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Unexpected Wisdom to Get Better Results

Small actions, done consistently, pay off huge dividends. It’s an effective way to get better results whether we’re talking about working out, increasing happiness, or fostering healthy relationships.

Getting in shape

My little brother is a beast. He is incredibly in shape, and it’s not genetic luck. He’s put in the years of hard work to figure out his optimal nutrition, and he puts in serious time at the gym. He’s experimented enough that he knows what to eat and how to workout to increase strength or cut to show off definition or bulk up, whatever. He’s a whiz at sculpting his physique.

I, on the other hand, try to be active but, like so many, struggle to be disciplined. In my head, I believe wholeheartedly that strength-training is critical for health and wellbeing. My actions, however, speak the truth – that I’d rather do anything but. Besides, I get overwhelmed sifting through all of the advice out there to figure out what I actually should be doing to get the results I want. Should I do tons of reps with little weights? Fewer reps with heavy weights? Functional training? Isometrics? Kettle bells? I don’t even know where to start! 

My brother is also one of the most inspiring people in my circle. I always leave our conversations feeling ready to take on the world and to be a better version of myself. For these reasons, I was really looking forward to asking his advice when we were together in Fort Worth a couple weeks ago for our nephew’s graduation.

“Hey, kiddo. I want to get buff fast. What should I do?”

His answer blew my mind a bit.

Unexpected wisdom

I was looking for a plan, detailed instructions on what to eat and how to exercise. Instead, what I got was actually beyond useful.

“Honestly, Ash, the best advice I can give you is ‘whatever you can do consistently’.”

His advice was like a light bulb going off. Duh! Of course, consistency is the highest priority. I could have the optimal fitness plan, but if I can’t (or won’t) follow it, for whatever reason, I’m not going to get results. It was freeing to cut through all of the noise and feel good about focusing on one top priority: just be consistent. Walk, yoga, run, dance, regret catching the occasional HIIT class. All of these will move me toward my goal. 

That conversation helped me realize that I was letting the pursuit of the best get in the way of progress. 

It got me thinking about how many other places and in how many other ways this mindset might apply. Where do we tend to seek out the best, the perfect, the right, the big pay off, or the grand gesture to our detriment? Where does focusing on big moves lead us to be ineffective or, worse, take no action at all? 

The Danish secret to happiness

Right around this same time, I stumbled across the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced “hoo-ga”). Denmark consistently ranks as one of the happiest nations on Earth despite having long, dark winters. I’d venture to say that a culture based on hygge is one of the main reasons. 

Hygge is cozy, warm, connected moments. It’s candlelight instead of harsh overheads. It’s snuggling up with a warm blanket in a welcoming nook to read or board games with your best buds. It’s comfort food and comfortable silence, laughter and intimacy. It’s coffee shops with close friends over bars with strangers. And it’s a priority, built into every day. 

In the U.S. (where I live), I think we often look to big, noticeable outside things to bring us happiness – shopping, vacations, dream dates and jobs, promotions or achievements – and we underestimate the cumulative effect that little moments of cozy pleasure may have on us.

What if we took that same “whatever you can do consistently” mentality and applied it here? What if we made efforts to design our daily experience – our activities and our environments – to promote hygge? I can’t help but think that would pay dividends in terms of happiness. 

The foundation of strong close relationships

Similarly, small things often trumps grand gestures when it comes to relationships. John and Julie Gottman are psychologists and the world’s leading experts in couple relationships, with about 40 years of research under their belts. They can predict with near-perfect precision which couples will stay together happily and which will not simply by observing them talk for a few minutes. Based on all of their research and knowledge, the Gottmans advocate for small things often. 

It’s the little moments that build – or break – your relationships. A grand gesture of rom-com proportions might make for a good story, but it won’t erase the damage of speaking unkind words or ignoring your partner’s bids for attention on a daily basis. When it comes to healthy, happy relationships, it’s the small things, repeated frequently – a habit of relationship-boosting interactions, if you will – that matters most.  

Life design and positive habits

At Peak Mind, we’re big proponents of life design – a process for experimenting your way toward a life aligned to you. A key aspect of life design is iteration – designing an experiment, testing it out, then tweaking. It hinges on a bias toward action. Take the step, have the experience, let that experience be your guide, then take another step. Let’s carry this attitude and my little brother’s wisdom forward to every domain of life. 

  • Consistency matters most if you’re looking to change habits and get better results.
  • Small changes are easier to maintain than big ones.
  • Small things, repeated often, pay off with big results. 

Can you imagine what life might feel like if we did that?

“Success is the product of daily habits – not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.
James Clear
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How to be Happy: 15 Practical Tips

You may not know this about me, but I’m a giant nerd, truly a scientist at heart. That means that when I got really serious about figuring out what it takes to be happy in life, I delved fully into the science of happiness by reading, learning, thinking about, and testing out everything I could get my hands on – studies, theories, philosophies, memoirs.

There is still much to learn, but certain themes keep coming up again and again. While I don’t believe that the quick fix/instant gratification route is necessarily the one to lasting happiness, this cheat sheet will get us well on our way.

1. Be nice!

Don’t be a jerk, and don’t let your children be jerks. That statement right there sums up a lot of the ones below, but let’s be a little more specific.

2. Do something for someone else.

Small scale, big scale. Doesn’t matter. Acts of kindness make you feel good mentally and physically. Believe it or not, altruism can even lower your blood pressure! You’re also making someone else’s day, so there may be ripple effects. 

3. Move!

Seriously, you have to move your body. Our lifestyles are so sedentary these days, yet our bodies weren’t designed that way. You can’t expect your brain, a (very important) part of your body to work optimally if you’re not maintaining the system. Besides, tons of data coming out suggest that exercise has antidepressant and antianxiety effects. 

4. Similarly, eat real food.

Real foods (with ingredients you can pronounce and without added sugar) will nourish you and keep you full longer. Hanger is real. You’re not happy, and neither is anyone around you. Moreover, see above for the whole brain/system running optimally argument.

5. Stop complaining.

Complaining brings you down and trains your brain to notice all of the negative things. Besides, complaining doesn’t usually change or fix anything, does it?

6. Instead, be grateful.

Gratitude is more about choice and mindset than it is about external circumstances (e.g., physical possessions). You can be a billionaire yet unhappy if you’re not grateful, or you can be a prisoner with nothing and yet be happy. Look around. There are so many things to be grateful for! Try focusing on all the things you appreciate, that went well, and that made you happy instead of all the reasons why today sucked, or try this simple exercise. 

7. Connect with people. 

Reach out to loved ones. Talk to strangers. Don’t worry about feeling weird about being judged or stepping out of your comfort zone (which is actually really good for you to do, by the way). And, if you are worried, DO IT ANYWAYS! We’re all navigating this thing called life and probably have more in common than we realize. Taking a minute (or more) to connect with another human being helps us feel less lonely and gives a mood boost. Here are two easy ways:

Basic manners, please.

Make eye contact. Smile (or nod or wave if you’re masked). Hold the door for someone. Say “please.” Say “thank you.” Like you actually mean it. It feels good.

Give someone a compliment.

It takes 2 seconds, and I guarantee it will boost your happiness and theirs. By the way, say “thank you” if someone gives you a compliment. Thank you is the appropriate response. Do not let your mind dismiss it with some self-deprecating, “Oh, I’m not really XYZ” comment.

8. Practice mindfulness. 

It’s been around forever, for good reason, and neuroscience and all sorts of other research is now confirming what yogis have known for millennia: a mindfulness practice is good for you. (Please know that I say this as a former skeptic. It took compelling data and arguments for me to really embrace this practice. Now I think it is one of the most critical practices for success and wellbeing.)

9. Get off social media, or, better yet, screens in general.

Maybe not all together, but definitely set some limits. You’ll have more time for other things that are more meaningful or more likely to boost your happiness, and you won’t be getting all the input that increases the icky “not good enough” feelings and concern for the state of the world.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Theodore Roosevelt

10. Sleep

It’s hard to be happy when you’re tired. It’s hard to manage stress, anxiety, depression, and anger when you’re tired, and inadequate sleep can compromise our health. Get your Zzzzs.

11. Learn something. Anything.

Be an active participant in life rather than a passive consumer. I firmly believe that stimulation is critical for happiness. Technology makes it possible to learn absolutely anything these days. Don’t tell me it’s boring. Don’t tell me you can’t.

“In this world, you are either growing or you’re dying.” – Lou Holtz (and a bunch of other people) 

12. Speaking of, start looking for the reasons why you can, instead of the reasons why you can’t, do things. 

Don’t let limiting beliefs, circumstances, or other people hold you back. YOU are in charge of your life, and you CAN make choices to improve it, even when the deck seems stacked against you. It is up to you to choose to be happy!

13. Practice compassion.

For yourself (silence that Inner critic) and for others. Operating under the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can really cuts down on anger and negativity. It may not change events or circumstances, but it definitely makes me happier.

14. Spend less. 

There’s a widely accepted cultural myth that money leads to happiness. The happiness that comes from acquiring is fleeting at best. Besides, if you spend less, you need less money, and how many people would be a whole lot better off if they didn’t stress so much about money?

15. You do you, and let me do me.

This is two part. One: be yourself! You’ll be happier if you’re not trying to fit some mold or live up to someone’s perceived expectations. Two: don’t worry about what I do (as long as it doesn’t actually hurt anyone or prevent you from doing you). Accepting others rather than trying to control them leads to a lot more peace, internally and externally.

Simple steps, right? At least in theory! What are your favorite tips and tricks to be happy?

“Happiness is not a goal…It’s a by-product of a life well lived.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
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If You Want to Be Happy, Expect Less

If you want to maximize happiness and cultivate more inner peace, expect less.

As a teenager, I was stoked to watch An American Werewolf in Paris. I just knew it was going to be edgy and scary – a cinematic masterpiece! What it was, however, was a giant let down. It was a terrible movie. 

Fast forward a couple years, and said movie was on TV. I agreed to watch it with some friends despite knowing how much it sucked. Imagine my surprise when the credits rolled, and I realized that I didn’t hate it. In fact, I had rather enjoyed it the second go round.

Same movie, polar opposite reactions to it. What accounted for the difference? That experience was one of the first that really hit home to me the power of expectations. 

The Power of Expectations

Expectations are internally constructed rules and demands for the future — our whats and hows about upcoming situations, events, even people.

Notice the language: internally constructed. Our brains create expectations, these powerfully adhered to artifacts of imagination; they are not tangible facets of reality or valid parts of our external world. Sure, some expectations are mutually agreed upon and accepted by a large number of society (I expect people to wear pants in public, and I venture that you hold the same expectation). Others, however, are more unique to us as individual expectors, based on our histories, personalities, thought patterns, and wants. Unmet expectations, as in my silly movie example, are frequently the source of angst. Think of your most saddening, maddening, or frightening experiences recently. Think of the times when you felt anything but happy. Were unmet expectations, on your part or someone else’s, at the core of the issue?

Expect Less

A pessimist dressed in a realist’s clothing may say “expect less to avoid disappointment.” Set that bar low. Things either turn out just the way you expected, or you’re pleasantly surprised. 

I agree with “expect less,” though in a different way. Expect less. As in expect less frequently. Set fewer expectations period. Don’t set the bar lower, but rather, don’t set the bar at all.  It is the bar itself, not its location, that is the problem. More precisely, it’s the mismatch of the bar and reality that robs us of happiness. So much of what happens around us and to us is, at least in part, out of our direct control. Yet, we strive to control it anyway. These efforts give us the illusion of control but really just take time and energy, keeping us from being fully authentic in the moment. If the mismatch of expectations and reality is what fuels discontent, and we can’t actually control (at least some aspects of) reality, why not focus on expectations? Those ARE within our sphere of control. Since we can’t always predict or predestine events, trying to match expectations to the unknown future is a gamble, and I, for one, am not willing to bet my happiness like that. If we let go of expectations (or don’t make them in the first place) then we are free to experience things as they happen. While not every moment will be an enjoyable one that we’d like to have continue or repeat, our overall happiness level is less impacted. 

Challenge: Practice embracing some uncertainty. Try to enter into some experiences without imagining or planning how it’s going to go. Try to catch and erase your expectations about someone else before you interact. Let go of those shoulds

Expectations and Relationships

The role of expectations within the context of relationships is particularly interesting to consider. How many times have you found yourself saying or thinking, “I’m mad because I thought you were going to do XYZ?” What you’re really saying is that you’re angry because your expectations and reality did not match. Maybe you’ve been on the other side and found yourself apologizing for someone’s disappointment in you…for something you did not agree to or weren’t even aware was an issue? How was I supposed to know that you expected me to notice that you were quiet because you had a rough day at work? I was too busy setting my own expectations about how this evening was going to go…

Can you imagine what it might feel like for you and your loved ones if we all let go of expectations and worked toward fully accepting each other and ourselves for who and what we actually are?

Challenge: The next time you find yourself angry with someone, check yourself. Did they really do anything wrong, or did they just not meet your expectations? And the next time you find yourself apologizing, ask yourself the same thing.

Wrapping It Up

To a certain extent, I believe that we all set expectations. It’s one of those short cuts that allow our brains to process so much information so quickly and to keep us safe. If I expect that running across the interstate may result in me getting hit by a car, I may take precautions. So often, though, we make so many internal demands that we essentially hold the future hostage. Meet our demands or else!

The saying “It is what it is” sounds like a vague platitude, but it’s more profound than you may realize. It is the essence of letting go of expectations, of meeting each moment as it comes, making room for and accepting the ups and downs of life. It is at the core of being mindful and a key for facilitating your own happiness. I expect that you’ll agree.

“With mindfulness, loving kindness, and self-compassion, we can begin to let go of our expectations about how life and those we love should be”
– Sharon Salzberg
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Daily Gratitude Exercise: Daily 3-2-1

Several years ago, over a shared steak dinner at a local restaurant, a friend and I talked about all kinds of things ranging from physics to depression. I happened to share this little daily gratitude exercise I use regularly at work called Daily 3-2-1 (full disclosure, I learned it from Dr. Caroline Danda). 

My friend later told me that she found the benefits of gratitude so transformative that she gave all of her family members 3-2-1 gratitude journals for Christmas. I hope it’s that helpful for you, too.

This exercise is structured in a way to directly counter depressive thinking, which tends to be overly negative about yourself, the world, and the future. You don’t have to be depressed to benefit from it, though. Think of this as a daily exercise to build your gratitude muscle. 

Practices like this cultivate gratitude and increase happiness. These can help train you to notice more of the positives in your day-to-day. Just keep in mind that this seemingly simple exercise can be a real challenge on days when you’re feeling down or days that really seemed to suck. 

Do it anyways! Especially on those days. The more times per week you do this, the more moments of gratitude you will have and the more you will naturally start to notice and pay attention to positive moments throughout the day.

Check out the Daily 3-2-1 Gratitude Prompts to elicit stronger levels of gratitude and lower levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. 

Much like a reflection of daily journaling, having a daily gratitude practice improves mental health, increases levels of happiness, and produces positive experiences. Practicing gratitude not only has a positive impact on your mental health, but your physical health as well. 

Even if you find it hard to feel grateful, try to parse out some good things in your life. Small gratitude meditations on a daily basis elicit stronger levels of positive emotions. These small daily routines to feel gratitude are truly a winning ticket to happiness. 

Are you interested in learning more ways to boost your mindset and build your psychological strength? Check out our foundational program, Ascend. Now, with your enrollment in the Ascend program, you can get access to our live virtual workshops each quarter…for free! Instill this sense of gratitude in all areas of your life. 

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Gratitude Habits for Life

Gratitude gets a lot of attention these days. Hopefully, you’re at least somewhat familiar with the benefits of a gratitude practice. It helps train your brain to notice and appreciate the little things in life and, in doing so, shifts your life experience tremendously. 

Gratitude can increase your happiness and wellbeing, life satisfaction, even overall health while decreasing the stuff we all want less of like anxiety, depression, and anger. Whether its a gratitude journal or expressing gratitude, it is important to practice gratitude. Today, though, I want to offer some new perspectives on gratitude.

Power of Gratitude as a Competing Response

In the world of habits, there’s a treatment approach called Habit Reversal Training. A key component of HRT is the use of a competing response, which is an action that is incompatible with the habit you are trying to break. For example, if you’re trying to break a nail biting habit, you might clasp your hands as a competing response when you feel the urge to bite. It’s really difficult to clasp your hands AND bite your nails at the same time. Consistently using a competing response trains your body to replace the undesired habit with the new one.

Rumination, worry, complaining, and negativity are mental habits, and ones with far worse consequences than nail biting. These mental habits involve stewing on negative thoughts, indulging them in a repeating and amplifying loop with the effect of dragging down your mood and pulling you out of the present moment. I propose that we try gratitude as a competing response for these mental habits

It’s surprisingly difficult to tap into gratitude – really tap into it – and also get stuck in negativity. When you find yourself getting wrapped up in those negative thoughts or starting down a spiral, challenge your mind to find something in that moment to be grateful for. Be sure you don’t just go through the motions, though. The goal is to truly activate grateful feelings to help buoy you against the negativity and to help keep you grounded in the present moment.

When Gratitude Backfires

I’d argue that you’d be hard pressed to find a situation in which tapping into gratitude isn’t possible or isn’t helpful. That said, be mindful that gratitude doesn’t become fuel for guilt. That happens when your mind uses gratitude to minimize your painful experiences.

It might sound something like this: “I don’t have a right to be sad. I have so much to be grateful for. I haven’t been hit as hard as others.” Sentiments like that take gratitude, which is an expanding and bolstering practice, and turn it into a mental whip with which to flog yourself. The resulting guilt is unnecessary and underserved.

Research shows that grateful people are generally happier people, but gratitude doesn’t negate pain. It’s a “both and” not an “either or” practice. You can be both hurting AND grateful. You can use gratitude as a lifeline to keep you from drowning in the negative mental habits that intensify your pain but not to eliminate pain completely.

Your daily gratitude practice can start small. Spend time every single day just tapping into feelings of gratitude. Acknowledge the reality of your present situation and find some small bright spot. 

In this moment, I miss my family who I haven’t seen in eons because of COVID AND I am grateful for grocery delivery and a warm sunny day.

In this moment, my heart hurts for those who were affected by the recent shootings in the U.S. AND I am grateful for feeling well rested this morning.

In this moment, I am SO OVER this pandemic AND I appreciate my Brandon Sanderson audio books that I love so much.

In this moment, I am grateful for you, that you’re in our community and that you’re a part of the movement to make life better.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously.”
–       Ralph Waldo Emerson

P.S. If you like this post and want to understand gratitude even better, Dr. April and I just recorded a podcast episode about gratitude habits and toxic positivity. We go so much deeper into these topics. It was such a great conversation!