If you’re like me, you’re probably impressed by successful people, and maybe, also like me, you’ve invested in more than one of their books, coaching programs, webinars, or subscription services because you wanted to learn how they do what they do so that you could be more like them. But, full disclosure, I’ve often been less than satisfied with the results because after all the secrets I’ve paid to learn and systems they promised would work if I’d buy in at at least the silver package level, what I’ve learned is that my results varied because the real secret of their success is they are them and I, even after all the studying and listening and applying their concepts, am still me.
I’ve come to suspect that what makes some of the experts so good at what they do might not even be something I’d want. Maybe the natural leader is a sociopathic narcissist whose serial success and lofty ascent has been driven less by great ideas and sound practices than by being unburdened by the gravity of ethics and morals. Maybe the organization expert who declutters with zeal and color codes every file and alphabetizes the spice rack is really a case of undiagnosed OCD and and when nobody is watching has to check the stove every six minutes and turns around three times before going through a door. Probably none of that is true, but it makes me feel better to imagine it.
I have my own secret-to-success message that “Joy as a Choice” based on the observation and evidence that joyful people at work are less stressed and more engaged and that organizations that create a joyful culture tend to retain their talent and create a better customer experience. I have been spreading that gospel of joy-as-the-result-of-positive-habits for over two decades. But it is one that originated, not from my own natural relentless optimism but from my proclivity for pessimism, my tendency to worry and sweating the small stuff, a susceptibility to self-absorption, a focus on my failures and my fears of the future. It wasn’t a personality trait that I lacked, it was an addiction I needed to beat.
A lot of people are bound to addictions. When it is substance abuse or gambling or overeating, there are resources and processes that can help overcome them. But some addictions aren’t so obvious. Addictions to negative thinking or a habitual focus on fear that leads away from a joy-filled life. With physical addiction, you’ve probably heard of a 12-step plan. That’s a lot of steps but it’s necessary because cold-turkey so seldom works. It also is a way to replace old, destructive behaviors with new healthier ones. The same is true with mental and emotionally harmful habits. Small changes in thoughts and actions moves you incrementally from negativity to a more positive mindset and greater happiness, resilience and connection.
If you want to break free of your own bonds of fear, stress, anxiety, anger, and burnout, here are three simple daily steps that can loosen your bonds of negativity.
- Gratitude One underlying challenge to happiness is that there is a natural negative bias installed in the brain like a some biological malware. It had a useful survival function in our ancestors because threat had to be given a high priority in our perception. Skipping merrily among the trees and smiling at the morning sunshine for our ancient forbears, was a good way to become breakfast for bears. But, like a lot of perception traits left over from our ancestors, what was useful in a primitive context is ill-suited to the present. By some estimates, negative thoughts account for up to 85% of the average 60,000 thoughts you think every day. Your brain is simply wired for a negative bias. And that causes physical and emotional stress that can lead to burnout or breakdown. The antidote to that cortisol-inducing tendency is simple. Intentional gratitude. Giving thanks prepares your mind for happiness by forcing perception to the positive. Once you develop a habit of looking at that for which you can be grateful, you will naturally find more to be grateful for. Nothing has changed except your perception of what you didn’t notice before because of your cave-dweller focus on potential threats.
- Intake Imagine you ate nothing but high-fat, fried fast-food and Twinkies and sugary drinks (you do have to imagine that, right?) Unless your doctor is the same one who signed that letter saying Donald Trump could live to be 200, you probably wouldn’t be surprised if it resulted in a less than positive check-up, would you? We know that intake directly affects outcomes in the body. But how careful are you about a balanced mental, emotional and spiritual diet? Intentionally putting positives into your conscious thoughts has never been more possible or more challenging. you can choose exactly what you want to be exposed to that aligns precisely with your political point of view, your musical and entertainment interests and your social media content preferences. And those choices are fed into an algorithm that suggests even more precise choices. If your choices are negative, extreme, angry and fear-based, you can expect more choices being presented to your already-ailing psyche so that you go further and further down that rabbit hole until your mind resides permanently in a dark wonderland where hope and happiness are nothing but a naive wish of the ignorant. Making a choice to consume uplifting content, engage with positive people, and even use positive words in your own conversation are intake choices that can challenge the negative and become the leafy greens of your mental diet.
- Connection As the pandemic has made clear to many of us, isolation is not good for mental or physical health. Statistically, loneliness is as bad for health as smoking. and a review of 148 studies involving over 300,000 participants reveals that strong social relationships contribute to longevity and decrease the risk of death by all causes by 50%. In social media, it’s easy to make “friends” because all you need to do is send a friend or connection request. In the flesh and blood world, it’s hard. The late Norm MacDonald once wryly observed that, “(Online) I have like 160,000 friends. In real life, I have two.” So, how do you improve on those numbers? OPEN up. Becoming more connected to others requires that you bring something of value to people around you. Self-centeredness makes isolation more likely and worse. The solution begins with a change of focus on what you need to a consideration of Other People’s Emotional Needs (OPEN) and how you can supply some of those. How could you know what other people need? You can’t know everything they require but you can provide what everyone needs, namely recognition, inclusion and compassion. Use names when you talk to other people. Make others an intentional part of decision-making and asking about their lives more than telling about your own. And show that you care about the things that matter to them, their health, their families, their pets. Every one of those bring you closer and build the infrastructure for relationships that become trusted friendships. But first you have to escape the gravitational pull of that black hole of the ME-niverse.
There are plenty of other steps to break free of the hidden addictions that separate you from the joyful life you wish for but these three are a great start. And then you can get to work on your own coaching program to teach other people how to be emotionally healthier and more joyful, just like you.