Accomplishments, accolades, beauty, power, status, money. All too often, the story repeats. We see people who supposedly ‘have it all’ and discover they are desperately unhappy.
What gives? How can all the things we work so ridiculously hard for not make us perfectly fulfilled and content?
The fact is, human happiness relies far more on what’s in our heads than what’s in our wallets, how we look or what we have achieved. You can be draped in diamonds and not feel an inner sparkle. You can be at the peak of your profession and feel horribly burnt out. You can have your own private space program and still not possess the qualities that matter most.
Instead of chasing all those external things that are very unreliable in bringing us contentment, what if ‘having it all’ meant having all of those internal skills and resources that we know can make a very real difference to our sense of mental wellbeing? What if it meant being able to live a life of meaning and purpose, unbridled by worry, fear or the expectations of others? What if it meant feeling comfortable in ourselves, at peace with our decisions and confident that we can manage life’s many ups and downs?
Rather than exhaust ourselves trying to live up to impossible ideals, there are a number of ways we can bring about profound positive changes in our lives. Best of all, when we work on this stuff, we may not feel the need to chase so desperately hard to get all that other stuff.
1. Change the way we treat our thoughts
Often, we can get incredibly caught up in our thoughts. We can over-plan, catastrophise and treat every silly thought that pops up into our heads as something far more important than it really is. We can get stuck in loops, become concrete in our thinking and dedicate an exhausting amount of effort to dwelling on things outside of our control.
Of the thousands of thoughts we have each day, only a small percentage are wise or useful. Each time a thought appears, we do not have to automatically buy into it. Instead, we can step back from it, observe it, play with it and let it go if it is of no use to us.
Mindfulness is a wonderfully empowering skill because it teaches us to interact with thoughts in a different way. We don’t have to be ruled by our thoughts. Instead, we can choose to interact with them in an open, kind and non-judgemental manner. We can then honour our values and do what matters most.
Not only can this be incredibly liberating; it can also allow us to be less fearful, more flexible and make better life decisions.
2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable emotions
Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to see emotions not as helpful messengers, but rather something to be ashamed or frightened of.
Our upbringings may have led us to equate emotions with weakness or danger, so we do anything not to feel them. We push emotions away, bottle them up or try to replace them with something more pleasant. We invent all sorts of avoidance strategies such as drinking, gambling or venting, which may make us feel better in the moment, but can have some pretty disastrous long-term consequences.
It’s perfectly okay to have a full set of human emotions. While not all emotions feel pleasant, they are all incredibly useful. Emotions are how we make sense of the world and our experiences. They serve as important messengers, telling us when something seems good, bad or not quite right.
When we hold space for our emotions, treating them with compassion, care and respect, rather than trying to avoid them, we can better understand, process and integrate all those things which are impacting our lives. This empowers us to make decisions that are in line with our personal values and overall wellbeing.
When we are not fearful of our emotions, we can also be far braver in our actions. While we may experience times of pain, heartbreak and failure along our journeys, this will bring a far richer life experience than playing it safe out of fear.
3. Choose our own directions
“Why on earth am I doing this?” It’s a question that doesn’t get asked nearly enough. When we do, all too often, the answer is not “because I really want to” but rather “because it’s what’s expected” or “I have absolutely no idea.”
Outside expectations, peer pressure and the powerful human desire to fit in can see us go along with all sorts of stuff that we personally aren’t all that keen on. If you feel like you are on the express route to somewhere you really don’t want to be, it’s time to pause, consult your values and consider where to take your life next.
A great sense of dissatisfaction can arise when we are not living the lives we truly want. While change may seem scary, so is the prospect of spending this one life on something which isn’t aligned with our values. Change doesn’t have to be drastic. Often, taking small, valued actions can put us back on the path to where we want to be.
There comes an incredible freedom from living life on purpose, pursuing what we are passionate about and being 100% ourselves. That freedom becomes even greater if we are able to stop measuring ourselves against others or worrying what others think.
4. Shift our focus
In this information age, our attention is constantly being hi-jacked and taken away to some pretty dark places. With the algorithms designed to keep us provoked and outraged, we all need to pay attention to our sensory diets, consider what we are taking in and the effect it is having upon us.
How much of our lives should be dedicated to doom-scrolling? How much should we give to click-bait, hateful comments and social media screaming matches? What percentage should we have for shoot-em-up games? How many days a year should we devote to unhelpful social comparisons? How much time should we set aside so that advertisers can convince us that we will not be worthy unless we buy all their stuff?
While we may take comfort from Netflix binges and Candy Crush sagas, it can be incredibly helpful to step away from the screens and take some time to appreciate the non-digital delights which are all around us. Regularly taking time out for wonder and mindful appreciation can help nourish us and help us to feel far more positive and optimistic.
It can also bring us back to the now.
While life is lived in the present, we can spend an inordinate amount of it re-hashing the past or worrying about the future. When we learn to return our focus to the present moment, we become much more present. We gain the ability to engage fully with the people around us and all the wonderful things that exist in the here and now.
5. Treat ourselves with far greater kindness
We are incredibly hard on ourselves. We tell ourselves things we wouldn’t dare say to others. We set impossibly high standards, then berate ourselves when we don’t live up to them. We push past pain, rather than allow ourselves comfort and time to recover.
Often, we see perfectionism as a virtue, rather than the tortuous punishment it is. While we may like to think self-criticism spurs us to greatness, research has shown that self-compassion actually works far better when it comes to fulfilling our goals.
We are all imperfect humans who make mistakes and a good life is not mistake-free. It is riddled with errors, failures and experiments that didn’t quite work out. Our lives become much bigger when we grant ourselves the permission to try and fail.
Self-compassion does not make us weak. It allows us to be brave, to trust the goodness in ourselves and to recognise the goodness in others. When we don’t waste all that energy battling our own worst enemy, the path forward becomes immeasurably easier.