Q: I've been through a series of challenges and disappointments over the past few years. I try to keep a positive attitude, but sometimes it's hard to avoid self-pity and discouragement. Do you have any advice?
Jim: I certainly don't want to minimize whatever you've endured. And there's practical help available, which I'll mention in a moment. That said, often the best way to change our mindset about our own struggles is to reach out to someone else. Let me share a recent illustration from the world of sports.
The Boston Marathon is always highly anticipated. However, the weather on race day this year was terrible: pouring rain, a strong headwind virtually the whole length of the 26.2-mile course and subfreezing wind chill.
Within just a few miles from the start, elite runner Desiree Linden was miserable and ready to give up; it looked like it just wasn't going to be her day. But Desiree saw a training partner (a race favorite) lagging behind the lead group after an unplanned stop. Desiree slowed down and told her friend that she would help pace -- allowing the other woman to "draft" behind her -- and wouldn't drop out until they caught up together.
The two women closed the gap to the main pack of elite runners. Desiree then saw another friend who was struggling to keep up with the leaders. So she paced that runner for a while.
As the marathon continued, Desiree realized that she wasn't thinking so much about the awful conditions. But her competitors were. As other elite athletes dropped out or slowed down, Desiree Linden kept going. Back in 2011, Desiree had placed No. 2 at Boston, just a couple of seconds behind the winner. In 2018, she crossed the finish line with a 4-minute lead -- becoming the first American woman in 33 years to win this country's most prestigious marathon.
In various interviews after the race, Desiree said that pacing her friends gave her the boost she needed -- both physically and mentally -- to stay in the race when she had been ready to quit. And there's actually good scientific evidence to back that up.
Research shows that when we help someone else, our brains release dopamine and serotonin -- "feel-good hormones." Those hormones boost our physical as well as mental state. In the process, our attention is drawn away from ourselves and onto the other person. Our minds disengage from our own difficulties and focus on something positive. That can give us the momentum to keep moving ourselves.
Now, I've never run a marathon, and I don't know that I ever will. But my friends who have tell me that it's a great metaphor for life. No matter who you are, finishing the race involves taking thousands of individual steps as consistently as you can. Even if you're struggling, there's likely someone who's having an even harder time. And it's always easier when others are with you for mutual encouragement. In fact, the more people you have in your pace group, the more likely that you'll all complete the course successfully.
So my advice to you is to come alongside someone else who is struggling. Encourage them. Listen to their story and tell them your own. Let them draft behind you for a time, if necessary. Around the next corner, maybe they -- or someone else -- will do the same for you.
Of course, there are situations where the services of a professional "coach" can make a big difference. Our staff counselors are available to help and offer referrals to licensed therapists all over the country. You can call 1-855-771-HELP (4357) or visit FocusOnTheFamily.com for more information. I wish you the best.