Performing in Peter Pan at the Elgin Theatre this year reminded me of the wonder and enthusiasm of childhood. The play is about rekindling the spark of youth in adulthood. We adults have a negativity bias, presumably a leftover adaptation for self-preservation in caveman times: "Better to be safe and prepare for the worst."
While we assume we have free will, by the time we're in our thirties we've subconsciously conditioned ourselves to have automatic responses to stress: "I'm too tired," "I can't help myself," or "things never work out for me."
These myths might have been helpful once upon a time as a defence mechanism, but they can also lower the bar and prolong a rut you may find yourself in, making meh the new normal. That's where I was in 2014 and decided to dig myself out of it. 2015 was the greatest year of my life, and I credit it to crawling out of my comfort zone and retrieving my lost enthusiasm. If you want to make 2016 meh-free and get back your spark, try these easy, seven sustainable habits for well-being:
1. Get rid of the myths.
By using (trend alert!) mindfulness, a person can un-train their brain from automatically going to that negative thought. Dr. Elisha Goldstein describes it as deconstructing the thought. "When that negative voice pipes in, ask yourself 'is it true?' then 'is it always 100 per cent true?' then 'what would my life be like if it weren't true?'" The more you deconstruct these thoughts, the less of a habit they become. Your brain forms new habits as you replace your automatic reactions with new ones that don't contain your negative bias. It took months of breaking old habits, but eventually when something disappointing or stressful happened, I did a double take on my reaction, and replaced "I can't handle anything" with "I'm strong; I gotta shine my light!"
2. Do what you love.
Cognitive behaviour therapy helped me realign myself with what fulfills me: education, self-expression, a balanced schedule, an hour alone in the kitchen, nature, daydreaming and helping others. If you're drawing a blank on what fulfills you, think of a period in your life when time flew by because you loved what you were doing. Remember what activities you did at that time and get them back in your life.
3. Get active in a way that you'll stick with.
Joining a women's basketball team was my greatest catalyst for change. It snapped me out of my haze and reconnected me to a competitive drive I had lost. I joined a soccer team the following year, and although I'm the worst player on my team (a.k.a. the only one who repeatedly scores on my own net), I feel completely plugged into life after sweating it out on the field for 90 minutes. I'm a master procrastinator/excuse-maker, but I'll be there when my team's counting on me! "The doctor says I should get a dog" was enough to finally get my husband to agree to another pet, and we got a mutt that I take on nature hikes in the woods every morning, rain or shine, or 12 inches of snow. I also do eight minutes of tabata (a type of high intensity interval training). Eight minutes doesn't seem like much, but at least I can't ever use the excuse, "I was too busy." I've even done tabata on an airplane!
4. It's OK to revise values.
For the longest time, I thought giving up on the dreams I had in my 20s made me a quitter, and I would judge myself on those criteria. But my values have changed. It's no longer important to me to move to Los Angeles and join the fight for fame. I consider making my kids laugh milk out their noses to be my most valuable creative accomplishment. I remind myself that horses wear blinders in a race because they run faster if they focus on where they're going, and NOT on what the competition is doing. So I look at my finish line, and worry less about what my life must look like to others. The Kardashians can keep LA.
5. Find meaning in your work.
My favourite finding in positive psychology is that expressing your virtues more brings deeper happiness. Your job can stay exactly the same, but you can get more fulfillment out of it by inserting your personal, individual virtues into your current job; whether it's a sense of wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, integrity, or patience. We can bring more to the table, and get a better sense of self-worth as an outcome. If your job is a burden but you can't leave, then improve your health and life outside of work. Happiness is lateral: when you improve any area of your life (exercise, relationships, hobbies), you'll immediately notice improved satisfaction in other areas, and what was bothering you at work likely won't affect you as much.
6. Set small, realistic goals.
Setting lofty, unachievable goals (think of all those January gym memberships that gather dust by March) usually ends in a person giving up, and feeling disappointed in themselves for not making it. Better to set smaller, achievable goals, one at a time, and only when that small accomplishment becomes a habit and folds into a part of your regular routine should you increase the stakes. Many top success experts, including the mastermind Tony Robbins, have people start with small changes - maybe you eat more veggies for 30 days, take the stairs twice as often, have one less cigarette per day, spend five minutes less on your phone per week, spend two per cent less money this month. These tiny changes increase your self-esteem, and your belief that you CAN change. This new optimism gives you the mental edge to take on a bigger challenge, and succeed in forming new, successful habits. (Now you know why I work out for eight minutes!)
7. Reignite your resilience.
In order to feel stronger, I had to prove to myself that I was strong. I did this with the same principles in #6: I asked myself every day "What am I procrastinating from?" or "What am I dreading doing today?" The answers ran the gamut from memorizing rap lyrics to replying to a hostile tweet (I have a weird career). Whatever task I'm dreading, I do immediately. Facing our discomforts head on strengthens us. Hollywood producer Peter Guber said: "Always run towards the monster. It gets smaller the closer you get."
These new habits are attainable, sustainable and bring me deep fulfillment. They have built me back up to a place where I want to be. Now, when I get on stage, my goal beyond getting laughs is to remind the audience of their potential: to think of a time in their lives when they felt more engaged, more energized by their goals, and to connect into that passion again. I ask: "What myth are you telling yourself?" and "What part of your life do you want to express more?" Make 2016 meaningful and the rest will fall into place. Connect to your purpose and shine on!
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