Broadening Your Focus to Improve Your Mood

When I renewed the registration on my motorcycle six months ago, I was asked to provide proof of insurance. I tried to do the online insurance validator, but it didn’t work, so I emailed my policy to the prescribed email address and went back on with my life. I never got confirmation back, or, more importantly, new registration stickers, but I didn’t really notice. I was busy and traveling, and I forgot to check back on it.

And that’s why my motorcycle got towed last week. I walked out of the gym as they were loading it onto a tow truck, and failed to convince the police to call off the tow. Apparently my proof of insurance was never received or processed, which made it appear that my registration was expired by over a year.

I had a lot of plans that day, but with less than a week left in San Francisco, I had to hustle to get the motorcycle back. So plans got dropped and I started walking and taking buses all over the city to take care of the missing pieces. All in all, it took ten hours to straighten things out and actually get my bike back. The process was comically bureaucratic and frustrating.

It cost seven hundred dollars, which is roughly what a flight to Japan costs, making it particularly painful. I almost didn’t even get the bike back in the end– if it wasn’t for the kindness of a police sergeant who made a judgement call rather than following the exact letter of the law, I would have left San Francisco with the bike still in impound with limited options to ever retrieve it.

By hour 4, which coincided with bus ride 8 or so, I was in a bad mood. I tried to be friendly and upbeat with everyone I had to deal with, knowing that they mostly deal with really angry people, but I was frustrated. I found myself dwelling on how severe the punishment was for a small miscommunication. After all, I DID have insurance and I DID try to register the bike properly.

It’s pretty rare for me to be in a bad mood, so it sticks out like a sore thumb. The last time was when I was in Peru battling altitude, fatigue, and the Andes. I admit that I indulged the bad mood for an hour or so. It’s not particularly constructive, but it can feel good to sulk a bit when you feel like you’ve been wronged.

The more I thought about my bad mood, though, the more I was able to grasp just how ridiculous it was for me to be in it.

At any given time, there are millions of influences on us, both positive and negative. It’s seductively easy to slip into autopilot and give all of one’s attention to the most recent influence. Just went on a great date? Life is amazing! Motorcycle got towed? Life is terrible!

A better, more accurate, habit is to think about the total amount of forces on one’s life.

Sure I had to jump through a bunch of hoops to get my bike back, but you know what? I got an amazing deal on the bike in the first place. Overall it’s still been a pretty inexpensive means of transportation, especially because I’ve never needed repairs on it.

I thought about how fortunate I was to have a flexible schedule where I could spend a good chunk of two days tracking down my bike. I looked around all of the rooms I found myself stuck in, and considered that probably the hardship we were all going through was much easier for me to bear.

And how lucky am I to have a motorcycle to begin with? Over the three bikes I’ve owned over three years, I only once had to deal with something like this. That’s pretty much nothing.

Thinking in isolation about getting the motorcycle impounded made it easy to fall into a bad mood, which is never constructive, but thinking more broadly made it very easy to be in a good mood.

That’s the difference between being moody and being even-keeled. A moody person bases their mental state on a very narrow set of influences on their life. An even-keeled person bases their mental state on the sum total of influences, or at least a much wider set.

The good news is that this is a trainable skill. Whenever you find yourself in an extreme mood, just force yourself to think more widely. There’s an emotional aversion to this sometimes, but it can be overcome. This practice also increases one’s sense of gratitude. If you expand widely enough, including everything back to the very fact that you were born, it’s impossible not to feel intense gratitude, and to be in a good steady mood.

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Next Monday’s post is going to be crazy!

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