieving groups to the highest ones in just one year. They managed to become the masters of their stress response using it to access both primitive and complex functions in the brain. They had the quickened responses of fight or flight but tempered this with more information on which to act. Each time they fell short of a goal they knew the challenge had caused even more neural connections because their brains had to work extra hard to problem solve. This kind of process learning rather than outcome learning was central to their eventual success. Furthermore, it was a skill they’d have for any difficult issue arriving throughout their lives.
Overcoming our adversities is not a quick fix; it’s a journey but this journey is so much richer than merely overcoming the thing we identify as a problem. The journey helps us prepare for all kinds of scenarios in the future. Because we have more competence available to us, we try more of what life has to offer. Trying begets trying; life itself is enriched. Perhaps our ‘trying times’ may forever more be seen for just what they are, times of trying various options until we get to where we want to go, (not simply miserable occasions).
A growth mindset also allows us to own when we have messed up, (which we all do). When we own our mistakes we’re more apt to adjust future actions; adding to our wisdom and competence. If we disown personal culpability our attention instead goes to blaming or trying to control external circumstances. This becomes is a never ending proposition and one that uses up our energy pretty quickly. In this self-protective safety mode, we keep narrowing what we are willing to deal with and who we are willing to trust until we are totally boxed in. Paradoxically, the more we are willing to own our vulnerabilities the clearer we tend to be about our strengths. This self honesty allows us to know the strengths we have to available to us during those tougher times: reminding us that we are capable of dealing with things in our own unique way. Being a ‘work in progress' and a perpetual student in life also allows you to more easily shift your sights if something even better than you originally imagined shows up. You are more flexible and present to all that life has to offer. Not only are we more enriched but by being open to new possibilities and experiences things become more exciting (something our brain really likes).
Ultimately, the only variable we have any control over is ourselves; our perceptions and our responses. Modifying our perception of the “Not Yet” makes a huge difference in our mood and performance. Yoda might have not had it so correct when he said “Do or do not, there is no try.” Maybe in the next Star Wars episode we’ll hear him graciously admit his mistake and say something along the lines of , “In the trying the doing takes care of itself.”