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Doing the Math


Published: 06/27/2012


"The traffic is horrible. I had to wait forever for a parking spot at the plaza. From the highway, all the way down here, every light was red! There are so many stupid drivers these days ...."

Traffic is a major source of frustration, anger and annoyance for all of us. Traffic reports are much like weather reports. We can't stop storms or traffic tie-ups, yet it's good to know about them, particularly when we're not involved.

So, day by day, we've got gridlock, being on call 24/7, e-mails, cell phones, annoying clerks or customers and long waits at the Doctor's office, lots of hassle. No wonder so many people are on edge. Strange though, while a lot lose it, others seem to manage hassles more easily, more calmly. How come?

On average, day in and day out, everyone probably ends up with about an equal share of red lights, stupid drivers and blockages. Yet, anxiety and rage aren't equally distributed. Some have their blood pressure hit the roof while others maintain their equilibrium and are even 'laid-back'.

Is it genetic? Perhaps their schedule is not as heavy. Maybe they are into medication that cools their jets. It's hard to believe that genes, schedules or drugs explain why some handle anxiety well when others barely get through the day.

It is really a math problem. How you feel often depends on what you are counting.

Count the problems, catalogue the hurts, add up the frustrations, keep a list of incomplete dreams, the trips to the doctor -- well, the numbers soon add up to create an impressive record of hassles, disappointments and annoyances. And that naturally makes us feel hard done by, convinced that the cards are stacked against us. Then we become wary.

The hurts and frustrations we have added up set us on guard against the last straw, as in "the straw that broke the camel's back." Actually, we wait expectantly, even impatiently, for the "last straw" with our anger all prepared! So when the last straw comes, as it always does (there's always another red light, e-mail, traffic hold-up or difficult encounter), we just lose it --  as we have planned.

The math you do can undermine your ability to cope, and set the stage for failure. What we have is a math problem.

Studies conducted by universities in California and Florida found that people who keep count of the things they are grateful for are healthier than those who add up all the bad things that happen to them.

I suppose they used questionnaires, interviews and observations to produce graphs and percentages, that sort of thing. It's interesting how we like scientific proof before we'll believe anything. But that subject will have to wait for another Pen Point column.

What the researchers discovered was that something as simple as being grateful for everyday blessings, like getting home safely, having a job, a doctor or a place to lay your head each night, makes a huge difference. Adding them up is good math. Instead of looking for the next hurt, you add up the good things -- the ones that turn up in surprising places, from unexpected people.

The professors studied healthy students and people with incurable diseases and found those who counted their blessings not only had a better attitude and better mental health, but they were physically healthier. They even slept longer and felt refreshed in the morning.

All this by doing the right math, by counting blessings. It sounds too simple. OK -- it is a simple idea. Yes, it takes practice to become aware of the good things and a while to get a new outlook, but it's worth the effort.

So when you are stuck in a huge traffic crawl, don't see it as "the last straw." Use the time to review the good stuff: family, home, job, health, friends or satisfaction from a success.

You could see the traffic problem as a gift, a quiet time in a comfortable place, climate controlled, with lovely music available at the touch of finger, with a telephone to let people know you'll be late.

Count the blessings; see how it lowers your tension and blood pressure. Imagine being healthier by doing different math! It is certainly worth a try. I'm working on it. So far so good.



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