Reality Check: Practice Makes Better

We get good at what we practice. Even if we never completely master a skill, the more we practice, the more we improve. Conversely, if we don’t practice, we won’t improve and may even lose what skill we had.

In this series on happiness, my guiding question is, “What can we do to be happier?” If we want to become good at being happier, then it follows that we would practice the actions of being happy, and avoid practicing the actions of being unhappy.

Just because an action sounds sensible doesn’t mean it’s the most appealing choice, though.

For example, if you’re feeling blue, does curling up under a blanket and binge-watching sad movies sound appealing? It does to me, and I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone!

However, if we want to reduce our sadness—perhaps even replace it with happiness—then doing sad things may not be a very effective response. Even though it feels comforting at the time, maybe practicing being sad just helps us become better at…being sad.

Another example that some folks practice diligently is fear. Let’s say you are worried about driving a long way for an important appointment. It’s easy to keep going over all the worrying possibilities: the weather might be bad, the roads might be slippery, the vehicle might break down.

There are always many things that can go wrong. If you practice, you can spring into full-blown worry mode at a moment’s notice! However, does anticipating and dwelling on all the worrying possibilities help? Or does it just make us more afraid?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we blissfully ignore the possibility that something can go wrong. The benefit of understanding that bad things happen is that we can take action to reduce those possibilities. We can leave early so we don’t have to hurry, we can get the vehicle checked, and while we can’t do much about the weather, we can look into places to stay in case we get stranded. Those are just sensible preventative actions.

The worry that I’m talking about is the kind that doesn’t lead you to take any helpful action. It just spins round and round in your head, fixated on things you can’t control. I recently came across a term that expresses it well— “re-fearing yourself.”

When you keep reminding yourself of every single thing that could go wrong—no matter how unlikely—you are practicing re-fearing yourself. And, you become even better at being afraid.

What actions might be more effective?

For worry, try imagining the best possible outcome: a beautiful day with a great drive. It might also be helpful to imagine the most likely outcome: a reasonable day with no unpleasant incidents.

If you want to reduce sad feelings, practicing happy actions may be worth a try. What happy actions? Think about when you are happy. What do you do? Try doing that, even if you don’t particularly feel like it.

Remember that it is your choice about whether you want to stay in sadness or worry. It’s not my business (or anybody else’s) to suggest that you “shouldn’t” be sad or that you “shouldn’t” worry.

However, if you want to move away from “re-fearing” or “re-saddening” yourself, then this suggestion is to practise the actions that go with the feelings that you want, and reduce the practice of those that you don’t.

Do you think that’s effective?

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