We all have days when the grass looks greener somewhere else. On those days, wishful thinking can creep in: If only I had a different job. If only I lived closer to my hometown. If only I could find love.
While dreaming big and setting personal goals is important to keep us moving forward, getting caught up in what we don't have can distract us from the present, which not only requires our attention but almost always has beauties of its own. Here are four strategies for combating “if only-ism.”
01. Switch up your scenery
Any number of things can trigger a spell of wishful thinking, but one thing that certainly can exacerbate it is one’s environment. For instance, I’m much more likely to complain of living in the city just before trash collection day, when piles of smelly black bags line the sidewalk!
Research backs the common experience that external factors such as the weather and our surrounding natural habitat can affect our mood. That means that sometimes, the difference between an exciting day and a dull one rests on something as simple as the weather forecast unless we take control.
While recognizing environmental mood dampeners might not make the frustrated feelings instantly go away, it can help us see what could be fueling those feelings so that we can alleviate and overcome them.
If a rainy day is clouding your mind with daydreams of far, far away, try brightening your space with some fresh or faux flowers. If the long hours of staring at a screen is handing you a grumpy afternoon, make a cup of your favorite tea and curl up with a book before bed. Just as a small incident can dampen our mood, a small treat can lift it.
02. Make *specific* acts of gratitude
When we start to long for what we don’t have, age-old wisdom recommends focusing on what we do have. I’ve found that the more specific that focus is, the better. Let’s say you’ve recently moved to a new city and are feeling lonely. If only my friends from back home were here. A general act of gratitude might be to think of the opportunity to meet new people. A more specific act of gratitude would be to recall a pleasant conversation you had the other day with a coworker, who is someone you think you could get along with very well.
As another example, let’s say the daydream de jour is If only I could move out of the city. A general response could be, “There are many benefits to living in the city, like not having a long commute.” A more specific response could be, “I loved being able to hop on the subway last Friday so that I could make it to my friend’s surprise party. It was a fast, cheap, and easy way to see her and celebrate!”
Recalling specific moments infuses our sense of gratitude with positive memories and emotions, which can act as a more concrete and powerful response to the strains of if only-ism.
03. Maintain a sense of humor
Most of our lives are made up of ordinary moments, with small ups and downs. Thankfully, for most of us, a big misfortune is not an everyday occurrence.
But as many of us have experienced, if only-ism can make a small mishap seem like a major catastrophe. You stumble into the table wedged next to your bed. (If only I had a bigger apartment!) The front hall you just tidied has a new set of mud tracks running through it. (If only I didn’t have to clean so much!) After a crazy day of work, you completely forgot to make dinner and order takeout instead. (If only I had more time to cook!)
No doubt, each of these situations can be genuinely frustrating. But after giving ourselves time to step back and cool down, chances are that we’ll be able to see that in the grand scheme of things, these incidents matter very little. From that point of view, it’s much easier to laugh at the little fiascos.
04. Identify your actual dreams—and chase them!
While if only-ism usually amounts to passing thoughts and daydreams, sometimes a sense of longing is pointing us toward what could be a necessary decision. If you find that an itch for change is persistent and real, then feel free to strategize about making that change happen.
For instance, let’s say your thoughts about leaving the city have shifted from the occasional, frustrated If only to a more steady and serious I think I should move out of the city. Why not look up a few suburbs and see if the rent and commute are feasible for you? Or say you’ve decided your longing for a different job is pointing you toward a necessary change. Try setting aside some time each week to research other positions.
Even if in the end, you find that the potential change isn’t worthwhile after all, by allowing yourself the chance to consider it, you can have more confidence in your present situation.
In the end, fighting if-only thinking isn’t about denying or burying genuine feelings but rather about turning negative, unproductive thoughts into moments of gratitude and growth. That could mean strategizing to fight off unrealistic daydreams or to turn a true dream into a reality. These simple practices are a good place to start to help put tomorrow into better perspective so that we can more fully appreciate where we are today.