How to really create change in your life.
What is life??
Does anyone else ever worry that they are just strolling through life without a clear plan or goal for the future? I know there are a lot of “I’m just taking it day by day” types out there, but I just get the feeling some folks might be ignoring that life has a way of just passing you by without you even realizing it. At the same time, living day by day doesn’t mean living in oblivion does it? One can choose to live day by day and still develop meaning and purpose in their lives.
A life with meaning and purpose is a life worth living. It’s your WHY. So many people go through life without these two things, constantly searching for the next big thing that will make them feel seen, heard, and grounded in life. Your version of WHY can be many different things, or just one thing. I know my mother’s WHY are her children and her family. My WHY is the love and appreciation I feel for my family, my community, the planet, the people on this planet, the other living things on the planet. Once you gain clarity around your WHY, you will start developing a life with meaning and purpose that is centered around your WHY. Here are some concrete habits you can develop to live your WHY.
Practical Exercise- Start a Gratitude List
Gratitude is the feeling you get when something brings you happiness. You feel gratitude because you are thankful for whatever happened to bring you this happiness. Keeping a gratitude list is a visual representation of all the things you are thankful for. After a while, you will start to see patterns. I am always thankful for the love and support of my family— could they be a part of my WHY? I am always thankful for my dog Lucy— is the love of animals part of my WHY? In this way, we can start to see clearly the things that are important to us and the things we should be focusing more of our time and energy into. If you want to go the extra mile, you can start a gratitude journal. This will help you capture in greater detail why certain things give you gratitude and in what circumstances. Similar to a gratitude journal, you can start a habit tracker. This is for those who know already what brings joy and satisfaction to their lives and what to make sure they are incorporating those things everyday.
Make Definite Decisions
This is hot off the press in my life. I just came across this idea of making definite decisions as I was listening to my audio book by Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich. His main argument is that those who are indecisive (i.e changing their minds frequently) are less likely to get anything done in the end, in which case, indecisiveness and procrastination are one and the same. Hill gives several examples of successful people who made a definitive decision and stuck to it, only to reap the benefits of their persistence. This is something I personally struggle with because I seem to overthink things to the point that I can’t tell which is the better option. One way to get over this is to realize neither might be better than the other and just pick a course and stick to it. Otherwise, inaction will stunt your growth and leave you stuck in place.
Practical Exercise- Start a Hobby and stick to it
Often times hobbies are things we like to do…often times. Sometimes we pick hobbies that we know will challenge us, or make us grow in ways we deem necessary. Which ever the case, I’ve found that sticking to your hobbies is closely related to making definite decisions. It’s a small thing, in the grand scheme of things, but an area where you can practice the art of making a definite decision. Sticking to a hobby that you like and enjoy is easy and can have the added benefit of making it to your gratitude list, but what’s even better is sticking to a hobby you realized you don’t enjoy as much or a hobby that makes you uncomfortable. For example, I signed up to play softball on a social league a few summers ago and initially I thought it would be great! When the season was about to start, all of my anxiety and suppressed feelings of athletic inferiority came rushing back. But I stuck to it, and I stuck to it (mostly because I had a friend doing it with me, if I’m being honest!), and once it was over, I was really proud of myself for accomplishing something despite my discomfort. In the end, I became more confident in my ability to deal with adversity (I still can’t play softball, but alas!) and I felt great about following through on something I’d committed to doing.
The Bottom Line
Self-care and self-improvement are essential to showing up for yourself. When you show up for yourself, you free up the space that uncertainty, ill-feelings and no direction took in your life, allowing you more room to show up in other ways. That is one of the reasons why personal development and professional development are related but different. Aligning your everyday life with your WHY, building consistency, confidences, and resilience in your personal life are all things that will make you a better leader, expert, and professional, but even more important, they will help you live with intentionality.
In a previous post I briefly touched on the Buddhist concept of “The Middle Way,” in relation to love and relationships. The gist was that we should neither rush into falling in love nor reject love altogether. Instead, we should slowly progress towards a meaningful love.
The middle way isn’t just relevant to love, it’s the overarching philosophy that governs Buddhism. The Buddha developed the Eight Fold path, to help us live the Middle Way life. You can further condense the Eightfold path into sub-categories; Ethics, Meditation and, Wisdom.
I am neither Buddhist nor do I believe everything in the Buddhist religion. While many people see Buddhism as a “way of life” or a “philosophy of life” and despite being mostly a non-theistic religion, Buddhism is still a religious journey for many who practice it. What I found most intriguing what the religion was the Buddha’s insistence that he was not a God nor should you take his teaching as truth, rather, you should explore them for yourself and then make a judgement. I find many of the teachings a good map to navigating life and understanding our own short-comings. For me, Buddhist teachings are something I incorporate into my arsenal of life lessons, and my favorite by far is the idea of the Middle Way.
Incorporating the Middle Way Into your Day to Day
It seems like extremism is the new way of life these days. Politically speaking, it’s obvious—you have your alt-right, progressives, etc. Even the moderates can’t be seen mingling with the “other side” for fear of political suicide. But beyond that, you have the vegans and the extreme sports enthusiast. I’ve even heard bookworms say, “oh yeah, I read that 400 page book in a day.”
The problem with extremism is obviously that it can lead to terrible things (terrorist groups, stealing farmer’s livestock to “protect them,” etc) but more than that, it’s that life is complicated and trying to fit everything into neat binary lines is not possible. Take for example, abortion. You are either pro-choice or pro-life, right? But what about the pro-lifers who get abortions? They are hypocrites, right? Well what about the pro-choicer who says they would never get an abortion…are abortions okay for you but not for them? Are abortions just for the poor and the unfit? It’s…complicated.
The point is that we cannot live our lives so rigidly. Life is messy and the answers aren’t always clearcut. In my personal life I confront this all the time. For instance, I am borderline obsessed with living a non-toxic, organic, natural lifestyle. The problem that I face is that it’s extremely hard to be a purist. Because of the society we live in and because of abundance of information that’s out there, I find myself overwhelmed and frankly confused about what is “the right” way to be non-toxic and natural.
AGAIN, the problem was that I was taking it to the extreme, I wanted to rid myself of all the toxins in the world and all the unnatural things that we use in our daily lives. This is technically possible, and some people have accomplished just that, but it isn’t very practical, or cost effective, or even the safest bet. The biggest hurdle though, was that it was stressing me out and giving me major anxiety. So sure, I could do it, but at what cost? What I realized was that it was OK to utilize some of modern society’s tools, as long as they were safe, non-toxic and good for the environment.
I reached this realization by sitting down and really analyzing what my goals were and also listening to the other side. I’d done all the research and learned so much about non-toxic living but I hadn’t been objective enough to hear out the other said, and as the buddha would say, make my own judgement.
Here is a good example
In the natural beauty world at large, essential oils are the holy grail of literally everything, from cleaning your face to acne treatment to moisturizing, etc, etc. The reasoning behind using essential oils is that they are a naturally derived product that substitutes harsh artificial fragrances and is safe to use on skin.
THE TRUTH IS…
Essential oils can be safe to use on your skin and in your household cleaning products and diffusers, you name it, HOWEVER, essential oils are also extremely potent and can be very irritating if used directly on the skin. Not only that, essential oils take up a huge amount of natural resources to produce, making them eco un-friendly. So while I do like essential oils and believe in their benefits, it’s so important to me to use them in moderation and be mindful of their negative effects.
Since we have a skincare theme going, let’s mention retinol. Retinol is a derivative of Vitamin A that helps in anti-aging. It is found in many conventional skincare products. Many “clean beauty” products use retinol alternatives…but not for the reasons you think!* The hard core natural, non-toxic living community would never indorse or recommend something like retinol because like, Cocamidopropyl Betaine which is derived from coconut oil, anything that is chemically altered is considered “unnatural” and subsequently, “unsafe.”
THE TRUTH IS…
There have been countless scientific studies on the use of retinol and it has been found to be safe across the board. Like essential oils, it can be very potent and irritating to the skin, but it is not harmful if used as directed. As mentioned, retinol is derived from Vitamin A, which our bodies naturally produce, making it also something that our body naturally produces. After having done all my research, I concluded that retinol is something I’d like to try—an ingredient I would have likely never learned about if I’d strictly stuck to the natural beauty community.
The Bottom Line
What I’ve learned is that there is no right or wrong, we are constantly learning new things and adapting. The Middle Way has taught me that you should never pursue nor avoid something to the point of deteriorating your mental, spiritual or physical health. Trying to be 100% natural in an environment where consumerism thrives caused me more stress than benefit. This is not to say I don’t strive to live a natural, non-toxic lifestyle anymore, it just means my definition of that goal is more flexible. The Middle Way is synonymous with balance; don’t not pursue your goals and don’t allow your goals to become self destructive.
*Clean beauty products use alternatives to retinol because of how potent it can be. Alternatives are usually gentler on the skin and also less effective. Learn more from Allure mag’s 11 Retinol Myths That Derms Want You to Stop Believing.
I’ve recently started a #debtfree journey, where I’ve mapped out how I will pay off my debt (aka student loans) and become financially free. Related to this, Chapter 5 of the Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, is appropriately titled, The Pursuit of Happiness, wherein, he discusses our often misguided pursuits of wealth, fame, recognition, etc.
People who report the greatest interest in obtaining money, fame, or beauty, are consistently found to be less happy, and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals.Dr. Haidt, Happiness Hypothesis
Further in the chapter, he explains how Western culture, and particularly American culture, strives to achieve status and perceived happiness, more than we actually strive for happiness. According to the book, this is why we (Americans), would rather take less vacations and make more money, instead of taking more vacations, make less and, subsequently being happier. Essentially, it’s always been about Keeping Up With the Jones (or the Kardashians??), it’s about one upping your competition and gaining power and influence.
I think we can all agree wanting to be powerful and influential isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself. The problem is that power and influence are mistaken for happiness. We think that when we are rich, or when we are famous, or when we rise in social status, we will be happier, yet, this is almost never the case.
Should we all renounce our materialistic ambitions?
It’s important to note, while money does not buy happiness, necessarily, it does offer piece of mind. Dr. Haidt mentions this briefly as he notes, “once basic needs are met, money simply cannot buy additional happiness.” The way I understood, “basic needs,” is a state where you have enough money to cover your bills and your rent or mortgage, have food on the table and, money left over for other basic needs (i.e gas, clothes, diapers, etc). What does that mean for someone living paycheck to paycheck? Or someone struggling to save, or someone like me whose “basic needs” are met but also lives with crippling debt?
I do agree with the general idea “money can’t buy happiness,” however, we need to revise the notion that “once basic needs are met” we will not gain anything from having a few extra coins in our pockets. Using myself as an example, I have a middle class income; I live alone; I follow all the “best practice” advice on how much I should spend on rent, groceries, etc, I have plenty of “spending” money, and yet, I have crippling debt. Yes, all my basic needs are met but I live with consent anxiety over my never ceasing student loan debt.
Once we’ve reached financial freedom, money simply cannot buy additional happiness.
This brings us to the idea of financial freedom. Being financially free is a state of living where you are not tied down, anxious, stressed, or worried about your financial status. In todays world, where things like credit card debt and student debt has had a negative psychological effect on so many people, it is safe to say that meeting our “basic needs” is no longer enough.
Instead, we need to be proactively educating ourselves on financial literacy, and how we can control money so that it does not control us. To Dr. Haidt’s original point, this is not about Keeping Up with the Jonese, this is about an internal practice that will improve our daily lives, offer peace of mind and, reduce stress and anxiety—all which can lead to a happier life.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve your financial situation, especially if it is the cause of stress and anxiety in your life. The key is to have intentionality; what is your true motive for building wealth? Is it to become financially free? To save for the future? Note these are all “behind the scenes” goals— no one will know how much money you have saved or that you are debt free just by looking at you. In turn, if you want to build wealth to buy fancy things, or to show it off to your friends, then you are in it for the wrong reasons. Yes the wealth may bring you influence and power, but the pursuit of wealth, will not lead to happiness. It may very well lead to unhappiness. This is something we should fully understand and accept as true before making sacrifices to build wealth.
This post is part of the Happiness Series. View more posts from this series.
Check out Dr. Haidt’s book site: Thehappinesshypothesis.com