How to Use Sad Visions for a Happier Now

UPDATED: September 27, 2015
PUBLISHED: January 25, 2015

While watering a perky row
of daisies on my patio,
I dread October’s freezes
and picture every stem turned brown,
each shriveled leafstalk hanging down,
each petal gone to Jesus…

It’s a lame habit, all right—one that’s wrecked countless moments of my life: Instead of savoring the happy present, I find myself looking ahead to an unhappy future. Show me a cute puppy, I’ll picture a crabby old pooch. Hand me a slice of cake, I’ll see it shrunk to crumbs.

Years ago I wrote a poem about this tendency (Déjà Blue, quoted above), and countless readers have confessed that they drive themselves nuts in exactly the same way. Like me, many have found that mindfulness training—meditation, mantras and so forth—helped but didn’t cure them.

So imagine my excitement when I recently learned to put the déjà blues to life-enhancing use.

My discovery arrived one day last summer, along with the words that parents of young children dread above all others: “I need to be sun-blocked.” Oh, the horrors in store—the whines about “sliminess,” the gripes that “you’re getting it up my nose.” I reluctantly started smearing my daughter with Banana Boat. Thank God, I thought, in a couple of years, I won’t have to do this anymore.

And then it happened: In my mind, we were two years in the future. Lily, no longer the 9-year-old standing before me, was a self-sun-blocked tween already swimming with friends. I waved to her. She winced with embarrassment. What wouldn’t I give to have her younger self in front of me, just for a minute, the gap-toothed girl who still thinks fairies are real and her mom is fun to have around? I blinked. That girl was in front of me, of course—and as I reminded myself of this, I began for the first time to enjoy finger-painting her from the neck up: that sharp chin, those soft cheeks, that still-tiny nose. Lily, perhaps sensing my shift in mood, quit squirming.

“I love this face,” I said.

“I love your face, too,” she said.

Ta-da: Instead of ruining a pleasant moment with gloomy visions, I had used them to turn around an unpleasant moment. I’ve been harnessing that déjà blue power ever since—often with such supernatural results that I think of it as déjà voodoo.

When my 15-year-old is late joining me for an errand (in other words, whenever he and I have an errand), I fling my brain into his college years. I imagine Davey’s bedroom, empty, and our house without the sound of him belting out pop songs. How I’ll pine, then, for a glimpse of this kid—on time or not. Back in the present, when Davey finally galumphs downstairs, he sometimes finds me smiling at him instead of yelling.

My new trick saves countless other moments as well: When my parents call at inconvenient times, say. (Sure, I’m up to my eyeballs in work, but one day not too far from now, I’ll be longing for a chance to hear their voices.) When my cats wake me up in the wee hours, kickboxing outside my bedroom door. (Their feistiness will pass soon enough—along with their adorably bright-eyed young selves.) When I face tasks that have nothing to do with other people or pets, and everything to do with my own laziness. (In a decade or two, I may miss having knees that could take me to the basement for a roll of toilet paper.)

Is déjà voodoo foolproof? Sadly, no. It’s hard to imagine the future me, for instance, wishing I had spent time savoring mammograms. Still, along with improving the present, I like to think I’m building a pretty good buffer against regret. Whatever happens down the road, I’ll be able to tell myself I converted any number of annoyances into moments of connection, satisfaction and gratitude.

Last October, my perky daisies did indeed turn brown, along with everything else in my flower beds. Weeding, and more weeding, was in order. I groaned at the thought. But then (you guessed it) I looked ahead—to winter, when those same beds would be thigh-deep in snow, the air much too cold for me to stand there in the T-shirt and thin pants I was wearing. And I crouched right down to yank out dead daisies, grateful for the sun on my back.

Stop deferring your happiness. Choose to be happy now. Find out how.