When I was in the process of writing my new book, I hit a creative block when it came to the title. I’d spent a decade interviewing incredible people about their coping mechanisms for surviving the worst experiences of their lives while still hoping for the best. The title had to sum up the book’s message – how to overcome adversity, joyfully.
It was my husband who eventually pointed out the obvious: why didn’t I just use my personal motto? I can’t remember where on my journey I adopted this affirmation – whether it was during my teenage eating disorder, when my father was paralysed from cancer or when I was widowed at the age of 23, three weeks after my wedding day. Somewhere along the way I put six words together, which I repeat to give me hope whenever life becomes challenging: the world is a nice place.
It might seem like a rose-tinted sentiment. However, I’ve discovered that even in your darkest hours you can overcome your brain’s ‘negativity bias’ (our tendency to cling to negative over positive events).
Instead of complaining that life is hard or condemning ourselves as unlucky, we can choose to believe the world’s on our side – even when we’ve faced unbelievable tragedy.
I don’t talk about topics like hope and joyfulness lightly. Raised in a family with a history of mental illness, I grew up knowing I was susceptible to depression and anxiety. The plus side? From a young age, I became curious about the secrets to emotional resilience and how to outrun the black dog in my back garden.
As a journalist, I gravitated towards ‘empowered survivors’ so I could uncover their secrets. I interviewed tsunami escapees, 9/11 rescue workers, cancer patients, young amputees and shark attack victims. I quizzed life coaches, psychologists, hypnotherapists and healers for their resilience-boosting strategies – and then I adopted them.
I discovered imagination can be the difference between surviving and thriving – this from a burns victim who imagined she was an SAS soldier when she was in hospital to make herself feel tougher.
I learnt creativity can be cathartic from an art therapist at a children’s hospice, who covered the walls in white sheets and let grief-stricken mothers throw paint at them.
We can choose to believe the world’s on our side – even when we’ve faced unbelievable tragedy
When I interviewed free divers, endurance runners and the youngest Australian to reach the summit of Everest, I was reminded of the humbling, healing properties of nature, backed up by research that shows even ‘micro breaks’ in green areas can reduce our anxiety levels.
Along the way, I reconnected with the self-soothing rituals I used as a child. As a schoolgirl, I had a secret ‘memory cleansing’ exercise that I would do if a kid teased me or I fell over in the canteen. I would blink my eyes hard, just once, and whisper ‘gone.’ From that moment on, that memory would be ‘wiped’ and I wouldn’t be able to revisit it, even if I wanted to.
Is emotional recovery really that simple? It can be – or it can take a complex set of rituals, strategies and coping mechanisms.
Today, I wouldn’t describe myself as a naturally happy person but I am a strategically happy person. I’ve learnt how to manufacture hope from mental exercises, daily habits and supportive people who cast a rose-tinted hue over my environment.
In an age where the media is filled with political unrest, financial hardship, tragedy and sorrow, it can be easy to trash-talk the world and ourselves. Society is broken! We’re all broken! But I discovered, from some of the most tested people on the planet, that there’s always a fix – it just might not be easy.
With the recent spate of high-profile suicides, it’s time we stop thinking happy people ‘just woke up like this’, and instead recognise the work that can go into remaining emotionally buoyant.
As the motivational speaker Gabrielle Bernstein says, “Take your fear and recycle it into love.” Every day, I choose to take the waste emotions that don’t serve me – regret, unrest and self-pity – and upcycle them into hope instead.
Amy Molloy is a writer, editor and author who specialises in uplifting content. Her new book, ‘The World is a Nice Place: How to Overcome Adversity, Joyfully’ is out now.