Full text of Hallmark Cards CMO Lindsey Roy’s talk: What trauma taught me about happiness at TEDxKC conference. From this talk, you will learn about her specific methods for overcoming the brain’s natural negativity bias, letting go of past expectations, and connecting to a deeper self in the here and now.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Lindsey Roy – Chief Marketing Officer at Hallmark Cards
You know there’s a story here. My legs used to be like most of yours.
Standing here on this prosthetic leg, miracle of design and engineering though it may be, and this other reconstructed leg which is the surgical miracle all its own, I won’t tell you that I never missed the originals.
But I’ve gotten so much better at focusing on what’s now and what’s ahead that wishing things for the way they used to be happens less and less.
And I’m here to say you don’t have to get run over by a boat, dance with the propeller, wind up with three severely injured limbs, including one that had to be amputated, and years of recovery and adaptation ahead to gain that perspective. You can have it for free.
And between those two options, that’s also my recommendation.
You know, this gap between what we want and what we get, or what we used to have and we have now can be vast. And we fill that gap with the yearning for what was or what could have been. You know, I compared this to a phantom limb sensation, the feeling of actually believing you still have a limb that’s no longer part of you.
You know, I distinctly remember days after my accident, feeling this string stuck between my toes. The sensation was so real even though those toes were no longer part of me. And it was completely maddening and to want to change something I couldn’t.
You know, this natural desire we all have to change something we can’t, that yearning for the unfulfilled wish, or the thing we lost. That can creep into our lives. It can pervade our entire experience of being alive, our sense of self, our capacity to be here now. I’m calling it Phantom Life, that nagging dissonance between what was or should be and what is.
You know, nothing in my first 36 years of life ever really confronted me with the reality all that demanding. I’ve always been generally happy but like most people, I’d find reason at times, you know, oddly wished life were different, easier, better. I’d focus on little things that don’t really matter, or I’d compare the real to the ideal or the perceived ideal.
You know, it’s a habit of mine, I think, shared by most of us to reflexively compare our situation to a seemingly better one. But then one weekend four years ago, everything changed. That boat ran over me and I almost died.
A freak accident sent me on a one-way journey to find a cure for phantom life. It was a demand to give up attachment, not only to a limb but to a fixed way of thinking about loss and change, about the way things should be.
And you know the perspective I learned on that journey was essential; it was also exhilarating. And I want to share a few lessons – four to be exact — that I learned from that unexpected journey.
So the first one is centered all around the brain. You know, the brain is magnificent, and there are things we all know about the brain, such as its high level of plasticity and the ability for our brains to learn and relearn over time.
You know, what’s most interesting to me though is how our brains react to positive and negative events. Did you know our brains actually have a negativity bias? It’s physiologically easier to be negative, and when something does happen that creates negativity, perceived or real, it’s like a reinforcing of this natural wiring.
But here’s what I learned: we can actually get better at this; we can practice this. It’s not just something that you have to say: Wow, why is that other person so much better at dealing with whatever life hands them?
But like all brain changes, frequent and repetitive actions are key to molding and reinforcing neural connections. So said simply, thinking more positive thoughts is like daily exercise for your brain, just like other exercise strengthens your body.
You know, this next lesson centers around this idea of an anchor. You know what, anchor means a few things to me. First of all, there was literally involved an anchor with my boating accident that day. An anchor is also what grounds us and for me that’s always been my friends and my family, my roots.
But the anchor I want to talk about tonight is what we anchor our perspectives to. You know, we respond differently to other people’s struggles than we do to our own. For ourselves we replay, we wallow, we ruminate, we wish things were different. We scratch the Phantom Life.
But we often use the dire circumstances of other people to diminish our own problems. You know, a common response is wow, that puts things in perspective. It’s like a pop of light where the issue of the day seems meaningless in the wake of someone else’s horrific problem.
Then what do we do ten minutes later? We move on to worrying about whether we have something planned for dinner or who just texted us… wow, that puts things in perspective moment. It’s like the original Snapchat for our brains. See it and it’s gone.
You know, recovery from any trauma: illness, death, divorce, job loss, whatever it is, we’re not prepared to handle, is hard. And I’d venture to say most of us don’t want to stay depressed or angry or bitter. I know I didn’t.
So I found I had to seek out those Snapchat moments and make them last. I had to start looking for perspective in a sustainable way. It wasn’t enough to wait for those: wow, that puts things in perspective trains to arrive at the station. They didn’t come often enough and they never took me to a whole new place.
But I did find that I actually could make perspective last just by simply focusing on it. To do this, I would ask myself frequently, obsessively, a series of questions, things like how could this situation have been worse? You know that boat could have hit my head or my vital organs? It’s amazing that it didn’t. My kids could have been there to witness it. Thankfully they weren’t.
You know, when we say it could be so much worse, we usually say that about someone else’s problem. But what I found is when you’re struggling, when you’re really struggling kind of at the end of that proverbial rope, ask yourself: what are five ways that could be worse? Commit to it, say it out loud, write it down, whatever. You’ll be amazed at how it can change your anchor point.
I’d also ask myself: what’s the hidden advantage in this seemingly terrible situation? You know, many days I honestly couldn’t find an answer to this.
I was the mother of a two-year-old and a four-year-old, crawling upstairs, were stuck in a wheelchair. My career was on hold. My husband was instead a caregiver. I couldn’t do one single thing alone.
But some days I’d find an answer I could make myself believe. Maybe I’ll write a book and go on tour and inspire millions and work one day a month. You know, sounds pretty good.