“The only way to be truly happy is to get your mind off yourself and help somebody else.” ~Joyce Meyer
A couple of years ago, I was dealing with two major life changes at the same time.
The first change was that my husband and I moved from Maryland to Delaware after our son finished high school. And though the distance wasn’t far (about a three-hour drive from my parents’ house in Washington, D.C.), I had grown up in D.C. and this marked the first time I had ever moved away from that area.
The second change was that our son was heading off to college and I would have to learn to navigate life without him being physically with me.
I remember a time when he was in first grade and I was so busy dealing with work that I forgot to pack his lunch. When I picked him up from school, he climbed into the backseat and said, “You forgot to send my lunch today.” And while other kids who had paid for lunch got hot dogs, my son told me he didn’t get one.
I immediately burst into tears from guilt and the thought of him being hungry all day. He said, “Mom! It’s okay. There will be other hot dogs!” And he was right. It certainly wasn’t the end of the world, but I sometimes think of that incident because it sums up how much I want to protect him from everything that could go wrong.
In the midst of these life changes, my anxiety levels were at an all-time high. Every morning I woke up with a racing heart and an overwhelming sense of losing control. I was getting used to living in a small town, faced with making new friends, and missing our son all at the same time.
Then one day, I heard Joyce Meyer say something that helped me put things in perspective and propelled me to take charge of my life in a way that I had never done before. The simple advice: Get your mind off yourself and start focusing on others, and see how that makes you feel.
I was willing to try it. And sure enough, it didn’t take long before I began waking up feeling calm and refreshed.
The heart palpitations subsided, and I embarked on a path of acceptance—acceptance that change is a natural part of life, that we raise kids to be independent and go off on their own, which meant it was okay that I had moved away from my hometown and it was also okay that my son was leaving for college.
I also accepted the fact that I’m not supposed to be in control of everything in the universe anyway. What a relief!
Here are four tips that worked for me.
Tip #1: Spend time with children.
One of the first things I did was sign up to help kids with reading and other homework at the Boys & Girls Club in our area—one afternoon a week after I finished work.
I looked forward to it because it was energizing to see the kids make progress with their reading skills over time. Kids also are masters at living in the present moment. One minute, kids argue and the next minute they share cookies. Adults need more of that forgiving spirit.
And the laughter—kids laugh and laugh with wild abandon. Their antics always brought me joy, and I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time. I admired their ability to play, let loose, and have fun.
Tip #2: Accept a new challenge.
When a friend invited me to join her in leading the kids at church in song and dance for Vacation Bible School, I wasn’t so sure at first. Could my brain even learn the material? But I decided to take on the challenge and worked hard at learning the words, hand motions, and dance moves for five songs.
We were charged with demonstrating the songs during the week of Vacation Bible School so that the kids could follow along. This meant lots or preparation beforehand—watching videos and practicing dance steps over and over.
If I slid into worrying about my son or other negative thoughts, I could pull up a video, practice a song, and fill my brain with inspirational messages. And I surprised myself because I did learn. Then when Vacation Bible School rolled around, it was so inspiring to see all the kids’ excitement at learning all the songs and dance moves.
Tip #3: Volunteer for a cause that’s close to your heart.
One day I came across a newspaper article about a beach home in my area that serves as a place where families dealing with cancer can have a place of respite and enjoy family fun time. It’s meant to be a place of joy and peace at the beach, and it truly is.
I think it especially caught my attention because the family that launched the beach home did so in honor of their son, who died of a brain tumor while he was in college. During his illness, he had been happy to have the beach as an escape, and his family wanted to pass on that feeling to others.
There is a great group of volunteers who take turns greeting the families when they come to stay at the beach for a week. I was immediately drawn in to this wonderful cause and joined the effort.
Tip #4: Join a group class.
I have always loved ballet and took classes as a child. So when I signed up for an adult ballet class near my home, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I found was pure joy as I met each week in the studio with other women and danced all my worries away as we moved along to fabulous music.
Nobody cared how high you could lift your leg. It was all about moving and having fun. There’s something about a group class that heightens your awareness of others around you. We all had the same goals and tried to stay in step with the music. We even had recitals where we performed in small groups for an audience. We all worked together so that the group could succeed. And for an added bonus, I met some of my best friends in that class.
I’ve learned that getting my mind off myself frees me to not only pay more attention to the needs of others, but also to take action to connect with them and help them. Less time dwelling on my fears means more time practicing compassion and making a difference. I believe that’s what a positive, meaningful life is all about.
Michelle Meadows lives in coastal Delaware and is the author of several children’s books, including Hibernation Station, Piggies in Pajamas, and Traffic Pups. She blogs about her favorite books on her Short & Snappy Happy Book Blog. Michelle graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in magazine journalism.