W Is For... WavingRead Now
Why We Need To Wave To Our Bus Drivers, Neighbours (& Everyone Else)
We're frequently told to find our "calling" if we want a meaningful life. But the true keys to happiness are far easier to obtain...
We're often told that the path to happiness lies in finding our calling, leaving our "mediocre existences" behind and chucking everything in to follow our passion (if we're lucky enough to find it).
The thing is, for many of us, these kinds of lofty ideas just don't figure in reality.
Even if we get the opportunity to even think about things like this, things like mortgages, bills and mouths to feed soon eclipse such frivolous thinking.
Yes, despite this, we find happiness anyway.
The "Blue Zones"
As anyone who has been back-packing will tell you, there are parts of the world where there are people, who are not "successful" in the conventional sense, who appear to lead incredibly happy lives.
"Deprived" communities, with perhaps only one TV between the lot of them (as that's how we measure deprivation, after all), will have far wider smiles on their faces than you'll see anywhere else in the world.
Deep-down, we all know why, but research into The Blue Zones literally spells it out for those of us who are still not so sure.
The Blue Zones are five parts of the world (in Greece, Italy, Japan, Costa Rica and California), identified by U.S. author Dan Buettner as hot-spots for consistently producing people with the highest life expectancy.
In exactly zero of cases, is productivity, wealth or hustling the cause of their long lives.
What is invariably the cause (apart from diet and exercise) is relationships.
They live in small towns or villages, they put their families first, they belong to faith-based communities, they eat and drink together, and their interpretation of purpose can equally mean spending time with those they love as it can be "pursuing passions".
They're happier, they live longer and they have significantly lower rates of heart disease and dementia.
Relationships are not just the glue that keeps these communities together; they are literally saving their lives, too.
The Real "Secret"
In her TED talk, below, psychologist and author of The Village Effect, Susan Pinker, flags up the research of psychologist and researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who found that the the biggest single predictor of a long life has nothing to do with diet, exercise, finding the ideal job - or even, quitting smoking.
And it has nothing to do with close relationships either (that was the 2nd biggest predictor).
What is the biggest predictor is how much we interact with people in general, during a given day.
And that means anyone: the barista as we grab our morning coffee, the postman as they drop off the mail, the bus driver as they pass by; the neighbour as they're out walking their dog.
It's what is known as social integration - it's all the small moments of interaction we might not even pay much attention to during the day, but which is literally saving our lives.
So how does this actually work?
The Science Of Making Ourselves Happier
Each face-to-face interaction releases "a whole cascade of neurotransmitters" that protect us now - and well into the future - says Pinker:
"Simply making eye contact with somebody, shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust and it lowers your cortisol levels.
"So it lowers your stress. And dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain. It's like a naturally produced morphine."
Try it. Wave to the bus driver, smile at the postman, ask the barista how their day is going.
You'll find that your day suddenly feels that much more enjoyable.
You'll feel invigorated - grateful, even that you live where you do.
And there's no hustling required.
E Is For... Embracing LACKRead Now
When "Abundant Thinking" Is Hard, Try This Approach Instead
If it feels like a bit of a big ask to embrace an"abundant mindset", we need to consider the idea of accepting what we lack
Life is pretty hard when we don't have what we need to move forward.
We try our best but we don't have enough money to invest in projects; we don't have enough contacts to help us expand; we don't live anywhere with great opportunities and life just seems to present us with continuous obstacles and not much else.
After a while we get trained to spot why things can't work; why we can't do what we want to do; why it might be better to give up instead.
When we get into that habitual frame of thinking, we are exhibiting what is known as a Lack Mentality (or Scarcity Thinking) - and it's a crippling mindset.
It's particularly insidious because, for many of us, it's simply a default setting. It doesn't feel like we are being defeatist. This is just reality.
The Problem With Abundant Thinking
Stepping out of a Lack Mentality can be a bit of a problem, then.
The antidote we are often presented with, to help move us out of this state, is also rife with issues. It's what is known as "Abundant Thinking".
Abundant Thinking asks us to embrace possibility, imagine things getting better and develop a grand vision of a life that is so much more exciting than the one we are currently living.
While fantasizing can give us a temporary high, the problem is that deep down we are all too well aware of our realities. The disparities between what we want and what we have can be enormous, which makes the mental jump so difficult.
"Abundant thinking" is a big ask if we live in an environment which is constantly reinforcing the opposite of abundance wherever we look.
An Alternative Suggestion
A paradoxical way of freeing ourselves from a Lack Mentality is by completely accepting lack is there and that it might always be there.
It's a form of Radical Acceptance.
Radical Acceptance is a therapeutic intervention developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan. It was intended for sufferers of borderline personality disorder but its principles can be applied universally.
The idea is to take us on the very path we are trying to avoid - the one that leads towards painful realizations of difficult realities.
Instead of wishing things were different, it makes us face the fact that life is not the way we want it to be - and it might never get better.
It is painful to do this - but the pain is short-lived.
What we are essentially doing is fully embracing the unpleasant emotions fully that arise from being brutally honest with ourselves.
In this case, it would be the pain of accepting we don't have XYZ (and we might never have it).
Once we face it, we effectively free ourselves from the internal resistance to where we are.
We come out the other side with a new perspective - one that is grounded in reality.
Much like Intense Realism, this practice will then narrow our attention to what we do have at our disposal.
As a result, we give ourselves the potential to become more focused, creative, innovative and resourceful.
The alternative is a pain that lasts far longer - it's called denial.
Denial is "Abundant Thinking" for people who don't really buy into it but do it anyway because they don't know what else to do.
Embracing our lack, rather than pretending it isn't there, is a key to help us out of our mental prison, when imagining we are not in prison is just too hard to do.
D Is For... "Do Something"Read Now
Lacking Motivation? Instead Of Waiting For Inspiration To Strike, You Might Want To Try This Instead
It's a fallacy to think we need to be inspired in order to get motivated, says Mark Manson. The real trick is to start first - and then the magic will come
It’s not always possible to feel fired up. When it comes to the magic of motivation, the only thing we can actually rely on is the fact that we can’t rely on it all.
Our enthusiasm levels fluctuate throughout the day, waxing and waning with our circadian rhythms. All being well, they run their natural course and we feel the fire in our bellies again.
Other times our “down” spells can go on for what feels like a lifetime.
We stare at blank screens, with blank minds and zero idea how to get back to that place of inspired action we had before.
And this, says author Mark Manson, is where we can make a vital mistake.
We wait for inspiration to come.
We wait for that magical feeling, that breakthrough idea, to be “in the right frame of mind” in order to begin.
The thing is, while it might very well come eventually, we potentially waste a lot of time waiting for it, he says.
Manson’s advice is simple: just do something. Anything — literally.
As he writes in his blog:
"Action isn’t just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of it."
The "Do Something" Principle
Ideas don’t come just by looking at a screen. Taking action on something — even if it is unrelated — he suggests, is the missing ingredient.
It’s what gives us a kick-start.
The way we feel from taking action on something then motivates us to take action on other things, which then motivates us even further.
The three components of Action, Inspiration and Motivation then form an endless loop (ideally), each feeding off each other.
But the key to always remember, he writes, is that the action part is the catalyst. It’s always the first step.
Action is what is required in order to get inspiration or motivation.
Manson, a former life coach, calls this the “Do Something Principle”.
It’s a simple piece of advice which he has given to his clients — and to himself — and he swears by it.
So the next time you’re sitting in the proverbial waiting room and the flash of inspiration still hasn’t arrived, try taking action on something — either on the task at hand, or on literally anything else instead.
You might find the wheels of your creative train will start to grease themselves.
A Is For... AgencyRead Now
The Elixir Of Life? How Feeling In Control Impacts Our Work Lives - And Our Longevity
Feeling powerless and helpless is a key factor behind anxiety and depression. There's a cure for that.
We can frequently find ourselves in incredibly demoralizing situations.
Take the average office. For many of us, it provides little more than a delightful daily cocktail of insufficient pay, mindbogglingly repetitive tasks and stifling levels of box-ticking.
Feeling like a cog in a wheel is hard enough when this is a job to pay the bills (rather than a step up the ladder to something greater).
It can become intolerable, however, when we are perpetually undermined, given insufficient freedom to make decisions and are left feeling overworked, undervalued and underpaid.
For many of us, quitting isn’t an option, which just compounds the misery we feel. We can’t take action to rectify the situation and the feeling of helplessness takes root, with no visible remedy in sight.
It‘s’ the perfect recipe for apathy, at best. Really, why bother?
Why Agency Matters
The reason why we get dragged down so much, says Johann Hari in this Big Think video, is that we have a strong psychological need for “agency” — the sense of being in control of the direction of our lives.
Having a lack of agency is a key factor behind work-related depression and anxiety, he says.
So what’s the answer when we feel beaten down and we lack this sense of control over our lives?
Not surprisingly, it is to take back control.
The Need To Take Back Control
There are many ways we can do this.
The example Hari cites might seem to be a bit too much of a jump for some right now but is instructive all the same.
In the case he highlights, a husband and wife quit their jobs to run a bike shop together. The act of being responsible for it had the inadvertent effect of combating their prior feelings of depression and anxiety.
This is great, but...
While we might aspire to do that (run our own show), we can’t always change our external environment at the click of our fingers.
The key, then, is to understand how we get that feeling of being in control in our everyday life.
A 1970's psychology study in a U.S. care home might give us some clues about how to achieve that.
In the late 1970's, esteemed Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and her colleague Judith Rodin, conducted what was to become a landmark experiment in Arden House, a care home in New England.
What they did was deceptively simple but startlingly effective.
Langer and Rodin divided the residents into two groups, both of which were given plants to care for and films to watch, with a subtle variation in the parameters set around the control group.
While one group had everything done for them, the other was given the power to make decisions for themselves.
Nothing grand, they were simply given the ability to decide where and when they would receive visitors, if and when they would watch the films being shown and in what way they would care for their houseplants (how often they would water them, where they would place them in their rooms and so on).
The idea being, writes Langer in her book Counterclockwise, was to make this group feel actively engaged with the world around them — and less of a passive bystander.
The results were remarkable.
Eighteen months later, they revisited Arden House, compared the two groups and found that the control group were not only healthier, happier and more alert but twice as many of them were alive.
It raised the idea that not only is the feeling of control directly linked to happiness - it's linked to longevity, too.
What is so reassuring about this study, is that sometimes the desire to be in control of our lives can take on what feel like unreachable goals - we want to own a house, run our own business, be in a position of status. And, of course, these things might come.
But for the time in between, it is a relief to know that the things that markedly improve our happiness levels right now are the little decisions we are able to take every day - and knowing that there are always some aspects of our lives (if not all) that we are in control of.
What We Can Do Now
Even if it is just choosing what we focus on, there are always some aspects of our lives (if not all) that we are in control of — and they might be more vital to our long-term health and happiness than we realise.
Here are a few suggestions to get started: