A few years ago, I asked one of my friends how she always managed to have such a positive attitude. She was a single mom of five, was going through a bad divorce with a man who was making every effort to make her life more difficult than necessary, and was navigating a few other family issues that often left her overwhelmed and burnt out. Yet, she always seemed to radiate hope and positivity, both at work and in her personal life.
When asked how she was able to stay so positive all the time, she said, “I learned to start asking myself, is this a bad life, a bad day, or just a bad five minutes?”
She explained that difficult circumstances sometimes make her feel like her entire life is bad and hopeless. But in learning to take time to ask herself this simple question, she realized that most of the things that got her down were incredibly context-dependent.
She got stuck in traffic and was late to drop off her kid: a bad five minutes (or thirty)
Her daughter woke up sick and couldn’t go to school, so she had to figure out how to juggle her sick daughter, her work, and all the other obligations she counted on getting done while her kid was at school: a bad day.
But when she began looking at the big picture, none of those bad moments or bad days added up to a bad life.
She had a home. Healthy children. A job she loved.
She was building a new life for herself without a husband who seemed to live to bring her down.
She had strong friendships with people who truly loved her.
And her “big kids”—the ones in high school or college who were just beginning to spread their wings and practice independence—were becoming responsible, kind, dependable humans with great futures ahead of them.
She explained to me that it was really impossible to see her life as anything other than fantastic when she looked at it that way.
I know that, to some of you, this smacks of toxic positivity. But I’m here to tell you that this friend was anything but that. She was very open and realistic about the hard circumstances in her life. She allowed herself to experience fully the depth of the bad five-minutes and the bad days, never sweeping them under the rug but bringing them into the open air where they could breathe.
She just had a knack for keeping those things in perspective. She never allowed them to overshadow the objectively good life she was living.
I think a lot of us struggle with perspective-keeping. I am probably the worst of us all. A gigantic blind spot in my personal growth has been my inability to keep trouble where it belongs. I let it spread its shadow over everything in my life until I sink into a pit of despair and self-pity.
This year, my focus is on learning to keep things in perspective. As my son’s school psychologists calls it, “recognizing the size of the problem.” I love this phrasing and think that it encapsulates perfectly the nugget of wisdom my friend gave me a few years ago: is it a bad life, a bad day, or a bad five-minutes?
My job is to learn how to give the appropriate amount of attention and energy to the bad circumstances. A bad five-minutes shouldn’t be allowed to ruin my day. A bad day shouldn’t be given clearance to make me feel like I have a bad life. And if there are circumstances that are making me feel like my entire life is bad, the that is a signal for me to take significant action. Therapy, changed behavior, seeking tools and resources I need.
This is how I will gain not only a sense of positivity in the face of challenges, but also a feeling of personal autonomy and control over my circumstances. It becomes a journey of empowerment, where I am the architect of my life, resilient in the face of its unpredictable twists and turns.
I do have a good life. And I do not deserve to let a bad five-minutes convince me otherwise.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.