“Today, on my forty-seventh birthday, I reread the suicide note I wrote on my twenty-seventh birthday about two minutes before my girlfriend, Carol, showed up at my apartment and told me she was pregnant. Her words were honestly the only reason I didn’t follow through with it. Suddenly I felt I had something to live for, and I started making small positive changes one day at a time. It’s been a journey, but Carol is now my wife and we’ve been happily married for nineteen years. And my daughter, who is now a twenty-one-year-old university student pursuing a degree in medicine, has two younger brothers. I read my suicide note every year on the morning of my birthday as a reminder to be grateful—I am grateful I stopped waiting and started doing things daily that ultimately gave me a second chance at life.”
That’s a direct quote from a course student of ours that we’ve shared with permission in our new (New York Times bestselling) book, Getting Back to Happy: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Reality, and Turn Your Trials into Triumphs. As Angel states in the book, “This student’s words remind us that sometimes we have to endure our very darkest moments in order to be reborn and rise again as a stronger, happier version of ourselves. Although circumstances and people will occasionally break you down to the lowest of lows, when you keep your mind focused on the positive, your heart open to love, and continue to put one foot in front of the other, you can recover the pieces, rebuild, and come back much stronger and happier than you ever would have been otherwise.”
Because here’s the reality: a tiny part of your life is decided by completely uncontrollable circumstances, while the vast majority of your life is decided by how you actively respond to them.
Whenever our students come to us feeling down about a life situation they can’t control, we typically start by reinforcing reality: sometimes changing your situation isn’t possible—or simply not possible soon enough. But, you CAN always choose a mindset that moves you forward. And doing so will help you change things from the inside out, and ultimately allow you to grow beyond the struggles you can’t control at any given moment.
Angel and I learned this lesson the hard way a decade ago as we struggled to cope through the most painful season of our lives—a season that included losing two loved ones to suicide and illness, family-related betrayal, job loss, financial instability, and more. And it all happened quickly, too, back-to-back. The pain of this season knocked us down hard for a couple years straight. At times, we felt like we had zero strength left to push onward. And that’s actually why we started writing on our blog in the first place. When we were at the lowest point in our lives, we used marcandangel.com as a public outlet and accountability journal. We wrote about our pain, our losses, the lessons we were learning, and the actions we knew we needed to hold ourselves accountable to, if we wanted to get through it all.
As we navigated our new reality one day at a time, one blog post at a time—facing the pain and investigating it, instead of distracting ourselves from it—we stumbled across morsels of strength and wisdom that we began to collect and build on. We gradually learned how to catch ourselves in negative states of emotional turmoil, so we could overcome the emotions that had once overcome us. We literally pushed ourselves as hard as we could to take one tiny action step after another—one honest conversation, one 10-minute workout, one meditation, and then we’d write about it. It wasn’t easy, but the tiny actions were manageable, and the daily ritual of writing about them helped keep us on track.
Although it seemed like nothing was changing day to day, EVERYTHING was changing, gradually.
And today, nearly 10 years later, as I sit here staring at the latest New York Times best sellers list, it is absolutely surreal to see our new book—our journey of overcoming that painful season of our lives—Getting Back to Happy, staring back at me.
How did we do it? How did Angel and I get from rock bottom to here?
Persistence. Not giving up on life. Sticking to the tiny, healthy daily rituals we put in place for ourselves when we were at rock bottom—DOING THE HARD THINGS we knew we needed to do to be happy again.
I never would have been able to connect the dots looking forward, but looking backward I can see how every day, every step, every lesson, every deep breath, and every blog post mattered. And this actually reminds me of another excerpt from Getting Back to Happy…
“In the end, all the small things make a big difference. Every step is crucial. Life isn’t about a single moment of great triumph and attainment. It’s about the trials and errors that slowly get you there—the blood, sweat, tears, and the small, inconsequential things you do on a day-to-day basis. It all matters in the end—every step, every regret, every decision, every minor setback and minuscule win.
The seemingly useless happenings add up to something. The minimum-wage job you had in high school. The evenings you spent socializing with coworkers you never see anymore. The hours you spent writing thoughts on a personal blog that no one reads. Contemplations about elaborate future plans that never came to be. All those lonely nights spent reading novels and news columns and comic strips, questioning your own principles on life and sex and religion and whether or not you’re good enough just the way you are.
All of this has strengthened you. All of this has led you to every success you’ve ever had. All of this has made you who you are today. And all of this proves that you have the strength to deal with the challenges in front of you.”
But, when you are knee deep in the thick of a painful season of life, I know it’s nearly impossible to feel strong and see the silver linings of your struggles, so I offer you the following—some key truths to remember when everything goes wrong…
- What happened to you in the past is not happening now. – In the present moment, we all have some kind of pain: anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment, regret, etc. Notice this pain within yourself, watch it closely and see that it’s caused by whatever story you have in your head about what happened in the past (either in the recent past or in the distant past). Your mind might insist that the pain you feel is caused by what happened (not by the story in your head about it), but what happened in the past is NOT happening right now. It’s over. It has passed. The pain, however, is still happening right now because of the story you’ve been subconsciously telling yourself about that past incident. It’s simply a process of your thinking. Do your best to see it for what it is.
- Life changes from moment to moment, and so can you. – When hard times hit there’s a tendency to extrapolate and assume the future holds more of the same. For some strange reason this doesn’t happen as much when things are going well. A laugh, a smile, and a warm fuzzy feeling are fleeting and we know it. We take the good times at face value in the moment for all they’re worth and then we let them go. But when we’re depressed, struggling, or fearful, it’s easy to heap on more pain by assuming tomorrow will be exactly like today. This is a cyclical, self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t allow yourself to move past what happened, what was said, what was felt, you will look at your future through that same dirty lens, and nothing will be able to focus your foggy judgment. You will keep on justifying, reliving, and fueling a perception that is worn out and false.
- You can fight and win the battles of today, only. – No matter what’s happening, you can resourcefully fight the battles of just one day. It’s only when you add the battles of those two mind-bending eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that life gets overwhelmingly painful and complicated.
- Not being “OK” all the time is normal. – Sometimes not being OK is all we can register inside our tired brains and aching hearts. This emotion is human, and accepting it can feel like a small weight lifted. Truth be told, it’s not OK when someone you care about is no longer living and breathing and giving their amazing gifts to the world. It’s not OK when everything falls apart and you’re buried deep in the wreckage of a life you had planned for. It’s not OK when the bank account is nearly at zero, with no clear sign of a promising income opportunity. It’s not OK when someone you trusted betrays you and breaks your heart. It’s not OK when you’re emotionally drained to the point that you can’t get yourself out of bed in the morning. It’s not OK when you’re engulfed in failure or shame or a grief like you’ve never known before. Whatever your painful season of life consists of, sometimes it’s just NOT OK right now. And that realization is more than OK.
- Now that you know better, you can do better next time. – At some point, we’ve all been walked on, used and forgotten. We’ve let people take advantage of us, and we’ve accepted way less than we deserve. But we shouldn’t regret one moment of it, because in those moments we’ve learned a lot from our bad choices. We’ve learned who we can trust and who we can’t. We’ve learned the meaning of friendship. We’ve learned how to tell when people are lying and when they’re sincere. We’ve learned how to be ourselves, and appreciate the truly great people and things in our lives as they arrive. And even though there are some things we can never recover and people who will never be sorry, we now know better for next time.
- Nobody wins a game of chess, or the game of life, by only moving forward. – Sometimes you have to move backward to put yourself in a position to win. Because sometimes, when it feels like you’re running into one dead end after another, it’s actually a sign that you’re not on the right path. Maybe you were meant to hang a left back when you took a right, and that’s perfectly fine. Life gradually teaches us that U-turns are allowed. Turn around when you must! There’s a big difference between giving up and starting over in the right direction.
- Every “goodbye” leads to a “hello.” – What you need to realize is that most things are only a part of your life because you keep thinking about them. Stop holding on to what hurts, and make room for what feels right! Do not let what is out of your control interfere with all the things you can control. In other words, say “goodbye” to what didn’t work out so you can say “hello” to what might. In life, goodbyes are a gift. When certain people walk away from you, and certain opportunities close their doors on you, there is no need to hold on to them or pray to keep them present in your life. If they close you out, take it as a direct indication that these people, circumstances and opportunities are not part of the next chapter in your life. It’s a hint that your personal growth requires someone different or something more, and life is simply making room.
- The willingness to struggle opens great windows of opportunity. – One of the most important abilities you can develop in life is the willingness to accept and grow through times of difficulty and discomfort. Because the best things are often hard to come by, at least initially. And if you shy away from difficulty and discomfort, you’ll miss out on them entirely. Mastering a new skill is hard. Building a business is hard. Writing a book is hard. A marriage is hard. Parenting is hard. Staying healthy is hard. But all are amazing and worth every bit of effort you can muster. Realize this now. If you get good at struggling forward and doing hard things, you can do almost anything you put your mind to.
- The biggest problem is often the way you’re thinking about the problem. – Think about a self-limiting belief you have—an area of your life where you believe you are destined to remain stuck. It can be about any part of your life you hope to change—your weight, your career, your relationships—anything at all. What’s one thing you’ve essentially decided is a fact about your position on Earth? And then I want you to shift gears and think about ONE time, one fleeting moment, in which the opposite of that “fact” was true for you. I don’t care how tiny of a victory it was, or even if it was a partial victory. What’s one moment in time you can look back on and say, “Hey, that was totally unlike ‘me,’ but I did it!”? Once you identify the cracks in the wall of a self-limiting belief, you can start attacking it. You can start taking steps forward every day that go against it—positive daily rituals that create more tiny victories, more confidence, gradual momentum, bigger victories, even more confidence, and so on.
- Small, incremental changes always change everything in the long run. – The concept of taking it one step at a time might seem absurdly obvious, but at some point we all get caught up in the moment and find ourselves yearning for instant gratification. We want what we want, and we want it now! We want to feel better, we want more progress, etc. And this yearning often tricks us into biting off more than we can chew. So, remind yourself: you can’t lift a thousand pounds all at once, yet you can easily lift one pound a thousand times. Tiny, repeated efforts will get you there, gradually. (Note: Angel and I build tiny, life-changing daily rituals with our readers in Chapter 1 of Getting Back to Happy.)
In the end, your goal shouldn’t be to seek a perfect and pain-free life, but to live an imperfect and sometimes painful one in radical amazement. To get up every morning and take a good look around in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is extraordinary in its own right. Every day is a gift. Never treat your moments casually. To be spiritual in any way is to be amazed in every way, even when things don’t go YOUR way.
And again, Angel and I don’t just preach. We’ve endured our own pain, survived our own storms, and learned from firsthand experience many times over. These experiences were brutal. They admittedly knocked us down hard and kept us down for a while. But when our time of mourning was over after each misfortune, we carried on, stronger, and with a greater understanding and respect for life.
We encourage you to leverage the reminders above to carry on with your head held high.
And, if you’re feeling up to it, we would love to hear from YOU.
Which reminder mentioned above resonates with you the most today, and why?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
Finally, if you haven’t done so already, watch what happened when Angel and I stepped into the Today Show studio a few days ago to discuss the painful personal journey that inspired us to write Getting Back to Happy: