Can Changing Your Vocabulary Make You Happier?

My friend Eric has ALS.  Just about everything about it is awful. But sometimes we talk about the upsides. For instance, he knows what his family means to him. Life is about experiences together, rather than things. It’s heartbreaking to watch Eric’s physical body slowly stop working, and yet he’s still able to be positive. How does he do it? It has everything to do with his mind.

I’m also a podcast geek.

You may see me out running, pulling weeds, or driving in the car talking to an invisible person, nodding vehemently, or shouting “YES!” I’m likely listening to a podcast; there are just so many people to learn from out there in the world.

A recent favorite was Michael Hyatt’s, Watch Your Mouth. Ka-zaam! It was right in line with everything I’m interested in: being proactive, making better habits, becoming happier. This episode was about changing our vocabulary…which of course comes right from the brain.

As a man thinketh, so is he.

Our words have power. We know they affect others, but do we also realize they affect us? Do we realize our words affect our behavior? Even if we don’t say them out loud?

The mind is a powerful thing. We see the things we want to see and the more we use certain words, the more they become engrained in our brain and actions.

Think Eeyore versus Tigger.

Imagine if we made the mindset shift from “I have to” to “I get to.” I’m convinced our marriages would soar. Our children would smile more. Our families would flourish. Change the family? Change the world.

Using Eric and Hyatt’s list as a guide, here are my personal pitfalls; can you relate?

1. Driving: Eric can’t drive anymore. And he really liked driving his truck. I, on the other hand, view driving back and forth to school, church activities, parties, soccer, etc. as a huge waste of time. However, a mother recently told me she didn’t mind driving her child to school 35-minutes one-way every single day. “I have her undivided attention and she has mine. We don’t have to even look at each other. We just talk – it’s the most quality time we have.” Hmmm. Mindset shift. Instead of, “I have to drive the kids to school,” we could say, “I get to be the last person who says I love you just before he plunges into the middle school wing.” We go from burden to opportunity. (Besides, no driving = no Target! and what kind of life would that be?)

2. Work and School: I recently heard on Gretchen Rubin’s fabulous podcast Happier that people see a huge dip in their happiness on Sunday morning around noon. That’s when we begin to think about the work week ahead. Oh man, I get it. But what if we said, “I get to go to work on Monday and impact kids?” or “I am so lucky I get to go to school. I’m so lucky to get an education.” Ask anyone who’s job hunting or unemployed. They’ll tell you: “You are so lucky to have a job!!!” As a mom working at home, I can say, “I get to get up early and start breakfast, pack lunches, and spend time with grumpy-pants.” I get to! And some moms don’t.

3. Exercise/Running: You might be surprised (or glad!) to hear that I too constantly struggle with motivation to run and/or workout. Even though it’s a habit, I still catch myself saying, “I have to go run.” My goodness, how lucky are we, that we have legs! Sometimes I practice being grateful while running. “I’m so lucky for these strong legs that can run miles and miles.” Because I run early, I’ve witnessed the sun rise. I’ve interacted with moose, snakes, chipmunks, snow falling, raindrops, a mother goose and her goslings, too many barking dogs 🙂 Change your vocabulary from “I have to” to “I get to run today!” and you’ve got a game-changer.

4. The To-Do List: How many times a day do we say, “I have so many things to do.” Well listen, that’s just never going to change. And To-Do’s are a matter of choice. We get to choose what we want to do and when we do it. We are in charge of our calendar. “I get to vacuum the floor at 8 a.m. today.” “I am choosing to bring dinner to my friend because I love her.” “I am choosing to drive to Lowe’s and buy lightbulbs.” Changing our vocabulary might not make us LOVE buying lightbulbs, but the vocabulary tweak is important. Life doesn’t just happen to us. We choose our what, where, and when. Any hey, no lightbulbs? No light.

5. Making Dinner: “I have to make dinner. AGAIN” could be changed to, “I get to go to the grocery store where there are literally tons of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, and Goldfish crackers to choose from. I get to peruse cookbooks and blogs or cook my mother’s tuna fish casserole! Tweak “I have to” to “I get to have dinner tonight. I’m so lucky to that every time I open my cupboard there is FOOD, glorious food!”

6. Travel: Recently I found myself dreading, “I have to plan this trip” while picking up a European guide book. Yes, it’s embarrassing. But I realized I was dreading the planning because I don’t know how to plan a trip to Europe. I’ve never been there. No one is picking us up at the airport, holding my hand, walking me through customs. I believe fear and indecision is the crux of much of our “I have to” vocabulary. But once we make a decision, we can make the mind shift. Not everyone gets to go on vacation. We get to.

7. Medical/Dental Appointments: “I have to pay how much for braces??? Did you say $6000 per kid?” And then everytime the bill comes or everytime I hand over the HSA card I’m thinking, “I have to pay $1000 for that?” Guess what? No one makes us go to the doctor. No one makes us get braces for the kids. Change the vocabulary to “I’m so lucky to have access to healthcare while people around the world have no doctors, no access, no dentists, no nothing.” “I’m so lucky we have enough money to make monthly installments for my daughter’s very expensive mouth. Her smile is going to be so beautiful. I’m so glad I can help her.” (cut the sarcasm!)

8. Parenting in General: We’re tired. I know we are, but it’s too easy to get snarky, snappy, and annoyed. It’s too easy to eye-roll, to make habits that last the lifetime of a relationship. We do it with infants: “I have to change another diaper.” We do it with our toddlers: “I have to take him outside and walk really slowly and look down every single drain.” We do it with our teens: “I have to have another conversation about texting.” Imagine the change in our relationships if we said, “I’m so lucky I get to spend time with my baby today. (even if she’s a little stinky :)” “I’m so lucky I get to be here when he learns to walk and says ‘Dada’ for the first time.” “I’m so lucky that God entrusted me with such a powerful personality!” “I’m so lucky to be a mother!” Woah. Mind shift.

I’ve found that this small tweak in my vocabulary, from “I have to…” to “I get to…” leads to this magical word called Gratitude. It’s no wonder that happiness is directly tied to being grateful.

I remember the day my friend Eric could no longer lift my son’s bike out of his truck. I remember the day he could no longer take cereal down from the fridge to give to his daughters. He can no longer lift his arms to scratch his nose, swat a mosquito, or wipe away tears. I get to do all of those things.

We went for a walk the other day because he can still make very small movements with his hands to move the joystick of his wheelchair. We were going down the road, me walking, him rolling. I didn’t say it, but I sure thought it: “I’m get to walk. I’m so lucky.”

On the way back, Eric slowed to a stop. I looked down to see a snake slithering across the road and eeked out a small shriek. But Eric appreciated. His eyes zeroed in on the snake. Instead of screaming and running down the road I managed to stay still and watch, as the snake used it’s body to slither across the road, making a seamless “S.” Eric said, “It’s so cool how it can do that. So effortlessly.”

Every day, we get to see little miracles like this. But only if we recognize them.

Lucky me. Lucky you.

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6 thoughts on “Can Changing Your Vocabulary Make You Happier?

  1. Dana

    This little tweak in thinking could be a huge gamer changer. I do *get* to…even all my have to’s are things so many others never have the freedom of doing. I’m going to try my best to change my vocabulary and my mindset, Amy – thank you!

    Reply
  2. Cindy

    So good, Amy! This makes me think of Benny. He knew how powerful words and thoughts were and chose always to be positive. It also reminds me of me. I got through college by telling myself, “I GET to take all these courses, because I WANT to learn all these things! I GET to go to the library and read all these amazing textbooks! I CHOOSE to write this term paper because I WANT to research this topic.” I think I really convinced myself. Because, after all, no one is really MAKING us do anything. Anyway, good thoughts and so great that you’re able to spend time with Eric…

    Reply
  3. Jessica Lawson

    What a wonderful post. This really sets the tone for my day~ I was feeling a little overwhelmed at my to-do list for the day, but your words just completely flipped my perspective (and made me a little teary-eyed, too). I am SUCH a lucky woman and I have so many blessings. Thank you 🙂

    Reply
  4. Gail Fitzpatrick

    Beautiful reminder of everything we have in our lives, and how easy it is to forget how fortunate we are. We do enjoy the simple things in life and are thankful each day, although it is easy to occasionally complain about the mundane. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece.

    Reply
  5. Dianne Salerni

    I know I am guilty of thinking about things in a negative way instead of a positive way. I hear how I talk to myself in my mind. I pay the price for looking at things the wrong way — and so do the people I live with. I’m going to try to take this post to heart and make an effort to change the vocabulary in my internal dialogue. Let’s see if I can make it a lasting habit!

    Reply
  6. Julia Tomiak

    This is beautiful and dovetails nicely with my current mindset. I just got back from a mission trip that helped shift my brain from grumpy to grateful. But, I know I’m going to need reminders. Thank you for this, and the Michael Hyatt tip (I just got finished writing a post about my favorite podcasts, saw that title on Michael’s website and thought, “I’ve gotta listen to that!” We are so in synch – even while you GET TO tour Europe. Enjoy!)

    Reply

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