It was a year ago this week that happiness appeared in St. Petersburg.
The signs are red and yellow and simple with the lone word “happiness” and a little heart below. They’re made to last about 20 years, said Gary King, the 75-year-old retired marine mechanic and sand sculptor from Treasure Island, who last November began nailing them to poles along busy thoroughfares.
There are now, to his count, more than 140 of them. Some were placed by special request after strangers messaged him online, hoping “happiness” might come to their corner of the city.
King says that driving around putting up the signs is his therapy, after a lifetime marked by trauma and PTSD. He lays out some of his experiences in his book, the Happiness Formula.
But he was feeling happy on Friday after climbing his paint-splattered ladder at the corner of 16th Street and 4th Avenue North, where he tapped up a sign in less than 10 seconds.
“The idea a year ago was that I’d be handling happiness all the time,” he said. He means that literally, as in picking up his signs from the print shop, laying them on the seat of his car — where there is always a stack — and holding them up as he drives in the nail. As if the joy might seep in by osmosis.
These days he puts up at least one sign almost every day of the week.
“Now," he said, "when something is uncomfortable, happiness is the first word that pops into my head.” He recommends people tape a paper reading “happiness” to their refrigerator or mirror, and hopes his signs have a similarly joyful effect on the people who drive past them daily.
The anniversary of what King calls his “happiness experiment” lands on a notable week. No matter what happens in Tuesday’s presidential election, we can assume roughly half the voters in our nation will not be happy. Some will likely be deeply unhappy.
Stephanie Harrison, an expert in positive psychology and founder of thenewhappy.com, which translates psychological research into actionable ways people can feel better, said the signs could be helpful in shaking people out of their regular patterns.
“We often find ourselves acting on auto-pilot," she said. "Going through our days without mindful awareness.” Some researchers suggest up to 40 percent of everything we do in a day is just our default habits.
Humans are also wired to focus more on the negative. A happiness sign might remind people to look for the positive in their lives, Harrison said, which research has shown might increase feelings of happiness.
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Many experts said the first, important step forward after the election is accepting reality, then acknowledging how you feel about it. Acceptance does not mean you can’t work for change, said Paul Greene, a psychologist at the Manhattan Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, it simply adds more tranquility to your life.
“It’s okay to feel disappointed when things don’t go the way you hoped,” he said. “What’s not healthy is when we don’t psychologically accept the outcome. Yes, the election will mean four years of someone you don’t love as president, however, that will happen whether you accept it or not.”
Outward-focused mental stances of “this can’t be true” and “this is an outrage and will not stand” or “I can’t believe they did that” are conducive to suffering. Instead, Greene suggests turning off the TV and taking a break from the news and having a moment alone to ask yourself, “what emotions am I feeling?”
Recognizing them actually takes a lot of steam out of them. This, said the psychologist, is essentially a mindfulness exercise.
Lewis Richmond, a Buddhism and meditation teacher and author, whose new book comes out on Election Day, noted another mindfulness exercise. Just breathe, and notice that “I’m breathing.”
“The Buddhist perspective is that everything changes all the time,” Richmond said. “We don’t like change, when it doesn’t go our way.” It leads, Richmond said, to feeling there is little we can rely on. So hone things down to what you can absolutely rely on.
“The fact that you’re alive right now is an ultimate fact, and that is one level of reality that everyone can agree on,” he said. It’s why most meditation practices begin with feeling your breath, because again, it’s a fact no one can argue with. “You’re breathing. You’re alive.”
Another science-backed way to start feeling better, Harrison said, is a gratitude practice. That’s taking five minutes each day to note three things you are grateful for. It’s easy to feel grateful when things are going well, but Harrison said ultimately it’s more important to practice gratitude in bad times, like when an election doesn’t go your way.
She suggests tying it to an existing daily routine, maybe breakfast or dinner with family, or while walking to get a cup of coffee in the morning. Another way is having a buddy or a group text with friends where you share what you’re grateful for each day. You’re already on your phone doom scrolling anyway, right?
Dr. W. Nate Upshaw, director of Tampa’s NeuroSpa TMS, said that cognitive behavioral therapy shows it can be helpful to name your unhelpful thoughts. “Catastrophizing” for example, is when your mind runs wild with everything terrible that might happen — perhaps based on who’s in charge of the country.
You can’t really prevent your mind from catastrophizing, because “a lot of this is unconscious,” Upshaw said. “You’re not even aware when you start doing it.” But you can realize it’s happening, which "can actually just kind of stop it. People will say, ‘okay, I’m catastrophizing again’.
“In fact, because it happens unconsciously, just reading this article might make someone realize, ‘hey, this election could be affecting my thoughts,’ and just realizing that can help.”
You’re welcome, reader.
Complaining a lot about the outcome Tuesday likely won’t make you feel any better, said Amy Morin, a psychotherapist, lecturer at Northeastern University and bestselling author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.
“There’s this misconception you have to vent," she said, “but the research is there saying the more you complain and dwell, the worse you’ll actually feel.”
She also recommended that instead of worrying all day, schedule 15 minutes of planned worrying time. “It sounds ridiculous, but it works. When you worry outside of that, you’ll start to say, ‘It’s not time to worry right now'."
And while you’re scheduling time worry, schedule something fun. Having something to look forward to gives you a mental boost. It can be something small, Morin said, like pizza and a movie on Friday, but the trick is, you have to actually put it on the calendar.
Maybe you’re so mad you want to hit something.
Leah Benson, a licensed mental health counselor with a practice in Tampa, says you should. There are only three rules, but they’re extremely important: don’t harm yourself, don’t harm someone else and don’t harm anyone’s property, physically or emotionally.
“As long as you follow those rules, allow yourself to do whatever regulates your nervous system,” she said. “Some people want to scream, some want to meditate, some want to take a baseball bat to a pile of garbage.”
She personally whacks a heavy bag with a stick. Some people, she said, might want to “bundle up a towel so it makes a nice thick muffle and scream into it, or bite it. ... That’s very freeing isn’t It?”
Don’t do it in front of someone who might be frightened, she cautioned. That would be harm.
Ronald de Sousa, a Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto and well-known expert on the philosophy of emotions, offered a philosophical perspective.
In the Consolation of Philosophy, he said, Boethius, a fifth-century Roman senator who fell out of favor, comes to terms with fact that wheel of fortune has simply turned, and no longer favors him. It always turns.
“If you look at the history of the U.S., you can see the wheel of fortune turning, over and over," he said. “People may have to take comfort from the fact that the pendulum swings back and forth."
Or, you could try the way of the Stoics, “who thought the only things you should care about are the things you can modify.” To be clear, you cannot modify the outcome of the election, but Stoic philosophy says you can control your reaction to it.
Richmond recalled something his own psychiatrist told him years ago, about treating people, even those who felt they couldn’t make it through the day.
“There’s always a next step in front of you," he said. “If you’re in bed. It’s get out of bed. If you feel like you can’t talk to your spouse. Say something to your spouse. If you feel like you can’t go on after your candidate gets defeated, just do something.”
King, the happiness sign guy, had an idea for something people feeling blue after the election might do. Take a walk, or a drive. See if you can spot one of his signs. He’s putting up more every day.