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One Simple Question that changes your limitations to possibilities...

Updated: Feb 14

“My life has been full of tragedies.

Most of which never actually happened.”

-Mark Twain

Tim and I visited Manhattan recently, one of our favorite cities. I had been invited to give a talk on Decide Happy at a global conference, plus we had enough points for a free weekend stay at the midtown Hyatt, and an extra, beautiful fall day to enjoy the Big Apple. That’s a three-fer if there ever was one.

The morning of the conference, we left the hotel early to allow ourselves plenty of time to find the venue, located in one of the myriad of buildings that was part of the sprawling medical institution that hosted the conference. I felt prepared and excited as our GPS guided us to our final turn.

And then, we saw the sea of flashing red lights.

And the 40+ police officers barricading the street.

And the access street to our destination was closed.

And then the sky opened up, the deluge of rain making it almost impossible to see where we were going.

Immediately, I felt a surge of adrenalin course through my veins as my brain kicked into over-drive.

“What’s going on here?! What if there’s some sort of major accident?”

“What if we’re blocked and can’t get to our destination?”

“What if we get detoured and get lost in Manhattan?”

“What if we can’t find parking?”

“What if we get soaking wet and have to slosh around all day in wet clothes?”

“What if I’m late for the conference?!?”

By the way, the topic of my speech was about how to manage stress by refocusing your thoughts from gray to grace. I know better. And still, it struck me how quickly my brain pushed the emergency button. All with a series of “What ifs?”

“What if?” is one of the most powerful questions we ask ourselves.

There are those little, annoying every day What Ifs?:

What if I mess up the interview?

What if they don’t call me back?

What if the deal doesn’t go through?

What if she doesn’t get into that school?

What if the flight is canceled?

What if I miss my exit?

What if they sell out and I can’t get tickets?

And then, there are the Big What Ifs?:

What if I lose my job?

What if my marriage fails?

What if the cancer comes back?

What if he doesn’t make it through this?

Ask yourself enough of the wrong What Ifs? and, within seconds, your brain can have you out of a job, alone, living on the streets, devastatingly sick, or worse. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my What Ifs? ran so ruthless and rampant that they were giving me anxiety attacks. Now, without a doubt, cancer is scary stuff. And anyone going through a threatening situation- whether it’s health, relationship, financial, or job related, has every right to feel whatever they feel. But ultimately, the unnecessary catastrophizing we do to ourselves only feeds the panic. It certainly doesn’t help the situation. When we want to stop stressing ourselves out, we can decide. Do you see the theme here?

Happiness is a constant decision.

At the most basic level, our brains were designed to keep us alive. Early on in our evolution you never knew when that saber tooth tiger might jump out of that cave on the right, or that mastodon might come trundling down the path a little too fast. But even now, prehistoric threats aside, our brains are still always on the look-out for danger, sometimes (most of the time) when a real risk isn’t even there. There’s an actual name for this phenomenon. In Daniel Goleman’s brilliant work, Emotional Intelligence, he refers to this overreaction to stress as an ‘Amygdala hijack’. This is when the portion of the brain that’s in charge of fight for flight takes over reason and logic.

Question: When your brain hits you with a negative What if? what do you do?

Answer: Hit it with a better What if?

There are two steps to this process:

1. Notice it

When you feel those What Ifs? starting to spiral, catch yourself. “Ok brain, I know you’re just trying to save me but you can dial it down. Fear, you go take a nap in the back seat. Logic and reason, you’re up front. You’re driving this bus.’’

2. Ask yourself a better What if? Flip your negative What If? to a more positive one:

  • What if, instead of stressing out until you get your test or scan results back, you realize the results are out of your control, enjoy these next few days while you wait, and let the teachers/doctors do their thing?

  • What if you focused on all the things you’re grateful for instead of things you can’t control?

  • What if you make a call to let your client know you’re stuck in traffic and take a few deep breaths and concentrate on getting to your destination safely?

  • What if you remember that you are resourceful, and have people and resources to help with a plan of action if necessary?

Asking a better What if? can change your life. My life changed dramatically when I asked myself:

What if, instead of focusing on the cancer, I focused on contribution?”

What if I could use my journey to help others?”

I never could have written Decide Happy, or used my experience to help others, without a better What if?

Asking a better What if? can also change our world. History is filled with brave, kind-hearted leaders, scientists, doctors, and every-day heroes who make real change happen - all by asking a better What If?

  • Dale Klonin, an off-duty firefighter, used his hobby as an amateur radio operator to help save the lives of 10 people (and a dog!) from the devastation of Hurricane Ian. I’m guessing he asked himself a better What If?

What if I could use my hobby to help others?”

  • My sister in law, Anne, with her own son now grown and living on his own, volunteers her time and talents to help children at a local community center, dedicated to teaching kids how to make more positive life choices.

“What if I could use my love for children to make a difference in the lives of these kids and in my own community?”

  • My neighbor’s son, Ryan, tired of feeling helpless, flew to Ukraine to fix cars, serve meals and anything else he could do to help the Ukrainian people fighting for their lives and freedom.

What if I could use my skills to help an important cause?”

A better What If? changes your focus

from limitations to possibilities.

Happiness Practice:

  • Is there something weighing you down or worrying you?

  • What’s the negative What if? that you’re asking yourself?

  • Is there a better What if? that you can ask to focus your thoughts more positively?

Ask a better What if? and it might not only change the course of your life, what if it helped others in their own lives as well?

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