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Enjoying Life During Difficult Times

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Several events this past week reminded me of the importance of enjoying life: a friend’s father died, a young mother I know suffered a recurrence of cancer and I got an e-mail asking for advice to give to a high school graduate whose mother died five years ago.

Other reminders: a rededication ceremony of the chapel of Grady Hospital in Atlanta and the tragedy of Air France Flight 447 sufficed.  All reminded me of the fragility of life and the importance of enjoying spending time with those we love.

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So yesterday, instead of organizing my office as I had planned, I spent hours reading to my children, the three of us nestled among the large cushions of our couch in the screened-in porch, with a frog croaking in the background as night fell.  While my office might still need some attention, I don’t regret having spent the time with my children.

In these times of financial trouble, enjoying life might sound self-indulgent, if not impossible – but it is the antidote that these times require.  As Aristotle said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”  It is up to us to enjoy our lives, lives that we are constantly reminded are all too short.

In “5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours,” which I co-authored with my father Newt Gingrich, the fourth principle is “Enjoy Life.”  We include being pleasant and grateful, enjoying gratitudes and pleasures, taking time to recover, giving to others and flowing through life.

Barbara Fredrickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, has focused on the importance of positive emotions in her research.  She found that positive emotions such as joy and contentment have "the potential to broaden people's habitual modes of thinking and build their physical, intellectual, and social resources." Broader thinking is just what we need to survive in these hard times, and to flourish in good times.

Fredrickson found that negative emotions --- fear, anxiety, stress --- tend to narrow tendencies toward thought and action. In other words, it is harder for people to think of potential options when they are experiencing negative emotions than when they are experiencing positive emotions.

There have been times in my life, when my job wasn’t going as I had anticipated and frustrations were mounting, that panic set in.  I wish that I had been able to slow down and open my eyes to all my blessings. Doing so would have enabled me to relax rather than panic.  Still, the experience was not wholly negative: it provided me with a lesson of what not to do again.

One of the best ways to enjoy life is to be grateful.  To express gratitude, you must acknowledge that you are better off because of forces outside your control and be thankful to whoever has provided this benefit. Expressing gratitude is the opposite of complaining.  A simple shift in mindset can make a profound difference in how you view your life, which can then change your thinking.

With gratitude comes a sense of pleasantness. Few people want to spend time with someone who is unpleasant. Try to be pleasant when you feel satisfied and, more important, when you are faced with obstacles, because that is when doing so will provide the biggest payback.

Recovery is key to peak performance, and includes physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual areas.  Challenge yourself by seeking out situations of stress, but make sure that you rest and recover afterward rather than pushing too hard and risking the possibility that you might snap.  When you feel yourself get close to the edge, simply back off for a few minutes and then try again.

Giving to others is true charity and comes from the heart as well as the mind. It reflects a shared sense of humanness. When you help someone, you increase your own sense of being human. And it’s not wholly selfless: when you help others, someday they may help you or one of your loved ones.

Few people have heard of flow in regards to living.  Flow is the sense of effortless action, a feeling that occurs when everything seems to click perfectly into place.  Athletes often refer to being "in the zone," religious mystics call it the state of ecstasy, and artists call it rapture. This state is achieved by using your strengths, and stretching to the edge of your ability – living life to its fullest.

My advice to the recent high school graduate?  Follow all five of our principles, Dream Big, Work Hard, Learn Every Day, Enjoy Life and Be True to Yourself.  Live every day as if it’s your last – because you never know when it will be.

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